John Guy, the dean of living Tudor-era historians, calls his new book Elizabeth: The Forgotten Years and intends the subtitle to refer to the last segment of Queen Elizabeth I's 44 years on the throne, the segment extending roughly from the repulse of the Spanish Armada in 1588 to her death in 1603.
Guy claims that Elizabeth's biographers have tended to treat these years glancingly. He cites the Annales of William Camden, completed in 1617, and he cites Sir John Neale's "Queen Elizabeth," published in 1934, linking both books in a tradition of romanticizing “Good Queen Bess” by eliding her strife-filled final years. He mentions that Victorian writer James Anthony Froude wrote against this romanticized version, as did Lytton Strachey in his 1928 book "Elizabeth and Essex."
“My aim,” Guy writes, “is to strike out from where Strachey blazed a trail and get closer to the truth about the ageing Elizabeth.”
This is admittedly troubling, for obvious reasons. Not only is it fanciful in the extreme for anybody to imagine that even two consecutive minutes of Elizabeth's life have been “forgotten” – this is the best-documented woman of the pre-modern era and the most-studied woman in human history – but what are readers to make of a 2016 biography that declares its aim to “strike out” from books written one, two, and four hundred years ago? Guy's extensive end notes (bizarrely and inexcusably, the book has no bibliography) clearly make use of the many, many books written in, say, the last 40 years that treat this same period of Elizabeth's reign. These years are in no way “forgotten.” This trail has literally been blazed for centuries.
Even so, Guy does a masterfully comprehensive job writing about the Elizabeth of these waning years, a fiercely complicated individual of both autocratic temper and, in Guy's reading, psychological vulnerability deepened by age and a strong feeling of personal isolation. The Elizabeth in these pages faces what Guy rightly refers to as a pan-European struggle against the might of the Spanish Empire, and the whole time she's dealing with increasingly vocal factions insider her own court, as her trusted advisors age and die, replaced by a younger generation of less principled, more feral courtiers. By the 1580s it was unavoidably obvious that Elizabeth would not be producing an heir; it was in these years that the cult of the “Virgin Queen” went into overdrive and at times, as Guy carefully shows, seemed to convince Elizabeth herself.
One of that younger generation of courtiers was Robert Devereux, the Earl of Essex, the stepson of Robert Dudley, who'd been the Queen's trusted friend and courtier years before. Essex was a charismatic but difficult figure, and Guy's recounting of his career is the highlight of the book. “He projected himself to his followers as a man of action, yet he could be curiously effete,” Guy writes. “Narcissistic and notoriously prone to melodrama if crossed, he would vanish for days to brood or sulk in his study or bedchamber, where he nursed psychosomatic illnesses most likely brought on by stress.”
That modern-sounding evocation of stress is far from the only novelistic embellishment Guy allows himself. About Frances Walsingham, the 22-year-old young widow who married Essex, we're told: “Sexually precocious, with a winning smile and long, elegant fingers, she was one of the women of the Court most sought after for her looks.” Likewise his comment about the compromises Elizabeth had to make with Parliament in the final years of her life: “Her father, she knew, would be shuddering in his grave at the very thought of this attenuation by Parliament of the ideal of God-appointed monarchy.”
Essex's meteoric Court career epitomizes the twilight of Elizabeth's reign and lends tense dramatic structure to the climactic chapters. Guy narrates the young Earl's exploits during the 1596 expedition to take the Spanish city of Cadiz, his fluctuating favor in the Queen's eyes, the rancor of his enemies (including the trusted Privy Council secretary Robert Cecil), and, finally, the folly of his abortive rebellion in 1601, which Guy relates with gripping energy.
That narrative energy frequently prompts lazy writing. Throughout the book, things follow “hard on the heels” of other things, things go “hand in glove,” things happen “in the nick of time,” people think “the only good [X] is a dead one,” there are “control freaks” and “spin doctors,” and people know things “only too well,” and so on. It happens often enough to become distracting.
The portrait that emerges from Guy's 400 densely-packed pages is nonetheless bracingly multifaceted, that of a canny ruler who's simultaneously melodramatic and circumspect, two steps ahead of all the men around her, conducting the dodge-and-feint of 16th-century international relations with a skill and intelligence her father King Henry VIII never approached. This old, wise, and wry Queen Elizabeth defies any attempt to reduce her to a frustrated figurehead micro-managed by her councillors. With anger and sarcasm and a great deal of autumnal courage, she ruled above them all right to the end.