J.E. Neale,
Queen Elizabeth I
(Jonathan Cape, 1934;
Penguin/Pelican, 1960)

English historiography has given us not only works of solid scholarship and insight, but a group of works that have become known not only as history but as literature. While most can name Trevelyan or Gibbons, there are a number of scholars who by right should rank with them, including J.E. Neale.

Neale was one of a group of Tudor specialists who have given us dazzling portraits of an age, ably exemplified by his biography of Queen Elizabeth I. The quality of this study, first published in 1934 and revised in 1952, is revealed by Neale's own note to the 1952 edition: he simply changed the title to Queen Elizabeth I on the accession of Elizabeth II and corrected "a few slips." The remainder of his argument, he felt, held up under the research he had done since its original publication. The history of the literature on Elizabeth Tudor has borne him out.

The outlines of Elizabeth's life are well known, from the seesaw of her early years, as England veered between Protestantism and Catholicism through the reigns of Henry VIII, Edward VI and Mary, until her own accession. The highlights of Elizabeth's life are well known: the succession of favorites, including Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester and the spectacular rise and fall of Robert Devereaux, Earl of Essex; the ongoing difficulties with Mary of Scotland, who many thought had a more legitimate claim to the English throne than Elizabeth; and of course, the Spanish Armada. What is missing from the popular perception of Elizabeth, and what Neale brings vividly to life, is a strong personality who was a woman in an age when women, if they had any power at all, were too often the tools of powerful men, and a woman who was determined that, as God had placed her on the throne, she would rule: she was, after all, Henry's daughter, and one forgot that fact at one's own risk.

Neale reveals Elizabeth as a canny politician who used every weapon in her arsenal, sometimes so subtly that even with the vantage of hindsight, her methods need careful thought to become clear. Her intellectual accomplishments are well known -- she spoke Latin, Greek, French, Spanish and, later in life, bad German. She also seemed to know everthing that was going on in every capital in Europe, as well as in every shire at home.

In her dealings with the continent, particularly Spain, France and the Holy Roman Empire, we see that she practiced brinksmanship centuries before the word entered the common vocabulary. A good case in point is the ongoing question of the Low Countries during the 16th century, in perpetual rebellion against their Spanish overlords. Elizabeth at various times openly supported the Dutch against Spain, withdrew her support (at least on the surface: trade with the Netherlands was too important to England for her truly to cut them adrift), and at one point neutralized French influence in the whole matter by her on-again, off-again courtship with Francois, Duke of Alencon, the French King's brother, looking favorably on the Duke when French interest in a Spanish alliance became too active. Elizabeth's Netherlands policy was what finally precipitated the Armada incident, which also highlights the emphasis given to the creation of the English Navy, as well as the genuine affection of the English for their "good Queen Bess."

Elizabeth also followed a policy that was to become common among Europe rulers: neutralizing the aristocracy, bringing the nobles to heel and ensuring that the crown was the prime authority in the land. The history of the 15th century was rife with rebellion on the part of the great magnates, not only in England but in France and the Empire as well, and none of the Tudors had any interest in a reprise. Policy in this regard involved favoring the rising middleclass as well as the minor nobility. Elizabeth's chief advisers included the Cecils -- the famous William, Lord Burghley, and his son Sir Robert -- as well as Sir Walter Raleigh and others of their class. It was a time that saw a great deal of social mobility as fortunes were made and lost and influence rose and fell, and Elizabeth did her part to ensure that ability found its natural level.

This may sound dry. In Neale's hands, it is anything but. His narrative is so fluent, in fact, that the history of Elizabeth's life reads as a grand adventure, with plots, counterplots, deeds of derring do, heart-stopping danger, the glittering life of the court, all encompassed in an amazingly clear and level-headed story of politics at home and abroad, the building of a nation, and a ruler who is to many the defnition of the English Renaissance. Gloriana, indeed.

- Rambles
written by Robert M. Tilendis
published 4 December 2004

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