We are almost at the end of ‘Monarchy Week’, having wished Elizabeth II a very happy birthday yesterday (I for one loved that bright green outfit – nothing says ‘I’m not dead yet, Charles’ as well as fluorescent green). Before we sign off, here’s a book about that first Queenly Liz.
As a 9 year old I had a strange sort of girl crush on Elizabeth I, mostly because she seemed like a complete nerd, what with her multiple foreign languages and general learned-ness, and at that time I was taking nerd to new levels, setting myself history tests based on the contents of Discovery magazine and doing extra maths with the aid of My Little Professor. This, coupled with the fact Liz was a Virgo with a birthday the day before mine – which the influence of Russell Grant had led me to believe was extremely significant – meant I had a fascination with The Virgin Queen, creating my own elaborate signature based on hers (see below), and imagining meeting her, which is a bit disturbing given it was 1989 and she’d been dead since 1603.
I retained this fascination into adulthood but, shockingly, this book has languished on my TBR shelf since 1998. Fellow bibliophiles, I would love to know if this is record? Turning to it this week, I had high hopes given that it was written by Elizabeth Jenkins, who wrote the excellent Harriet (published by Persephone). The blurb promised that this biography benefited from ‘brilliant female intuition’, a statement which would make Dr Twitface Starkey’s toes curl and is therefore reason enough to read any book.
One one hand, although published in 1958, it remains a comprehensive and clearly written account of one of our most fascinating monarchs, enhanced by the aforementioned ‘female intuition.’ Jenkins makes the connection that, although there were many reasons behind Elizabeth remaining unmarried (the diplomatic advantaged of being a matrimonial catch for the crowned heads of Europe, the impact of her single status on the loyalty of the men around her, and her love for her Dudley), it was significant that Elizabeth began insisting she would never marry from the age of 8, around the same time her dad chopped off her step-mother Catherine Howard’s head: ‘in the dark and low-lying region of the mind where reason cannot penetrate, she knew that if you give yourself to men, they cut your head off with a sword.’ There is also a sensitive treatment of the impact of what borders on sexual abuse at the hands of the ambitious Thomas Seymour, husband to Henry VIII’s widow Catherine Parr, who would come into the 14 year old’s bedroom in the mornings and ‘strike her familiarly on the back and buttocks.’ Such insight seems modern and left me with a greater awareness – if not a complete resolution – of the intricacies of this icon’s character.
What I didn’t like, though, was Jenkins’ insistence on Elizabeth’s reliance on men. Apparently, ‘one of her strongest claims on men was her dependence on them,’ and there are repeated statements such as ‘again, a man saved her.’ I wasn’t having this. As well as the fact that much-loved Good Bess ruled alone for 45 years, any woman who resists the repeated pressures to marry after the age of 30 must have a pretty resilient backbone. Any woman aged 30+ who has suffered family party interrogations will know this. I still love you, Gloriana.
…though I be a woman, yet I have as good a courage, answerable to my place, as ever my father had…I will never be by violence constrained to do anything. I thank God I am endued with such qualities, that if I were turned out of the realm in my petticoat, I were able to live in any place in Christendom.