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NA324612 - Elizabeth I: Life and Times of Queen Elizabeth I (The) (JENKINS)

Elizabeth Jenkins

Elizabeth Jenkins

The Life and Times of



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 water-pageant:


‘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 aptly-named 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:


‘Then, lo, I did repent of that I said before,

Go, go, go, seek some other where,

Importune me no more.’


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



Elizabeth Jenkins was educated at St Christopher’s School, Letchworth and Newnham College, Cambridge. A distinguished novelist, historian and biographer, she was awarded the Femina Vie Heureuse Prize in 1934 for her novel Harriet, and she received the OBE in 1981. Her other publications include: Lady Caroline Lamb, Jane Austen, Henry Fielding, Six Criminal Women, The Tortoise and the Hare, Ten Fascinating Women, Elizabeth and Leicester, The Princes in the Tower.

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