Fascination with the first Elizabeth began during her reign. Courtiers hailed her as "Gloriana" and poets sang her praises. Monarchs, especially Tudor monarchs, expected such attentions, and Elizabeth, both as ruler and as woman, had more than her share of vanity. Much more was involved, however, than the courtier's instinctive flattery. The fascination was genuine, and was felt not by the court alone, but by all of England. And by much of Europe.
The English guessed and gossiped about the motley assortment of royal Europeans who sought her hand, and whom she played off skillfully, if skittishly, one against another. About her favorites and her actual or pretended lovers. And about the closely related question of her celebrated virginity--a question which, as she advanced in years, became increasingly unseemly. There was curiosity, even, as to her gender, for she was less a queen who ruled as kings did than a being who ruled as both queen and king, a hermaphrodite fountainhead of authority.
This fascination had deep and complex sources within the culture of her age. The victory at Bosworth in 1485 of her grandfather, Henry VII, had brought the War of the Roses to a close and the Tudors to the English throne. Her father, Henry VIII, had begun his reign amidst the splendors of a new dynasty, but his quest for a male heir led to England's break with the Church of Rome, a break that laid bare deep fissures within a society moving from a medieval to a modern culture.
The perils of the times were reflected in Elizabeth's precarious childhood and young womanhood. She was a pawn in the contests between the Catholic and Protestant factions, and was preceded to the throne by her siblings, Edward, a sickly Protestant, and Mary, a pious and murderous Catholic. Fortunately for herself, and probably for England, she brought to her dangers a first-rate mind, a subtle and courageous temperament, a well-honed instinct for survival and a bravura style.
When we now look back upon the triumphs of Elizabethan England, we are likely to forget what a precarious world it was, and especially to forget the dangers that attended Elizabeth's uncertain progress to the throne and the dangers that overshadowed the first half of her reign. Carolly Erickson's biography reminds us of them.
Erickson has an eye for details that are at once picturesque and revelatory, and a gift for setting her chief scenes aglow with the appropriate colors of gems, silks, tapestries, sword blades and crowns.
She opens with the ceremonial ride of Anne Boleyn to her coronation: "The afternoon sun was already low as the constables and marshals, their great staves ready in their hands, took up their station along the route the royal procession would follow. They wore liveries of velvet and silk, in keeping with the pomp of the occasion, but their function would be more than ceremonial this day."
And she ends, of course, with the great queen's death: ". . . several hours later Dr. Parry, perceiving that the end had come and beginning earnestly to pray for the queen's soul, indicated that she was dead. The word was passed, the rider mounted, and then the sound of galloping hoofbeats echoed through the rainy night."
These opening and closing sentences offer fair instances of Erickson's style--vivid, precise, and alert for theatrical effect. They also, unfortunately, suggest the level of historical attention at which the biography is written.
"The First Elizabeth" is, by its intention, popular history. And there has never been greater need than now for histories and biographies to which educated and intellectually curious readers can have access. Instead, professional history has become a discipline increasingly arcane, specialized and minute. Popular history at its best, however, as with Barbara Tuchman and Lady Antonia Fraser, does far more than Erickson has allowed herself to do.
Thus, Fraser, in her biographies of Mary Queen of Scots, of Oliver Cromwell, of Charles II, displays, like Erickson, a firm and delighted grasp of personality. But she has also an ability to relate her great personages to their historical moments and to the political, economic and cultural worlds in which they moved. And she does so by a masterly and massive deployment of the researches of more "professional" scholars.
Erickson, in contrast, is content with the simply picturesque. But Elizabeth, if presented without a deep surrounding background of the Elizabethan world, is necessarily a cardboard figure, no matter how exact or how skillful the coloring.
The poets and courtiers, when they celebrated Elizabeth as "Gloriana," were celebrating what was little less than a social revolution and a cultural transformation, of which the queen was the dazzling, irascible and dangerous embodiment. Elizabeth without her society does not present us with quite the problem of a "Hamlet" without the prince, but it can leave us equally unsatisfied.