636 pages, Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., ISBN-13: 978-0394544359
If you want to know the reign of Elizabeth in depth and not simply as an overview, then Elizabeth I by Anne Somerset definitely the book to read. In 600+ pages (of relatively small font) Somerset spells out who this remarkable woman was without once ever losing your attention. While it definitely takes time to read and appreciate this book, few monarchs deserve this kind of in-depth study as much as Elizabeth I does.
The story begins with a frightening look into the battle for succession. Elizabeth’s half-sister, Mary, at the moment is attempting to reconvert the country with ruthless brutality to the Catholicism of her mother, whom Henry VIII divorced to marry Anne Boleyn, Elizabeth’s mother. Thus, she faced not only the normal suspicion of treasonous intent between bitter blood rivals with a personal twist, but also was open in her Protestantism during the bloodiest epoch of the Reformation. While she survived and was crowned as queen, the legitimacy of her claim was always under threat – her difficult though charismatic Catholic cousin, Mary, Queen of Scots, served as a living reminder of how easily she might be replaced on the throne. Elizabeth survives, of course, and more or less triumphs over all her adversaries, but she was never bloodthirsty.
This is not a fawning biography of the “Virgin Queen”; far from it, as Somerset offers a detailed and informative portrait of Elizabeth that, at times, defends decisions and rationales while, at others, describes her in unflattering terms. When Elizabeth expressed anger, she “shrieked” and “screamed,” words which undermine any reasonable basis for her opinion. Fortunately, these instances are rare and readers are more often treated to descriptions of the various conundrums Elizabeth faced: her personal feelings toward marriage and the pressure to marry; the problems arising no matter who the lucky man was, English or foreign; the pressure to name a successor; how to deal with Mary Stuart; powerful continental enemies who could overwhelm England if provoked; the rise of Puritanism. And these were AFTER her accession; prior to that, Elizabeth walked a tightrope for survival under both her siblings, with only her wits and courage to keep her alive.
As Somerset points out, Elizabeth’s success was not in fighting great wars or engineering grand events, but in the stability and prosperity she brought to her kingdom. Elizabeth kept England out of costly foreign entanglements; maintained the overall peace at a time when other monarchs faced rebellion and civil war; restored national confidence and international prestige; established a national church that would have broad inclusive appeal; upheld the interests of the crown without encroaching on the interests of her subjects. While Elizabeth was blessed with extraordinary luck throughout her reign, Somerset points out that she took advantage of that luck. Her councilors were instrumental to the running of the kingdom, but she was the one who appointed them. Elizabeth’s military strategies were often sound; the problem was that her generals failed to follow them. In all, one could also say that Elizabeth was the ultimate bourgeois monarch: wanting nothing more than a quiet, comfortable life for her subjects without troubling them too much over Big Picture concepts. Would that more rulers, then and now, were of a like mind.
The author weaves the names, dates and events into an ongoing narrative that is easy to follow and never leaves the reader hanging. Somerset is unbiased about the strengths and weaknesses of Elizabeth and she presents the negatives about her character, such as the Queen’s indecisiveness and her attachment to a couple of less-than-ideal males, in a way that gives insight into Elizabeth. The story never turns into a tabloid version of the Queen, and Somerset clearly points out the positives about this monarch who could dominate the men around her in an England that never before saw a woman like this one. This is a great biography, well worth the time put into reading it. Unless you are a professional historian, you will come to know Elizabeth as well as any 21st Century person can.