Elizabeth’s Women: The Hidden Story of the Virgin Queen by Tracy Borman
Non-Fiction; September 2009
Hardcover: 352 pages
Publisher: Jonathan Cape Ltd ISBN-10: 0224082264
Review copy provided by the publisher
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The Burton Review Rating:
“Elizabeth I was born into a world of women. As a child, she was served by a predominantly female household of servants and governesses, with occasional visits from her mother, Anne Boleyn, and the wives who later took her place. As Queen, Elizabeth was constantly attended by ladies of the bedchamber and maids of honor who clothed her, bathed her and watched her while she ate. Among her family, it was her female relations who had the greatest influence: from her sister Mary, who distrusted and later imprisoned her, to her cousin, Mary, Queen of Scots, who posed a constant and dangerous threat to her crown for almost thirty years.
Despite the importance of women in Elizabeth’s life, most historians and biographers have focused on her relationships with men. She has been portrayed as a ‘man’s woman’ who loved to flirt with the many ambitious young men who frequented her court. Yet it is the women in her life who provide the most fascinating insight into the character of this remarkable monarch. With them she was jealous, spiteful and cruel, as well as loyal, kind and protective. She showed her frailties and her insecurities, but also her considerable shrewdness and strength. In short, she was more human than the public persona she presented to the rest of the court. It is her relationships with women that hold the key to the private Elizabeth.
In this original chronicling of the life of one of England’s greatest monarchs, historian Tracy Borman explores Elizabeth’s relationships with the key women in her life. Beginning with her mother and the governesses and stepmothers who cared for the young princess, including her beloved Kat Astley and the inspirational Katherine Parr, “Elizabeth’s Women” sheds new light on her formative years. Elizabeth’s turbulent relationships with her rivals are examined: from her sister, ‘Bloody’ Mary, to the sisters of Lady Jane Grey, and finally the most deadly of all her rivals, Mary, Queen of Scots who would give birth to the man Elizabeth would finally, inevitably have to recognize as heir to her throne. It is a chronicle of the servants, friends and ‘flouting wenches’ who brought out the best – and the worst – of Elizabeth’s carefully cultivated image as Gloriana, the Virgin Queen, in the glittering world of her court.”
In a world inundated with modern biographies on Elizabeth I, historian Tracy Borman sets out to explore the world of women surrounding Elizabeth I in hopes of shedding light on Elizabeth’s character and personality. Who helped shaped Elizabeth into such a formidable female ruler, something that was an anomaly in itself? This is a proficient account of the story behind the stories of Elizabeth’s peers, elders and family members that helps the reader to better understand the nuts and bolts of Elizabeth’s mind, which was always skillfully at work.
Despite the bevy of information at our fingertips regarding Elizabeth, she is still one of the most intriguing figures of the Tudor era. Born to Henry VIII and his second wife, Anne Boleyn, she was at first a disappointment to her parents and a kingdom by being a girl. Losing her mother at the age of 3, she was brought up in her own household under the tutelage of preferred women. It is with these women that Elizabeth begins cultivating her personality and understanding the way of the tumultuous world around her. Although we regularly hear of the men or the favorites in Elizabeth’s life, rarely do we obtain as much information about the women who constantly attended her and were with her behind the scenes.. until now.
Borman begins the story of Elizabeth with her mother, Anne Boleyn, and gives the standard biography of Anne. Although at first she praises Anne’s intellect, she soon writes of her haughtiness and the swift fall from Henry’s graces once they were finally married. Seemingly it was once they were married that Anne’s and Henry’s marriage fell apart. Elizabeth seems to have not had much of a relationship with Anne or Henry as a child, except for Anne sending gifts to Elizabeth.
Borman explains how Elizabeth interacted with a few of the children and caretakers, such as Blanche Parry (who ended up serving Elizabeth for over fifty years), and she goes into small biographies of these secondary women as she introduces them to us. Another woman who also stayed with Elizabeth a lengthy amount and therefore gets more attention is the governess, Kat Astley or Ashley, who joined Elizabeth’s household when Elizabeth was 3 and Kat was probably in her late twenties. Elizabeth was very close to her as Kat was one of the few people in her life that stayed with her in her younger years. I had not realized the extent of Kat’s own learning because of the ridicule she receives by historians due to the Thomas Seymour affair. After Lady Bryan it was Kat who had continued to instill a love for learning, which was further enhanced by her last stepmother, Katherine Parr and the tutors she chose for Elizabeth.
For some thirty, forty and fifty years these few women such as Kat Ashley, Blanche Parry and Anne Dudley stayed nearby with Elizabeth and were close confidantes and friends to the Queen. Borman details the relationships of the women with Elizabeth in a way that has not been done before, when before we had always heard of merely Cecil influencing Elizabeth’s political decisions. We now get a look on the inside, the female perspective of jealousy, vanity and courtly appearance.
One of the most interesting continuing relationships in Borman’s book deals with the sisterhood of Elizabeth and Mary. Borman tells of how Elizabeth interacted with her half siblings, and I was surprised to learn that her sister Mary had eventually grown fond of Elizabeth, probably out of pity, once Anne Boleyn was executed. Knowing of the strained relationship Mary and Elizabeth had once their brother King Edward had died, I had never assumed that they were in reality ever close, yet Borman portrays Mary as once being maternal to Elizabeth. They were 17 years apart, and with Elizabeth being 3 when she lost her mother, Mary may have felt sorry for her. But soon enough for Mary’s reign, Mary was calling Elizabeth the bastard, the daughter of the little whore, etc. A swift turn around for Mary’s feelings towards Elizabeth, but one wonders all the different mechanisms at play, such as Mary’s jealousy towards Elizabeth as Elizabeth grew into a pleasant looking young lady and Mary was soon eclipsed by Elizabeth’s sharp mind and looks. Anne of Cleves favored Elizabeth over Mary, and Katherine Parr did as well. Did Mary resent this? Once Mary was queen, she did not trust Elizabeth, and denounced her right to the succession. There was a long look at Mary Tudor here, but was appreciated for the fact that we were able to glean what Elizabeth learned from Mary’s reign.
One of the many people who helped shaped the progress of Elizabeth’s reign was her cousin, Mary the Queen of Scots. Most people know of the outcome that happened after Mary had been a burr in Elizabeth’s side for nearly thirty years, and the author devotes an entire 50 page chapter to this conflict. This is where the allure of the book started to lose its luster, but it picked up its interesting pace as soon as the Queen of Scots was dealt with. I had already read enough accounts of these two Queen’s relationships and there was not any new insight for me regarding the effects of their animosity towards each other. Those who are not acquainted with that story may not be as disappointed as I was to see so much time devoted to this, however.
Of some of the influencers and courtiers that we read about are the Seymour family, the Sidneys, and Lettice Knollys (who married Elizabeth’s favorite, Leicester, much to Elizabeth’s chagrin). We also are treated to accounts regarding Bess of Hardwick, married to George Talbot, both as she was a gaoler for Mary Queen of Scots and later when Arbella was growing up into an eccentric young lady. Other characters include Bess Throckmorton who shocked Elizabeth by becoming pregnant by Sir Walter Ralegh, and the cousins Katherine and Mary Grey who posed a threat to Elizabeth’s throne.
There are several color photos in the book as well which I enjoyed perusing. Most I had seen elsewhere but one in particular stood out: Queen Elizabeth in Old Age at The Bridgeman Art Library
Those who are looking for more insight into the characters surrounding Elizabeth during her life will not be disappointed. Beginning with Anne Boleyn and continuing with the two Queen Mary’s, we are privy to the causes and effects that made Elizabeth who she was, Gloriana. This is thoroughly researched, with the footnotes to prove it, and it is put together effectively. Through the reign of Mary I, we are made to understand how Elizabeth learned from Mary’s mistakes and held fast to her beliefs on how to rule exclusively without a husband or even an heir, as opposed to the hard and unbending rule of her sister. We begin to understand Elizabeth’s decisions on the refusal of marriage when Elizabeth witnesses the catastrophic effects of most marriages of those in power, from her father to her sister. We learn that Elizabeth had a strict expectation of the women in her chambers and wished for them to not marry at all, and was hard on those that strayed from the virginal status.
This is not just another biography of Elizabeth I or the history of Elizabethan England. In fact, Borman successfully dodges that bullet by not repeating many of the historical events that happened during Elizabeth’s life, and even skips those that greatly effected her. For instance, the author does not discuss the fatal period of Lady Jane Grey’s reign, nor does she go into the Dudley plot which scared Elizabeth half out of her mind as she was imprisoned when her sister was Queen and there is no mention of the burning of heretics. This is a fulfilling account of the women who definitely instilled Elizabeth’s characteristics and beliefs into her heart and mind. Moreover, I would recommend reading a biography on Elizabeth I before reading this one due to the nature that this is more of a study and commentary on those surrounding her who helped to shape the character of Elizabeth. It would be hard to understand the ramifications of some of the things that Elizabeth encountered in her relationships that are discussed here without knowing any of the political and biographical history of Elizabeth I. If you do not feel intrigued by the persona of Elizabeth I, this is not the book for you. I had hoped for more of a finishing commentary as a summary on Elizabeth from the author’s opinion; but overall I was sad that I had completed this book because I was enjoying my enlightened status of understanding Elizabeth as a woman, as the Virgin Queen, and why she chose that status for herself. There was the blurb about George and Jane Boleyn having a son which I disagree with, and the excessive information on the Queen of Scots negated a star for me. I enjoyed 95% of this book, being a Tudor fanatic that I am, and I definitely recommend this book for anyone who has an interest in the workings of Elizabeth’s mind, and of the many supporting or bothersome women in her life.
Heather from The Maiden’s Court was my Buddy-Reader for this read, and we interacted with these questions (*please see Part Two at The Maiden’s Court):
Before opening the book, Elizabeth’s Women, what are your expectations and what do you hope to learn?
Heather: I don’t really know all that much about Elizabeth yet, so I hope that I can learn a lot. One thing that I would like to learn more about is more about the relationship between her and her sister, Mary.
Marie: I am hoping for an otherwise unknown look at some of the ladies that surrounded Elizabeth. I would love to know if these women shared any secrets that now reveal interesting traits of Elizabeth.
(Before reading the book) Who are you most interested in as far as a peer or friend to Elizabeth?
Heather: The two books that I have read about her so far have mentioned a lot about Kat Ashley – that is definitely one. I would also like to see how she interacted with her numerous step mothers.
Marie: My favorite contemporaries of Elizabeth are Lettice Knollys, and Bess of Hardwick (AKA Elizabeth Talbot). I would love to learn more.
After the first chapter on Anne Boleyn, what are your reactions to the book so far?
Heather: It definitely did not give Anne any sort of a break – she is portrayed as someone who only looked out for herself and moving up. It also seems to be more sympathetic to the Princess Mary.
Marie: I was a little perturbed that the moles and extra fingernail were pointed out, but that reasoning or other theories were not used as well. Anne is portrayed as haughty.
Was there anything new that this author presented about Anne Boleyn that you didn’t know before?
Heather: There were only a couple small things – she was only the second Queen of England who came from an aristocrat family since 1066. Also, she kept his sister Mary’s child away from court because it had a mental disability – this was not something I had ever heard.
Marie: I hadn’t fully grasped that Anne had been at Henry’s court in Queen Katherine’s retinue for four years before Henry started to pay attention to her. She probably had no idea during those years how much would dramatically change for her. What were Anne’s hopes and dreams during those years? Was she focused on Henry Percy, who had broken a previous betrothal to be with her?
Most of the details were the same types of things in other biographies of Anne, but I was intrigued at the intellect Anne had shown at an early age, as this was the same for her daughter Elizabeth. Anne was chosen over her sister Mary to attend the French courts because of the superiority & presence of mind that Anne had over her sister.
What do you think of the role Lady Bryan played in raising Elizabeth, especially after the loss of her mother?
Heather: I think that she was very instrumental in making sure that Elizabeth was shielded as much as possible from the outburst of anger at Anne and what happened after her execution. She was one of the most stable things in Elizabeth’s life and think that she should really be commended for keeping things relatively the same for her when everything was changing rapidly. It could have been a very different outcome for Elizabeth if Lady Bryan had not fought for her.
Marie: In the tumultuous world of being a daughter of the slandered queen, Elizabeth seems lucky to have had someone to care for her so diligently regardless of the status of her mother and Elizabeth being called a bastard by her own father. She provided a stable environment for the child which is a blessing for Elizabeth.
What are your opinions of the relationships of Elizabeth with her stepmothers?
Heather: It doesn’t surprise me that Jane had little interest in Elizabeth – after all, she had just replaced her mother in a horrible way. It does surprise me a little that she favored Mary, almost over the children that her and Henry would have. It always surprises me to hear how Anne of Cleves had such an influence on the girls and had a good relationship with Henry after their marriage was annulled. Katherine Howard’s relationship is exactly how I imagined it. She was young and liked gifts and showered these on Elizabeth. She was also similar to Anne Boleyn in these ways. The similarities were probably what led Elizabeth to be very shocked at the loss of Katherine in the same manner as her mother. I think Katherine Parr had the greatest influence in the ways of thinking that Elizabeth manifested. Katherine oversaw her education and through that Elizabeth learned Humanism, the reformed religion, and how to rule among other things. She also gave her someone stable to relate to.
Marie: I was impressed at how Elizabeth and Anne of Cleves had forged their relationship even after Henry had chosen another wife after Anne of Cleves. Elizabeth was ever the pragmatic, and was kind to the succession of her father’s wives, and one can base many theories on how this formed Elizabeth’s opinions of marriage altogether. The relationship with Catherine Howard was glazed over in the book, but the fact of the closeness in age to the two Borman states that this would have a profound effect on Elizabeth. Besides the kindness shown by Anne of Cleves to Elizabeth, Katherine Parr was probably the most influential as far as political ideas and religious theories, and through Borman’s recounting of the relationship I see just how important Katherine Parr was to the development of the basis of Elizabeth’s beliefs regarding state policies and religion.
For the Chapter titled Governess, what was the most interesting thing you learned?
Heather: I couldn’t believe how involved Kat was in the Seymour Scandal. She continually kept pushing for Elizabeth to marry Seymour. Also being a gossip, she wasn’t able to keep her mouth shut, which got them into a lot of trouble. For someone who was supposed to be looking out for Elizabeth she made some huge errors in her judgment. I had never heard that there had been rumors when Elizabeth left the house of Katherine Parr and Thomas Seymour that she was pregnant – I kind of think they were just that, rumors.
Marie: Kat Astley/Ashley was also brought up with an education which was unheard of in most families, but the use of the intellect did not bleed through to her common sense. I had known she was involved in the Thomas Seymour affair and did not know how to act properly and with the proper airs, but the fact that she was indeed and educated girl was not known to me before. Elizabeth at age 15 showed more common sense and intelligence than Kat did when she was in her forties at the time of the Seymour scandal.
See Tracy Borman‘s site for upcoming events in the UK, her friend and fellow historian Alison Weir are hosting several discussions regarding Anne Boleyn and Elizabeth I. Borman is also the author of Henrietta Howard: King’s Mistress, Queen’s Servant.