Myths are best served exploded, otherwise they can overinflate and thus hide the substance of any dish. And if that dish be the national consciousness or identity of a nation, then such over-egging must be avoided, lest it become the overelaborated norm.
In recent times the Tudors have become entertainment currency, and not only in British media. From television series to historical novels to feature films, we have seen a plethora of offerings, mainly stories of Henry VIII and Elizabeth, it has to be said. These often degenerate into costume dramas or whodunits of political intrigue, where accuracy is smoothed out of the history to create the kind of simplistic cliché of plot that mass markets are deemed to demand. “Based on a true story”, that overworked and internally contradictory byline, is now so overworked that it would be better omitted. “Fabricated around historical names” would be better. And though there is nothing wrong with fiction, since it often allows interpretations that challenge received wisdom, there are real difficulties when that fiction is transferred into myth whose acceptance becomes so widespread that it may not be challenged. It could be argued that connotations associated with terms such as Good Queen Bess, Golden Age or even simply Elizabethan are in danger of relying more on fiction than fact. Or perhaps these are nostalgic labels for contemporary ideal states that are thought to be lacking in our own times.
And so what an absolute delight it is to come upon a book such as Elizabeth – The Forgotten Years by John Guy. This is a book that really is based on true stories, since this academic historian of Clare College, Cambridge references and describes any sources that the reader may need to back up any point. Timescales are not stretched, statement is supported by facts and mystery is only allowed to obscure fact when evidence does not exist.
The forgotten years of John Guy’s title refer to the latter part of Elizabeth’s reign. The earlier years that preceded the Armada in 1588, with their multiple plots, proposals, matchmakings and conspiracies are the ones that form the backdrop for most of the fictions. These later years were characterized by war, economic difficulties and political intrigue. They were perhaps dominated by considerations of succession, since Elizabeth, of course, had no heir. It is worth noting here, however, that John Guy, by virtue of a discursive style that deals with issues rather than a mixture of events arranged chronologically, does offer as context much background material relating to the years before 1588. This picture that is purportedly a selective encounter with the later years of Elizabeth’s reign thus contains much rounded and detailed description of her entire reign.
John Guy states several assumptions that must guide our understanding of the period. In the sixteenth century, he says, status did not trump gender. Elizabeth was a woman, and that meant that many of the males at court had little or no respect for her apart from their recognition of her birthright. And, because her mother was Anne Boleyn, whom her father married after his denied divorce, even that was questioned by many, especially those of the old faith, who would also have wanted to do more than merely undermine this Protestant queen. The author, incidentally, is not implying that gender issues are or were different in other centuries. As a professional historian, he is simply defining the scope of relevance that is to be ascribed to his comment. Secondly, because Elizabeth was a single woman, the issue of succession had to dominate her reign. In the earlier years this meant various scrambles to find her a husband in the hope that a male heir might materialize. But later on, in the period that John Guy’s book covers, Elizabeth was too old to bear children anyway. Discussion on succession, therefore, shifted from matchmaking into more strategic and political territory.
In Elizabeth – The Forgotten Years, the queen is portrayed as a fundamentally medieval monarch. She saw herself as descended from God, the assured kin of all others who shared this enthroned proximity to the Almighty. Hence, she could not bring herself to sign the death warrant for Mary Queen of Scots, believing that a decision to kill a royal by anyone would legitimize the practice, and who then might be next to get it in the neck? And since this by definition was a direct attack on God, it also carried damnation as a consequence. Hence Elizabeth’s duplicity in letting it be known she wanted Mary disposed of whilst at the same time denying any responsibility for the act, thus requiring the person who enacted her wishes to be hauled up for treason. These medieval royals were above reason, it seems, as well as above the law. And messengers, it seems, have always been fair game.
This unwillingness to sign a death warrant was not a weakness that affected Elizabeth very often. It seems that the mere whiff of a plot or conspiracy quickly resulted in all smells being masked by the odor of fresh ink forming her signature on an invitation to the Tower. John Guy’s book regularly takes us to the gallows with these condemned people – usually men, of course – and offers detail of their fate. A particularly memorable sentence, specifically suggested by the queen, had one condemned man hanged for just one swing of the rope, so he could then be cut down and, still alive and still conscious, witness his own guts and beating heart being placed on the ground beside him. In an age that still believed in the resurrection of the mortal body, these treasonous felons had to be dismembered and their parts separated to ensure they would never have their souls saved. It may have been God’s will, but it certainly was that of His reigning representative on earth.
This Good Queen Bess, incidentally, was in the habit of handing down similar fates quite regularly. She also refused to pay salaries to soldiers and sailors who fought for her, dressed herself in finery while her war wounded received no assistance or pension and were forced to sleep rough. She turned two blind eyes to disease and epidemic that ravaged her forces and population. Elizabeth the patriotic hero also and perhaps duplicitously sued for peace with Spain, offering Philip II near surrender terms if she and he could agree to carve up the economic interests between them.
She handed out monopolies to her courtiers and lobbyists in exchange for a cut of the earnings. A real strength of John Guy’s book is the insistence on translating Elizabethan era values into present day terms. The resulting multiplication by a thousand brings into sharp focus the extent to which national finances were carved up by elites. While parsimonious when others were due to receive, Elizabeth for herself demanded only the finest and most expensive treatment. It was, after all, her Right.
Elizabeth also countenanced an English economy that raised theft on the high seas to a strategic goal. And her courtiers treated the expeditions as capitalist enterprises, with ministers and the like taking shares in the ventures in exchange for a share of the swag. And much of this would be stolen before it was declared or as it was being landed by handlers or mere thieves who clearly learned their morals and behavior from the so-called betters. The market was free, apparently, but those who operated it at risk of incarceration.
Thus, Elizabeth – The Forgotten Years will be a complete eye-opener for anyone who has absorbed popular culture’s portrayal of this age. John Guy’s book identifies the very human traits displayed by this Godly queen and posits them absurdly alongside the attitude of her contemporaries that she was a mere worthless woman.
There are not many figures in John Guy’s wonderful book who come out unscathed, either in reputation or body. Neither does he set out to destroy anyone’s reputation. As a historian, he presents evidence, assesses it and then offers an informed and balanced opinion. This, however, is healthy, for in the current climate populism is too often allowed to merge its own version of history into its message. It does so to achieve some control of a contemporary agenda via the creation of myth, and Tudor melodramas are not exceptions to this rule. Elizabeth – The Forgotten Years demands we remember our real past accurately in all its folly, and in so doing explode many dangerous myths.