One of the things I like about reading books about royalty is sometimes not necessarily the monarchs themselves, but rather, those around them. I've always wondered about those who would choose to live a life in servitude to someone else, and often in conditions and surroundings that most of us would find not so glamourous. Power of course, comes to mind, along with the handout of royal goodies such as titles, honours, and of course, the loot. But could there possibly be something more?
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Author Tracy Borman looks at the life of Elizabeth I, inarguably one of the most successful monarchs in English history, and a woman who managed to turn herself into a living legend. But unlike many other biographies about the Virgin Queen, this isn't just a cut and dried look at her life from birth until her death, but rather, of all the various women who shaped and influenced Elizabeth, either directly or indirectly. For as we see, Elizabeth grew up surrounded by women, attended by women, and save for a few men, her confidants were women. But then the question remains, just who were these various women?
When Elizabeth was born, she was regarded as a disappointment. Her parents certainly thought so, Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, for everyone had been certain that she would be that longed for son. Once she had been christened, and her mother allowed a few weeks of breastfeeding herself, the infant princess was whisked away into a household of her own, and at the age of a month or so, was given her first servants. Chief among them was Lady Margaret Bryan, a Boleyn relation, and the woman who would oversee everything that Elizabeth did for the first few years of her life. There were wet-nurses to feed her, others to bathe and dress her, and even 'rockers' to make sure that a fretful baby was lulled to sleep or at least calm. One of them, Blanche Parry, would serve Elizabeth her entire life, becoming in time, her best confidant.
There were others, of course, from her mother Anne, who spoiled and worried over her and dressed her in fine clothing, to the bewildering succession of stepmothers, some good, some bad, and her half-sister, Mary, who had her own struggles to cope with. But one of the earliest influences was Katherine Astley, who was Elizabeth's first governess and teacher, and who very quickly realized what an intelligent and precocious child her charge was. While utterly devoted to her princess, Mistress Astley also had a taste for intrigue, as the events during the reigns of Edward VI and Mary I would reveal -- there was the trouble with Thomas Seymour, and Wyatt's Rebellion, both times that very nearly brought Elizabeth to the executioner's block.
But then Elizabeth came to a future that everyone thought she'd never reach, that of being Queen in her own name. Around her she assembled a collection of relations, both Tudor and Boleyn, and various women who sought the riches and influence that being a lady-in-waiting could bring. There are the two surviving Grey sisters, both of whom would make feckless choices, Bess of Hardwick, a noblewoman who both befriended and bedeviled Elizabeth, Lettice Knollys, a cousin who committed the worst of sins in Elizabeth's eyes, and a bevy of young women who created quite a few stories about themselves.
One story that I was fascinated by was that of Helena Snakenborg, a Swedish girl who became one of Elizabeth's most devoted servants, and had quite a personal tale to tale. Before this book, I had never really heard of her, and the story of how she became one of her ladies, as well as a romance with a titled nobleman was entrancing. I was very surprised that no one has as yet written about her -- it would make for quite a novel!
Most prominent, however, is the one woman that Elizabeth would never meet -- Mary, Queen of Scots, who managed to loose her crown and eventually her life, through sheer recklessness, bad choices and plain stupidity. It was from this fellow queen that Elizabeth learned that having a crown could involve sudden change and that to follow one's emotional impulses rather than logic would be fatal.
But throughout there is Elizabeth herself. She was a quick learner, realizing very quickly that to avoid scandal, and the loss of her own life through either politics or childbirth, she would have to learn how to manipulate not just her own image, but that of those around her, and did so with remarkable success. By the end of her reign, she had managed to turn herself into an untouchable icon, but with it a cost of personal isolation and what must have been terrible loneliness at times.
Borman does a very good job of juggling all of these personalities, using letters and records of the period, and letting the players speak for themselves. The writing is clear and flows well without getting overburdened with details or minuitae. She also lets the bad sides of Elizabeth's character out, from her poisonous jealousy and possessiveness, along with not being above slapping and abusing her servants and women. If there were rewards for serving a queen, there were also pitfalls -- Elizabeth would have no rivals, either for herself or her women, and woe betide the girl who married secretly or got pregnant.
This is a book that I can happily recommend, with four and a half stars rounded up to five. For those who are interested in English history of the sixteenth century, or the role of women in the past, this would be an excellent resource. Besides the narrative, there are two inserts of colour photographs, along with detailed notes, and an extensive bibliography. Ms. Borman has also written a biography about Henrietta Howard, a mistress of King George II.
Five stars, highly recommended.
Many thanks to the Books CL Pestyside, who was kind enough to add this to the database for me.
Elizabeth's Women: Friends, Rivals and Foes who Shaped the Virgin Queen
2010; Bantam Books, Random House Inc.
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