British journalist and historian Gristwood (Arabella: England’s Lost Queen,, 2005, etc.) plunges with admirable clarity into the romantic Tudor arena.
The author restricts her focus to the 30-year relationship between Elizabeth I and Robert Dudley, the queen’s closest adviser, friend and suitor. She rarely deviates to give a larger sense of Elizabeth’s political intentions, and then only to delineate complicated genealogy. The story of these courtly lovers holds endless fascination for moderns, who can’t imagine they didn’t sleep together; yet, by Gristwood’s meticulous examination of the evidence, they almost surely did not. Their sense of united destiny was sealed early in the reign of Elizabeth’s sister Mary when both were thrown in the Tower and threatened with beheading. Upon ascending to the throne in 1558, Elizabeth immediately named Robert her Master of Horse, which meant he was in charge of planning her spectacularly popular “progresses” around the country. (It also ensured that they could ride out together daily.) In 1564, she made him first Earl of Leicester. He was an invaluable pawn in Elizabeth’s marriage brokering over the decades, both as a possible husband and as a foil to the unwelcome attention of others. Gristwood spends a goodly bit of time on the suspicious death of his first wife, who fell down the stairs during the period of intensive speculation about his romance with the queen. The scandal kept Elizabeth from marrying Leicester, though she continued to keep him close to her with “savage possessiveness.” He wed others secretly, yet he stood with her in triumph before the English fleet at Tilbury in 1588, the year of his death. “Holding Elizabeth’s hand was always the best, the real way that he could help his country,” Gristwood remarks tenderly of this devoted subject.
Well-balanced, nicely grounded in research and far weightier than the usual royal fluff.