Elizabeth the Great

by Elizabeth Jenkins

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Elizabeth the Great is an intriguing and valuable study of a great woman who faced personal and political insecurities. Jenkins analyzes Elizabeth’s strengths and weaknesses as a ruler in the light of childhood trauma, focusing on the beheading of her mother, Ann Boleyn, of her beloved stepmother Catherine Howard, and of Lady Jane Grey as well as on Elizabeth’s own close brushes with execution because of Seymour’s scandalous seduction attempts and Sir Thomas Wyatt’s move to dethrone Queen Mary and crown Elizabeth instead. Jenkins argues that nervous disorders and hysteria dating from childhood affected Elizabeth throughout her lifetime and contends that her refusal to marry resulted from her association of sex with calamity.

At the same time, the author demonstrates how Elizabeth used and overcame these challenges to serve as a bold and courageous queen. She was loyal to those who gave her loyalty, subtle in her manipulation of people and events to serve the needs of her nation, and penny-pinching. She was difficult but never mean-spirited like her heir, James I, or profligate and careless like her cousin Mary, Queen of Scots. Young readers disturbed by their own family traumas and personal crises should find inspiration in this book about a woman, in an age of men, who overcame her difficult past by using good judgment, quick wit, and common sense to change a nation and a world, paving the way for future freedoms.

Indeed, Elizabeth’s reign led to the values of the English-speaking New World. Secular, skeptical, and tolerant, she distrusted dogma, deplored the excesses of religious fanaticism, and firmly believed in the mutual responsibilities of ruler and ruled. A patron of the arts who encouraged music, drama, and poetry, she liked dancing and protected ritual, whether expressed in the music of the Catholic liturgy or in the simple beauty of the Protestant service. As “Queen of the Seas,” she made England a naval power, defeated the Spanish Armada, opened up the New World to English colonization, protected the freedom of The Netherlands, and inspired unparalleled loyalty. She was a complete Renaissance woman, beloved by both the common people and the English aristocracy.

Unlike many biographies of past rulers, this book studies one individual’s mind at work amid personal and monarchal crises. It provides insights into her inner tension, her sexuality, and her deep-seated fears that would lead her to declare at age eight, “I will never marry,” and to hold firm to that purpose for her entire life. Jenkins tries to provide a sense of a rich, complex personality, uniquely tolerant and wise for her age. Elizabeth’s intelligence was challenged by an enlightened, progressive teacher, the famous Roger Ascham, and by the danger of her daily situation, first as heir presumptive and later as an extraordinary queen who chose reliable men on whom to depend but who trusted her own intelligence and instincts first. Jenkins makes clear why Elizabeth should indeed be called “the Great.” The major contrast of the book is between the dogmatic, cruel, medieval, Catholic mind of Philip II of Spain and the forgiving, broadminded, Renaissance, Protestant mind of Elizabeth I of England.

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