Nicholas (nwhyte) wrote,

February Books 14) Elizabeth I, by Christopher Haigh

This is one of the shortest of the various books I have read about Elizabeth I, and also one of the best. Haigh eschews the usual chronology of her life and reign and instead concentrates on her relations with the various centres of power: the church, the nobility, the Council, her own court, parliament, the military, and the people, dealing with each separately over the 44 years from late 1558 to early 1603.

I learned a lot from this revisionist account. The standard picture of Elizabeth as heroine of Protestantism doesn't sit well with her recorded restraint of the puritans, her refusal to persecute the Catholics to the extent that her Protestant advisers wanted, and indeed her flirtations with potential Catholic husbands. Indeed, Haigh points out convincingly that the Council was much more Protestant than the Queen, to the point of orchestrating demonstrations of popular and political enthusiasm for Protestantism to try and keep her in line; Elizabeth found it very difficult to make a firm choice - witness her vacillation over execcuting Mary Queen of Scots, or intervening in the Netherlands.

I must say this explains a lot for me; if Elizabeth was perceived as being soft on religious issues, her advisers who were more hardline must have always been desperate to ensure she stayed on the straight and narrow, particularly since they held office only on her whim. Though in fact she rarely changed the guard - of her eleven councillors in 1597, six were sons or stepsons of the councillors at the start of her reign (the Cecils being only the most visible example). In other ways, too, she did not change the set-up much; the only man elevated to the House of Lords in her entire reign who did not come from a noble family was William Cecil.

I still wish I understood a bit more about the workings of the court. On Haigh's account, it was a question of physical presence and ability to attract the right patrons, with devious machinations sometimes having dramatic results: for instance, both Sir John Perrot and the Earl of Essex were manipulated by their enemies into accepting the job of ruling Ireland in order to get them away from the royal presence, with ultimately fatal results for both. What I missed, from my selfish perspective, was any account of the opposite dynamic, the Irish presence at court. Haigh notes that Elizabeth packed her household and the court with her Boleyn relatives: well, the mother of her grandfather Sir Thomas Boleyn was an Irish noblewoman, and I know from other sources that her Butler cousins were able to short-circuit the Irish administration by going directly to her, but I found nothing more about that here.

A particularly interesting chapter concerns the queen's relationship with the military, both army and navy. Basically, in every single campaign, no matter how specific and direct the orders she gave her commanders, they simply ignored her and followed their own plans instead. Haigh chronicles instance after instance of this, very helpful for me because it makes Essex's disastrous Irish expedition not a baffling anomaly but simply another, if rather massive, instance in a fatally inevitable pattern of behaviour from leading noblemen given military command. After the first two, or three, or five, or ten commanders escape with impunity from disobeying the sovereign's orders, obviously there is no point in following them yourself. Haigh argues fairly convincingly that the military simply would not take instruction from a woman. It would be interesting to speculate a bit more on why Elizabeth took no action against her disobedient commanders; did she, perhaps, at some level, also feel that this was men's work? (It has to be said that the aristocratic commanders were almost all pretty rotten at the job, and would probably have done at least as well if they had followed her orders ratehr than making up their own.)

There were a bunch of details here that I had not previously seen in histories of the time. I had not heard of, or had forgotten about, the Newhaven (Le Havre) venture, when the English tried and failed to occupy a French port previously held by the Huguenots. I had forgotten, or not read about, the efforts of the Earl of Arundel, Sir William Pickering, and King Eric XIV of Sweden to marry Elizabeth. And it hadn't really struck me before, though it seems obvious once it is pointed out, that after three decades of success culminating in the failure of the Spanish Armada, the last third of her reign was a comparative failure. Anyway, all very absorbing, and a useful corrective to the standard account of Elizabethan glory.
Tags: bookblog 2011, tudor history

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