Nicholas (nwhyte) wrote,
Nicholas
nwhyte

November Books 31 and 32) Two books about Elizabeth I

31) Elizabeth I, by David Starkey
32) The Life of Elizabeth I, by Alison Weir

This was a fortuitously good paired reading of biographies: Starkey concentrates on Elizabeth's life from her conception and birth in 1533 to her accession to the throne in 1558, while Weir concentrates on her reign from then to 1603. I read these as part of my larger 16th-century project, but both are good books in their own right - Starkey's marginally the better, as he is telling a less familiar story and also challenges received wisdom (for instance he unhesitatingly puts the dying Edward VI at the heart of the Lady Jane Grey affair, where traditionally it has been seen as Northumberland's doing). Both biographies concentrate on the personality of the queen - Weir makes the point that her private life was very much lived in public, and I would add that it was clearly very political.

Starkey's approach is somewhat psychological. He has three main sets of conclusions: that Elizabeth learned important lessons of statecraft from the bitter failures of her sister Mary's reign, that her attitude to religion was a sincere adherence to what evolved into High Church Anglicanism, and that her attitudes to both marriage and religion were perhaps crucially formed during her residence with her father's last wife and her second husband, Thomas Seymour. Indeed, Seymour's appallingly intimate behaviour with his teenage stepdaughter would surely be characterised today as sexual abuse (my assessment, not Starkey's), and that must have left its traces in Elizabeth's attitude to men (and indeed women - it's noticeable from Weir's account how often she became unreasonable about sexual relationships among members of her own household).

Weir concentrates essentially on the internal politics of Elizabeth's court, which is great as a means of studying her statecraft, but does mean we miss out on some of the other important policy areas - notably, from my point of view, Ireland, which figures only as the scene of the death of the elder Earl of Essex and the catastrophic military failure of his son. Weir is anyway much more interested in the personal dramas of Elizabeth's relationships with the younger Essex, Leicester, and Mary Queen of Scots, which are all in fairness rather good stories. She is particularly good on using appropriate contemporary quotes (though misattributes Nicholas White's letter to the Earl of Shrewsbury).

Anyway, good reading both.
Tags: bookblog 2008, bookblog: biography, history, people: elizabeth i, tudor history
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