The Elizabethans

  • A.N. Wilson
  • Farrar, Straus and Giroux
  • 448 pp.

A vivid history of Elizabeth I’s reign.

Reviewed by Arthur L. Schwarz

This latest book by English polymath A.N. Wilson presents a scholarly, thorough and yet highly approachable overview of the life and times of Queen Elizabeth I, who ruled England from 1558 until her death in 1603. More than a simple biography, Wilson’s treatment of this tumultuous period not only brings to life the title character but also fleshes out the many principal players of this era and explores throughout the relevance of the issues of that time to today’s world.

The Elizabethan period was turbulent, torn by a “division in individual minds between the old world and the new, between the old geocentric universe and the new worlds opened up by Copernicus; between Catholic and Protestant; between worship of Gloriana and discontent with the way in which politics had led England into wasteful war.” Complex, yes; divided, yes; but the period was also critically important in the development of the western world as we know it. As Wilson says, “[T]he fact that the largest and most powerful nation in the world is English speaking is the direct consequence of the Elizabethan view of things.”

Through the 19th century and much of the 20th, the myth of the Elizabethan era was one of a Virgin Queen, “Gloriana,” the name given by 16th-century poet Edmund Spencer, leading her people in the establishment of a national religion, the defeat of the Spanish Armada, the exploration of the new world, and the absorption of a savage Ireland into a civilized kingdom. Onward and upward.

Recent historians have taken a more balanced view and Wilson expresses his discomfort with his country’s nationalism, support of the slave trade and religious intolerance. No apologist for Elizabeth, he sees the final third of her reign as a time “presided over by an ageing and increasingly indecisive queen … by the end of her reign the divisions in society, and the political divisions at its apex, had become incorrigible.”

Wilson deals at length with the major characters of the time. His development of familiar stories of Sir Francis Drake, Sir Walter Raleigh, William Cecil Lord Burleigh and Mary, Queen of Scots is truly exciting, even for one who knows the plots already. Furthermore, he is clear when dealing with some of the more complex issues of Elizabeth’s reign, such as her possible marriage to one of two French dukes and Drake’s naval achievements. However, his discussions of the literary figures of the time, William Shakespeare, Christopher Marlowe (“a pyrotechnic fizz in the London sky”), Edmund Spenser and Sir Philip Sidney, placing each in the political context in which he wrote, might cause casual readers to wish they had a better background in 16th-century English literature.

Having said that, much of Wilson’s prose in The Elizabethans is written in a style that moves easily along yet does not shy away from decisive analysis and interpretation. For example, he writes that “the thrilling thing about the history of Elizabethan England is that the technicoloured personalities of the chief participants really compel us to think again. If Mary Tudor’s younger sister had been a silly, weak-charactered girl like Lady Catherine Grey, do we really think that sixteenth-century English history would have been no different from the way it was with the wise, courageous and often ruthless Elizabeth as Queen?”

Not that Wilson dwells on “what ifs”; he doesn’t, but in this instance it’s a question worth considering. Indeed, one of the joys of reading Tudor history is wondering about such matters. If Catherine of Aragon had borne Henry VIII a son who survived, would England be Roman Catholic today? For that matter, what if Henry’s elder brother, Arthur, had not died young, but had gone on to rule England and there had been no Henry VIII at all? But I digress.

A great strength of The Elizabethans lies in the author’s attempt to make history relevant to the modern world. Throughout the book, Wilson compares events and attitudes he is describing to ones that will resonate with a modern reader. For example, he writes, “England, from 1588 until the 1950s, would be shaped in its self-perception by the experience of the Armada, and by Elizabeth’s eloquent vision of herself as holding out against ‘any prince of Europe’ who threatened the island kingdom. Churchill would draw on all this spirit for one last glorious display of collective insular courage in the summer of 1940.”

At another point, discussing Sir Walter Raleigh’s flattering attentions to Elizabeth, Wilson notes, “It is pointless to ask whether his protestations of love for Elizabeth were ‘genuine.’ Court life was an elaborate dance. The abject gestures and hyperbolic words of the successful courtier would be insanely sycophantic if translated into a modern context — if, for example, we were to imagine a modern male office worker addressing such words to his female boss as Raleigh wrote to Elizabeth: O princely form, my fancy’s adamant, Divine conceit, my pain’s acceptance, Oh all in one, oh heaven on earth transparent, The seat of joy’s and love’s abundance!”

Just imagine!

Wilson’s style can be casual, but his scholarship is thorough. Even so, there are some errors, which is to be expected in a book of this length and complexity. For example, he states that Henry VIII “died in an agony of syphilitic periostitis.” Although conventional wisdom long held that Elizabeth’s father was afflicted with syphilis, the modern view is that this was not so; there is no direct evidence that he was and, even more telling, his comprehensive surviving medical records make no mention of his having been treated with mercury, the usual prescription for syphilis at that time.

The Elizabethans is an excellent book for anyone with more than a casual interest in England’s last Tudor monarch and the more than half-century in which she ruled, with detailed notes and an extensive bibliography. However, it could have been still better — and clearer to those with relatively little knowledge of the period — if the author had included a time line and, especially for overseas readers, a few maps. But those are small faults. This is a literate treatment of a critical period in the history of England and, for that matter, of the entire world: real history, filled with excitement.

Arthur L. Schwarz is a book collector and independent scholar who concentrates on Tudor England. He curated the exhibition “Vivat Rex! Commemorating the 500th Anniversary of the Accession of Henry VIII,” at New York’s Grolier Club in 2009 and Washington’s Folger Shakespeare Library in 2010.

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