Friday, November 21, 2014

Leanda de Lisle on New Elizabeth I Biography

Reviewed in The Spectator: Lisa Hilton's Elizabeth: Renaissance Prince:

Women are ‘foolish, wanton flibbergibs, in every way doltified with the dregs of the devil’s dunghill’. So a cleric reminded Queen Elizabeth I. His sermon reassured her that her personal qualities made her exceptional. But Elizabeth was not merely an ‘exceptional woman’, snorts Lisa Hilton. She was also ‘an exceptional ruler’ — one who refashioned her kingdom as ‘a modern monarch, a Renaissance prince’.

Elizabeth’s accession in 1558 coincided with the publication of John Knox’s notorious blast against the ‘monstrous regiment’ or ‘rule’ of women. Happily such views were ‘based more on hostility to Catholicism than to female ruleper se’, we are told. Royalty ‘negated gender’, and Hilton believes Elizabeth would reign largely unrestricted by the issue. While the doltified Mary had wanted to drag ‘England back to Catholic conformity’, Elizabeth was destined to take her kingdom ‘from the darkened constrictions of medievalism towards a recognisable world’, imbued with the ‘new learning’.

But de Lisle takes issue with Hilton's view of Mary v. Elizabeth:

Many of Hilton’s assertions are controversial, not to say startling, and there is plenty to take issue with. Mary I, far from being backward-looking, ruled at the cutting edge of the Counter-Reformation. It was Elizabeth who looked back, clinging to the Protestantism of her brother’s reign, rather than pushing reform forward — to the disappointment of Cecil and others. Her stubborn conservatism was encapsulated in her motto Semper Eadem (‘I never change’), and as a ruler she proved a master of inactivity. Essex (whom Hilton under-estimates) complained that Elizabeth could be ‘brought to nothing except by a kind of necessity’.

She notes that Hilton offers something new:

Whether you agree with Hilton or not, she brings balance to the view that we must judge Elizabeth through the prism of her gender. It is refreshing to be confronted by challenging arguments instead of tired anecdotes. This biography is also full of unusual and interesting insights. I loved the observation that the three most important men in Elizabeth’s life were Cecil, Robert Dudley (whom she loved) and Philip II of Spain. Apparently she kept a painting of Philip in her bedroom. Hilton takes an admirably unsentimental view of Elizabeth’s necessary ruthlessness, while the chapters on Turkey and Russia help place her rule in its wider international context.

More about the book here.

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