September 2, 2011 5:05 pm

The Elizabethans

AN Wilson’s engaging history provides a view of an age that is so rich in incident, culture and discovery

When I look at the books shelved around my desk, I can see Sex in Elizabethan England, An Elizabethan Progress, The Cult of Elizabeth, Elizabeth’s London, Elizabeth’s Spymaster and even After Elizabeth – to name but a few of the thousands of books on Elizabeth I, many of them in the prevailing fashion of themed histories. Their specific and sometimes idiosyncratic focus illustrates the question that this new history by AN Wilson posed me: do we really need a general overview of the reign of Elizabeth at all? Between the thorough and famous biographies and these narrow themed studies, is there any value in a new book that tries to cover a reign that lasted 45 years?

If we do need such a book then The Elizabethans is undoubtedly it. The author, well known for his magisterial overview of the Victorian period, works steadily through Elizabeth’s reign in four chronological sections with engaging themes such as “Men in Power” and “Hakluyt and Empire”. By the end the reader has a solid view of most events and a good idea of their relative importance. Inevitably, it will strike the reader as sometimes too detailed and sometimes too broad-brush.

The England Wilson describes is one of perennial fascination to readers of both history and fiction. It continues to draw scholars because this is where modern Britain was forged; we can see ourselves in the past. Wilson captures this particularly well in his description of the doomed struggle to dominate Ireland and in his understanding of the progress of the Reformation in England. His section on the Armada is a detailed analysis of the sea battle and also how Elizabeth and her advisers deployed the propaganda victory on land. Wilson is keenly aware of the way that the significance of the event has changed in modern times: once seen as a religious conflict between two world powers, both intent on empire, it is now often viewed as a tragedy caused by misplaced ambition, wind and weather, with emphasis on the common sailors and their suffering.

Staunchly, Wilson restates the patriotic view: “however unfashionable nationalism and Protestantism might have become, the defeat of the Spanish Armada was an event of supreme historical consequence.”

The section “Elizabethan Women” is perhaps the weakest. Wilson acknowledges the traditional bias against women historians and women as subjects of history but does not consider recent feminist works looking at women’s experience in Tudor England. His brief examination of Elizabeth’s scholarship mentions her tutor Roger Ascham but not his wife and editor, does not cite Elizabeth’s own writing, and ignores her scholarly stepmother Katherine Parr – the first woman to publish in England. There is no mention of the linguist Lady Ann Bacon; Anne Lock, who published the first sonnet sequence in English; Isabella Whitney, one of the first professional women writers in Europe; the radical poet Aemilia Lanyer; or Mary Sidney Herbert (sister of Sir Philip Sidney), who created a literary circle that included her niece, the poet and novelist Mary Wroth, and Elizabeth Cary, the first woman playwright in English.

Instead Wilson moves swiftly into Elizabethan marriage, arriving at Bess of Hardwick, the squire’s daughter who rose to be Countess of Shrewsbury. Hardwick was the wealthiest woman in England after Elizabeth herself, building her fortune by means of four brilliant marriages and an acute brain for business.

After a detour into Elizabethan architecture, Wilson returns to the subject of women at the end of the section with a report by an abused wife of a vicious beating. Her husband, Dethick, had knocked her down into the fireplace, put a coal scuttle on her head and poured the contents of a chamber pot over her. “That Dethick’s mother was present during this appalling scene adds, for the reader (though not for the unfortunate Mary Hart) to its grotesque comedy.” It was not comical for this reader. As Wilson says earlier, “it is only fairly recently that we have become accustomed to imagine what life was like for the female population”: clearly this empathic approach still has some distance to go.

The author has one odd habit that might prove popular with some readers but drove this one utterly mad: he references towns of Elizabethan England with their modern celebrity MPs. Thus we have: “the vicar of Huyton (later in history, Harold Wilson’s parliamentary constituency) was found using holy water ...” Or: “At Sedgefield, for example (later Tony Blair’s parliamentary constituency) they re-erected the stone altar in the church.”

This is a book written in the style of Wilson’s enormously successful The Victorians and will give pleasure to people who like a general overview history of a period. Much of what they read will probably be familiar, some of it feels dated in source and in style. The Elizabethan age is so long, so chaotic, so contradictory, so rich in incident, culture and discovery, that perhaps no general overview could do it justice. But for those who are content to revisit some well-known scenes and also encounter some surprises, there is much to treasure.

Philippa Gregory is author of ‘The Lady of the Rivers’ (Simon & Schuster)

The Elizabethans, by AN Wilson, Hutchinson, RRP£25, 432 pages

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