Serving QEI …Intimate Details from Whitelock’s “The Queen’s Bed”

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THE last Tudor bed in existence, made to mark Henry VII’s accession to the throne. This 527-year-old Paradise State Bed of Henry VII and Elizabeth of York was rediscovered in 2010. Henry Tudor, who became Henry VII, defeated Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth Field to take the English throne and found the Tudor dynasty. The Paradise State Bed is an unrivalled masterpiece of 15th Century oak carving which was commissioned almost immediately after Henry VII was crowned to celebrate his marriage to Elizabeth of York and the end of the War of the Roses.

Once she finally ascended to the English throne in 1558, Elizabeth I’s opulent lifestyle was in stark contrast to most of her early life.  “The Queen’s Bed: An Intimate History of Elizabeth’s Court” by Anna Whitelock details what it really took to be “Queen Elizabeth” on a material, and perhaps on an emotional level.  Elizabeth was never alone, even asleep there was always someone in her room, even sharing those fantastic beds described in the book:

“... At Richmond Palace, Elizabeth might sleep in an elaborate boat-shaped bed with curtains of ‘sea-water green’ and quilted with light brown tinsel.  At Whitehall her bed was made from an intricate blend of different colored woods and hung with Indian-painted silk.  Her best bed, which was taken with her when the court moved from place to place, had a carved wooden frame which was elaborately painted and gilded, a valance of silver and velvet, tapestry curtains trimmed with precious buttons and gold and silver lace, and a crimson satin headboard topped with ostrich feathers.”

So much has been written about the life and times, love affairs and political maneuvers of Elizabeth I. Yet only a few books have approached Gloriana’s life from the behind the façade she presented to the world. Anna Whitelock succeeds in giving us Elizabeth with her best friends and confidantes. These women surrounded her and applied the make-up, gowns, and jewels each day to take her from mere mortal to dazzling queen. They served her well, kept her secrets, and did what good friends do: work on our behalf. There were even a few, like Kat Ashley and Dorothy Bradbelt, who politicked to help marry the queen. And others, who loaned Elizabeth their maid’s clothing or had private dinners so she could be with Lord Robert Dudley.  Whitelock reveals an Elizabeth who is in turns vulnerable, loving, inconstant, and even quite spiteful.

Elizabeth did a better job than anyone before her, and arguably after her, in creating a brand that even in her day became iconic and magical – which was of course the point. Against the backdrop of assassination attempts, marriage suitors, court scandals, favorites and power politics, Whitelock’s details of Elizabeth’s life do not get lost in the larger themes of Elizabeth’s reign but rather enhance our understanding this great queen and her Court.

A quick visit to the author’s website tells me that the BBC has optioned this book for a possible TV series, which would if done well would be terrific.  And let’s agree that the BBC does this type of program really well.  Bring it!

History Lady Review of Margaret George’s Elizabeth I 

Compelling “what if” novel about the son Anne Boleyn might have had…

What if Anne Boleyn's son had lived?

What if Anne Boleyn’s son had lived?

What if Anne Boleyn had not miscarried of her son and savior in the winter of 1536 and instead had given Henry VIII the son and heir for whom he was so desperate? Laura Andersen has written her first novel  in the Anne Boleyn Trilogy, “The Boleyn King” based on the tantalizing premise that Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn had a son named William who lived to become King of England. She creates an England that will still be familiar to Tudor-era fans, one with religious divisions, pretenders to the throne, the threat of Spanish invasion and territorial ambitions in France.The heart of the novel is not Will Tudor but Minuette Wyatt, born the same hour and day as Will and raised as a ward of Dowager Queen Anne (Boleyn). The novel begins with Minuette joining the court in the household of her good friend, Princess Elizabeth. The two of them, together with Will and his best friend Dominic Courtney, are a tight-knit group; the only people they trust are each other. But the friendships are tested by war, a romantic love triangle, and a plot to overthrow Will and place his Catholic sister Mary Tudor on the throne. This was a surprising gem and a thoroughly enjoyable read. I like my historical novels to be accurate, so I did not expect to like a novel that rewrites history, but it is always so hard to read Anne Boleyn’s story without wishing it had a happier ending.  Andersen has given Anne Boleyn fans the happy ending we desire, with a cast of likeable new characters like Minuette, Will, and Dominic, who blend with well-known historical figures like Elizabeth, Robert Dudley, Mary Tudor and the Norfolk family.

This review was first published by the Historical Novel Society in the Historical Novel Review.

“Anonymous” Suspends Belief

Portrait of Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxfor...

Edward De Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford

Before I went to see Roland Emmerich‘s “Anonymous” I did a bit of research on the film’s premise, which is that Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford was the author of Shakespeare’s plays.  Indeed, there exists a whole De Vere  Society going back some 200 years whose members believe Shakespeare was a fake, apparently Shakespearean actor Kenneth Branagh among them.  Who really knows?  Feeling comfortable about the movie’s premise—from an historically plausible sense, off I went this afternoon, on my own (because some people who I’ll refrain from mentioning refused to join me based on the NY Times movie review).   The NYT called the film “a vulgar prank on the English literary tradition, a travesty of British history and a brutal insult to the human imagination.”  I won’t go that far, but I did start muttering “what tosh” not far into the film.

On many levels, the movie is excellent theatre. I expect to see Academy Award nominations for set, costume design, and make-up, most of which was extremely accurate to the period.  The acting was very good—Rhys Ifans stands out as De Vere and erased from my memory (almost, some things are too funny to forget) his tour de force performance in “Notting Hill” as the goofy Welsh roommate.  I enjoyed both Redgraves, Vanessa and daughter Joely Richardson, as Elizabeth I, and I got a kick out of Shakespeare’s cockney accent and slang (which, given he was from Stratford-upon-Avon he would not have had, but details!).  David Thewlis makes an excellent William Cecil.  Jamie Campbell Bower does a creditable job as the young De Vere—much better than his work in the mini-series “Camelot.” But why was the most excellent Shakespearean actor Derek Jacobi given a bit part?  I’ve seen Jacobi as Richard III (front row seat, she bragged) and having him introduce the film and disappear until the end was a giant tease.

Then there’s the plot—ah, there’s the rub.  Let me first say something nice.  What writer Christopher Orloff did well, and which I have not seen in other historical films, was to set up the Cecils pere et fils (William, Lord Burghley and Robert) as the villains of the piece, pursuing fanatical Puritanism at the expense of arts and culture.  Knowing something of how William Cecil plotted the downfall of Mary, Queen of Scots, I could buy this.  The film also did a nice job of portraying the real animosity that existed between Robert Cecil and the Earls of Essex and Oxford.  Orloff ‘s Cecils are master playwrights, and everyone, even Queen Elizabeth, are merely actors on the stage that is England.

Much of it was historically accurate.  Most of Edward De Vere’s life—including  killing a member of Burghley’s household–was true, as was De Vere’s estrangement from his wife.  Essex’s rebellion was fairly accurate, though the role of the play in his downfall—which was actually Richard II not Richard III—was overstated.

If they’d only sailed closer to historical winds of fact, this would have been a great film, especially for 16th C history aficionados. But, Orloff took some, er, creative license, that had me squirming in my seat through much of the movie.  The Earl of Essex AND the Earl of Southampton were Elizabeth’s children—Southampton her child by the Earl of Oxford, who was ALSO Elizabeth son.  Now, I’m sorry, but I could take one fictionalized bastard of Elizabeth I—many a good historical fiction novel was published about the rumor she had a child.  But three, and one the product of incest? This is where belief is suspended and fantasy fiction takes over. Elizabeth might as well have been a shape-shifter or a werewolf.  I do hate it when facts are flung out the window, because so many people will watch the film and believe Elizabeth did have multiple children and an incestuous relationship.  Hollywood. *Sigh*

I did enjoy the movie, although if it had stuck to its premise and worked a bit harder to be believable, it could have been a great film.  Was De Vere the “real” Shakespeare?  If, after seeing the film, you’re curious to learn more, head to the De Vere Society. But if you think it is bunk, then here are a few NY Times articles (“Hollywood Dishonors the Bard” and  “Wouldn’t It Be Cool if Shakespeare Wasn’t Shakespeare“) as grist for your mill.  In contrast, the UK’s Guardian review was much kinder.

Review: “Elizabeth I” by Margaret George is a Thoughtful Novel

Margaret George’s latest novel, Elizabeth I, is not a book that could have been conceived of, or written by, a young woman.  George’s insight and understanding of what it is to grow old (according to Wikipedia she is 68 years old) is what sets this novel, which focuses on the last thirty years of Elizabeth’s life, apart from the several hundred others about her (at least 50 of which are in print as I write) because you have to be aware of your own mortality to understand it enough to write about it.

The book opens with England facing invasion from the Spanish Armada.  The battle is inevitable, and Elizabeth is prepared.  This Elizabeth really is married to England, and you feel this throughout the novel. When Elizabeth narrates, the voice is regal.  Physically, she’s suffering through hot flashes, aching bones and is a bit forgetful, but she keeps the “show” alive—fantastical dresses, amazing jewels, and pageantry.  She’s wise—she’s the sum of life experiences about her legitimacy, scandalous affairs (Thomas Seymour, Robert Dudley), rebellion and Reformation and war with Spain.  She is old, burying her closest confidantes – Robert Dudley, Blanche Parry, William Cecil, Henry Carey, Francis Walsingham—and realizes she’s next.

Many authors paint Elizabeth as the vain, older woman who believed in a love affair with Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex, a much younger man—but George’s Elizabeth is smarter than that.  She sees Essex for the egotistical man he is, tolerates his foibles and failings, seeing him as harmless until it is nearly too late and he mounts a credible rebellion.

Because few authors have focused on the last years of Elizabeth’s reign, not many realize the challenges she faced at home and abroad.  She dealt with poverty and famine and continued religious strife between Catholics, Protestants and Puritans, rebellion from the Earl of Essex and of course, death.  Abroad, she faced down the might of Spain, quashed rebellion in Ireland, and founded colonies in Virginia.

So many books about Elizabeth revolve around the love story between her and Robert Dudley.  This is not that kind of novel—it is a thoughtful book, not a love story—unless you consider it a love story between Elizabeth and England.   And, though it took me a while to make up my mind, I like this Elizabeth who is more disciplined, less romantic than most portrayals.

The novel is narrated in two voices:  Elizabeth’s—regal, sometimes cynical, always shrewd; and the more earthy, sensual and desperately ambitious voice of her cousin, Lettice Knollys (granddaughter of Mary Boleyn).  Lettice is Elizabeth’s alter ego—she is the sum of choices Elizabeth did not make, i.e., to be a wife, mother and lover.   Her promiscuity stands in sharp contrast to Elizabeth’s virginity.  She looks like the Queen, only younger and still attractive enough to attract Elizabeth’s long-time love, Robert Dudley, and when the two marry Elizabeth banishes them from court, but Lettice craves reinstatement—missing the limelight and boisterous court life.  Lettice pins her hopes for reinstatement at Court on her beautiful, gifted but rash son Robert Devereaux, Earl of Essex.  Those hopes end with third husband and her son being executed.  I can’t say I liked Lettice very much, but as a foil, almost a doppelgänger to Elizabeth, her character is perfect.

I’ve now read most of Margaret George’s novels and this one ranks up there with The Autobiography of Henry VIII and Mary, Queen of Scotland and the Isles as a favorite.  I read this book twice, and liked it even more the second time, when I understood the plot and could follow the depth and nuances George brings to her characters. It is beautifully researched, evocatively written and a satisfying, thoughtful read.  Like Elizabeth, and George, I’m not getting any younger, and I appreciate a novel that celebrates the older woman and mighty Queen Elizabeth became.

Confession: It was this book that sent me to an e-reader (after I got my autographed hardcover copy from Margaret George). At 688 pages, it is a heavy read – I did not mind the length as much as the weight! When I heard George speak about the book at a reading she talked about how her editors always want her to write shorter novels, but she says she cannot seem to! Perhaps it is because she researches her subject so thoroughly that it is hard to leave anything on the cutting room floor.

Elizabeth I: A Novel by Margaret George was published in April 2011 by Viking