Review - Elizabeth: The Forgotten Years

-John Guy


It is a curious fact that most biographies of Elizabeth Tudor, Queen Elizabeth I of England, start with her early life and stop with her greatest victory, the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588.  Elizabeth’s later years, John Guy argues, have been left unstudied by historians, even though Elizabeth was born in 1533 and ruled from 1558 to 1603, a longer run than many male monarchs.  Elizabeth: The Forgotten Years seeks to invert that perspective by studying the later years of Elizabeth’s rule, following the queen as she grew older and faced challenges that would eventually lead to the execution of one of her successors and the forced expulsion of another.  The picture of Elizabeth that emerges from the pages is one that is not altogether flattering - she was not ‘Good Queen Bess’ - but very human.  It is also an outline of the problems in being a women ruler in what was, very much, a man’s world.


This was reflected in a series of problems that faced Elizabeth right from the start.  She had the advantage of not having her bedchamber invaded by courtiers, an issue that bedevilled James VI of Scotland (later James I of England), but she also couldn’t chair meetings of her privy council, making it harder for her to control the men who - theoretically, at least - were subject to her rule.  She could not, at first, lay down the law in the manner of a male ruler - it is hard to imagine Henry VIII tolerating such a situation - and while she learnt to play them off against one another, the problem was always precarious.  This was made worse by the simple fact that Elizabeth wasn’t married; there was no prospect of a heir who was both indisputably legitimate, in the sense that he was Elizabeth’s son, which threw the whole question of the succession into doubt.  Who was the legitimate heir?


In some ways, Elizabeth was selfish not to attempt to marry and have children.  But, at the same time, she had plenty of reason to fear marriage.  She knew, from watching her half-sister, that a husband would seek to dominate her - one cleric argued that ‘a woman may rule as a magistrate and yet obey as a wife’ - and entangle her country in foreign wars.  (Later, she also had the experience of watching Mary Queen of Scots go through the same trauma.)  A husband, be he a foreign prince or an English nobleman, would bring trouble in his wake.  He could hardly do otherwise.  Elizabeth needed a strong right arm and she didn’t dare find one.


Indeed, Elizabeth faced a unique dilemma.  The strongest candidate for the throne, assuming she didn’t have a child of her own, was Mary Queen of Scots.  Elizabeth did not want to do anything that would throw the principle of hereditary succession into doubt.  But Mary Queen of Scots was supposed to be a Catholic and many of her courtiers were adamantly opposed to her succession, to the point where they planned to murder Mary if Elizabeth died suddenly and it looked as if she would claim the throne.  By the time Mary Queen of Scots fled to England, forcing Elizabeth to make some hard decisions about her future, the problem of Mary’s potential succession had become acute.  Elizabeth would forever regret being pushed into ordering Mary’s execution.  To a woman of strong religious convictions, it felt as if she had done something terrible.  And perhaps she had.


Elizabeth’s greatest weaknesses, however, lay in the military sphere.  She could not command troops in battle, unlike her father, and this posed a second set of problems.  On one hand, she simply didn’t understand the problems of modern war; on the other, she found it immensely difficult to issue orders to her generals once they were outside her direct control, a problem made worse by the slow communications of the era.  Elizabeth regularly changed her orders, to the point where she was promising thousands of troops one moment and slashing their numbers the next.  She simply never committed enough troops and resources to the endless war with Spain, although it should be noted that Elizabeth’s resources were very limited.  England could not afford an endless land war with Spain.  This caused a great deal of frustration for her generals, but - far worse - it strained relationships with the Netherlands and France.  Perhaps it was not surprising that the French eventually left the alliance.  They had ample reason to know that Elizabeth was not a reliable ally.  But Elizabeth had good reason to be extremely careful.  Spain made no less than six attempts to land on English shores.


She was also not a reliable commander for her troops.  Elizabeth’s troops were paid very poorly - they were also expected to pay for their uniforms and suchlike too - and they were understandably not enthused about going to war.  They were even abandoned overseas when they couldn’t be brought home, something that led to mutiny and riots.  Elizabeth was luckier than she deserved, in many ways.  Again, someone with direct experience of war might have been able to escape these problems.  Elizabeth’s comparison of herself to Richard II, who was disposed by his far more capable cousin, was more accurate than she might have guessed.  Richard also had far more limited military experience.


As Elizabeth grew older, she faced newer challenges.  The most serious, perhaps, was the problems caused by the political contest between the dashing Earl of Essex, who wanted to be her champion and seek military glory, and Cecil, one of her most trusted councillors.  Essex was undoubtedly a brave man, but his flashes of genius proved no match for Cecil’s careful plodding.  Matters grew worse until Essex was put in command of the army sent to Ireland, a no-win situation for him (and a no-lose situation for Elizabeth, as Essex would either win or fail so badly his influence would be gone forever).  His position was steadily undermined by his enemies until he raced back to London, trying to speak to the queen in person.  This could not be tolerated.  Scenting his own doom, Essex tried to mount a coup, which failed spectacularly.  He was executed.  Did Elizabeth know that Essex had been steadily pushed into doing something stupid?  We simply don’t know.


She also faced a newly-aggressive parliament, which was determined to extract a price for funding Elizabeth’s wars.  Elizabeth found this intolerable, but there were limits to what she could do about it.  (Part of the problem was that she’d earlier snatched most of the profits from various endeavours, which had the unexpected - but predictable - effect of reducing interest in further investment.)  She came up with a face-saving formula that insisted she’d granted concessions of her own free will - and they were quickly clawed back - but she had to cope with a new reality.  She saw herself as the divinely-approved ruler; others, now, saw her as accountable to her people.  It was not a comfortable place to be.


There is a question mark over Elizabeth’s decision, at the very last minute, to appoint James of Scotland as her successor.  James probably had the best claim, but relations between them were strained.  (Elizabeth spoke to him as if he were a small boy on the end of a leash, something that James found infuriating; her refusal to name him her successor meant that he had to look for support elsewhere, which did nothing for peaceful relationships.)  It’s possible that Cecil and his fellows made the decision themselves, although nothing can be proved.  They did have good reason, however, to choose a king who already had two sons; they would, at least, be spared another female ruler.  To modern eyes, this sounds appalling; to them, it would have made perfect sense.


In many ways, Elizabeth was a tyrant, a person who was cosseted in luxury while her people starved.  This was far from uncommon in those days.  She can hardly be condemned for being no better than the average medieval monarch.  The limitations caused by her sex made matters harder for her, although she managed to overcome them and rule - with a reasonable level of effectiveness - within her own country.  That said, she also had problems committing herself to anything and constantly overestimated her ability to steer events outside Britain.  This is also far from uncommon, now as well as then; successive American Presidents have run into hot water through assuming they could reshape the world to suit themselves.  Elizabeth lacked their advantages - modern communications, a secure power base, a military not given to political interference - and suffered for it.


She was also personally abusive to people she felt had failed her trust, ranging from her maids of honour to her men.  (Essex nearly drew a sword on her when she slapped him, something that could have changed the course of history.)  As she grew older, she became nastier, bullying her cousin (who would later be sidelined after Elizabeth’s death) and more demanding of admiration from men who were increasingly younger, even though the idea of them ‘courting’ her was absurd.  But her power was slipping and she knew it.


Against this must be set her achievements.  Elizabeth fought a war with Spain, a vastly greater power, and triumphed through a combination of luck and good judgement.  She was able to block Catholic (i.e. the Pope) influence within England.  She also, for better or worse, preserved most of the powers of the monarchy, while avoiding many of the problems besetting Spain and France.  And it should be noted that many of Elizabeth’s flaws, at least in the eyes of her people, would have been regarded as perfectly normal if she’d been male.


John Guy shows us a woman who was a living breathing person, not a figurehead.  The book is an interesting read, although not entirely without problems, and I highly recommend it.