ELIZABETH I by Anne Somerset

ELIZABETH I

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KIRKUS REVIEW

Flattered, feared, idealized during her lifetime, romanticized ever since, the intensely private Elizabeth I left few accurate portraits for future painters or biographers. Somerset (Ladies in Waiting, 1984) wisely focuses on the queen's complex political life, documenting, largely from primary sources, the religious conflicts, wars, explorations, conspiracies, and rough justice that marked her reign of 45 years. The second daughter of Henry VIII (her mother, the second of six wives, was executed for adultery), Elizabeth came to the throne after the displacement of all her stepmothers and the death of her brother Edward and her sister ""Bloody"" Mary. Although she was excommunicated, she believed she was ""God's choice""--and with that confidence created a national church, revised coinage, sponsored exploration (Drake's circumnavigation of the globe), waged war against Spain, nearly subjugated the ""ungovernable"" Ireland, and strengthened the power of the throne. Pleasure-loving Elizabeth enjoyed dancing, bear-baiting, hunting, clothes (which became more bizarre as she aged), gardens, and ""progresses,"" leading the court on visits to noble houses--partly because the hygiene of her courtiers was so poor that an ""intolerable stench"" soon forced them to move on. She loved gifts, adulation, and the attention of young men, although she married none of them, using their admiration and pursuit as a source of power. Somerset claims that remaining a virgin was part of the queen's ""high calling."" Meanwhile, her indecisiveness, irascible temper, and legitimate fear of being assassinated led to her imprisoning her cousin Mary for 19 years before, reluctantly, having her executed--although at other times she was capable of impulsive brutality, e.g., publicly cutting off the hand of a printer for criticizing one of her choices of a mate. Despite a few clichÉs (the ""air"" was ""thick with intrigue"") and an unnecessary defensiveness about Elizabeth's virginity: a clear, moving, informed narrative.

Pub Date: Nov. 14th, 1991
ISBN: 0385721579
Page count: 652pp
Publisher: Knopf