I was very excited to read this book, as I have long considered the relationship between Philip II of Spain and Elizabeth I to be one of the most compelling aspects of the late-sixteenth century political scene. Unfortunately, this book neglects that relationship, when it should be the most important part of the narrative. The book itself is certainly not bad; in fact as an overview of the conflicts that led to the Anglo-Spanish War it works well. It just wasn’t what I thought it would be.
The author has an engaging writing style and has obviously done his research. The book starts out on track; several chapters are devoted to the upbringing of Philip and Elizabeth, six years apart in age; one born the Prince of Spain, the other Princess of England and later bastardized and disinherited. Elizabeth’s chaotic and frightening childhood is contrasted with Philip’s stately and somewhat stifling upbringing. These chapters are illuminating, especially with regard to the personality of the future King of Spain. The book follows the action until Philip sacrificially marries Elizabeth’s elder half-sister, Mary I.
And then things start to fall off the rails. When the author abandons his “side by side” approach to telling the story of Elizabeth and Philip (i.e. a chapter for Elizabeth, one for Philip, etc.) the narrative loses it’s framework. Elizabeth and Philip or both might disappear for several chapters, robbing the story of its designated protagonists. The timeline is confusing; in one particularly jarring example, a chapter suddenly shifts the action to the early 1500s. The book goes off on tangents, detailing everything from the Turkish wars to Philip’s rebellious subjects in the Netherlands. Not that these sections aren’t interesting; they are. But the tangents feel arbitrary.
Really, the biggest problem with this book is the lack of Elizabeth and Philip themselves. Politics were personal in the sixteenth century, but this book overloaded on the politics and neglected the personal. The arc of their relationship, from rumored sexual chemistry during Mary’s reign to matrimonial proposals to bitter religious, economic, and political conflict, is the human narrative that this book claims to focus on. I certainly didn’t expect a lot of pop psychology or soap-opera theatrics, but I did want new insights into who Elizabeth and Philip were as people and how they related to each other. This the book didn’t deliver. Without the framework of their relationship, the book seems disjointed, and for any serious student of sixteenth century politics there isn’t a whole lot new here.
I did enjoy the book. However, I am a bit frustrated, as if there was a really good story in here that didn’t get told.