Friday, March 2, 2012

The Lady Elizabeth, by Alison Weir

Bookface has fallen behind on both reading and blogging over the past few months, having been consumed by a deluge of business writing and editing assignments with short deadlines. The work and associated compensation are always welcome, but I will be happy when my eyes stop colliding with "up-skilled employees" and "leverage" used as a verb.

As I was reading David Starkey's Six Wives in January, I realised that my knowledge of Tudor history has some mortifying and gaping holes. I actually know very little about that other famous red-haired monarch, Elizabeth I. I found this book on my Kindle and decided to dive in. The Lady Elizabeth is (as I should have surmised from the title) about her pre-coronation years. It is also historical fiction, but I trust Alison Weir implicitly to stay within the facts at hand. There are a few writers who maintain that exquisite balance between historic and fictional detail, and the result is a book that reads like a black-and-white history reproduced in colour. Alison Weir is one of those writers, and this is one of those books.

Elizabeth is three years old, living in a country house in northern England when her 21 year-old half-sister arrives with a retinue that includes a female fool. In what is quite possibly the most sympathetic glimpse of Mary, she struggles to explain to the toddler that her mother, the late Anne Boleyn, has just been executed for treason. She had brought her fool along to distract the hysterical child when the news finally sinks in. Mary wrestles with her own mixed emotions -- she had, with good reason, loathed Anne Boleyn and must have at least secretly rejoiced in her death. For this fleeting time, however, she perceives her half-sister as an innocent and treats her kindly.

Even as a small tot, Elizabeth showed precocious intelligence. It doesn't escape her notice that her servants no longer address her as Princess. He may have stripped her of her royal title and her legitimacy, but King Henry VIII still ensured that his younger daughter lived in comfort and had superlative teachers. And those teachers marveled at the speed with which she picked up Latin and Greek, rhetoric and literature. In this, she took after her father. When she rode in procession with him, sitting in front of him on his horse, another similarity came to light.
The common touch came effortlessly to him; he loved the adulation. Elizabeth loved it too, and began waving herself, much to everyone’s amusement; and on that day, there was born in her a craving to be thus acclaimed, to be such a person as her father was, to bask in the people’s love and approval.
Mary and Elizabeth were both fond of Jane Seymour, Henry's third wife. Jane's death following the birth of Prince Edward was another devastating loss for Elizabeth. Weir hints that it might also have sparked her belief that having children is a deadly game.
But she knew that the Queen would never wake up, that her soul had fled, and that, in some mysterious way, having the Prince had killed her. Appalled by the sweet scent of death, and realizing with dread that there were more perils in the world than she had ever imagined, Elizabeth buried her face in her hands to shut out the sight of the white, waxen face and tried very hard to pray. 
Weir gives some delicious glimpses of what must have been the child Elizabeth's perceptions of the bawdy Tudor court. When he wasn't hunting fowl and game, Henry was hunting women (whether or not he was currently married to one of them). Of course, not all Europeans found the English randiness so amusing. Elizabeth overhears a courtier describing the King's latest hunt.
“He asked that suitable French ladies be brought to Calais so that he could meet them and get to know them a little before choosing. Well, the ambassador was furious. He said that the great ladies of France were not to be paraded like prize animals in a market. And then he dared to suggest”—Sir John was almost whispering—“that His Majesty might like to mount them one after the other, and keep the one he found most agreeable.”
She was too busy striving to imagine her father riding the French ladies, much as she would ride her hobbyhorse, round and round Calais. The images this conjured up made her giggle under her breath. Adults did the silliest things.
As Elizabeth grows a bit older, she displays flashes of rage (for which her father had long been famous) and a pronounced tendency to speak her mind. She and Mary are clearly girls of very different temperaments and, it becomes clear, both are being raised by adults profoundly loyal to their mothers. Or, more accurately, to the religious beliefs their mothers had held. Mary has grown into as devout a Catholic as the Pope might wish for, and Elizabeth is a staunch little Protestant. When Mary realises that her half-sister is growing up a heretic, the tenuous bond between them begins to crack.
After Mass one day, Elizabeth asked, “Why do they ring those bells?” Mary looked shocked.
“Have you not been taught, Sister?” she asked, frowning. “The bells signal the elevation of the Host.”
“Father Parker says that it’s wrong to have bells at Mass,” Elizabeth said, quite innocently.
“It is very wicked of him to say such things,” she said firmly. “The bells signify the holiest moment in the Mass. Come with me.” Taking the child’s hand, she led her back into the empty chapel, to the altar rails. “When the priest holds up the bread and the wine before the people,” she explained, “he does it to show that a miracle has taken place, for during Mass, as Our Lord promised at the Last Supper, the gifts of bread and wine become His very body and blood, given for us for the redemption of our sins.”
“But how can that be?” she asked. “They are still bread and wine. I have tasted them.”
Mary was appalled. What had they been teaching the child? “But that is the miracle!” she exclaimed. “When they are consecrated, they still look like bread and wine, but they become the real body and blood of Jesus Christ. I’m surprised that Father Parker has not explained this to you. It is our Faith.” Elizabeth forbore to say that Father Parker had said something rather different: She guessed that Mary would be cross if she did.
By the time Elizabeth is 15, King Henry has died, boyish Prince Edward acts as the puppet monarch maneuvered by his council, and Elizabeth is living with Henry's widow. Catherine Parr shed her mourning attire indecently soon, according to many, and re-married Admiral Thomas Seymour, her first love. It all looked so promising -- after a stormy marriage to the old, ill and irascible King, Catherine could look forward to the rest of her life with handsome and dashing Seymour, perhaps even having children with him. It all went sour, because the scoundrel husband only had eyes for the adolescent Lady Elizabeth. In well-documented romps, he would burst into her bedchamber at all hours, rough-housing with her and flirting shamelessly, much to the horror of her lady-in-waiting (who was responsible for protecting her honour.) A scandal ensued, and Elizabeth faced an outraged council to defend her purity. It became painfully clear that her life would never be a private one. She would always face public scrutiny. And men with agendas.
“He was a man of much wit and very little judgment,” she said quietly, knowing they were all waiting on her every word. Well, she would say no more, however traumatized and confused she felt. One thing she had learned from this whole sad and dangerous business, and that was that she must in future keep her own counsel and never betray her true feelings. It was a harsh lesson for one who was just fifteen years old.
(In the postscript, Weir confesses that she allowed herself to take one leap from the historical record in connection with this incident. It's perhaps the emotional climax of the story, so I won't reveal it here, but it gives the historian a chance to take a piece of gossip that's been circulating for centuries and have a lark with it.)

The gap between them widening to a chasm, Mary, now on the throne, begins to doubt that Elizabeth is Henry's biological daughter. Despite the fact that everyone else sees the unmistakable resemblance, Mary convinces herself that Elizabeth is the bastard of Anne Boleyn and one of her adulterous lovers. She is painfully aware that if England is to return to a permanent state of Catholic Grace, Elizabeth must never be allowed to rule after her. She begins a long campaign of vilifying, imprisoning and banishing her half-sibling.
“Yet I can scarcely believe that she is my sister. She is no longer the sweet, winning child whom I so loved when my father was alive. I fear that vanity, heresy, and ambition have changed her. I can no longer think of her as my dear sister, but as a viper in my bosom.”
Mary, meanwhile, weds Philip II of Spain, whose credentials as a devout Catholic include sponsoring the Inquisition. Many of the English oppose the match. Mary, however, is determined. She is giddy with a school-girlish excitement for her handsome young groom. This is not exclusively a marriage of political expedience for her.
“You know that there have been demonstrations against the marriage in London?” Renard asked gently.
"They have been dealt with,” Mary said sharply, the smile vanishing. “Some of my subjects do not know what is good for them, I fear. The rest, I am glad to say, rejoice for me, and for England.”
“As do I, madam”—Renard smiled—“and His Highness too. I hear he is an eager bridegroom.” He hoped that sounded convincing. Mary blushed deeply.
“I trust he will not find me wanting,” she said humbly. Looking at her faded, tired face and thin, flat-chested body, Renard could have wept for her.  
Men are from Mars, women from Venus. Always have been, even in the 16th century.
Mary lay in bed, watching the summer moonlight streaming through the open casement. Beside her, Philip—her Philip, her darling, her joy—was breathing evenly.
Her part, as she understood it, was to lie still, submit to his attentions, and pray for an heir. She was managing, she thought, rather well. Just let her get pregnant, and then that constant thorn in her side, her sister Elizabeth—if she was her sister, of course—could go hang herself. Next to her, Philip was pretending to be asleep. He was praying that his dried-up spinster of a wife would soon be with child, so that he could in conscience abstain from her bed and perhaps, if he could contrive it, get back to Spain for a while.
As the newlyweds begin a campaign of incinerating England's "heretics", Mary vacillates. Is it better to keep her menace of a half-sister nearby? If she's at court, she can be watched like a hawk, but she gets on Mary's nerves insufferably. If she's banished to a house in the middle of nowhere, she's pleasantly out of Mary's line of sight but woefully available to those Protestants who would overthrow her. Being far advanced in what turns out to be a false pregnancy, Mary feels especially indecisive and vulnerable.

Philip, her ostensibly devoted husband, has his own private thoughts on the matter.
“We will make no decision as to her future until after your confinement, but I do feel she should be brought back to court so that I can keep an eye on her until then.” And, he thought to himself, it would be wise to establish a good working relationship with Elizabeth just in case she ever does become queen.
Philip was thinking that, even as a furtive Protestant, Elizabeth would be preferable to Mary, Queen of Scots, any day.
Weir does a spectacular job of building what we know of the Virgin Queen from the records of her youth and the turbulent years of Mary's reign. This woman knew as a child that she wanted to rule. She knew herself to be capable of it. She had more than enough examples of good and strong women who had squandered or lost their power to husbands, Mary included. 
For in the course of her long seclusion, she had discovered that the most important thing to her in life was freedom: the freedom to come and go as she pleased, to make her own choices, and not constantly to have to submit to the will of others. Such freedoms did not come with marriage. 
Elizabeth is back in a remote country house in the north when the horsemen ride up, just as Mary's entourage had done years before. These horsemen bring a different message: Long Live the Queen. Long Live Queen Elizabeth.

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