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.
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.
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.
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.