'Elizabeth: The Forgotten Years', by John Guy - Review

By Maltby, Kate | The Spectator, May 21, 2016 | Go to article overview

'Elizabeth: The Forgotten Years', by John Guy - Review


Maltby, Kate, The Spectator


If you've been watching Game of Thrones recently, you'll have seen an old folkloric fantasy in which a bewitching young prophetess, a charismatic war leader, slips alone into her private chambers and removes an enchanted necklace. Beneath it, she's just one more withered crone. We, the viewers, having happily feasted on her naked body, now congratulate ourselves on seeing it for what it is: another whore's trick.

This moralistic antipathy towards the over-preserved female body haunts popular studies of the last years of Queen Eliza-beth I. Nearly a century ago, Lytton Strachey kick-started the grotesquerie genre with Elizabeth and Essex : 'As her charms grew less, her insistence on their presence grew stronger.' Elizabeth emerges from Strachey's text as Norma Desmond with a sceptre, clutching at that cosmetic mask of youth just as it becomes a paler mask of death.

So John Guy, as eminent a Tudor historian as they come, has set himself the explicit task of correcting Strachey's colourful narrative of Elizabeth's old age. The result is 400 pages of outstandingly documented scholarly detail. Beneath the rows of footnotes, however, there's just a hint of Strachey's distaste for 'vanity and temper', or hyper-feminine mood swings, in this portrait of a woman feeling power slipping from her over-jewelled fingers. What emerges more clearly throughout this consistent and well-structured narrative is a deep sense of national decline. As not-so-Gloriana's body faded, so too did her not-so-happy kingdom.

This has long been Guy's schtick, and he does it well. In 1995, in an important collection of essays on the last decade, he coined the term 'the second reign' to emphasise the radical difference in mood between Elizabeth's earlier and later years as queen. Back then, he traced this 'sense of fin de siècle' to the 'seemingly dramatic reversal of the queen's non-interventionist foreign policy' occasioned by the dispatch of an English expeditionary force to the Netherlands in 1585.

Now, Guy finds his turning point a year earlier, with the assassination of William of Orange in 1584, which just goes to show that all this history-by-critical-dates isn't what it's cracked it up to be. But what has marked Guy's argument consistently over 20 years is a conviction that Elizabeth wrecked her legacy by intervening in a chronically boggy proxy war abroad. A prevaricating diplomat, she was temperamentally unsuited to confrontation and fatally hamstrung by being unable to command her own troops in battle. It is a convincing argument, yet a thoroughly predictable historiography of our time.

It's surprising, then, that Guy's heft as a historian really shines through in his description of Elizabeth's domestic court. …

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