Did I really need another book on Queen Elizabeth I?

You would think that after three books on Elizabeth I, I would have had my fill of Elizabethan history. It all started with Jane Dunn’s excellent book on QE I’s relationship with Mary Queen of Scots. Then that was followed by Alison Weir’s full-on biography. My third one was Sarah Gristwood’s book focusing on Elizabeth’s relationship with the man who was arguably the love of her life, the Earl of Leicester. I’m not even counting my book on her father’s, Henry VIII’s, wives, which of course, touches on some of her childhood. All three books discuss their fascinating subject from different perspectives, there really could be no need for me to buy another one on Elizabeth I’s life, right?

Wrong.

My collection by (From L to R): Sarah Gristwood, Alison Weir, and my top two favorites: Jane Dunn and Anne Somerset

I blame the blurbs, really. On the front, The New York Times Book Review called Anne Somerset’s Elizabeth I “The most comprehensive, the most reliable and the most readable biography of Elizabeth.” Surely high praise given the amount of material on QE I out there. Then on the back, Antonia Fraser, the writer of another favorite historical biography (Marie Antoinette: The Journey) called it her “favourite among the biographies of Queen Elizabeth I.” Man, the people who choose what blurbs to put on the cover of a book sure know their stuff. Like a moth to a flame, I bought the book. Any real Elizabeth I fan needs the book The Sunday Times (London) called the “most balanced and impartial” of them all, right?

Right.

Because in my opinion, Anne Somerset’s Elizabeth I is the definitive biography of one of the most fascinating women in our history. Now I am only comparing Somerset’s work to Weir’s as the other two books mentioned are not full biographies because they each focus on one particular relationship of the Queen’s. But I could say that, relative to Weir’s The Life of Elizabeth I, the NYT Book Review was right. Somerset’s work was more comprehensive than Weir’s and, amazingly enough, the more readable one. And Elizabeth I was almost a hundred pages longer! The book was extremely detailed, even after three previous books, I still learned a lot of new things about Elizabeth and her court. But despite all that detail about the protracted but ultimately doomed courtships with the princes of Europe, the naval expeditions against Spain and the frustrating negotiations with the Protestants of the Netherlands, the book never feels weighed down by all the information. Somerset manages to make even things like the suppression of the Puritan movement, or the political maneuvering of Robert Cecil, if not fascinating, then interesting at the least. She lays out the hard, historical facts against a background of emotions, virtues and faults: unwavering loyalty (Lord Burghley), ruthless self-interest (the Earl of Essex), never-ending frustration (the Earl of Leicester, Francis Walsingham, James VI, the whole of parliament, etc.) and genuine concern for the well-being of her people (Elizabeth herself, of course). On the other hand, Weir’s novel reads more like a history textbook, which is not necessarily bad, but it makes it less of a page turner for me.

So yes, obviously, I needed this book. I think any fan of Elizabeth I’s should not be without it. As for the Alison Weir, not so much.

How the Queen of England changed my (reading) life

Not the current one, though, I meant the first Elizabeth. And along with her, Mary Queen of Scots.

For some strange reason, I still remember the moments leading up to my purchase of Elizabeth & Mary: Cousins, Rivals, Queens. It was from the since-closed bookstore/café Libreria along Tomas Morato and I was choosing between that book and another on Henry VIII’s six wives. I had my father choose between the two, since he was paying for it (oh, those were the good old days) and I suppose he didn’t think that the marital tangles of Henry VIII was appropriate material for a teenage girl. Hence, I ended up going home with Jane Dunn’s book.

To borrow from Harry Potter: “Neither can live while the other survives”

And that decision would impact my reading list for years to come. The stories of Elizabeth I and Mary Queen of Scots are remarkable and fascinating enough on their own. However, told together, their stories take on a different dimension, as the fate of both Queens are irrevocably intertwined but their interests entirely conflicting.

As their stories unfolded, it was amazing to see how each Queen’s character and disposition was shaped by the circumstances of their early lives. Elizabeth, the daughter of Henry VIII and the infamously beheaded Anne Boleyn, was declared a bastard by her own father (a cloud that hung over her reign for most of her life), excluded from the succession to the throne, subsequently reinstated in the succession, then barred again by her own brother and detained and gruelingly questioned under the suspicion of treason and threat of her servants’ and her own beheading. All this before she turned fifteen. If that doesn’t toughen a girl up, I don’t know what will. Meanwhile, Mary was the undisputed Queen of Scotland at six DAYS old, arranged to be married to the dauphin and sent to France at the age of five, doted on and fussed over as an honorary Child of France and Queen of France and Scotland by fifteen.  And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

There are a myriad of other contrasts between these two regnant Queens (in religion, in the company they kept, their views on marriage, etc.), but the fact remains that they could not escape each other, that, everyday, the other is reminded, often unpleasantly, by the existence of the other. With Mary having the strongest legitimate claim to Elizabeth’s throne, the two of them struggled to find a balance of appeasing each other and at the same time forwarding and protecting their conflicting interests. And as if that wasn’t enough tension, the nobles around them were busy jostling for favor, shifting their loyalties to where they stand to gain the most.

And it is this heady and fascinating recipe of intrigue, betrayal, treason and murder that has started me on a years-long journey of European historical royal biographies. Elizabeth & Mary: Cousins, Rivals, Queens has opened up a world of larger-than-life characters: headstrong kings and queens, unruly heirs to the throne, mistresses both revered (Madame du Pompadour) and reviled (the Countess du Barry), countless dukes, earls, counts and their wives all falling all over themselves to court royal favor and advance their interests. If I had a dollar for every time my jaw dropped at every weird court ritual (Mary Antoinette having to give birth in full view of France’s highest ranking nobles), lavish palace (Versailles), betrayal (of Marie Antoinette’s son), genius plot (the Babington plot) and beheading (there were a LOT), I’d be able to buy that Hermès Jigé Elan.

Even without that the clutch, though, the opportunity to journey back through time, into the incredible lives and minds of the men and women who used to rule the world is reward enough. And I have Elizabeth I and Mary Queen of Scots to thank for that. Long live the Queen, indeed.

Cover photo from kobobooks.com