9 October 2019

Guest Post by David Field, Author of The Queen In Waiting: Mary Tudor takes the throne

Available for pre-order from Amazon UK

Mary Tudor has claimed her sovereignty. But she remains conscious that her Council had briefly preferred another — her cousin, the Lady Jane Grey — and at the age of thirty-seven, unmarried and childless, she looks fearfully at the natural beauty and popularity of her nineteen-year-old half-sister Elizabeth.

In search of ‘Gloriana’

When I began plotting out the final two novels in my six-volume Tudor series (A Queen in Waiting, about Elizabeth Tudor’s early years, and The Heart of a King, about her forty odd years on the throne) I found myself pinned against the same wall that all authors experience when writing about the more famous of our former monarchs – what might be described as ‘image overkill’.

Certain of those who ruled England in their time (for example, Elizabeth’s father Henry VIII, and before him Richard III, Henry V and Richard the Lionheart) had a public relations team who left behind a one-sided but vivid ‘take’ on their subject that has survived to this day, and has become the orthodox version that is taught in schools. This poses a definite challenge to historical writers like me, whose readers will suffer from what psychologists call ‘counter-intuition’ if you try to sell them something else. But if you don’t – if you simply trot out the same character that everyone’s all too familiar with - then it’s about as exciting as last week’s weather report.

Our accepted mental picture of Elizabeth 1st is of a self-assured, physically beautiful, occasionally stern, but courageous and competent ruler who was adored by all her subjects. She was Spenser’s ‘Faerie Queene’, the people’s ‘Gloriana’, a sort of reincarnation of Boudicca dressed in her late father’s battle armour addressing her troops at Tilbury. But examine the facts more closely, peep behind the ‘fake news’ curtain, and think again.

Before she was even three years old, her mother was executed on the order of her father. The same loving father who had her declared a bastard, and sent her to live in Hatfield House, a day’s ride from London, under the resentful eye of her much older half sister Mary. Not an auspicious start by anyone’s benchmark, but it was to get worse when their half brother Edward VI died, and Mary became Queen at the age of 37. Elizabeth was a mere 19, and already under suspicion of having maintained a far from chaste relationship with Thomas Seymour.

Mary was nothing if not paranoid, and Elizabeth was everything Mary was not – young, tall, physically attractive, charismatic – and probably fertile. She was also Protestant, and fell under immediate suspicion of complicity in the Wyatt Rebellion against Mary’s marriage to King Philip of Spain. There then followed, on the order of her half-sister, a period of imprisonment in the Tower, followed by house arrest in a medieval ruin in Oxfordshire. Then, aged 25, she was advised that she had become Queen of England on the death of Mary.

What life skills could she possibly have brought to the job, given that background? Since long before her accession she had relied on a few trusted advisers, and they were now the power behind the throne. Chief among these was William Cecil, Secretary of State, who was her policy adviser, personal counsellor, friend, public relations consultant – and, might it be suggested, the father she never had?

Where would England have been without Cecil? Every achievement that was chalked up to Elizabeth was in fact the outcome of Cecil’s wise and sympathetic counsel. Without him, one trembles to think what England would have become, to judge by the few events during her reign in which Elizabeth’s stubborn determination won the day. Elizabeth didn’t defeat the Spanish Armada – Howard, Drake, Hawkins and Frobisher did, despite Elizabeth.

Not only was she so tight-fisted that her navy was denied adequate ordinance, even when the Armada was in the Channel approaches, but her lack of compassion for those who lost limbs and eyesight in the defence of her realm resulted in bands of ‘sturdy beggars’ roaming the country seeking alms to keep body and soul together. Even her famous Tilbury performance was at the suggestion of her lifelong friend and adviser Robert Dudley.

Likewise, had it been left to Elizabeth, Mary Queen of Scots would never have been executed. The popular version of events surrounding the demise of this romantic (dare I say ‘promiscuous’?) rival to Elizabeth’s crown has Elizabeth as a stern and vengeful nemesis who had Mary beheaded (badly, as it turned out, which only added to the poignant drama). The reality was that Elizabeth was reluctant to set a precedent for the execution of a queen, and only signed the death warrant in exchange for an assurance that it would not be employed until she said so. It was in fact done behind her back, and her angst at this betrayal is a matter of public record.

And what of Elizabeth’s much vaunted virginal status? Being unmarried is not the same thing as being celibate, but her frequently boasted assertion that she was married to her people was in reality an admission of her fear of marriage. After what it had meant for her mother, followed by her father’s series of disastrous marriages, sister Mary’s political blunder in marrying the ruler of England’s most dangerous foe, and the tragic betrayal of Mary Stuart by first Darnley, then Bothwell, who can blame Elizabeth if marriage didn’t seem to her to be quite the blessed state that others tried to assure her it was?

But given her naturally hot-blooded and somewhat impulsive nature (and she was descended from two parents who had possessed these qualities in spades) is it really likely that she went to her grave a virgin? The rumours ran riot through the Court regarding the unhealthy proximity of her bedchamber to that of Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, and even the version of events that was allowed by Cecil did not seek to deny Elizabeth’s love for her lifelong companion. Elizabeth did nothing to negate the suspicions when she gave orders, on her deathbed, that no physician was to examine her corpse – what was she hiding, in a final smoke and mirrors exercise?

Then there was her fabled beauty. Few of her subjects ever set eyes upon her, but were content to swallow the glamorous stories they were fed regarding her physical allure. They also basked in the peace and prosperity with which England was blessed during her reign, and had little idea of where the credit lay for that. However, her Ladies could have told a different story, had they dared.

Smallpox had left Elizabeth with facial pits that were smeared over with ‘Venetian Ceruse’ a lead-based whitewash that she succeeded in making fashionable, and which accounts for the images we have of Elizabeth resembling a badly advised circus clown. Her love of sweet treats left her with rotting teeth and a halitosis that was obvious from several feet away, while her luxuriantly long red hair was a wig, under which clumps of white clung stubbornly to her scalp as time progressed. As for her body, being tall is a desirable look when there are youthful curves to drape over the height, but not when the wrinkles and creases take over, as they did in her later years. Later years that reaped the consequences of all that lead, in the form of mental decline.

It was not just natural modesty that closed her bedchamber to all but the most intimate of her entourage as Elizabeth slipped into a carefully concealed dementia in which periods of silent concentration on the wall in front of her were interspersed with muttered ramblings. Cecil’s son Robert had taken over guru duties, and to the very end was pleading with her to name her successor, while working behind the scenes to ensure that it would be James VI of Scotland.

If you have persevered with this blog to the end, muttering words such as ‘misogynist’ and ‘traitor’, then you are probably experiencing counter-intuition. Unlike those who were there at the time, I have not overlooked or downplayed any inconvenient truths. By all means make a studied point of not reading my two novels on the subject of ‘Good Queen Bess’, but at least concede that there are two ways of looking at propaganda. More importantly, recognising it for what it was.

I finished up experiencing considerable admiration – even affection – for the brave young Queen who rode through all the hardships to leave England believing in itself again. I hope it shines out in what I’ve written.

David Field

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About the Author

David Field was born in post-war Nottingham, and educated at Nottingham High School. After obtaining a Law degree he became a career-long criminal law practitioner and academic, emigrating in 1989 to Australia, where he still lives.  Combining his two great loves of History and the English language he began writing historical novels as an escape from the realities of life in the criminal law, but did not begin to publish them until close to full time retirement, when digital publishing offered a viable alternative to literary agencies, print publishers and rejection slips. Now blessed with all the time in the world, his former hobby has become a full time occupation as he enjoys life in rural New South Wales with his wife, sons and grandchildren to keep him firmly grounded in the reality of the contemporary world. Find out more at David's website https://davidfieldauthor.com/ and follow him on Facebook 

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