Monday, October 1, 2012

The Young Elizabeth

I'm fascinated by Elizabeth I, but her biographies, no matter how well written, can be slightly exhausting.  She was born into intrigue and chaos, alternately neglected and used as a political pawn, formed and and ruled a nascent empire, and then allowed her kingdom to slide back into intrigue and chaos as she crept towards death without clarifying her line of succession.  Alison Plowden avoided this problem by ending her biography with Elizabeth's coronation.  The Young Elizabeth shows how Gloriana developed from such an unpromising childhood.

The shorthand tale of Henry VIII is of a brutish man who cast off wives for frivolous reasons.  The truth, of course, is more complicated.  He and Catherine of Aragon had a companionable marriage, but only one surviving child, and England had not yet successfully been ruled by a Queen Regnant.  He fell in love - or in lust - with the sharp-witted, sharp-tongued, strong-willed Anne Boleyn.  Her charms led to a crisis of conscience (or so he told himself), telling him that his marriage to Catherine was cursed because it was adulterous for him to have married his late brother's wife, and he began the long political chess match that eventually led to the formation of the Anglican Church.   He married Anne, and when the disappointing birth of Princess Elizabeth was not followed by the birth of a prince, Anne's imperious ways meant that she had no one to help her when she was accused of adultery and treason and beheaded by a French swordsman.

Elizabeth was not quite three years old when her mother died, and if not exactly left to fend for herself, not exactly lavished with attention, either.  She, like her father and siblings, was highly intelligent and benefited from the best education available to a Renaissance royal.  By her teens, she was fluent in several languages, an accomplished horsewoman, and a talented and enthusiastic musician - in other words, ideally suited to be the bride in an alliance-cementing marriage.

The short reigns of both her younger brother and older sister made marriage negotiations difficult and her marketability questionable, particularly with the shifting religious lines in 16th Century Europe.  Henry VIII, despite the break with Rome, died as a self-identified Catholic whose widow nearly missed being tried for treason over her Protestant beliefs.  Edward VI, naturally a rather priggish boy, had been raised as strong and narrow-minded a Protestant as his eldest sister Mary had become a Catholic in the years she clung to her discarded mother and her faith.  Elizabeth's beliefs were apparently a more moderate form of Protestantism and her years in exile and captivity may have allowed her to develop the political compromise which was the Anglican Church.  Those years also taught her to be wary, trusting no one in a world where her stepmother's husband could nearly ruin her reputation with a few ill-advised games - and then suggest that he marry her after Katherine Parr died in childbirth.  Eleven years spent wondering whether she would be married off in an internal or international alliance, or simply beheaded on trumped-up charges like her mother could have destroyed her.  Instead, they forged the intellect that turned an almost forgotten girl into Gloriana - the first great Queen Regnant in Europe.

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