17 OCTOBER 1998, Page 11


Alison Weir explains what lies

behind yet another surge of

interest in Elizabeth I She has ever been so. Since she came to the throne in 1558, Eliza- beth I has endlessly fas- cinated the English people and, at various times, historians, novelists, composers, artists, film and television producers, and a World-wide public. Why should Elizabeth, out of England's long procession of kings and queens, exert her charm over us? The answer is complex.

To begin with, people are, in general, fascinated by monarchy. They see a person set apart from themselves, called to live out a very public role in a position of great influence, and attended by awe-inspiring ceremonial and rigid rituals of social def- erence. The monarch lives in the kind of luxury most of us can only dream of, and their every whim is apparently gratified. He or she is the fount of justice, a priest-like figure who holds the ultimate power of life and death over their subjects. Yet this does not explain why Elizabeth, of all our monarchs, is so famous and so revered. The Tudors as a family were what is now termed charismatic, and were larger-than-life characters. Although any- one related to the tyrannical Henry VIII is bound to have attracted a wide press, Eliz- abeth was an extraordinary person.

Born in 1533, she was Henry's daughter by his second wife, Ann Boleyn. Declared illegitimate by Parliament at the time of Ann's execution in 1536, she spent part of her childhood neglected by her formidable father and the rest under the auspices of a succession of sympathetic stepmothers. She benefited enormously from the kind of classical education hitherto afforded only to royal princes, and emerged a cultivated intellectual with a gift for languages.

Abused both emotionally and perhaps sexually by Admiral Thomas Seymour, the husband of her stepmother Catherine Parr, during the reign of her brother Edward VI, she suffered disgrace by asso- ciation when he went to the block for trea- son in 1549.

During the reign of her sister, Mary I, Elizabeth was suspected of complicity in a rebellion led by Sir Thomas Wyatt against the Queen and spent three months in the tower under threat of execution. She was released only when it became clear that nothing could be proved against her. In 1558, she came to the throne on a tide of popular approbation, and would retain the love of her people until her death 45 years later.

What is so outstanding about Elizabeth is not only her intelligence and forceful personality, but her being a great and suc- cessful ruler in an age of outstanding achievements: the confident age of the Armada, Drake and Raleigh, Shakespeare, Spenser and Marlowe, and of some of the most able politicians ever to serve an English monarch.

Elizabeth presided over this age and was its inspiration, even if she did not actively influence all its success- es. She was also the chief promoter of the English Protestant settlement and a great champion of burgeoning nationalist sentiment.

No monarch before or since was ever held in such affection by his or her people, and at the end of her reign Elizabeth was able to say, 'Though God hath raised me high, yet this I account the glory of my crown, that I have reigned with your loves.' This special relationship between the Queen and her people endured beyond her death. It is true that many younger people welcomed the accession of her successor, James I, yet after only a short period of Stu- art rule the English began looking back to Elizabeth's reign as a golden age, and they would continue to celebrate her Accession Day, observed as a public holiday since around 1571, until the 18th century.

The role she had assumed as the wise and loving mother of her subjects came to be regarded as an ideal one for a queen; in her lifetime, she had deliberately fostered a parallel between herself and the discred- ited image of the Virgin Mary, filling the void that the banning of such idolatry had left in the spiritual life of the nation.

It was no accident, therefore, that Eliza- beth deliberately fostered the cult of the Virgin Queen. Embracing lifelong virginity as a political necessity, she made a virtue of it, and her subjects were encouraged to think of virginity as the ideal state. The poets and playwrights abetted this propa- ganda, and Elizabeth was able to triumph over what must have been a personal tragedy and was certainly a risky dynastic decision much deplored by her advisers.

Nevertheless, the Queen succeeded in captivating the imagination of her subjects, and indeed of successive generations: the image of a bejewelled Gloriana in her ever more fantastic state robes, her wing-like collars, huge ruffs and wheel farthingales, with a red wig and eternally youthful face, became imprinted on the national con- sciousness. Today, we are still fascinated by it, yet with our passion for uncovering the most private secrets of our national figures, we are determined to discover the reality that lay behind Elizabeth's carefully con- trived public image.

But what most fascinates us today is Elizabeth's role as a woman. Feminists, and indeed many women, see her as an icon because she triumphed as a female ruler, exercising sovereign power brilliant- ly and effectively in a male-dominated world. She proved she could rule indepen- dently without the help of a man and suc- cessfully asserted her autonomy by cleverly fielding all the proposals of marriage made to her. Although the appalling cir- cumstances of her childhood and youth could have made her a victim, she rose above them and made an outstanding suc- cess of her life.

She also had to make the choice between career and personal fulfilment that faces many modern women, and we admire her courage and tenacity in the way she faced up to this tough and ultimately heart- breaking decision. Like many women today, she realised she could not have it all.

Furthermore, she is something of an enigma to us. Although the historical evi- dence overwhelmingly suggests that she was indeed the Virgin Queen she claimed to be, the subject can still provoke furious debate, and much ink has been expended on discussion of the Queen's sexual nature. We live in an age that loves secrets, hidden agendas and revisionist history, and beneath the myths and legends that sur- round Elizabeth we perceive rich pickings to be had, even inventing mysteries when we find none.

Elizabeth's contemporaries would not have been surprised at our obsession with `I must warn you - the carrots are fresh.' their extraordinary queen. Her first biogra- pher, William Camden, wrote, with great prescience, 'No oblivion shall ever bury the glory of her name, for her happy and renowned memory shall for ever live in the minds of men.'