Elizabeth: Renaissance Prince

Elizabeth: Renaissance Prince

by Lisa Hilton


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“Game-changing . . . How history should be written.” — Andrew Roberts, author of Napoleon: A Life

[An] ambitious re-examination of the intersection of gender and monarchy.” — New York Times Book Review

Queen Elizabeth I was all too happy to play on courtly conventions of gender when it suited her “weak and feeble woman’s body” to do so for political gain. But in Elizabeth, historian Lisa Hilton offers ample evidence why those famous words should not be taken at face value. With new research out of France, Italy, Russia, and Turkey, Hilton’s fresh interpretation is of a queen who saw herself primarily as a Renaissance prince—an expert in Machiavellian statecraft. 

Elizabeth depicts a queen who was much less constrained by her femininity than most accounts claim, challenging readers to reassess Elizabeth’s reign and the colorful drama and intrigue to which it is always linked. It’s a fascinating journey that shows how a marginalized newly crowned queen, whose European contemporaries considered her to be the illegitimate ruler of a pariah nation, ultimately adapted to become England’s first recognizably modern head of state.
“Hilton transforms an irreverent, centuries-old vision of a ‘bewigged farthingale with a mysterious sex life’ into a resolute, steel-spined survivor who far surpassed Henry VII’s wildest hopes for his new dynasty.” —
Publishers Weekly

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780544811911
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication date: 11/08/2016
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 416
Sales rank: 792,783
Product dimensions: 5.31(w) x 8.00(h) x 1.05(d)

About the Author

LISA HILTON is the acclaimed author of Athénaïs, Mistress Peachum’s Pleasure, Queens Consort, and The Horror of Love. She is also the author of three novels, the best-selling Wolves in Winter,The House with Blue Shutters, and The Stolen Queen.

Read an Excerpt


WHEN THE INFANT Princess Elizabeth awoke in her nursery on 20 May 1536, the landscape of her childhood was imperceptibly but irrevocably changed. Her mother, Queen Anne, had died the previous morning in the Tower precincts, her head struck from her body by the dancing blade of a French swordsman imported from Calais for the task. So many corpses, so many ghosts. Elizabeth's path to the throne was littered with 150 years' worth of bodies. Since 1400, when the two strands of the great Plantagenet dynasty which had ruled England since 1154 divided and turned against one another, the preoccupation of the English crown had been heirs. The childless Richard II (with whom Elizabeth was later to identify herself) lost his throne to Henry Bolingbroke, subsequently Henry IV. The death of his son Henry V, the second Lancastrian king, in 1422, left the nation under the nominal leadership of a tiny baby, inaugurating the second phase of the Wars of the Roses, the dynastic conflict which dominated English politics until Henry Tudor seized the throne from Richard III in 1485. With Henry's accession and celebrated reunion of the two strands of the dynasty in his marriage to Elizabeth of York, the succession seemed assured, though it passed to another Duke of York, Henry VIII, rather than his elder brother, Arthur, Prince of Wales. It was hardly surprising, given this legacy of treachery, death, and devastating insecurity that when Henry married his brother's widow, Katherine of Aragon, he should have been even more concerned than his ancestors with the getting of a male heir, yet this was the one thing which, in his view, God denied him. Henry's struggles to release himself from his first marriage and wed Elizabeth's mother, Anne, precipitated the greatest confessional schism Europe had yet seen and set England on the course to Protestant isolation which became such a self-declared part of the emerging nationalist identity of his daughter's state.

Elizabeth was the product of that schism, and for two years, officially at least, she was his petted darling, the first child of that godly marriage which would people the courts of Europe with Tudor blood. Yet on 20 May 1536, all the small certainties of her world were severed. Historians have been arguing ever since about the effect this had on Elizabeth, but we cannot know how and when the two-year-old girl was informed of her mother's death or what her reaction was. This has not prevented generations of writers from imaginatively constructing the consequences of Elizabeth's loss, but statements such as "Unresolved grief continued through Elizabeth's childhood ... for Anne Boleyn's name could not be mentioned without provoking a fearful reaction from Henry VIII. Such a situation often leads to excessive mourning reactions on occasions of loss and later melancholia," are merely speculative and without authority, though not uninteresting. That Elizabeth was nurturing a secret guilt at having fulfilled the desire of her Electra complex (the killing of her mother), that she was traumatized into evading marriage in later life, that she promoted a cult of her virginity in order to compensate for her inadequacy as a woman, that she needed to dominate and control those around her, have all been confidently and speciously attributed to the scars left by her mother's execution. That Anne's death had some effect on her daughter is reasonable; we simply do not know what that effect was, even if Elizabeth herself did.

This is not to say that Anne was not influential in her daughter's life. Her trial, her execution, and the dissolution of her marriage invested her absence with a form of negative capability — an absence which has been understood as haunting her daughter's life ever after. Two weeks before her death, the queen had written to Henry, begging him not to punish their daughter in his resentment against her, a plea which, given the declared illegality of their marriage, Henry had no choice but to ignore: the most significant aspect of Anne's legacy to Elizabeth was the ambiguous status of her birth, the stain of illegitimacy which was to dog her well beyond her eventual accession to the throne. The comment of Elizabeth's governess, Lady Bryan, on the sudden alteration in Elizabeth's status — "As my lady Elizabeth is put from the degree she was in, and what degree she is at now I know not but by hearsay, I know not how to order her or myself" — summed up a confusion which spread from the royal nursery across the courts of Europe. There was not one moment of Elizabeth's entire life during which her status was unequivocally accepted. So while we can only surmise Elizabeth's feelings towards Anne from a (very) limited record of her actions, Elizabeth's refusal to accept her bastard status did at times invoke her mother, though in a symbolic or legalistic, rather than an emotional, fashion.

The very circumstances of Elizabeth's birth have proved cause for debate. Was she "the most unwelcome royal daughter in English history" or the confirmation of God's blessing on a controversial marriage which both parents nevertheless confidently believed, in 1533, would go on to produce sons? On 26 August of that year, Anne had formally "taken to her chamber" at Greenwich to await the birth of her child, in a ceremony which closely followed that set out in the Ryalle Book for the delivery of Henry's mother, Elizabeth of York. Elizabeth's room had been decorated in blue arras cloth and gold fleur-de-lis, because any more complex decorative scheme was considered, according to the protocol, as "not convenient about Women in such case." Anne selected tapestries featuring the story of Saint Ursula and the eleven thousand virgins, a prescient choice, while her bed, fitted with feather pillows and a crimson cover finished with ermine and gold edging, followed the model of her late mother-in-law. The bed was ceremonial as much as practical, functioning as a semi-throne, surmounted with a canopy of state embroidered with the crowns and arms of the royal couple. A pallet at the foot of the bed served for daytime use, and for the labor itself when the time came. Again following the precedent of fifteenth-century queens, the birthing chamber was furnished with two cradles, one upholstered and gilded to match the state bed, the second more simply carved in wood. The chamber also contained an altar and closet for Anne's devotions. After hearing Mass, Anne entertained the court (though not the king) in her Great Chamber, where she was served with wine and spices as she had been at her coronation. Then she retired with her women to remain enclosed until the birth. The birthing chamber was a powerful feminine space, a reliquary of sacred mystery. This still entirely feminine world, where all the roles of the queen's household were taken by women, became the tense, beating heart of the court. As Anne waited out the long weeks in those dim, stifling rooms, she at least seemed serene as to the ritual's end. Anne had every intention of bringing forth a prince. The court doctors and astrologers had assured the royal couple that their child would be male, and letters (later hastily amended) had been prepared to announce the birth of Henry's true heir.

How the queen passed her time during her seclusion is not known — herbal baths were popular for women in late pregnancy, and quiet diversions such as embroidery or reading aloud were recommended; one imagines that, like all heavily pregnant women, Anne simply longed for it to be over. Nor is it known whether Anne made use of the sacred girdle of Our Lady, which had been brought from Westminster Abbey in 1502 to lend succor to Elizabeth of York. Prayer was more or less the only painkiller on offer in this age of terrifyingly high maternal mortality, and birthing girdles, associated with various saints, had been used to encourage women in childbirth for centuries. Katherine of Aragon had used the Westminster girdle and had also lent it to her sister-in-law Margaret Tudor. The use of such a relic by Anne would certainly have been controversial, given the attitude of the government at this stage of the Henrician Reformation to relics, pilgrimages, and miracles, preaching on which was officially banned for a year in 1534, but there is an interesting possibility that Anne made use of a "Protestantised" holy symbol, an amulet roll. These were scrolls containing prayers or holy stories which acted as textual interpretations of physical relics such as the Westminster girdle, invoking the same mystical connections. While disdain for relics was a principle of the reformed religion, a certain latent power still attached to them.

After a reportedly difficult labor, Anne's confinement ended shortly after three o'clock on 7 September. The nineteenth-century biographer Agnes Strickland has the queen announcing in a remarkably complete sentence for a woman who has just given birth that "Henceforth they may with reason call this the Chamber of Virgins, for a virgin is now born in it on the vigil of that auspicious day when the church commemorates the nativity of our beloved lady the Blessed Virgin Mary." If Miss Strickland had known of the existence of the amulet roll, she might have been less sanguine, as Saint Julitta, the subject of Anne's scroll, met her martyrdom without her head at the hand of the tyrant king of Tarsus.

Eustace Chapuys, ambassador to the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, lost no time in pronouncing on the royal couple's despair and fury at the birth of a princess, but then Chapuys, whose master was the nephew of Katherine of Aragon, loathed Anne Boleyn and everything associated with Henry's second marriage. Despite his gloating, there is little contemporary evidence that Henry was more than conventionally disappointed by Elizabeth's sex; indeed, he reassured Anne of his joy in the child and his love for them both. A celebratory Te Deum was sung at St. Paul's, and two months after Elizabeth's birth, Chapuys noted sourly that the king had been overheard by one of Anne's ladies saying that he should sooner beg for his bread on doorsteps than lose his wife. Unarguably, though, Anne had failed in what had always been the primary task of queens, and the succession remained perilously uncertain.

The recall of Henry's illegitimate son Henry Fitzroy to court shortly after Elizabeth's birth has been interpreted as an exhibition of the king's anxiety, of his need to prove that he could father sons, but the fourteen-year-old Fitzroy's marriage on 28 November to Mary Howard, daughter of the third Duke of Norfolk, might equally be read as cementing a Boleyn triumph, as bringing the king's offspring safely into the Boleyn/Howard power nexus now that he had a legal heir. The idea that Elizabeth's birth was the beginning of the end for Anne is in no way borne out by contemporary reports. Between October 1533 and June 1534, five witnesses reported king and queen to be "merry" and in fine health.

Elizabeth's christening, on 10 September 1533, also produced disparate accounts. Chapuys, gloating that the king's mistress had borne him a bastard girl, claimed that the ceremony was "very cold and disagreeable, both to the court and the city," while Edward Hall, the author of the 1542 Hall's Chronicle, which describes the history of the union of the royal houses of Lancaster and York, dwelt on the magnificence of the ceremony in the friars' church near Greenwich Palace, enumerating the dignitaries who attended and their roles, conjuring the image of the five hundred torches which accompanied the newly baptized princess back to her mother's arms. The fact that neither of Elizabeth's parents attended the ceremony was customary, and though Henry had cancelled the tournament planned for the birth of a prince, there was nothing lacking in the observances paid to a princess, from the Archbishop of Canterbury as godfather to the purple velvet stole in which the baby was wrapped.

Some writers have claimed that Queen Anne insisted on breastfeeding her daughter, others that "we know virtually nothing of how the new princess was cared for in the first weeks of her life." In December, again according to royal convention, Elizabeth was removed to her own household at Hatfield in Hertfordshire, travelling through London in great and deliberately circuitous style so that the people could catch a glimpse of the new royal baby. (Chapuys reported with predictable distaste on the "pompous solemnity" of this journey, but then he also believed that Elizabeth had been sent to Norfolk.) That Anne was "heartbroken" at the severing of the "extremely close bond" she had forged with her daughter is, again, a matter of supposition. The "merriment" between Anne and Henry reported at court suggests that, whatever Anne's private feelings may have been, she was not allowing them to show in public; moreover, her place was at the king's side and, more importantly, in his bed, that she might conceive again as soon as possible. There is no reason to believe that Anne did not think it more suitable for her daughter to be raised in a quiet and orderly routine in the country, away from the pestilence of London, as had been the thinking and practice of generations of royal mothers before her.

And if Anne was unable to see her daughter often in person, Elizabeth's household was a stronghold of Boleyn affinity. In charge were the queen's aunt Lady Anne Shelton and her husband, Sir John, who served as steward, and Lady Margaret Bryan, who was half-sister to Anne Boleyn's mother, Elizabeth Howard. After acting as a lady-in-waiting to Katherine of Aragon, Lady Bryan was given charge of Mary Tudor, with whom she remained five years, before Henry began planning to marry Anne. By now in her sixties, Lady Bryan was called out of retirement to care for Elizabeth, which suggests that Anne and Henry trusted her competence and experience, but her role also called for considerable diplomacy. To the horror of Chapuys, in October 1533, the king decided that Mary, now officially styled "the Lady Mary" in acknowledgement of her bastard status, should join her half-sister's household. "The King, not satisfied with having taken away the name and title of Princess, has just given out that, in order to subdue the spirit of the Princess, he will deprive her of all her people," choked the ambassador, adding that Mary had been reduced to the status of a "lady's maid." Mary's arrival created a background of tension, status-mongering, and outright danger which pertained throughout her sister's life. Even as a tiny baby, Elizabeth was not safe from politics.


Excerpted from "Elizabeth"
by .
Copyright © 2014 Lisa Hilton.
Excerpted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.
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Elizabeth: Renaissance Prince 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
Anonymous 8 months ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Very good if one enjoys academic writing. This is scholarly prose; dense, thorough, sometimes long-winded. This would be a fine textbook, however for the general consumprion of the historical biography reader I would not recommend it. The editor would have done the writer a favor in helping her define, and write for, a broader audience.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago