Book of the week: Elizabeth: The Forgotten Years

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

Elizabeth: The Forgotten Years
John Guy (Viking, £25)

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 child-bearing 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.

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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.