Elizabeth I: A Study in Insecurity

One of my favorite series of books right now is the Penguin Monarchs, an ongoing set of short biographies of (almost) every ruler of England since the tenth century. The series includes forty small, handsomely designed matching hardbacks with custom jacket art and, underneath, the relevant monarch’s signature embossed and gilded. The dynasties are color-coded in bands across the spines. No set of books could have been more carefully calculated to appeal to me. It’s a little short on the Anglo-Saxons and Danes—including only Athelstan, whose story is excellently retold by Tom Holland; Æthelred, a forthcoming volume by Richard Abels, a biographer of Alfred the Great; Cnut; and Edward the Confessor—but otherwise wonderful.

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The series has also interested me because the books are so short—90-120 pages maximum for the body of the text, with a few pages of endnotes or further reading and a small index. For some of these rulers, the relative dearth of sources lends itself to a terse, concise treatment. Despite the immense power he wielded, Cnut, for example, simply goes missing from the available historical record for years at a time, so that an honest biographer must pass over large parts of the man’s life in silence.

But for other monarchs, especially those nearer the present, the writers’ questions must be different: How do I get everything in? or, better, How do I get in enough to suggest the whole picture without leaving out so much that I do violence to the subject? which is really two interlocking concerns.

It’s a tricky balance, and I think of the eighteen volumes from the Penguin Monarchs I’ve read so far, none has managed it quite as well as Helen Castor’s Elizabeth I: A Study in Insecurity. In this brisk, elegantly written life, Castor covers all the major conflicts, events, and personalities of the queen’s life and reign, having taken as her organizing principle Elizabeth’s insecurity or, put another, slightly more psychological way, her anxiety. And justly so—Castor begins with the execution of Elizabeth’s mother, Anne Boleyn, shortly after Elizabeth’s birth.

When the present queen ascended the throne in 1952, prime minister Winston Churchill noted that she, “like her predecessor,” Elizabeth I, “did not pass her childhood in any certain expectation of the Crown.” Indeed, that is one of the attractions and points of interest of the lives of both women. But it’s an otherwise superficial parallel. Elizabeth I lost her mother to the axe on her own father’s orders when she was only three months old. Through her girlhood her father, his cronies, and parliament strove publicly to declare her legally a bastard and deprive her of the rights of succession. As a teenager she had to duck and weave through a series of political and religious upheavals, first one direction under her younger brother Edward, then another under her elder sister, the Catholic Queen Mary. She was, on top of everything, a woman in a world driven by men. By the time she came unexpectedly to the throne aged 25, she was already a veteran, a canny survivor, a hunted outsider, and she brought those instincts to a position of immense but tenuous power.

Castor takes these early circumstances and deftly builds a character study of an Elizabeth defined by her insecurities. Furthermore, she does so without resorting to cheap psychoanalysis, romanticism, or any more guesswork than necessary with such a famously reticent subject, a woman whose mottoes included Video et taceo—“I see and keep silent.” Elizabeth, as Castor depicts her, is both calculating and guarded; keenly, almost painfully conscious of public image and political theatre, which she uses to her own advantage and for her own survival; silent on her father’s role in her mother’s death, but willing to use his memory to shore up her power; alive to the dangers of suitors, rivals, fanatics like the Puritans among her own subjects, and larger predators like the King of Spain, and active in espionage to forearm against these threats; heavily reliant upon a tiny handful of totally trusted advisers for political advice, military intelligence, and emotional support; and cautious in the extreme, preferring procrastination and purposeful inertia to rash decision making. Not for nothing could she be painted calmly resting her hand on a globe while storms wreck Spanish fleets outside her window, or wearing a magnificently tailored dress with a coiled viper on her sleeve and her cape covered in eyes and ears—a powerful and deadly queen of spies.

Throughout Elizabeth I: A Study in Insecurity, Castor shows us these character traits in action, but in no crisis are they more pronounced than during the long imprisonment of Elizabeth’s cousin, Mary, Queen of Scots. For a book of this size, Castor gives a remarkably clear and understandable synopsis of the events that pitted these two women against each other, and when the fatal moment comes and Elizabeth signs Mary’s death warrant, the reader almost feels her desperation at having been forced into such a decision.

Castor handles all of this very well, but I would, perhaps, like to have seen more of a moral reckoning with Elizabeth’s execution of Mary beyond the quandary into which Elizabeth was forced. The Penguin Monarchs volume on her elder sister Mary points out that while she could have had Elizabeth executed as a threat, she did not, and that Elizabeth, though she hemmed and hawed, did not scruple to spare her cousin when the time came. That’s a striking contrast, and a potentially damaging one. I would also have liked to see more on Elizabeth’s preemptive invasion of Ireland and some of England’s early efforts at colonization in Virginia. But I would hate to see such a trim, carefully constructed narrative bogged down by extra side stories.

Otherwise, I have no complaints. This short biography is fast-paced, readable, well written, and insightful. It’s a model of the kind of historical writing Herbert Butterfield described in the quotation I shared recently: “The historian is never more himself than when he is searching his mind for a general statement that shall in itself give the hint of its own underlying complexity.” Elizabeth I: A Study in Insecurity, in under a hundred pages, gives the reader a real sense of the Tudor era’s complexity and danger and a sympathetic portrait of a sophisticated, secretive, and great queen. It’s magnificently done.

Do check it out if you can get ahold of it, and look into the other volumes of this excellent series.