Elizabeth the Great

by Elizabeth Jenkins

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Attitude and Policy in Regard to Religion

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King Henry VIII inadvertently brought the Protestant Reformation to England in 1533, when Anne Boleyn was still pregnant with the future Queen Elizabeth I. For personal reasons, Henry VIII broke with the Catholic Church and named himself head of the Church of England. Elizabeth was thus raised Protestant and reigned as a Protestant queen during a period of great conflict in England between Catholics and Protestants, each of whom represented approximately half of the four million citizens of England at the time. In Elizabeth the Great, Jenkins pays special attention to the attitudes and policies of Elizabeth with regard to religion. Jenkins weaves direct quotes from Elizabeth and quotes from those who knew her with her own psychological and historical analysis of the queen’s religious attitudes and policies.

Jenkins makes clear early in her biography that Elizabeth was never a deeply or ardently religious person, although she was undoubtedly a believing Christian. Jenkins asserts, ‘‘Elizabeth held the unquestioning belief in the Christian faith which was universal in Europe, but her mind was incapable of religious fanaticism.’’ Jenkins points out that Elizabeth considered both Catholicism and Protestantism to be mere variations on the same Christian faith. Jenkins comments, ‘‘The famous saying of [Elizabeth’s] later years, ‘There is only one Christ Jesus and one faith: the rest is a dispute about trifles,’ is an expression, not of experience, but of temperament.’’

Jenkins makes clear, however, that Elizabeth, though never passionately devout, did often turn to her faith in times of personal crisis. For instance, during the period in which her half-sister Queen Mary I kept her locked in the Tower of London as a potential conspirator against the throne, Elizabeth composed a note to herself expressing the solace she found in the reading of Scriptures. Jenkins observes that Elizabeth’s ‘‘sense of abandonment and despair’’ during this period of imprisonment, ‘‘was reflected in what she wrote on the flyleaf of St. Paul’s Epistles.’’ Jenkins quotes:

August. I walk many times into the pleasant fields of the holy scriptures where I pluck up the goodlisome herbs of sentences . . . that having tasted their sweetness, I may the less perceive the bitterness of this miserable life.

Jenkins observes that, early in the reign of Mary I, Elizabeth struggled with her sister’s insistence that she observe the Catholic faith. Elizabeth was at first inclined to plead her conscience, begging that she not be required to observe a faith in which she did not believe. When Elizabeth’s brother, King Edward VI died, Elizabeth did not attend his funeral service because it was held at a mass in a Catholic Church. Jenkins notes that, at this point, Elizabeth ‘‘declined’’ to attend ‘‘any mass whatsoever.’’ However, Queen Mary, angered by this, refused to see Elizabeth.

When Elizabeth was finally granted a meeting with Mary, Jenkins states, she ‘‘wept and asked if it were her fault that she could not believe.’’ Mary responded that, if she attended mass, belief would come. Elizabeth, though probably not convinced by this assertion, recognized that she must begin attending Catholic mass to please her sister, on whose royal favor her life now depended. Jenkins observes that Mary was effectively placated by Elizabeth’s outward show of observance of Catholicism. As Jenkins states, Mary was ‘‘pathetically pleased’’ by Elizabeth’s compliance in going to mass and rewarded her with a jeweled brooch.

In 1555, Queen Mary I began the mass burning of Protestants which earned her the epithet Bloody Mary. Jenkins relates that, at this point, behaving as a Catholic was a means of survival for Elizabeth. Jenkins suggests that Elizabeth must have been...

(This entire section contains 1596 words.)

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warned ahead of time that this violent treatment of Protestants was in the workings; some five months before the burnings began, Jenkins notes, Elizabeth ‘‘took communion according to the Roman Catholic rites.’’ Jenkins adds, this ‘‘capitulation’’ on the part of Elizabeth ‘‘was of extreme urgency, because . . . once the queen’s morbid ferocity was aroused, recantation did not mean a reprieve from the fire.’’ In other words, a Protestant could not save herself from Mary’s punishments simply by claiming to be converted to Catholicism at the last moment. Mary wished to rout out the deeply held inner beliefs of her subjects and was not content with mere outward displays of compliance to Catholicism.

When Elizabeth ascended the throne in 1558, upon the death of Mary I, she immediately took action to restore England to Protestantism under the Church of England. By the Act of Supremacy and the Act of Uniformity, she revived the policy, initiated by her father King Henry VIII, that the monarch was the sovereign head (on earth) of the Church of England and that her subjects were expected to observe Protestant mass on Sunday. Unlike Mary, Elizabeth was not concerned with the inner beliefs—or even with the secret religious observances of Catholicism within the privacy of one’s home—of her subjects.

Elizabeth did, however, believe that outward compliance with the Church of England on the part of her subjects was necessary in order for her to maintain her position of power and legitimacy on the English throne. The repression of Catholicism was particularly significant to Elizabeth’s reign because many Catholics did not recognize Henry VIII’s annulment of his first marriage and so considered Elizabeth, the child of Henry’s second marriage, to be an illegitimate child and therefore not a rightful heir to the English throne.

As Jenkins makes clear, Elizabeth’s religious policy early in her reign was emphatically one of tolerance. Jenkins quotes Elizabeth as having stated, ‘‘‘Let it not be said that our reformation tendeth to cruelty.’’’ Jenkins asserts that Elizabeth’s religious policy was in ‘‘its spirit of tolerance and moderation in key with the queen’s own attitude.’’ Jenkins adds that Elizabeth said ‘‘she wished to open no window into men’s consciences,’’ and states that Elizabeth

declared that she intended no interference with anyone of the Christian faith ‘‘as long as they shall in their outward conversation show themselves quiet and not manifestly repugnant and obstinate to the laws of the realm which are established for frequenting of divine service in the ordinary churches of the realm.’’

Jenkins explains the level of tolerance of private Catholic observance during most of Elizabeth’s reign: ‘‘If by a moderate monthly fine they could contract out of going to the parish church, and celebrate mass in secret at home, a number of [Catholics] were prepared to do that.’’ Jenkins explains that, legally, harsher penalties could be imposed upon Catholics, but were in general only brought to bear in regard to potential rebellion or political conspiracy against the queen. Jenkins concludes that, until 1570, ‘‘English Catholics as a whole’’ were willing to tolerate Elizabeth’s religious policy without enacting rebellion against her authority.

However, later communications from the pope in Rome to English Catholics demanded a very different attitude toward the queen. In 1570, the pope excommunicated Queen Elizabeth I. The pope declared that English Catholics were thus freed from any ‘‘‘duty, fidelity and obedience’’’ to the English crown. The pope added that English citizens ‘‘‘shall not once dare to obey [Queen Elizabeth] or any of her laws, directions or commands.’’’ Jenkins points out that, as of this declaration by the pope, ‘‘Henceforward, English Catholics were disobedient to the pope if they were loyal to the queen, and traitors to the queen if they obeyed the pope.’’ Jenkins observes that these statements from the pope ‘‘abruptly shattered the compromise which had made the majority of Catholics find Elizabeth’s system tolerable.’’

Elizabeth’s response to this change of atmosphere was to crack down on Catholics almost as severely as Mary I had cracked down on Protestants. Jenkins makes clear that the queen was not squeamish about imposing extreme measures of torture against Catholic priests and Jesuits who were seen to be enemies of the state. Jenkins observes, ‘‘the government persecution’’ which followed ‘‘with all the horrors of sixteenth-century state punishments inflicted on Catholics who were suspected as traitors, had a parallel effect to the burning of Protestants under Mary Tudor: it inspired their fellow religionists and glorified the faith that produced such martyrs.’’

In 1580, the pope publicly declared that it would not be a sin to assassinate the Protestant queen Elizabeth, and would in fact be doing God’s service. However, the pope altered his demands of English Catholics, stating that they could in good conscience continue to obey their Protestant queen as long as she held the throne. However, were an invasion of England by a Catholic nation, such as Spain or France, to occur, English Catholics were then required to rise up against the queen in support of such invasion. This at least provided English Catholics with the ease of not being required by the pope to openly rebel against the authority of the crown.

While violence raged throughout Europe as Catholics and Protestants came into conflict with one another and with their governments, Elizabeth maintained the personal attitude that such divisiveness within the Christian world was unfounded. Later in her reign, however, increased fears of Catholic uprising led the queen to institute horrific anti- Catholic policies on a par with religious repression in many parts of Europe. In the final decade of Elizabeth’s reign, the queen’s fears of Catholic rebellion became more extreme. Her original policy of toleration in regard to Catholics was largely overshadowed by the severe torture and gruesome execution of countless Catholic priests.

Source: Liz Brent, Critical Essay on Elizabeth the Great, in Nonfiction Classics for Students, The Gale Group, 2002.

Documenting the Life of Elizabeth I

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Jenkins’s portrait of Elizabeth I, queen of England from 1548 to 1603 is, at once, vivid and impressive. Elizabeth the Great reads like an eye witness account, time traveling through her life. Jenkins explains in her preface that the aim of the book ‘‘was to collect interesting personal information about Queen Elizabeth I.’’ Almost as an apology, she says she ‘‘tried to focus attention all the time upon the queen,’’ and, therefore, ‘‘the shape of the book is very irregular.’’ Continuing, she says, ‘‘Sometimes events of great importance are only briefly mentioned or omitted while minor ones are dwelt on in detail.’’ However, the historic events can hardly be separated from a literary portrait of the Queen, and the reader is impressed by the volume of history as much as by the intrigue and descriptions of Elizabeth. A. L. Rowse, a learned Elizabethan historian, wrote in the Chicago Sunday Tribune that Jenkins’s biography was ‘‘quite the most perceptive’’ he had ever read. He calls it ‘‘a portrait that is unforgettable and very touching.’’

Jenkins’s literary production of Elizabeth’s life is no small task. It is a daunting endeavor to accurately record an incredibly active life of one of the most important, and colorful, women in world history without some irregularities. The many facets of her life; her associations and dealing with those close and dear to her, and with her enemies; the historic, social, and religious implications involved; and her own psyche, create a web of intricate lace for displaying her many qualities. She is not a bland and simple person, nor is her story a bland or simple story.

Not surprisingly then, Elizabeth the Great requires diligence, focus, and a certain amount of patience to read and absorb. From its opening page there are many names, personalities, and intrigues that add to the stage setting of a courtly monarch. At a time when kingdoms, provinces, and townships were frequently awarded with new titles, and names were constantly changed through marriage, there were more names than people. Much of the predicament is due to the number of players involved and their interchangeable names. In Jenkins’s effort to introduce the characters to the reader and keep upto- date on the changes, she may refer to them by either of their names. The reader must pay attention to the changes and to the author’s use of names and titles which quite often confuse the issue of who is who. An unclear understanding of the genealogy and blood connections of the major players will make for a confusing read. For instance, the origin of Mary Queen of Scots is not clear, though she has an important and prominent role in the book. A helpful addition to the book, with its existing bibliography and index, would have been a family tree and a timeline, to give the reader a clearer understanding of the relationships of the various participants.

The action between the key figures also requires close attention. There are suitors, conspirators, friends, and enemies who continually have an impact on one another. The real-life intrigues are as curious as they are marvelous to read—in an English Renaissance, docudrama sort of way. It would seem from Jenkins’s writing that much of the order of politics and government in the British Isles and Western Europe of the sixteenth century relied upon mating, matching, sexual and/or physical attractions, and other forms of courtship. Each country, or throne, tried to lay claim to another, first through marriage, then treachery, and lastly, invasion. Elizabeth once exclaimed—while in the presence of the Spanish ambassador, Mendoza, after he had proposed a marriage between Elizabeth and the King of Spain as an alternative to a Spanish invasion— ‘‘Would to God that each had his own and all were content.’’

The Scottish queen, Mary Queen of Scots, sought the English throne, claiming to be its only legitimate heir. The French royalty courted Elizabeth toward their stake in the English claim. The Spanish were in pursuit. Even the Netherlands, Italy, and Sweden had their eyes on Elizabeth’s realm. It is no wonder that the book falls short of a perfect novel. For, though the story is no less compelling than a historic novel, there is just too much information crossing both time and space, and it cannot be easily told in a strictly linear fashion.

Jenkins has still given us a superb, accurate picture of the ‘‘Virgin Queen.’’ Her splendid portrait is taken from firsthand accounts, offering the reader a clearly illustrious personality in Elizabeth I. Although some of the scenes are footnoted as to their origin, many are not. But Jenkins’s bibliography is extensive, and the reader is most assured that she has done her homework. The reader is brought personally to each scene as if it came straight from the eyes and ears of the author. What increases this illusion is Jenkins’s familiarity with the language of Elizabethan English. Jenkins is a British writer, born in 1905, and educated at Cambridge just after the turn of the twentieth century. Jenkins was raised on Elizabethan English, and she can be quite poetic at times. Her choice of descriptions and other writings about Elizabeth are well chosen.

The many descriptions of Elizabeth throughout her life describe a woman both frail and strong, beautiful and plain, compassionate yet cruel, patient yet irrational, chaste though frivolous, and with a keen eye for men. She loved to dance and ride horses. But this was not a simple woman. She was highly intelligent and complex. She spoke all the romance languages, as well as Welsh and Latin. She had a solid grasp of mathematics, economy, and history, and a well-studied knowledge of running a monarchy from her father, and those before him. Although she was quite capable of thinking for herself, she relied on her many councilors and advisors throughout the early days of her reign. In later years, after a number of mistakes and plots against her, she took to her own council as the more trusted view.

Elizabeth’s maturing appearance and demeanor remain current throughout the book. When she was two years old, King Henry VIII, her father, accused Elizabeth’s mother, Anne Boleyn, of adultery with five men and condemned her to death either by burning or beheading. She was beheaded. Jenkins describes Elizabeth at two, as ‘‘a lively little creature with reddish golden hair, a very white skin, and eyes of golden-brown with brows and lashes so fair to be almost invisible. Though headstrong she was remarkably teachable.’’ Within the same year, after the king had married Jane Seymour, it was decided that Elizabeth was no longer to be addressed as princess. To this she replied—while still ignorant that her father had killed her mother—‘‘How haps it Governor, yesterday my lady Princess, and today but my Lady Elizabeth?’’

When Elizabeth was eight years old, another important event occurred that Jenkins believes may have had a significant bearing on the rest of Elizabeth’s life. Catherine Howard, Henry VIII’s fifth wife—not twenty years old, and only eighteen months into the marriage—was accused of adultery, and beheaded. She had shown great kindness towards

Elizabeth, and Elizabeth was fond of her. Shortly after this, Elizabeth said, ‘‘I will never marry.’’ And she never did. She is reported to have had many amorous escapades, suitors, and a few serious considerations for marriage, usually in the name of diplomacy and national security, but she never did share her throne or her life with one single man. For Elizabeth, to marry was to lose her head.

A portrait of Elizabeth at thirteen still hangs in Windsor Castle, and Jenkins describes it thus: ‘‘The smooth red-gold hair is worn straight down her back, she holds a book with hands whose fingers are so long and delicate they look inhuman, her expression is watchful and disillusioned.’’ The general view, writes Jenkins, is that Elizabeth was a ‘‘very witty and gentyll young lady.’’ At twenty-five, she is described as ‘‘indifferent, tall, slender and straight.’’ Jenkins describes an illustration of Elizabeth at thirty-seven with ‘‘the small head whose limp hair is dragged back under a jeweled net,’’ that her skin was pure white.

A wonderfully full description of Elizabeth at the age of sixty-four gives a captivating glimpse of the queen. It had been recorded by the French ambassador, de Maisse, and is here told through Jenkins’s words:

He saw her first in a large chamber where a great fire was burning. She wore a dark red wig decorated with jewels and though her face looked old and her neck was wrinkled, her bosom was delicate and white and her figure still beautiful in its proportions. She wore a white taffeta gown lined with scarlet, ornamented with pearls and rubies. She was most gracious and very talkative. She complained of the heat of the fire and had it damped down, and she was perpetually twisting and untwisting the long hanging ends of her red-lined sleeves. De Maisse gazed intently at that face.

Jenkins continues by saying that the ‘‘queen’s conversation when she got upon men and affairs held him spellbound.’’ There are numerous references to all aspects of Elizabeth’s person, her coloring, her demeanor, and the rest of her. She was constantly scrutinized by all—and judged by her enemies. She was both held in awe and feared. Jenkins does well to show the reader a well-rounded view of this queen. She does not shy from the hangings, tortures, mutilations, and other punishments that Elizabeth dealt to those who came against her—whether intentionally or mistakenly. At the same time, the queen is shown to be compassionate and generous, caring immensely for her subjects and her England. Elizabeth’s is truly a portrait that is unforgettable and very touching.

Elizabeth’s actions as monarch and protector are frequently brought into the fray due to the continual struggle between the Catholics and Protestants. This is the one piece of important history that Jenkins appears not to have minimized. Most of the punishments the queen imposed had a direct relation to this. The various Catholic-ruled countries were constantly pursuing the English throne, France and Spain in particular. Even Scotland and half the population of England were attempting to overthrow Elizabeth. There were those among her own government who wished to see a unified Catholic England and tried their best to create it. Elizabeth did not have a vendetta against the Catholics. She had once exclaimed that it was not her intention to look into the souls of men, and allowed English Catholics to practice their religion in the safety of their own homes. Nonetheless, in 1570, Pope Pius V issued his Bull of Excommunication against Elizabeth. It ‘‘freed [Catholics] from their oath and all manner of duty, fidelity and obedience’’ to Elizabeth. Catholics were ordered under fear of damnation and excommunication to never obey any of Elizabeth’s laws or commands. This created quite a stir, and lost more than a few lives to religious persecution and attempted Catholic domination of ‘‘the heretics,’’ the non-Catholics. But Elizabeth persevered. England remained, at least in government, Protestant. Elizabeth used all of her faculties in her effort to protect the realm. Her physical beauty and genteel demeanor, her spirit and intellect, her shrewd political savvy, and her dedication at all costs the protection and maintenance of her throne and the sovereignty of England and its people.

Upon reading Elizabeth the Great most readers will surely conclude that Jenkins was successful in her aim. She describes a complete and real person in Elizabeth I. She does not force issues, and does not proselytize. She simply and honestly records much of what is actually known and written about this queen, about this woman, Elizabeth.

Source: Raymond Warren, Critical Essay on Elizabeth the Great, in Nonfiction Classics for Students, The Gale Group, 2002.

Choosing within Limitations

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Elizabeth Jenkins reveals the spirit and psyche of Elizabeth Tudor, Queen Elizabeth I, in Elizabeth the Great. From Elizabeth’s birth (September 7, 1533) to her death (March 24, 1603), Jenkins reveals this extraordinary woman’s daily life; her living conditions, conversations, and meals; her illnesses and distresses; her travels and suitors; and her triumphs and catastrophes. Insight into her exercise habits, her emotional states, even how she referred to her little dog, convey Elizabeth’s life as a human being as well as a queen. These minute details position this book a classic amongst the plentiful biographies on library shelves. Jenkins unearths how Queen Elizabeth’s spirit emerged to acquire the throne, capture the adoration of a nation, and leave behind the remarkable Elizabethan Era.

Jenkins opens the historical book with the events that may have shaped young Elizabeth’s mind-set and eventually formed her into a successful, yet temperamental, queen. The earliest signifi- cant event occurred before Elizabeth turned three years old. Elizabeth’s father, Henry VIII, beheaded her mother, Anne Boleyn, for committing adultery. This verdict of high treason came after Ann failed to give him a son. She gave birth to Elizabeth, and then suffered two miscarriages. When again pregnant Anne discovered Henry VIII committing adultery with Jane Seymour, her lady-in-waiting, Anne’s rage induced premature labor. She delivered a dead boy. Henry VIII declared Elizabeth illegitimate. Anne’s promiscuity and failure to birth a son led to her execution.

Jenkins reveals that written records do not show when Elizabeth understood her mother’s execution but believes that it deeply affected her attitudes. Maybe Elizabeth began to understand how men held the power in marriages. Jenkins states that Elizabeth, ‘‘in the fatally vulnerable years . . . had learned to connect the idea of sexual intercourse with terror and death.’’

By the age of eight, Elizabeth told her childhood friend, Robert Dudley, that she would never marry. This could scarcely have been coincidental; it followed the beheading of her stepmother, Catherine Howard, for adultery. Elizabeth again lost love to the ax at the hands of her father. Henry VIII seldom visited Elizabeth and removed her title of princess. She moved between palaces due to a lack of sanitation common in the sixteenth century, and her cherished caretakers changed all too often. Perhaps these experiences confirmed to Elizabeth that even the closest relationships could be tentative.

In any event, Elizabeth shared this instability with her stepbrother Edward, creating a bond that would last throughout Edward’s life. Yet, Elizabeth felt a great attachment to her father, admiring ‘‘him with her whole heart,’’ as Jenkins comments. Could it be that Elizabeth understood at an early age that men can be confidants, but letting them too close can be deadly?

Despite Elizabeth’s tragic childhood, fashion and appearance came naturally. Jenkins describes toddler Elizabeth as a ‘‘lively little creature with reddish-golden hair, a very white skin, and eyes of golden-brown with brows and lashes so fair as to be almost invisible.’’ Her remarkable taste for fashion carried through her years. She spent precious time buying make-up and applying it precisely to give herself the look she desired. She became known as a stylish queen who loved jewels, elaborate outfits, decorative Persian and Indian carpets, and beautiful portraits. As Jenkins states, ‘‘the queen’s frugal habits and hard work were thrown into contrast by her undying passion for visual splendor.’’

Jenkins successfully reveals the queen’s depth of character. For example, she summarizes the political empire and how Elizabeth began to stabilize her country—an extraordinary feat, particularly for a woman, since this had never been accomplished before. In the sixteenth century, women gained power and prestige through marrying and giving birth to a male child to be the throne’s heir, not managing a country. Elizabeth’s sovereignty shows the struggle she confronted in balancing her free will with the people and the legislative groups. Her psychological and emotional opposition to marriage met with constant personal and political con- flict, a tug-of-war that lasted throughout Queen Elizabeth’s life.

Due to Queen Elizabeth’s refusal to marry and bear an heir, religious leaders and monarchs believed they had a chance at the crown and intensi- fied efforts to eliminate her, resulting in routine threats against the queen’s life. Jenkins describes the queen beneath the crown; her capacity to remain logical, the rituals she adopted to protect herself, the ability to keep an open mind, and her courage to execute a cousin or a suitor for treason. She illustrates Elizabeth’s vulnerability, describing her as weeping deeply when a friend died, as well as her capacity to explode in rage, her playfulness to laugh with children, and her joy in the arts.

The story of Queen Elizabeth’s lovers captures the attention of women and men alike. Analogous to a world fascinated with the twentieth-century fairy tale of Prince Charles and Lady Diana, a sixteenthcentury London kept an eye on Queen Elizabeth’s romantic interludes. From her coronation, wild speculation kept people gossiping and hoping that she’d choose a husband and produce an heir. The Privy Counsel, a body of officials chosen by the British monarch to advise the queen, agonized about it. She entertained the suitors presented to her by the council. She seriously considered marriage proposals. She walked that fine line of courtship and rejection without aggravating her men to the point of hatred. Moreover, she continued to exercise her free will. She responded to the council’s concerns diplomatically, informing them that, according to Jenkins, ‘‘If God directed her not to marry, no doubt He would provide for the succession in other ways.’’

During her lifetime, Queen Elizabeth loved many men including her favorite childhood friend Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, as well as Sir Christopher Hatton, Lord Chancellor, and Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex. As Elizabeth Abbott states in A History of Celibacy, as a ‘‘wealthy and secure’’ queen, Elizabeth could have the awe of any man. ‘‘Marriage could only compromise her independence, diminish her power, and tax her . . . patience.’’

Elizabeth Tudor’s virginity became such a striking feature of her reign that, as she neared fifty, she agreed to Walter Raleigh’s suggestion that ‘‘a new American colony be named in her honor—Virginia.’’ Although Elizabeth regularly considered marriage, she remained single and a virgin. Rosalind Miles in ‘‘The Women’s History of the World,’’ states that when women firmly established that ‘‘sex was not on their agenda’’ they ‘‘gained an almost mystical power . . . played with confidence and success by Elizabeth I.’’ Despite times that discouraged celibacy and disrespected women, she managed to gain power, prestige, and respect.

As nuns affirm to be Christ’s brides, Elizabeth seemed to be England’s bride. Throughout the book, Jenkins shows Elizabeth’s deep compassion towards her people, her profound ability to follow her instincts, and her strength not succumb to pressure. It was within this structure that Elizabeth operated effectively, and won the people’s lasting admiration.

Three principles drove Queen Elizabeth’s successful reign: supporting the Reformation—a religious movement to establish Protestant churches and to modify Roman Catholic doctrine; avoiding war; and re-establishing the national credit. Consequently, England became an unparalleled power with a strong navy; commerce, industry, and the arts burgeoned. The recipient of a notable education, Elizabeth excelled in creative, expository, and persuasive writing. She became fluent in numerous languages as a child. Her heritage included an enormous collection of poems, correspondence, prayers, and speeches.

Yet, the magnitude of her stature could not detract from her life as a human. Queen Elizabeth argued with her suitors, sometimes over difficult issues that took months to resolve. Her emotional worries caused illnesses like headaches, and gave way to mental collapse. She suffered toothaches. Grief overcame her repeatedly. When her beloved companion the Lord of Leicester died, she locked herself in her quarters for days and came out when a nobleman took the liberty of breaking the door. Queen Elizabeth experienced regret for some political decisions, particularly the execution of her cousin Mary, Queen of Scots. Although Mary caused Elizabeth distress for many years and planned her murder, and although Elizabeth ordered the execution, Jenkins depicts how Mary’s execution caused Elizabeth to ‘‘burst into a passion of weeping such as she had never given way to in her life.’’

Queen Elizabeth rose above the limitations of her time to carve a place in history. Perhaps the rules of censorship illustrate this. Before her reign, rulers, governments, and the Church suddenly realized that the printed word could cause rebellion and dissent. Announcements against dissenting and rebellious books began in England under Henry VIII in 1529. In 1538, the Privy Council and other royal nominees licensed books for printing. The Star Chamber, a governmental court with authority to censor publications, regulated the English book trade. Censorship also controlled the theatre, plays, and performers.

As a writer, however, Elizabeth supported creative growth and enjoyed the printed word. Writers introduced poetry like the sonnet, Spenserian stanza, and dramatic blank verse. Shakespeare’s rousing dramas appeared on stage. A diversity of marvelous prose made its debut. Despite the fact that the civic authorities of London feared and discouraged creative growth, Queen Elizabeth enjoyed plays at court. With all its rules of censorship, the Elizabethan Era became known for its creative activity. The queen had diplomatically claimed her free will to enjoy the burgeoning creativity of the time.

Elizabeth governed England for forty-five years. ‘‘Towards the end of her life,’’ Abbott says in A History of Celibacy, ‘‘the virgin who had loved and been loved . . . flirted, teased, courted, quarreled . . . bade farewell to her greatest love . . . the English people.’’ According to Susan Bassnett in Elizabeth I: A Feminist Perspective, by the time of her death at the age of seventy, Elizabeth was heralded as a ‘‘rival to the Virgin Mary, as a second Queen of Earth and Heaven, as a woman more than mortal women.’’ Perhaps it’s symbolic that experts had to file off the Coronation ring she had worn for fortythree years.

The legacy of Queen Elizabeth lives on. Numerous biographies portray the Queen; some focus on the political achievements, others on her relationships with men, and still others offer insights into her life, each slant as unique as the queen herself. However, Elizabeth the Great receives rave reviews. As Richard Church explains in the Bookman, this ‘‘uncommonly beautiful’’ biography gets presented in ‘‘its colorful, savage, fastidious, filthy, exquisite, and wholly paradoxical distinction.’’

Jenkins’s sophistication in revealing sovereign relationships, religious mind-sets, and political complexities make it hard to settle into the pace of the details. The structure feels loosely woven as she discloses facts randomly to illustrate her points. However, Jenkins does a superb job in presenting the history. Once its pace gets underway, the book captivates readers. Jenkins ‘‘varies the pace of her narrative for the sake of maintaining interest,’’ says Charles Calder in the Dictionary of Literary Biography. Calder continues, Jenkins preserves ‘‘a sense of proportion in depicting relationships.’’

In the final analysis, Jenkins’s historical biography honors the beauty of the impressive Queen Elizabeth I. As a recognized classic and one of the first books to bring an all-encompassing view of this unique individual, it continues to bring the Elizabethan Era back to life.

Source: Michelle Prebilic, Critical Essay on Elizabeth the Great, in Nonfiction Classics for Students, The Gale Group, 2002.


Critical Overview