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 

Rich characters, great plot – Gregory’s “The White Princess” is riveting

One of Gregory's best!

One of Gregory’s best!

So good it trumps my all-time Gregory favorite, The Other Boleyn Girl!  The White Princess is Philippa Gregory’s latest novel in Cousins’ War series. Unquestionably her best book yet.  It is fantastic—full of flawed characters you love to hate, quietly heroic characters you’ll alternately cheer and mourn for, and plot twists that will keep you reading well into the night.  You won’t want to put it down.  I read it over two days and was disappointed to reach the end because I was so invested in the characters and immersed in the storyline.  I’ve said it in my other reviews of Gregory’s novels, and I’ll say it again, she excels in the “what if” that lies between the facts of historical record.  It may not always make for an 100% historically accurate novel, but damn! it does make for some juicy plots.The White Princess is, of course, Elizabeth of York, eldest daughter of Edward IV.   Elizabeth of York is often portrayed as a quiet, motherly figure who lived harmoniously with Henry VII.  Gregory gives us another, deeper and richly satisfying portrayal of a young woman at the epicenter of upheaval in English history whose marital life was anything but comfortable.

This is her story, told from her point of view. Elizabeth’s world is full of conflicts and complications.  On the one hand, Henry VII gains the throne, restores her legitimacy and offers marriage.  On the other hand, he’s killed her Uncle, lover and King Richard III, treats her as no better than a tavern whore as the spoils of war and whatever legitimacy she recovers comes behind his all-seeing, all-plotting mother Margaret Beaufort.   The novel opens with Elizabeth mourning Richard in her heart, but outwardly appearing happy and content with the new regime.  This is a tough act to carry out and Elizabeth of York displays the rigid self-control that carries her through the novel, even on the day Edward of Warwick and her brother Richard are executed.   At times, her self-control fails her and sparks fly between her and Henry VII behind the bedchamber door, which shows how raw and real her emotions truly are.   (I though about the late Diana, Princess of Wales as I wrote this.  She was another princess who always looked happy and glamorous to the public but in private had a tempestuous marriage and life.)

Margaret Beaufort is a fabulous villain, a religious fanatic obsessed with carrying out her interpretation of God’s Will.  But she is well-matched in plotting by Elizabeth’s mother, the former White Queen Elizabeth Woodville, who hope a new son of York will rise to challenge Henry and supports several plots to overthrown the Tudor regime.  I loved this Elizabeth Woodville even more than I did in Gregory’s novel about her – The White Queen.  Admittedly I read it a long time ago now, but I feel like this Elizabeth is even Machiavellian.

Henry VII was not a wildly popular king and there were several challenge to his throne from the York camp, the most significant of which was from someone claiming to be Richard, Duke of York.  Gregory poignantly portrays the conflicting emotions Elizabeth would have felt, hoping her brother was alive, wanting to support York – but having to support her husband’s cause because her children are Tudors.  To tell you more would be to spoil it.  Gregory has now spent years with the Plantagenets and it shows in up in tight plots, and characters so vivid, so real and convincing that I carried them with me after I reached the end of the book.

Loved, loved this book.  Am now eagerly awaiting “The White Queen” TV series, which begins airing in the US on 10 August (Starz).

Here my reviews of other novels in the series:

“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.