The Queen’s Bed: An Intimate History of Elizabeth’s Court by Anna Whitelock

Queen Elizabeth I. The Virgin Queen. She…was…fascinating. Of course, she had a spectacular stage as the Queen of England from 1558 (when she was 25 years old) to 1603 (passing at the age of 70). And, she had quite memorable parents (Henry VII with his 6 wives & the lusty Anne Boleyn). England was a very powerful nation and constantly dancing politically with every other powerful European nation, while simultaneously establishing themselves in the ‘new world’. Virginia (named for the ‘virgin’ queen) was one of Queen Elizabeth’s claims.

queen-62969_1280

Now, I’m a details sort of gal. In my writing, I like to make sure you get the picture. I want the reader to feel like they are there, by thoroughly describing the surroundings and the senses procured from them. I’ve been reading histories about Queen Elizabeth’s reign since my interest was sparked as a kid, and though sometimes eloquent, they are often just the timeline of the facts. Anna Whitelock’s The Queen’s Bed: An Intimate History of Elizabeth’s Court however, is a treasure for anyone like me, those hungry for the details!

Now, hold your horses. This is not a book about Queen Elizabeth and secret hanky-panky as the words bed and intimate imply. Remember, Elizabeth was the Virgin Queen and as far as history can tell us, she was indeed a virtuous lady for all of her days, and a woman who never married. Whitelock’s title is a metaphor for the very epicenter of power…the Queen herself and her most inaccessible and protected domain wherever she went, her bedchamber.

queen-63008_1280

Imagine an onion. You peel it in layers. Every noble estate where the Queen stayed was the same. As you get further in, accessibility becomes even more difficult…until you get to the very room where the Queen slept, and only her Ladies of the Bedchamber were allowed. But it was more than where this woman dressed, ate and bathed…it was where her most incredible plots and plans were solidified. And when you look at the way this woman negotiated such a politically fierce world, and a very dangerous world, that room becomes the most brilliant stage of all.

Of course, Whitelock offers us a delicious entry into the intimate details of Elizabeth’s life: who attended her, what her toilette entailed, the fluctuating state of her health, her personal preferences, gifts that she received, how household accounting was figured, how much attendants were paid, insights into her personality, even the fragrances and sweets that she liked. Ah, the details…love it!!! But really, this is Whitelock’s brilliant and poetic way of helping us remember that this history, and any other, is not just timelines and the people in the story…those people were you and me, they had senses, they were human, they were real.

IMG_1574

This book helps us understand not just her routines, the Queen’s preferences and historic objects from the past, but also the stresses and strains put on a monarch, looming plagues and horrible diseases that we don’t even have names for today, constant assassination plots, threats of war at every turn. We understand what she feared and the fears of her people. I personally can’t believe she bore the stresses of guiding a nation for 45 years, and I’m in awe that she lived to be 70 when the average life expectancy was 42 years old. And there was a reason the expectancy was only 42 years; human fragility was far more obvious than it is today when you bring lack of medical advances into the picture. If you asked me if I’d like to go back in time and be one of Elizabeth’s noble courtiers, with all its fascinations, extravagances and intrigues; no thanks. Not without my 21st century hospital down the street. But I sure love to read about it!!!

My recommendation for this book: If you are already familiar with the reign of Queen Elizabeth I and the basic history surrounding her life, enjoy! If you have a fascination for the life details of people during that period but don’t necessarily care so much as to whether you fully grasp what was going on politically, then go for it. But if you aren’t familiar with Queen Elizabeth’s life and you really want the full experience, I’d say flip through one of those basic fact histories first to get the gist, as this book (though it offers select events to illustrate certain points) will really be most enjoyable if you know all that this woman was really going up against in the world outside.

Consider The Mask

For hundreds of years, the citizens of Venice wore masks. That statement sounds so simple, so natural, right? After all, it’s one of the images we associate with that city. It is intriguing, beautiful, mysterious…

mask-329576_1280

But after all of my research for my book Venice, and while currently reading Venice Incognito: Masks in the Serene Republic by James H. Johnson, I’ve realized how absolutely amazing, bizarre, intense and committed the notion of mask wearing in Venice really was.

carnival-411494_1280

Consider this…it’s Halloween, you pick out a disguise and you put it on for one evening to join in the fun when you hand out candy to the trick-or-treaters. What happens after about an hour? “Ugh, I can’t see in this thing. Ugh…this mask is making me hot. Ugh…I feel claustrophobic.”

Now imagine that you are an 18th century Venetian at a time when the Carnival season lasted for months. Every single time you stepped out in public, whether to shop for your vegetables or visit a friend, you covered your face in a mask. Whether a simple disguise for walking around town, or an incredibly intricate mask for an evening of palazzo entertainments, you always had a different identity plastered to your face, and you were anyone but yourself.

mask-573124_1280

People placed masks on their babies. Yes, it’s true. Beggars on the bridges who were going without food, wore a mask. It’s true. Everyone was masked. And when you mingled with the crowds, whether on the street or at a masquerade, if you recognized the voice or mannerisms of someone you met, you never said so. To bring someone’s identity to light was considered rude.

I’m fascinated from a communication standpoint, of what that might have really been like. An entire city masked for months (and a great portion of the city masked all the rest of the year as well during the great heights of this trend). How did your personality change when you put that mask on, and depending on which mask you put on? What was it like trying to discern the real message behind someone’s words when all you had was a faux face and a voice, with no facial expressions to evaluate? How did you know whether anyone was ever being themselves? It’s dizzying to think about.

mask-586530_1280

These masks weren’t all blank disguises. There were a great many designs and characters to choose from. Wouldn’t the mask someone selected mean something? But what? Who the wearer thought they were? Or, was it how they wanted others to see them? Or, were they choosing identities that were the very opposite of their true selves? All of the above. Tricky, tricky.

Some masks didn’t allow for speech at all, removing even more of one’s personal identity. Consider the Moretta mask that was worn only by women. For the Moretta (also called the Muta because you’d be mute), a woman put it over her face and instead of securing it in place with a ribbon around her head, held it to with a button in her mouth. Can you imagine? A button in your mouth for hours on end, in silence? Talk about “Ugh…I’m getting claustrophobic.”

These thoughts hardly even scratch the surface when I actually try to consider the reality of this mask culture. And though I would merrily embrace an evening at the Venetian Carnival in mask, and though researching this Venetian trend fascinates me, for all its beauty and intrigue, I personally prefer the truth of a human face…