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Lunch » Tags » Books » Reviews » Elizabeth's Women: Friends, Rivals, and Foes Who Shaped the Virgin Queen » User review

Pithy, gossipy and comprehensive!

  • Oct 5, 2010

Mary Queen of Scots, and Queen Victoria  are world-class queens, but they must yield the gold to Elizabeth I who made a successful cult of virginity, who was wily, brave, and charismatic, stubborn and calculating, and maddeningly indecisive, a fault which worked in her favor. She knew how to pick men. She steered her country with the aid of superb advisors but they and her country were firmly under her control.

 Gloriana was the greatest queen who ever lived, a superb politician who was an extremely successful ruler in her own right, an astounding feat for a woman of the sixteenth century. Neither her sister Mary nor her cousin Mary Queen of  Scots controlled their governments, as Mary Tudor deferred to her husband Philip and the Scots Queen earned the contempt of the Scottish lords, lost their favor by marrying Bosworth and fled over the border to England and her eventual execution. Queen Victoria did not have absolute power but her stamp and her influence shaped her empire and gave the Victorian age a special flavor, both good and bad. But Elizabeth is at the top of the pinnacle.

 Much of this biography will be familiar, but there is a lot of information that is much less well known and the biography is gossipy, intimate, and rich in sometimes obscure details so that the book will appeal not only to established Tudor aficionados, but to the new admirers coming along.

Women contributed a great deal  in shaping Elizabeth's character and set her on a course to greatness. Elizabeth would not have remembered her own mother, Anne Boleyn, as she was a toddler when Anne was executed. Although Queen Elizabeth never mentioned her mother, she wore until her death a ring which opened up to reveal her portrait in profile and a full faced effigy of her mother, side by side. Anne Boleyn’s genes gave Elizabeth many attributes, including her intelligence, her vanity, her clothes-sense, her brittleness, her musical ability and her sparkling black eyes. Henry’s genes molded her too, of course, and with her red hair and long nose she was a chip off the old block. But for the sake of argument, we might say that the greatest contributor to Elizabeth’s future was her own mother.

 After Anne Boleyn knelt before the swordsman on Tower Green, Elizabeth was shuttled from one stepmother to another as Henry married and lost to death Jane Seymour, discarded Anne of Cleves and executed the feckless Catherine Howard. Although Jane favored Mary, she was kind to Elizabeth, and Anne of Cleves had a soft spot for the little red haired princess; however, she also cherished Mary. Catherine gave Elizabeth a few trinkets, but intellectually they were poles apart. Nevertheless, Catherine’s execution for adultery must have profoundly shocked the Princess. Her next stepmother, Catherine Parr, had an enormous influence on her for not only was she a fine classical scholar, she had considerable talent for governing. When Henry was away fighting a useless war in France, he left Catherine as his regent and she very competently steered the ship of state all by herself. Young as Elizabeth was, she saw first hand that a woman can rule successfully.

 After the death of Edward VI. Henry’s only son, the country was plunged briefly into civil war but Mary Tudor’s forces against those of Jane Grey who Edward named as successor were quickly victorious and Mary ascended the throne. Lady Jane Grey and her husband Guildford were executed, and the sixteen year old Jane, a brave, spunky scholarly girl has become one of history’s great tragic heroines.

 Elizabeth was in grave danger under Mary and was slapped in the Tower as Mary believed Elizabeth was plotting behind her back to put herself on the throne. However, the princess , by keeping her ear to the ground, learned a lot while observing Mary who did not have her sister’s political acumen. Mary made a very unpopular marriage in wedding Philip II of Spain, she tried to turn England into a Catholic state and suffered two embarrassing phantom pregnancies. And she had burned 300 Protestants. Elizabeth  watched and waited under house arrest after her release from the Tower. Five years of Mary was  more than the country could stand and upon Mary’s death at 42, England welcomed Elizabeth with joy and relief.

 The most loyal and best loved member of Elizabeth’s household was Kat Ashley who served Elizabeth faithfully for thirty years. Kat was really a substitute mother and although her advice was not always good Elizabeth listened to her and Kat guarded her like a tiger. She was so influential that many supplicants for Elizabeth’s ear had to get the permission of Kat to have an audience with the Queen. When Kat died, Elizabeth shut herself away for many days, holding her grief close to her chest. Blanche Parry became Elizabeth’s next chief gentlewoman of the privy chamber serving the Queen for fifty seven years. Even her most intimate councilors could access the Queen only through Parry.

 Elizabeth could be extraordinarily nasty and behaved coldly towards Mary Sidney, Leicester’s sister, although Mary nursed the Queen through an almost fatal attack of small pocks. Elizabeth was not scarred by the terrible disease, but Mary was horribly disfigured. Elizabeth was paranoid about her succession. Lady Jane Grey’s two sisters, Katherine and Mary were separated from their husbands by the order of the Queen. to the great grief of both, but the girls had a tincture of royal blood. Interestingly Mary was only four feet tall, and a hunchback. Her husband, Thomas Keyes, a minor court official, was six feet eight. This biography is loaded with delicious little tidbits like that.

 Mary Stuart was Elizabeth’s bete noir and could be a snake in the grass. Mary was the most dangerous enemy Elizabeth ever had and although Elizabeth knew Mary was treacherous she shrank from executing her as an anointed queen and therefore sister. Elizabeth also dreaded the retaliation of  Catholic Spain and France. Mary was caught with her finger in the cookie jar when she secretly corresponded with Anthony Babington, a deluded young gentleman who thought he was a knight in shining armor  with a mission to rescue his princess by killing the “usurper” Elizabeth. All of the letters between Mary and Babington were intercepted by Elizabeth’s spy chief Walsingham, but Mary didn’t know this and kept getting herself involved deeper and deeper. Elizabeth’s advisers prevailed upon Elizabeth to sign the order for the Scottish’s queen’s execution after the trial in which Mary was found guilty. But when the deed was done, Elizabeth went ballistic, blaming her councilors for the execution.

 The fabled Mary had long ago lost her celebrated beauty and a witness described her thus:” round shoulder’d, of face fat and broad, double chinned, and hazel eyed, borrowed hair.” Nevertheless, Mary put on the performance of her life on the scaffold and she soon grew into a myth. But Elizabeth also became a myth in her own lifetime after the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588 and when she exhorted her troops at Tilsbury, addressing them from the back of a great war horse.

 As the queen sank into her final illness in 1603, Arbella Stuart, the niece by marriage to Mary Queen of  Scots, and who was a girl Elizabeth had sent from court because of her arrogance, was herself dying and Elizabeth was filled with  remorse over her former treatment of the girl. She also lamented the execution of Mary Queen of Scots as she had grieved over her long before. Elizabeth had given up on life and morbid thoughts forced their way into her mind as she slipped away and died on the early morning of March 24.

Her body was constantly guarded by her ladies who served her in death as faithfully as they had in life and they were undoubtedly aware that the likes of their mistress Queen Elizabeth, would never come again.








Pithy, gossipy and comprehensive!

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Starred Review. Borman (King's Mistress) recreates the life, times, and key relationships of one of the most iconic women in history: Elizabeth I. Although Elizabeth is famous for deriding her sex and flirting publicly with favorites like Robert Dudley, Borman explores how other women shaped Elizabeth's personality early on. The beheadings of both her mother, Anne Boleyn, and stepmother Katherine Howard at Henry VIII's behest, and half-sister Mary's humiliating subservience to a foreign prince, made Elizabeth wary of men and convinced her that she must remain a virgin to succeed as queen regnant. Elizabeth shared a passion for religious reform and lively discourse with her stepmother Katherine Parr while her sister Mary's inflexible Catholicism taught her to never openly commit to any single policy. Elizabeth inherited Anne Boleyn's cruelty and vindictiveness, evident in her treatment of cousins who were prettier, younger rivals to the throne: Katherine Grey, who was imprisoned until her premature death, and Mary, Queen of Scots, also imprisoned and eventually beheaded. A standout in the flood of Tudor biographies, this smart book offers a detailed exploration of Elizabeth's private relationships with her most intimate advisers and family members. 2 color photo inserts.
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ISBN-10: 055380698X
ISBN-13: 978-0553806984
Author: Tracy Borman
Genre: History
Publisher: Bantam
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