Thursday, September 13, 2007

Book review: Elizabeth and Leicester

Marian Jane Williams reviews Elizabeth and Leicester by Sarah Gristwood, published by Bantam Press, £20

History, for some, is a dry dusty subject to be tolerated at school and immediately forgotten when freed from the grips of education. But history as told by Sarah Gristwood is a most enjoyable and intriguing lesson.

I would guess that many people are familiar with the life and times of Elizabeth I; if not from study at school then certainly from the many film and TV productions which seem to abound, and her story and place in history is assured. But the story of Leicester and his place is less well known. Gristwood’s portrait of these two leading characters of the day is an enthralling account of their shared experiences, their love and respect for one another, and the power they wielded in a time of political intrigue and religious unrest.

Elizabeth and Leicester grew up in the turbulent court of Henry VIII with its attendant gossip, scandal and intrigue. Both were imprisoned in the Tower by Elizabeth’s sister Mary and both shared the new Protestant religion. When Elizabeth became Queen her obvious infatuation with the tall, attractive Robert Dudley (as he was then) led to a deepening of their relationship and this scandalised many, at home and abroad, because Dudley was a married man. When, two years later, his wife died in somewhat suspicious circumstances, rumours were rife but it was assumed by most, if not all, that they would marry. Instead they formed a life long working partnership and a mutual affection and dependency which, like most relationships, had its own ups and downs.

Of all the many manoeuvre s and incidents of Elizabeth’s long reign perhaps the two most abiding ones were her love for Leicester and her long imprisonment and eventual beheading of Mary Queen of Scots. But the most intriguing one of all is her relationship to Leicester and the eternal question which was first mooted while they were alive and which has fascinated people ever since. Did they or didn’t they consummate their love? And was she really a Virgin Queen? Here was a passionate and vain woman who was in the unusual position of holding all the instruments of power in their relationship. Of this alone we can be certain.

Gristwoods’ history deals with these questions and others in extraordinary and vivid detail and gives thought-provoking insight into their lives and their desires.
This is a history book that is in turn entertaining and compelling, and brings long dead, wonderful characters to glorious life once again.

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