A lively bio of the lady-in-waiting who lost her head—almost literally—to Queen Elizabeth I’s favorite privateer.
Was Bess Ralegh, long a footnote in the history of Elizabethan England, “a devious conspirator” or “a foolish woman standing by her man”? In a promising debut, English scholar Beer (Literature/Oxford Univ.) offers a richly detailed portrait of Bess, née Throckmorton, the young woman who braved all manner of trouble as a member of Elizabeth’s court, and for several causes. Not only was her family religiously suspect in a virulently anti-Catholic time, with one cousin accused of being one of “the chief agents of the Queen of Scots” (as indeed he was), but Bess had also risen to Elizabeth’s inner circle of ladies attending her Privy Chamber—and standing so close to Elizabeth’s brilliant fire had burned many before. When Bess found herself swept up by the queen’s captain of the guard, the dashing Walter Ralegh, she was fully aware of the danger attendant in making the ruler jealous. Though Beer allows that Ralegh had plenty of attractive qualities—he was immensely rich, handsome, and charming—she suggests, contrary to other accounts, that young Bess was no unwilling victim of a seducer; she knew without question that she, “whether motivated by ambition or desire, was playing for high stakes by bedding the Queen’s political favorite,” and she did so anyway, mindful of the big payoff that might await. Alas, soon after Walter and Bess wed, he began his slow descent in Elizabeth’s estimation, finally charged with treason (once for having supposedly been in league with the Spanish, later, and then fatally, for having sacked a Spanish garrison in the Caribbean). Against the odds, Bess survived—and, within a few years of Sir Walter’s execution, was working hard not only to rehabilitate his reputation, but also to secure his standing as an “increasingly iconized” national hero, as he has since remained.
A remarkable—and perhaps treasonous—woman earns her due in a work that will interest a wide range of readers.