Elizabeth I, the People's Queen

Curriculum Review, September 2011 | Go to article overview

Elizabeth I, the People's Queen


Elizabeth I, the People's Queen (Chicago Review Press, 2011) is a history of this great ruler's life and an accessible account of England in the mid-1500s. Here's a great way to connect history class to an English class with this excerpt from Elizabeth I, which discusses the relevance of author Edmund Spenser and explains some technicalities of his famous work, The Faerie Queene.

Cast of Characters: Edmund Spenser and The Faerie Queene

Edmund Spenser's childhood is a mystery, but he found his way to Cambridge University, where he earned his way as a sizar--a servant. He worked for other students and teachers serving their meals and emptying the chamber pots, which they used as toilets. Sometime at Cambridge, young Spenser discovered his gifts for writing poetry.

Spenser made his living by working as a secretary--a writer of letters and documents--for important men. All the while, he wrote poetry and attracted friends and admirers, because a good poet was a treasure in English life. Queen Elizabeth surrounded herself with men who valued learning and enjoyed the arts.

Spenser wove words into rich tapestries of language. About 1580 he began to write an epic poem, 12 chapters long, called The Faerie Queene. Spenser told of Elizabeth's reign as an allegory by using made-up characters and events as symbols for real people and history. A strong Protestant, Spenser championed all that was good about Protestant England and its queen.

The Faerie Queene unfolds as a journey of a gallant knight, Sir Redcross, whose adventures teach him about good and evil as he seeks a perfect life. Between the lines of poetry, Spenser's readers could uncover his hidden themes--England's fear of Spain, the bloody troubles between the English and Irish, and the dangers to England posed by the Catholic Church.

Spenser lived through these events. He moved his family to Ireland to work for a Protestant English noble and a lost child when Irish rebels, Catholics, set his house on fire.

Above all, The Faerie Queene honored none other than Elizabeth herself. Spenser's poem painted Elizabeth as a descendent from the great King Arthur, a leader who deserved Arthur's power and glory. Spenser's poem fit perfectly into the cult of popularity that Elizabeth built to keep her throne and her Englolish nation secure.

Read The Faerie Queene

The opening lines to The Faerie Queene charm readers with Spenser's lovely language. Spenser laid out his epic work in 12 cantos (Italian for "chapter"). In each, he penned a series of nine-line verses. The first eight lines rhyme in a pattern that goes a-b-a-b-a-b-a-b, followed by one longer line that rhymes with lines 6 and 8. …

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