Let the reader beware: you won’t find any bodice-ripping here. This book, the last in Margaret Irwin’s trilogy detailing the story of the young Elizabeth I up to her accession to the throne, was published in 1953. For those accustomed to the faster pace and more scandalous nature of today’s historical fiction, this book will seem old-fashioned. But if you come to it with an open mind and allow the story to unravel, I believe any reader could come to enjoy it as much as I did.
The “Prince of Spain” the title refers to is Philip, King Consort to Elizabeth’s sister, Mary I, and later King of Spain and Elizabeth’s bitter rival. His character, so often misunderstood, comes to life here. Emotionally recalcitrant, dutiful, zealous, and mediocre in intellect, he finds himself drawn like a flame to the brilliant and troublesome Elizabeth. His lust from the first is mixed with hate (he imagines having her burnt or drowned in their first meeting, in a wonderfully eerie passage), which foreshadows the later bitter rivalry the two will engage in, culminating in the defeat of the Spanish Armada. The lack of sex scenes only increases the tension in their dynamic.
Although the Elizabeth/Philip relationship is the focal point, other wonderful characterizations abound. Standouts include Emperor Charles V, a Robert Dudley besotted with Elizabeth, and the Papal legate Mary summons to restore the Catholic faith in England, Reginald Pole. The last is particularly well-drawn. Pole is the last of the Plantagenets, a great-nephew to Edward IV and Richard III. Henry VIII had his mother butchered by an axeman. Although very intelligent and gifted, Pole spends his life floundering in his incredible privilege, lacking the vigor and character required to effectively use his talents.
This is not a book that is easy to read. It is detailed, rich in subtleties and requires re-readings to fully appreciate it. I wasn’t sure about it on my first read, but now it has become one of my favorite books on the Tudor period. Highly recommended.