Elizabeth: The Forgotten Years
by John Guy
Viking Penguin 512 pp £25
There is a lot to like about this book. John Guy’s thesis is that Elizabeth’s biographers have tended to concentrate on her life up to the age of 50 rather than the latter part of her reign, which Guy characterises as ‘the forgotten years of war’.
No warrior queen, Elizabeth would engage in war only as a defensive measure, not as a means of expansion, which frequently brought her into conflict with her advisers.
Guy’s main point of departure is 1584, but initial chapters are prone to leap around chronologically and this reviewer found herself turning back the pages to see which year we were in. The use of 21st-century terms such as ‘spin-doctor’ also takes some getting used to, but this is part of Guy’s energetic, unstuffy tone. There were errors and grammatical infelicities in the uncorrected proofs, which undoubtedly will be put right before the book goes to print. (For example, Guy refers to the Infanta Isabella Clara Eugenia as Philip II’s only surviving daughter in 1586, ignoring her sister Catalina Micaela, who lived until 1597.)
Guy uses Elizabeth’s handwritten letters and other primary sources wherever possible to get closer to her ‘authentic’ voice and the woman behind the mask of queenship. More than once, Guy describes the older, ‘post-menopausal’ Elizabeth as an ‘ageing’ or ‘barren spinster’, phrases that suggests the queen had no agency in her unmarried state: it is an argument that some readers might find problematic. It was – after all– she alone who had the power to accept or reject the numerous suitors who presented themselves over the years. However, it is part of Guy’s argument that contemporary prejudices about the ‘weaker sex’ put a female ruler at a political disadvantage.
The Elizabeth presented here is the consummate politician, often achieving her ends by manipulating others. Female members of her entourage do appear, but their influence as courtiers with access to the queen is not fully explored.
Guy is a lively guide to the military campaigns in Northern Europe; the rise of Robert Dudley; the queen’s amorous and political flirtations with the Duke of Anjou (among others); the death of Sir Philip Sidney; the tumultuous career of Sir Walter Ralegh; the threats of attack by Philip II of Spain and counterattacks on Spain; Tyrone’s rebellion in Ireland and much else up to Elizabeth’s death and the coronation of James I & VI.
Guy is especially good when describing the political machinations of Burghley and Walsingham and the derring-do of Drake, Hawkins and Ralegh. However, it is the Earl of Essex who is really the star of this book. His explosive relationship with the queen and exploits in Cádiz and Ireland are well known, but Guy gives us a clear sense of a man who was brilliant, vain, petulant and self-serving in equal measure.
Janet Ravenscroft is a Fellow of Queen Mary, University of London, and an external member of Homo Debilis, an international research group dedicated to the study of disability in Early Modern Europe.