“With the Heart of a King: Elizabeth I of England, Philip II of Spain, and the Fight for a Nation’s Soul and Crown” by Benton Rain Patterson

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.

Posted in Elizabeth I, Mary I ("Bloody Mary"), Non-fiction, Philip II of Spain | Leave a comment

“The Virgin’s Lover” by Philippa Gregory

Despite what some may say, Philippa Gregory has talent. She knows how to keep those pages turning, and for better or worse is probably the preeminent historical novelist on the Tudor period. I enjoyed another novel of hers, The Queen’s Fool. But this? Is entirely beneath her.

I am baffled as to why Ms. Gregory chose to focus a novel around Queen Elizabeth I, whom she obviously dislikes. Her characterization of Elizabeth was problematic in The Queen’s Fool, but it has deteriorated even more in this novel. Some historians and novelists who dislike Elizabeth take it upon themselves to tear down the “Good Queen Bess” legend, and The Virgin’s Lover is a prime example: Elizabeth is portrayed as selfish, petulant, narcissistic, and obviously unfit to the high office she occupies. This last thing is damning, because even I, a rabid fan of QE1, cannot deny that she was in fact petulant, narcissistic, and selfish, along with a whole host of other unattractive traits. But she was also brilliant, patriotic, and above all an experienced politician. The notion that she would delegate important tasks to Robert Dudley or shirk her duties like a lovestruck girl is ridiculous.

Even worse, Elizabeth is torn down in order to prop Robert up. A particularly egregious example occurs early in the book after Elizabeth’s accession, when Elizabeth comes to take up residence at Whitehall. She then expresses anxiety that she doesn’t know her way around the palace (!) and her advisor William Cecil (who by the way, has served Edward VI and two Lord Protectors and should know Whitehall like the back of his hand) also has no idea how to navigate it. Whatever shall they do? Oh yes, Robert Dudley, out of the hundreds of courtiers and politicians Elizabeth should have attending her, gallantly steps in. Really. Which brings me to the second-worse characterization in the book: the aforementioned Virgin’s Lover, Robert Dudley. Although no doubt avaricious and morally ambiguous to put it charitably, by all accounts the historical Dudley seems to have genuinely loved the Queen. He certainly would never have been able to manipulate her the way he does in this book.

There are other things wrong with this book; Dudley’s unfortunate wife, Amy, is portrayed as a hapless, desperately irritating, clingy young woman, and the story is extremely repetitive. But the real crime for me is the character assassination of Elizabeth and Dudley. It does not bother me that they are unlikeable, for the historical Elizabeth and Dudley were not particularly likable people. But they are made into caricatures of themselves, robbing the reader of the much more interesting truth about one of history’s most fascinating couples.

Posted in Elizabeth I, Fiction, Philippa Gregory, Robert Dudley | Leave a comment

“I, Elizabeth” by Rosalind Miles

There are many good things about this book. For one, it is beautifully written–often I stopped and re-read several passages just to savor the language. For another, it is well-researched and accurate in its depiction of the events and people of Elizabeth’s reign, no small accomplishment given the length of time the book covers.

Where the book falters is in the characterization of Elizabeth. Ms. Miles takes facts about the historical Elizabeth–her vanity, her passionate nature–and blows them out of proportion. Elizabeth’s love life is placed center stage in this book, have no doubt about that. While Elizabeth’s relationships with the men in her life were indeed very important to her, it does her a disservice to portray her as constantly mooning over them, as she does in this book. For every hour spent with Robert Dudley, the real Elizabeth probably spent several hours attending to the affairs of state. The over-emphasis on her love life makes Elizabeth seem trite, and that was the last thing she was.

The book is also too long, and would have benefited from some tighter editing–about 50 pages could have been cut without making a dent in the tome. That being said, this is enjoyable historical fiction a cut above the Philippa Gregory’s of the world. It’s certainly not the definitive version of Elizabeth’s life (that honor goes to Susan Kay’s Legacy) but it’s a solid effort.

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“Elizabeth and the Prince of Spain” by Margaret Irwin

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.

Posted in Elizabeth I, Fiction, Mary I ("Bloody Mary"), Philip II of Spain, Robert Dudley | Leave a comment

“Legacy” by Susan Kay

I have spent around six years perusing endless amounts of Tudor historical fiction. Along my way I have encountered many portrayals of Elizabeth I; some passable, some horrendous, and some very good. But until I read Legacy, I never found my ideal portrayal. Now I have, and it feels wonderful.

I received this book a few months ago, and since then it has not left my bedside table. Although I finished it in a day and a half, I have since read it three more times, not counting the hours I spend flipping to a random page to experience it again. This book is exquisite. Although it tells the entire arc of Elizabeth’s story from birth to death, it only weighs in at a few hundred pages. And yet nothing feels rushed or left out. There are countless POVs, which in the hands of a less gifted writer would cause confusion, but in Susan Kay’s hands gives us original insights into all the characters of Elizabeth’s world. And they’re all here, from Thomas Seymour to Henry VIII to numerous foreign ambassadors to the Earl of Essex. Each bring their own unique perspectives on the remarkable woman who dominates their existence.

Apart from Elizabeth (who I’ll get to in a moment) the best characterizations in the book are of Elizabeth’s lover, Robert Dudley, and her chief minister, William Cecil. Dudley is portrayed as authentically as I’ve ever seen him; greedy and self-serving perhaps, but also compellingly human, a man torn in different directions and above all, passionately in love with Elizabeth. Cecil is given just as thorough a treatment. Principled and pragmatic, a family man with a ruthless streak, Cecil loves Elizabeth as much as Dudley does, although in a different way. As the book says, “one desired her body, the other her spirit.” The triangle of these three people forms the central conflict of the book, as both men are eventually destroyed by their devotion to her.

But it is the portrayal of Elizabeth that makes this book so wonderful. It’s as if Susan Kay reached into my mind, pulled out every thought I’ve ever had about Elizabeth while researching her, and transformed it into a stunning characterization that every few pages made me catch my breath and say “yes!” Her Elizabeth is brilliant, vain, narcissistic, loving, selfish, brave, charming, manipulative, patriotic, and above all magnetically charismatic. She has the “x” factor that other writers of Elizabeth seem to miss; the reason why Elizabeth was such a beloved leader and how she was able to command such affection and fear. To quote the book, “Elizabeth Tudor was a labyrinth. She drew people, without conscious effort, into the maze of her own personality and abandoned them there, leaving them to find their own way out again–if they could. Most found they were unable to, many never even tried. And those few who succeeded were troubled by a vague sense of loss for the rest of their days.” (p. 13).

I cannot recommend this book more, to everyone from a dedicated student of Tudor history to a complete beginner. Much like Elizabeth, this book is completely magnetic–once you pick it up, I dare you to put it down. It is a book about a fascinating period of history, yes, but first and foremost it is a character study of a truly remarkable woman.

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