Starkey's Elizabeth

David Starkey introduces our special issue, and the Greenwich exhibition.

Elizabeth is extraordinary. She looks extraordinary. She behaves in an extraordinary way. And, as a woman moving so effortlessly in a man’s world, she is doubly extraordinary.

But we often think of her as being extraordinary for the wrong reasons. We think of Elizabeth, above all, as that bizarre confection of the last part of the reign: bejewelled, bewigged, beruffed, and utterly artificial. I invite you to consider a very different Elizabeth, as she was when she was young – as she appears in the painting executed, almost certainly, in the last month of her father’s life, January 1547. Here she is completely natural, and she looks what she is: a rather shy, rather awkward teenager.

Here is the girl who forms the woman. One of the most important things about the National Maritime Museum’s exhibition is that it deals with this teenager and with her formative experience. When you go into the galleries, the first thing you will see is not a Hilliard, not a confectionery-dress, but an armour for man and horse. It is beautifully decorated with gold inlaid borders. But it is no parade armour, but the real, working armour of one of the power-brokers of the century, William Herbert, first Earl of Pembroke. It is astonishing, brutal, like the statue of an Italian condotterie. The man inside it fully lived up to the image. Herbert committed at least two murders in his youth. But he was twice pardoned by Henry VIII and went on to flourish through Edward’s reign, becoming, effectively, Mary’s queen-maker.

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