|About this Recording
NAX24512 - JENKINS / PHILLIPS: Life and Times of Queen Elizabeth I and II (The)
Elizabeth I has surely been the subject of more biographies, plays and films, both factual and romanticised, than any other British monarch, with the possible exception of her father Henry VIII. The complex personality of the Virgin Queen makes her an endlessly puzzling and fascinating enigma. At times her nature was contradictory; her tempers and tantrums legendary.
Yet, though her reign is one of the best documented in British history, we are still left with burning questions about her as a woman. Was she truly a virgin all her life? Why didn’t she marry? Why, with the exception of Leicester, did she seem incapable of maintaining close friendships? One attempts to peel back the ever increasing layers of silk, satin, lace, gold thread, wigs and fantastic jewellery, which she used to divert attention from the woman within them, but the questions still remain. Elizabeth was an able ruler, with remarkable powers of statesmanship.
Her manipulation of her all-male council, her premier minister, the redoubtable Cecil, and the ill-assorted wooers who came knocking at her door is extremely impressive. She was no ordinary woman of her time, her diplomatic skills and power to dominate all who came into contact with her from the highest to the lowest led some historians to question her sex: at Tilbury in 1588, inspiring her troops, Camden the historian described her as having ‘the countenance and pace of a soldier’.
She was frequently referred to as the reincarnation of her autocratic father Henry VIII. This is the dominant impression left by Elizabeth Jenkins’ biography, that she was a woman not to be trifled with, whose political skills and will to succeed at all costs had been learnt the hard way through necessity, when as a young girl she had lived under the constant threat of the headsman’s axe.
Yet, paradoxically, there are also numerous contemporary descriptions of her femininity. She was always responsive to kindness, Elizabeth Jenkins tells us, having received so little of it when young, and always susceptible to flattery. This encouraged ambitious courtiers to spend lavish amounts on her entertainment, when in the summer months she ‘progressed’ from one aristocratic estate to another. Many a family was irreparably ruined by the expense. She could not be so easily bought. The elaborate display mounted by the Earl of Leicester at Kenilworth in 1575 is breathtaking, if one only contemplates the amount of stage-management required! Elizabeth Jenkins describes the waterpageant: ‘While strains of music sounded on the mere, the Lady of the Lake advanced on her floating island, scintillating with lights. A mermaid drew a tail eighteen feet long through the waves beside her, and perched on the back of a gigantic dolphin, Arion prepared to address the awe-inspiring figure whose horse was reined to a standstill above his head.’
Elizabeth’s skills of government brought peace and prosperity to Tudor England, and her qualities both as a leader and a woman inspired a golden age of music, verse and drama. In a late-flowering of the Renaissance in this country, courtiers such as Philip Sidney and Raleigh led the way in verse, as did the Queen herself. Spenser developed English verse with his epic tribute to Elizabeth, ‘The Faerie Queene’, whilst Shakespeare, and later Ben Jonson, enriched the public and private stage, making the English pre-eminent in the theatre at this time. Music, too, took the Italian model of the madrigal and ‘englished’ it. Native madrigalists such as Morley, Dowland and Wilbye flourished in the years of her reign, their intricate part songs reflecting the brilliant word painting of the largely anonymous verse writers.
Keyboard music was blessed by the invention of William Byrd whose elaborate fantasias, some based on old English tunes, dominated the genre. The Queen herself was a most accomplished player of the aptlynamed Virginals, as Elizabeth Jenkins comments: ‘When Dr. Burney examined the manuscript of her Virginal book, he was surprised at the difficulty of the pieces by Byrd, Tallis, Farnaby and Bull; no master in Europe, he said, would undertake to play those under a month’s practice.’
Elizabeth sacrificed a normal Tudor woman’s life—marriage and children—because of her overriding conviction that she must serve and save her people. Time and again throughout her reign she refers to the people as having sustained her in what became increasingly a lonely and isolated life, culminating in the famous ‘Golden’ speech she made to Parliament in 1601: ‘I have cause to wish nothing more than to content the subject; and that is a duty I owe.’ In return she was rewarded with the people’s unmitigated love: ‘Then we cried again ‘God save Your Majesty!’ And the Queen said to us, ‘Ye may well have a greater Prince, but ye shall never have a more loving Prince.’ And so the Queen and the crowd there, looking upon one another awhile, her majesty departed. This wrought such an impression upon us…that all the way long we did nothing but talk what an admirable Queen she was and how we would adventure our lives in her service.’(Godfrey Goodman 1588) This adoration by the people had risen to a climax by the end of her reign, when she was virtually worshipped as a goddess. She became a cult variously referred to in verse and song by such mythical names as ‘Oriana’, ‘Diana’, ‘Cynthia’. She encouraged these images, as can be seen in the many portraits of her (surely the most painted monarch as well as the most written about!). The later portraits in particular show her in fantastic costumes which could never have existed in fact: cloaks embroidered with eyes and ears, fine lace collars erect as peacocks’ tails, with no visible means of support. The Queen variously holds a rainbow, or firmly stands on the country she reigns over, covering it by the shadow of her enormous farthingale dress, symbolically safe and secure. She manufactured her life, and the result was she became untouchable, just like a ‘goddess, excellently bright’. She wrote a poem once reflecting on her deliberate policy of monogamy in which there is an echo of regret:
Was she truly regretting in those last days of isolation her lonely journey? ‘I meditate,’ she said at the end when asked how she passed her time. Her personal sacrifice for her people’s sake however was rewarded with a gentle death, ‘mildly like a lamb, easily like a ripe apple from the tree…’
Notes by David Timson
It was in South Africa in 1947 that Princess Elizabeth, as she then was, used her twenty-first birthday radio broadcast to make a solemn dedication of her life to her people. It is remembered as a strangely moving moment; no broadcast she was ever to make in the future was charged with quite so much emotion. What millions of people round the world heard was a sacred pledge from the romantic figure of a young princess (who was shortly to become engaged to marry the man she loved) offering up her life “whether it be long or short”.
Her life and reign has turned out to be long, rather than short. As the Queen prepares to celebrate her Golden Jubilee, that broadcast now seems part of distant history. Its phraseology belongs to another world. What she actually pledged herself to serve was “our great Imperial family, to which we all belong”. Like many another family, it has experienced its share of ructions and upheavals in the years since then. It has been succeeded by the Commonwealth, most of whose members are now totally independent of Britain and many of which are republics, whose people do not recognize the Queen as their sovereign—although she remains ‘Head of the Commonwealth.’
But that is far from being the only change in the status of the monarchy that the Queen has witnessed during her lifetime. When she was born her grandfather, George V, was on the throne. In his day the monarchy was an almost mystical institution. The people revered their King and Queen as distant, ceremonial figures. Little about their private life was known. Newspaper editors believed that their readers would disapprove of being offered royal tittle-tattle. The abdication of Edward VIII shattered that picture, but the dogged, courageous reign of George VI and Queen Elizabeth, now the Queen Mother, pieced it together again. They and their children represented in the public mind a carefully stagemanaged image of the ideal, dutiful family, setting an example, showing us all the better side of ourselves. The public was not given close-up details, such as the King’s sudden outbreaks of temper or the Queen’s habit of expressing frank political opinions, that might have made the royal family seem less like symbols and more like human beings.
Today the members of the extended family centered on Buckingham Palace are no longer seen as an ideal family whose job it is to provide the nation with a moral example. They are a flesh and blood family, like many others, whose lives are seen in close-up. At first the Queen distrusted the effects of television. She was in favour of keeping the cameras out of Westminster Abbey at the time of her Coronation. But popular demand forced the government to recommend that they should be allowed in, so that the ceremony could be shared by millions of watchers throughout the kingdom and the world. From then on the monarchy became a media event. The royal family tried to control this new phenomenon by making a carefully-produced television film of their own, with glimpses behind the royal curtain. It only served to whet the public appetite for more. From then on the private lives of royalty became circulation-winning material, a process that led to the tragedy of Princess Diana.
From all this the Queen herself has survived remarkably unscathed. Her personal popularity rating remains much as it always was. She learned early on that all monarchies must adapt to survive. Her household has certainly adapted—there is now even a Buckingham Palace website and an official on-line royal magazine, giving answers to frequently asked questions. The royal finances can be inspected and so can the royal diary.
But the Queen herself, although battered by a succession of family setbacks, conducts herself in much the same way as she always did. The style of the monarchy, although modernised in detail, essentially has not changed. The Queen performs the same kind of official duties in much the same way as she did when she first came to the throne. Although she no longer has a royal yacht of her own, it can be pointed out that this is less a downgrading of status than an acceptance of the fact that oceangoing voyages are no longer the way busy people choose to travel.
Her constitutional role remains virtually unchanged, except for one small but important detail. The appointment of a prime minister (she is now on her tenth) was formerly a matter of the royal prerogative. The palace took soundings and sent for someone who was likely to be able to form a government and command the allegiance of the House of Commons. The last time that happened was when the Queen sent for Lord Home, to the fury and astonishment of more democratic Conservatives, who suspected an old-Etonian plot. Now that all parties elect their leaders by democratic voting procedure, the Queen has lost this last bit of power, much, one imagines, to her relief. The Golden Jubilee is a time to look back on the Queen’s particular contribution to the enduring institution of monarchy. But it will also, inevitably, open a debate as to what kind of monarchy is to follow.
Notes by Pearson Phillips
Close the window