Magazine article The Spectator

'Elizabeth: Renaissance Prince', by Lisa Hilton - Review

Magazine article The Spectator

'Elizabeth: Renaissance Prince', by Lisa Hilton - Review

Article excerpt

Elizabeth: Renaissance Prince Lisa Hilton

Weidenfeld, pp.370, £25, ISBN: 9780297865223

Women are 'foolish, wanton flibbergibs, in every way doltified with the dregs of the devil's dunghill'. So a cleric reminded Queen Elizabeth I. His sermon reassured her that her personal qualities made her exceptional. But Elizabeth was not merely an 'exceptional woman', snorts Lisa Hilton. She was also 'an exceptional ruler' -- one who refashioned her kingdom as 'a modern monarch, a Renaissance prince'.

Elizabeth's accession in 1558 coincided with the publication of John Knox's notorious blast against the 'monstrous regiment' or 'rule' of women. Happily such views were 'based more on hostility to Catholicism than to female rule per se ', we are told. Royalty 'negated gender', and Hilton believes Elizabeth would reign largely unrestricted by the issue. While the doltified Mary had wanted to drag 'England back to Catholic conformity', Elizabeth was destined to take her kingdom 'from the darkened constrictions of medievalism towards a recognisable world', imbued with the 'new learning'.

For the next 40 years Elizabeth would work hand in glove with her secretary of state and 'closest friend', William Cecil. The clearest 'indication of her private religious views' was her compliance to his 1559 parliamentary bill for a Protestant 'alteration of religion'. She was equally happy to accept her role in a 'mixed monarchy', with royal authority residing also in Parliament, a kind of political transubstantiation under which she retained her status as God's anointed. Indeed, it is this refashioning of 'her own right to govern within a new political order' justified by 'arrogation of divine power to herself', that defines Elizabeth as a Renaissance prince.

Unlike other Renaissance princes, Elizabeth does not commission great works of art; but Hilton argues that a 17th-century coronation portrait of the queen, echoing a medieval painting of the enthroned Richard II, is a copy of one dating from 1559. This image supposedly signals Elizabeth's intention to remain forever virgin, as well as her claims to divine right. That sacred status was also reflected in Elizabeth the living work of art. With her face powdered 'with ground alabaster', it had a 'jewel-like quality', a glow reminiscent of religious pictures, while her rooms were as scented as a Catholic church: 'The ruler and the altar smelled the same.'

The divine mask slipped in the final decade of Elizabeth's life, and Hilton describes how her last favourite, Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex, led a revolt against the ageing queen. …

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