Elizabeth: The Forgotten Years by John Guy

The woman behind the myth…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Elizabeth The Forgotten YearsIn his preface, John Guy suggests that biographers of Elizabeth I of England tend to have paid less attention to the later years of her life, often relying on the accepted story created by earlier writers. Guy has gone back to the original source documents, stripping back the accumulated layers of mythology surrounding her to reveal the complex and very human character beneath.

During the first part of Elizabeth’s reign, she was under continual pressure to marry, partly to provide an heir but also because of the prevailing feeling that women were not suited to be monarchs. Having seen the unhappy and unsuccessful marriage of her sister Mary to Philip of Spain, not to mention the hardly idyllic marriage of her tyrannical father to her soon-to-be-headless mother, Elizabeth was always reluctant to reach a decision that would make her subordinate to a husband. However, marriage negotiations rumbled on throughout her child-bearing years.

But by the age of 50 when it was finally clear that the Queen would have no direct heir, Guy suggests she was for the first time really accepted, however reluctantly, as a monarch in her own right – a Prince or King as she often referred to herself – and felt herself freer to stamp her royal authority on those around her. These later years – the period covered in this book – were dominated by the interminable wars in Europe, concern over the succession, power struggles and conspiracies at home, and, of course, Essex, her arrogant young favourite.

The ageing Queen... Elizabeth I by Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger c.1595
The ageing Queen…
Elizabeth I by Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger c.1595

As well as being a serious historian, Guy has a gift for storytelling which always makes his books a pleasure to read. It seems to me he has mastered the art of presenting history in a way that makes it fully accessible to the casual, non-academic reader without ever ‘dumbing down’. He does masses of research, from original sources where possible, then, having decided what ‘story’ he is going to tell, he distils all that information down to those people and events that will illustrate his arguments. It’s a simplification in presentation, but not in scholarship. As with all the best historical writers, he knows what information should appear in the main body of the text and what can be left to the notes at the back for people who wish to look into the subject more deeply. As a result, the cast of ‘characters’, which can often become overwhelming in history books, is kept to a small, manageable level, and the reader gets to know not just the principal subject but the people who most closely influence events.

So in this book, as well as a revealing and convincing picture of the ageing Elizabeth, we also get a thorough understanding of those who were most relevant to her at this later period: an equally ageing Burghley, and the younger men, struggling amongst themselves to win her favour and the political power that came with it – Burghley’s son Cecil, Sir Walter Ralegh, and Essex, who almost shares star billing with the Queen herself.

The dashing Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex
The dashing Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex

The first few chapters romp through the early years of Elizabeth’s accession and reign, really just to give the reader a bit of background, then each subsequent chapter focuses on a particular person or event. As is my usual way, I found the sections relating to the wars least interesting, though Guy does a good job of explaining all the shifting allegiances and showing how the various campaigns led to the rise or fall of those leading them. He also shows the contrast between Elizabeth’s concern for her aristocratic commanders and her casual disregard for the welfare of the ordinary soldiers, sometimes leaving them unpaid and with no way to get home from their campaigns. But throughout the period, as usual in these endless wars, those at the top were constantly changing sides or even religions, and no-one really ever seems to win or lose, and I just don’t care!

Portrait of Sir Walter Ralegh attributed to William Segar
Portrait of Sir Walter Ralegh attributed to William Segar

Much more interesting to me are the power struggles at home and Guy gives a very clear picture of the personalities involved here. In the latter years of Elizabeth’s reign, Burghley was ageing, while Walsingham’s death left a vacancy Elizabeth found difficult to fill. But worse, she had also lost Leicester, the love of her life. She may have had disagreements with all three of these men at various times, but she also depended on them and trusted them to a degree that she would find difficult with the young men coming up. Guy makes clear that, while Essex was a favourite, he was no replacement for Leicester and Elizabeth was fairly clear-sighted about his weaknesses and unreliability. Burghley was keen that his son, Cecil, should succeed him as the main power in the government, while Ralegh and Essex looked to war and naval exploits to gain favour. (Interesting aside for non-Brits – the Cecils have lasted well. The most recent, a direct descendant of Burghley, was leader of the House of Lords as recently as 1997. We do seem to cling on to our aristocracy!)

John Guy
John Guy

Once it was clear that Elizabeth would never have a child, her advisers wanted to settle the question of the succession. However, Elizabeth would never allow this to be discussed, partly through a dislike of thinking about her death and partly because she feared that a settled succession may lead to conspiracies to force her to abdicate or, worse, to murder her, thus making way for the new king. The obvious successor in terms of bloodlines was James VI of Scotland and he had the further advantage of having been brought up in the Protestant religion. Elizabeth’s refusal to name a successor meant that, as she approached the end of her life, even her nearest courtiers were carrying on secret correspondences with James – Essex primarily for his own advantage and possibly to the point of treason, but also Cecil who, while looking out for his own interests too, seemed genuinely to want to avoid major disruption on Elizabeth’s death.

Guy’s portrait of Elizabeth feels credible and human. She seems to have been vain and capricious, temperamental, cruel when angered and vindictive when she felt betrayed. But as we see her age, with all her early advisors dying one by one, including Leicester, her one true love, and eventually also Kate Carey, her greatest friend, in the end she seems a rather lonely and pitiful figure. Another first-class biography from Guy – highly recommended.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Viking Books.

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56 thoughts on “Elizabeth: The Forgotten Years by John Guy

  1. The war parts are your least favorite? Goodness.

    Love that last sentence too!

    You know, I think she should’ve given up the thrown and moved to Peru. You know, being a queen (or king) doesn’t sound like much fun. All dadblamery.

    • Yeah, just these silly medieval wars that never actually seemed to get won or lost! But I’m loving the Douglas MacArthur bio and there’s tons and tons of war stuff in it. In fact, I’ve already added it to your TBR, and moved it to the top of the list!


      No, in truth I’ve never really envied them. Though of course it wouldn’t be like that if I was Queen! Everyone would love me because I’d give out free chocolate every week… *nods*

        • I am! But I’m not sure that I think he’s cool. I keep changing my mind – sometimes find him admirable, sometimes think he was a power-crazed egomaniac. Oh, that’s right – I forgot!

          I would tax people till their pips squeaked! Or I might send you out busking…

          • Ooo. Egomaniac. That sounds cool. And scary. (Is he the fellow that always smoked a cigar?) I think I want to be an egomaniac, the sudden. *professorish eye*

            Pips! Hahahaha. If busking is anything like husking, I’ll refuse!

            • No, he always smoked the silliest looking pipe I’ve ever seen – a corncob pipe, I think it was called. Churchill’s the one who always smoked cigars. Churchill admired MacArthur a lot apparently. *laughs and preserves a tactful silence*

              Busking is far more fun – you’d make a fortune and teenage girls would come and gaze at you admiringly… *growls a little* On second thoughts, I’ll just stick with the tax plan!

            • Hahahaha. You lib! If I lived during WWII, I would’ve snuck into the airforce, I think. Fighter pilot, I think even more.

              They would? Wait…is it playing? Sounds better than taxes, you know.

            • Mac rather liked fighter pilots – and he was partial to bomber planes too. You’d like him lots, I think…

              Don’t you have buskers in America, then? I wonder what you call them… street musicians? But hold on! You shouldn’t be enthusiastic about girls gazing admiringly!! Is this Professorial?! Flirt!! I shall have to stomp on you if you’re not careful!!

            • Nah, I wouldn’t want to be in a bomber! I think I’d freeze. Ice thingies would grow from my ears.

              You know, it already kinda happens to me. I’m such a poor thing, really. Street musicians! I was just thinking of doing a video like that, you know…

            • I think by WW2 bombers were enclosed, were they not? And look on the bright side, the ice thingies would probably scare away the slugs…

              Hahahaha! Poor Prof! The penalties of being a performer, I fear! And gorgeous, of course! You should! Have you ever done any street performing?

            • Oh no. They’re weren’t pressurized cabins, were they? It was frigid up there! Like Hoth, you know.

              Yeah…but I can’t complain. I like when people enjoy the music. Umm…you know, I haven’t! Isn’t that odd?

            • What’s Hoth? I don’t know – do I look like an expert in wartime aviation!!!??? Wear a hat, for goodness sake!! *stomps off*

              *chuckles* Oh yes, that’s right – it’ll be the music they’re admiring… It might be fun!

            • Hoth is a planet in the Star Wars galaxy. Very cold. Very white. Lots of snow. And caves. And snow monster thingies. I’d live there if I could get there.

              It should be! I’m an orc remember. Goes to show you how powerful music is

            • Ooh, snow monster thingies sound good! I shall build a rocket and equip it with matching beanie, scarf and gloves… start packing!

              *laughs* Yes, of course. Absolutely. You’re so right… *shakes head*

  2. A great review, FF. I loved the ‘soon to be-headless line. But, the more I read of this era, fabulously creative though it might have been, in artistic terms, the physically sicker and more anxious I feel. Humanity had a long long way to go before discovering the ‘humane’ within the word. Mind you, with some of the increasingly scary demagogues occupying centre stage at the moment, I think we still have a long long way to go. Maybe the difference is that living in this country, at the moment, we CAN say that our public figures are this that and the other in terms of their flaws, without fearing that we too will be soon-to-be-headless.

    • Thank you, m’dear! Yes, indeed, there didn’t seem to be an awful lot of joy in life, either at the top or the bottom. But I think the ones we have today are even worse, because they’ve convinced themselves of their utter rightness, plus they have more powerful weapons. I must say the Douglas MacArthur bio has had me weeping with horror at man’s inhumanity to man all through the last century. If only we really could learn from history…

      • Hmm, I’m reading and weeping in horror at Siddharta Mukherjee’s The Gene. Mukherjee is an astonishing writer, not just an astonishingly fabulous writer about science, but the story of the eugenics movement, in this country and the States, never mind what happened in Germany during the second world war which of course we all know about, is sickening, horrifying and disheartening. Inhumanity indeed. Will we ever stop this propensity to dehumanise ‘the other’ A mere 66 years after Mendel’s happy little experiments with peas in a monastery garden the fostering of selective breeding programmes and sterilisation of people deemed ‘unfit’ are happening. An unholy alliance of scientists, social reformers and politicians.

        • The problem with eugenics is that there is a kind of superficial attraction to it and the lines are so blurry. Eg, I’m sure we’d all like to see genes manipulated to get rid of cystic fibrosis but do we really know the long term effects of gene manipulation? And do we stop at cystic fibrosis or do we start saying let’s make everybody be six foot tall… or blue-eyed…

          It’s the same with sterilisation. We can all look at some people and say definitely not fit to bring up kids. But the question then becomes who do we give the power to decide? Personally, since working at the school and seeing the results of horrendous parenting, I take a much tougher line on removing children at a very early age – birth, actually – from “unfit” parents. But again, who makes the decision and on what criteria?

            • And the problem is that the people who get into positions of power are probably the ones we’d least want to trust to lead us through the mazes…

            • Indeed. It seems depressingly rare to fine a combination of the undoubted drive and conviction needed to GET to the position of power, with the flexibility, nuance, discernment, willing to listen and reflect and ability to hold oppositional ideas and dissect them, AND to disentangle, as far as possible, the always present influence of personal psychology. The humility of the requirements in the last two sentences is a difficult marriage with the certainties of the first.

            • I’d rather have twenty Borises than one Donald, though. I was watching Trump speak today with the sound turned down, and could actually see the hate coming from his face… it’s truly disturbing. I still can’t understand why anyone could vote for him – it scares me. Terrifies me, actually.

            • Same here. You would think that our twentieth century grim history with leaders who were clearly unhinged by their own anger and hatred, would have made people back off supporting someone else with a similar kind of psychological instability.

              John Fowles ( I may have quoted this before) in a book of his which is really a laying of of his philosophy/ musings, said something like the tragedy of the last war was not that one man had the courage to be/do evil but that so many lacked the courage to be/do good. The fact that he is in the position where he could very well be elected is the scariest thing of all. Who are we, what have we become – or, rather, what have we reverted to – racism, all around, seems out of the closet and wearing knuckledusters.

            • I know. Generally speaking, I’ve taken the position on the blog to keep politics out of it as much as is possible given the amount of fairly political reading I do. But, you know, would I also have kept out of it when Hitler was being elected? Do we have the right to ignore it? Not that me posting about him would change anyone’s votes, but still – all it takes for evil to thrive is for good (wo)men to do nothing…

            • I made the mistake of looking at a thread on Vine re EU – and if ever I felt tempted to return it is on reading the thread – xenophobia and Trumpish Faragery are on the march,

            • Ugh! I can imagine! But part of the problem is that the other side never offer a positive vision – they either ignore legitimate concerns, call people stupid for having them, or try to scare people into submission. I think I’ve only heard one person make a really good case for the EU and sadly I now can’t remember who it was – but it wasn’t a politician! And I don’t know if you watched last week’s Question Time, but really, if the best the remain camp can do is drag out the idiot Eddie Izzard, then I guess we should start building the wall…

            • It’s all come down to no bread, but a lot of circuses, as far as politicians debating goes………..send in the unfunny clowns, a few sad elephants blowing water over everyone, and a mangy lion.

  3. What a fascinating-sounding read, FictionFan! Elizabeth I remains one of the more intriguing monarchs in history, so the subject matter itself is of interest. And I do like going ‘behind the scenes’ at the palace, especially when the author tells it as a story with historical fact (as opposed to a gossip tabloid). This sound like a terrific balance between keeping the reader really engaged, and providing solid information. Little wonder you liked it so well.

    • John Guy is such a great writer, not to mention his historian credentials. I always credit him for having revived my love of reading historical biography after many years away from it. He concentrates on the Tudors but has veered away a couple of times to other subjects and I’ve enjoyed every one I’ve read. Such a pleasure to read well told and well researched history!

  4. This sounds like a fascinating read, FF. I like that it’s well-written and not too stuffy. Some of these historical tomes can be sheer drudgery! Now, I can’t help wondering about their fashions though. Mercy, can you imagine climbing into all that garb every day? Those ruffled necklines, especially, must have been mighty itchy! (Oh, and I guess you saw where poor Rafa had to withdraw from Wimbledon, didn’t you? Sigh. It just won’t be the same without him!)

    • Yes, I hate when history books turn out to be too academic in style – bunches of footnotes and a zillion details of no interest to 99% of readers. Guy shows it’s possible to tell a good story while sticking to the facts. I know – I was thinking that too, especially the ruffs. I couldn’t bear to wear them. The men’s clothes actually look even more uncomfortable than the women’s sometimes (and more ridiculous… 😉 ) I’m really upset about poor Rafa – the last few years he’s just lurched from injury to injury. I fear his glory days might be over…

      • Say that ain’t so — Rafa MUST play again. He’s far too young and talented not to! (Not to mention, he’s pretty easy on the eye, heehee!!)

        • I know, but he seems to be doing himself so much damage. I blame the fact that he did too much body-building in his youth – put too much strain on his body. He looks much better (in all ways!) since he slimmed down, but I suspect the damage was done… but I hope I’m wrong and he’ll get back to full fitness sometime soon!

  5. Stop adding to my list! Easy to understand without me feeling as if the subject matter has been dumbed down – perfect! Surely her advisors would have realised there would be no heirs long before Elizabeth I was 50 though.

  6. Sounds really interesting, FictionFan! I read a biography of Elizabeth about ten years ago, The Virgin Queen by Christopher Hibbert. It was pretty good. I always enjoy history but seem to rarely make time for it in my steady diet of fiction, memoir, and mysteries. This is a good reminder to bump up some historical nonfiction (after my 10 Books of Summer, that is!)

    • She’s a fascinating woman – not always likeable but that’s hardly surprising given all she had to contend with! I do enjoy reading history, especially biographies, and I must say John Guy is one of the most readable – I always credit him for reviving my liking for reading history after many years away from it. Definitely worth considering if you do decide to read some history… after the summer!

  7. Queen Elizabeth sure makes an interesting subject! I’m curious to know how this book compares with others about QE? Have you read any others?

    • Not directly about her – at least not since way back in my school/uni days – but I’ve kind of read around her in various bios, of Walsingham, Mary Queen of Scots, etc. Probably most of my (limited) knowledge of her comes from TV – documentaries and dramatisations. So I’m not really in a position to judge Guy’s accuracy or otherwise, but there was nothing in this that really conflicted with anything I previously knew…

  8. I find Elizabeth I an absolutely fascinating character to read about. Last year, one of my favourites reads was non-fiction Elizabeth I and Her Circle by Susan Doran. I will have to keep this book and John Guy in mind for future reading.

    • Yes, it’s partly her longevity and partly the fact that she was a Queen in her own right, rather than as wife of the King, that makes her so interesting I think. Oh, I must investigate that one – though I feel as if I’ve read tons about the Tudors, I’ve actually read surprisingly little about Elizabeth on her own… 🙂

  9. I’ve noticed that not many of my blogger friends like to review nonfiction except you, which is always a nice mini-break! I, too, enjoy a lot of nonfiction as a great way to learn new things while still getting that feel of a narrative. Which other books by this author have you reviewed?

    • I nearly always have a non-fiction on the go, though they take me far longer to read than fiction. But I often actually enjoy them more than fiction – more satisying. John Guy tends to concentrate on the Tudor period, but I loved his bio of Mary, Queen of Scots. And his bio of Thomas Becket was the book that got me back into reading ‘proper’ history after years away from it. I like historians who pay attention to the story-telling as well as the research…

      • As do I! Much of the non-fiction I’ve read recently comes from journalists, like Barbara Ehrenreich and Jon Krakauer. Both are good at creating a narrative with their research. I remember your Mary, Queen of Scots review, now that you reminded me!

        • I tend to go much more for historical stuff than contemporary journalism – I think because I watch so much news. It’s the same with politics – I enjoy reading memoirs of ex-politicians much more than I enjoy listening to current ones! 😉

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