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This vivid, warts-and-all por­trait of the age­ing monarch is a tri­umph, says Roy Strong

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El­iz­a­beth: The For­got­ten Years

There will al­ways be something hyp­notic about el­iz­a­beth i. There’s been such a tor­rent of lit­er­a­ture about her in the past half cen­tury that it might rea­son­ably be asked if there is any­thing more to add. Well, there most cer­tainly is, as John Guy es­tab­lishes in his mag­is­te­rial his­tory of the last 15 years of her reign—the pe­riod from the de­feat of the ar­mada in 1588 to her death in the spring of 1603.

in a way, prof Guy suf­fers the other way on from J. a. Froude, whose multi-vol­ume his­tory of the en­tire reign ends frus­trat­ingly where this book be­gins. in both cases, the cut-off pro­duces an awk­ward­ness for the writer and the reader; how­ever, once prof Guy gets into his stride, one is quickly aware that he has writ­ten what will be the de­fin­i­tive ac­count of that era for the present gen­er­a­tion.

it was a wretched decade and a half in many ways, with the coun­try en­gaged in never-end­ing wars—in the Netherlands, France, ire­land and on the seas— that drained the royal fi­nances al­most to breaking point. at home, it was marked by floods and bad har­vests, so­cial un­rest and chal­lenges to the ec­cle­si­as­ti­cal set­tle­ment (in 1559) and even (by 1601) the in­vi­o­late sanc­tity of the royal pre­rog­a­tive.

This is also the story of an age­ing woman who was now past child­bear­ing or mar­ry­ing. The au­thor ar­gues that this left the Queen more in con­trol than ever be­fore, but, as el­iz­a­beth moved into her fifties, she could be seized by de­pres­sion, af­flicted by toothache, sore eyes, sud­den mood swings and, above all, crip­pled by arthri­tis.

Nonethe­less, the will to dom­i­nate never de­serted her. she strug­gled to live out her myth­i­cal im­age as the eter­nally young and beau­ti­ful Vir­gin Queen. Like the late Queen mother, she was mis­tress of the daz­zling stage-man­aged pub­lic ap­pear­ance. No one, of course, dared chal­lenge this vi­sion and sug­gest that things were oth­er­wise—none, bar one: her last favourite, the young earl of es­sex.

after a con­fronta­tion in the coun­cil cham­ber, when the Queen struck him across the face, es­sex said, within her hear­ing, ‘her con­di­tions were as crooked as her car­cass’. The tale of this hap­less re­la­tion­ship, en­sconced in our imag­i­na­tions by Lyt­ton stra­chey, and then by Brit­ten’s opera Glo­ri­ana, is bril­liantly re-etched into the his­tor­i­cal nar­ra­tive.

The spi­ralling down­ward is fas­ci­nat­ing to watch. es­sex had so many faults, too much am­bi­tion, too much van­ity, too much self- righ­teous­ness. The Cadiz and azores ex­pe­di­tions, along with the fa­tal foray into ire­land, were all dis­as­ters. add to that a trail of wom­an­is­ing, which even in­volved the maids of hon­our, but the Queen was hyp­no­tised by him. in the end, he went just too far.

es­sex may have been a let­down, but Robert Ce­cil and Wal­ter Raleigh don’t emerge from it much bet­ter. The Queen’s weak­ness for flat­ter­ing young men is sharply drawn. it was a fa­tal flaw in a great woman who never oth­er­wise quite lost her sure­ness of touch and per­cep­tion, even if she some­times de­layed and pre­var­i­cated or tried to push re­spon­si­bil­ity for cer­tain ac­tions onto oth­ers.

all in all, this is a su­perb book, the re­sult of work­ing through an ocean of as yet un­used orig­i­nal doc­u­ments. The re­sult is a tri­umph.

‘Fa­tal flaw’: El­iz­a­beth I had a weak­ness for beau­ti­ful young men

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