Elizabeth: The Forgotten Years by John Guy
Historians have generally been kind to the ageing Elizabeth I, accepting the image of her as the “selfless” Virgin Queen, said Craig Brown in The Mail on Sunday. Not so John Guy, author of this “exceptionally good” study of her final two decades: “it is hard to find a single word that he says in her favour, other than that she had beautiful hands, and was nimble on the dance floor”. Elizabeth emerges as being not unlike her Blackadder portrayal – petulant, vindictive, forever “ranting and raving”. Guy shows that many of the “key details” of her reign are actually myths. Rather than being a “warrior queen”, she mostly tried to restrain her commanders. And the idea that she had a love affair with the Earl of Essex (the subject of an entire opera by Benjamin Britten) only arose because Lytton Strachey misunderstood a single word in an account by an Elizabethan contemporary.
Elizabeth may have been greedy and ruthless, but she was also a “skilled propagandist”, said Gerard DeGroot in The Times. She commissioned many portraits, but sat for hardly any of them – instead she instructed the artists to paint images “suitable to moment and mood”. On her summer tours, she staged elaborate events to enhance her authority – for example, acting out an “Arcadian fantasy” on an artificially constructed lake. (The bill for this event, equivalent to £6m in today’s money, was footed by a nobleman who was later executed.) While Elizabeth’s “human flaws” make this book compelling, what “shines through” is that she was a “consummate politician”, said Jerry Brotton in The Sunday Times. “Perhaps, for all the distance between the first Elizabeth and us, she would not be so out of place today.”