Being Queen Elizabeth…the First

Did Elizabeth lift England to greatness or did England make Elizabeth the great queen she became?

“Through all her [Elizabeth’s] wavering and inconstancy, her hesitation and uncertainty, there was one faithful element – her sense of responsibility to her position.” -Katharine Anthony

Queen Elizabeth I (image courtesy Wikimedia)

Queen Elizabeth I (image courtesy Wikimedia)

My latest foray into reading is a classic biography that I found in an antique store. In the mid 1920’s Literary Guild was founded as a competitor to the successful Book of the Month ClubCarl Van Doren, a noted biographer and critic was selected as the first chairman of Literary Guild. Katharine Anthony’s Queen Elizabeth was a best seller for Literary Guild in 1929.

It’s easy to understand why. Anthony writes with the fluidity and ease of a novelist. Though Queen Elizabeth was a quick read, it never felt under researched or careless. Tudor scholars would probably dispute some of the facts as Anthony presents them given that new information about Elizabeth and the Tudor dynasty has likely been discovered. But for compelling narrative, Anthony holds her her own with luminaries such as the aforementioned Carl Van Doren, Barbara Tuchman, David McCullough or Doris Kearns Goodwin.

The book divides roughly into three sections that cover three significant periods in Elizabeth’s life. In the first, Anthony explores Henry VIII, Elizabeth’s father (whom she describes as a man who never grew up) and his relationships with his wives and his children. Of particular interest is her depiction of the relationships among Henry’s three children, all of whom held the English throne: Mary, daughter of Henry’s first wife Katherine of Aragon, who followed her mother into Catholic fanaticism and conducted murderous revenge in that mother’s name on those who followed her father into protestantism; Edward, the boy king whose will was strong but whose body, inherited from his mother Jane Seymour, betrayed him; and Elizabeth, daughter of Henry with Anne Boleyn, Henry’s most enigmatic (and challenging) spouse, one he felt compelled to kill less because she did not produce a male heir than because he could not .understand her.

From her father Elizabeth inherited an iron will; from her mother she inherited an enigmatic duplicity bordering on the clinical. In a world dominated by the imperial ambitions of two more powerful nations, Spain and France, Elizabeth used her marriageability as a diplomatic tool to navigate between those countries luring on (though eventually alienating) Phillip II of Spain and going so far as becoming engaged to Catherine de Medici’s youngest son the Duke of Anjou (though he was twenty years her junior). Such maneuvering, skill she likely inherited from Anne Boleyn, a woman capable of maneuvering the mercurial Henry VIII (at least for a while), got her only so far, though. Ultimately it was that iron will she inherited from her father that gave her the capacity to survive threats from outside such as the Spanish Armada and internal threats such as her cousin Mary, Queen of Scots and the Earl of Essex, two whom she loved but finally executed to preserve herself, her crown, and her country.

Most interestingly, through most of her biography Anthony asks a profound question: did Elizabeth make England rise to greatness or did England make Elizabeth the great queen she became? Near the book’s close she offers this assessment:

We know, however, that she lived in a great age and drew something from her age. The hour itself was creative and she yielded to the hour. The time was fecund and she was its creature. She was English and belonged to the people. Her family had swept out the Pope, cut off France, and defeated Spain; and Queen Elizabeth was the climax of all that struggling and striving.

As the greatest writer of her age put it, “…some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon ’em.” Katharine Anthony argues that Elizabeth I experienced all three of those paths to greatness.