Thursday, September 16, 2010

Book Review: Elizabeth's Women by Tracy Borman

This book tells the story of Queen Elizabeth I from the prospective of the women in her life. It includes such familiar characters that have been well documented such as her mother , Anne Boleyn, all of her stepmothers from Jane Seymour through Kateryn Parr, her sister, Queen Mary I, and the rivals for the throne, particularly Katherine Grey (recent subject of Leandra de Lisle’s The Sisters Who Would be Queen) and, of course, Mary, Queen of Scots.

However, it is the lesser known women, mostly members of her household that become well fleshed out women in this story.

We may be familiar with Kat Champerknowne Astley (or Ashley), how fiercely she guarded her close relationship to Elizabeth when Princess (or Lady depending on the times) but how many know about Kat’s second trip to the Tower of London during the aftermath of both the Wyatt Rebellion and the Dudley rebellion and then her return to court as Chief Gentlewoman of the Privy Chamber.

Or Blanche Parry, Elizabeth’s longest servant who lived to be 83 and still held her positions despite her age and infirmities.

Then there is Lady Margaret Douglas, Elizabeth’s cousin, mother of Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley, who, quite frankly hated Elizabeth, and hoped to place herself on the throne after Queen Mary’s death and then pushed her elder son into his disastrous marriage with Mary, Queen of Scots, then encouraged her younger son, Charles, to marry Bess of Hardwick’s daughter and produce the poignant, spoiled rotten Arbella Stuart who was also a strong claimant to Elizabeth’s throne.

I highly recommend reading the book for the stories, well documented by Dr. Borman, of such women as:

The sisters of Robert Dudley, Lady Mary Sidney – disfigured by smallpox for nursing Elizabeth – yet still serving until her death in the 1570’s and Katherine Hastings, Countess of Huntington, whom Elizabeth insisted on breaking the news of her husband’s death to her personally.

Other women covered include the Swedish Helena Snakenborg, who marries Kateryn Parr’s brother, William, only to have him die five months later and again serves Elizabeth faithfully for decades, Katherine Howard, Countess of Nottingham, Bess Throckmorton, one of many of Elizabeth’s ladies who decided to marry in secret only to face Elizabeth’s wrath when they couldn’t hide their pregnancies.

Dr. Borman is a frequent contributor to BBC History Magazine and a recent issue sensationalized a part of the book that deals with Elizabeth’s temper. It was documented by Sir John Harrington, Elizabeth’s godson, that the Queen broke one ladies finger, would hit those who displeased her –however that is only a very tiny part of the book and seems to mostly occur during the last decade of Elizabeth’s life.

Instead enjoy such nuggets as finding out that Kat Astley arranged meetings between Elizabeth and Thomas Seymour AFTER Kateryn Parr’s death, including an evening boat ride, unchaperoned on the Thames (documented from Kat’s interrogation after Seymour’s arrest for treason. ) or the fact that Elizbeth did spend time visiting Anne of Cleves during the reign of Queen Mary I and that Anne also refused to attend mass at court.

I do recommend the book, parts of it when focusing on the familiar women can seem like many other books written about Elizabeth, but the lesser known women’s stories make this book a true revelation.

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