Hazel McHaffie

16th century times

The Lady Elizabeth

Well, in a week of widespread turmoil following the statement by the Duke and Duchess of Sussex about their decision to withdraw from the traditional roles associated with their status as senior members of the royal family, it seems fitting to talk about previous blue-blooded incumbents – Prince Harry’s ‘glorious’ ancestors no less. And I’m not talking about the Duke of Windsor /King Edward VIII, who also married an America divorcée. No, rather let’s go back to the 16th century …

The year is 1536.

From a young age, Elizabeth Tudor, flame-haired fiery daughter of King Henry VIII, the most powerful king England has ever known, is very aware that she is different. She is an exceptionally gifted child with prodigious and precocious talents, a show-off and a rebel. Even aged three she is attuned to tiny nuances which betoken a shift in power. Why, for instance, does Sir John Shelton suddenly stop calling her ‘Lady Princess’ for example, and adopt the title ‘Lady Elizabeth’? What possible reason could ‘The King’s Highness’ have for decreeing such a thing?

Those around her see a small innocent child; they cannot bring themselves to explain the vagaries of the court or the bedchamber to her.  But the sudden beheading on the order of the king, of her own mother, Anne Boleyn, aka ‘The Whore’, and the introduction of a new stepmother/Queen, Jane Seymour, cannot be kept from this curious and impressionable mind. She seeks answers. She listens in to private conversations whilst pretending to be absorbed in juvenile pursuits.  She makes it her business to winkle out information. Risking much, her governess describes the young vibrant late Queen to her:
‘… your mother was a charming lady. She was not beautiful, but men found her very attractive. Your father the King pursued her for seven years, which must give you some idea of how fascinating she was. Accomplished too. Everything she did, she dd gracefully – she could dance, sing, embroider, write poetry, play the lute and virginals, and as for intelligence and wit – well, she shone. She was slim and poised, and always elegantly dressed, for she had a way with clothes, and could make much from a little. You are very like her in many ways.’

This information is at once comforting and dangerous to Elizabeth. To speak positively of her mother is to criticise her father the king, who had the woman who had been his great passion put to death for adultery and treason. Elizabeth soon feels the burden of knowledge. Even she can be banished from the court and her father’s presence, if she speaks unwisely. When she is, she feels the disgrace keenly.

In The Lady Elizabeth, the second work of fiction by Alison Weir, we see the world of the Tudor court through the eyes of this, one of the most famous characters of all time, Elizabeth I, (1533 – 1603) who reigned for 44 years as the last of five monarchs in the Tudor period. Yawn, yawn, you might be thinking; it’s surely been done to death. But no. Weir starts with Elizabeth as a tiny tot and takes us up to the moment she is declared sovereign, imagining vividly how such a pampered and revered child would perceive the world around her, how react to inexplicable tragedies, how reconcile her dream of power and wealth with the changing edicts of her father, how respond to her own fluctuations on the ladder of inheritance and divine right. We watch her preparing for her coming destiny, responding to a series of stepmothers, to the adulation of men, to banishment, to threatening death.

As we saw last week, this is an era when the monarch commands frightening power, the power of life and death. Elizabeth sees it at work in her own beloved father, whom she both adores and fears. After his death, without his majestic presence and absolute control, her world becomes a confusing and threatening place. Under her sickly young brother Edward VI, she is suddenly barred from court, forced to ‘rot’  in obscure properties away from the public eye. Bewildered and enraged, she is consumed by pain, loneliness, resentment and suspicion, all too aware of fickle loyalties, suspect motives, intrigue, back-biting, rumours, an ever-present sense of impending peril.

But this highly educated and clever young woman has inherited something of her father’s formidable will and presence herself, and in spite of her youth, she develops strategies for survival and getting her own way.

Her older sister Mary who assumes the throne next, is also King Henry’s daughter, however – determined, implacable, imperious. What’s more, she is devoutly religious, bent on bringing the country back to Catholicism. ‘Heretics’ who refuse to recant are burned at the stake or beheaded. Aghast at the brutal persecution her sister supports, Elizabeth outwardly succumbs to Mary’s demand that she attend Mass, whilst inwardly vowing to be a more compassionate Queen if and when her turn comes.

Mary is only too conscious that Elizabeth’s conformity is not genuine; the only problem is she can’t prove it; her young half-sister is devilishly clever. And although we know the eventual outcome, Alison Weir’s descriptions of their battles, of Elizabeth’s fall from grace, imprisonments and house arrest, the accusations and threats, keep us in suspense. The more I learned of the historical detail – around her mother’s execution, her own bastardy, her precarious childhood, the scandal of her relationship with the Queen’s husband, her religious rebellion, her imprisonment in the Tower and subsequent house arrest, Queen Mary’s mistrust, the schemes to marry her off against her will and to banish her from the country –  the more I could only marvel that she survived. But in reality, Mary’s brutal regime predisposes the people to support Elizabeth and strengthens Elizabeth’s own certainty that the only way to keep the throne safe is through the hearts of the subjects.  ‘The voice of the people is the voice of God’ as she herself puts it.

The author admits that she has speculated in places, but on the basis of evidence and factual records, her surmisings are perfectly plausible. When she was fourteen Elizabeth did have a highly suspect and indiscreet relationship with Admiral Sir Thomas Seymour, the Queen’s husband. Whether or not it resulted in a pregnancy can’t be proven, but there is sufficient known to support such an hypothesis. She most certainly recognised that it was a small step between the warm tumbled bed and the cold axe and grave.

Much as I found this book compelling and engrossing, I was again disconcerted by points of view abruptly changing within sections. There’s a case to be made for an omniscient narrator, but Weir purports to be seeing the world through the eyes of her characters, and it’s discombobulating to have the perspective blurred by sudden unheralded leaps into another mind. Perhaps this is a throwback to her more academic writing where history allows such tactics. Whatever, it’s a small price to pay for such a brilliant insight into life in Tudor times.

A salutary reminder that the shenanigans of the present incumbents of the royal dynasty pale into insignificance against the lives, loves and deaths of their forebears.

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