Myths are best served exploited, otherwise they can get too inflated and thus hide the substance of any dish. And if that dish is the national conscience or the identity of a nation, then such over-excitement must be avoided, lest it become the over-elaborated norm.
In recent times, the Tudors have become the currency of entertainment, and not just in the British media. From TV series to historical novels to feature films, we’ve seen a plethora of offerings, primarily Henry VIII and Elizabeth stories, it must be said. These often degenerate into costume dramas or political intrigue novels, where the precision of the story is softened to create the kind of simplistic plot cliché that mass markets are supposed to demand. “Based on a true story”, that overloaded and internally contradictory signature is now so overloaded that it would be better to omit it. “Made with historical names” would be better. And while there is nothing wrong with fiction, as it often allows interpretations that challenge received wisdom, there are real difficulties when that fiction is translated into a myth whose acceptance becomes so widespread that it cannot be questioned. It could be argued that the connotations associated with terms like Good Queen Bess, Golden Age, or even simply Elizabethan are in danger of relying more on fiction than fact. Or maybe these are nostalgic labels for contemporary ideal states believed to be lacking in our time.
And so what an absolute delight it is to find a book like Elizabeth – The Forgotten Years by John Guy. This is a book that is truly based on true stories, as this academic historian from Clare College, Cambridge references and describes whatever sources the reader may need to support any point. Timescales are not extended, the statement is supported by facts, and mystery can only obscure the facts when there is no evidence.
The forgotten years of John Guy’s title refer to the latter part of Elizabeth’s reign. The first years that preceded the Armada in 1588, with their multiple plots, proposals, pairings, and conspiracies are the ones that form the backdrop for most fictions. These last years were characterized by war, economic difficulties and political intrigues. Perhaps they were dominated by succession considerations, since Elizabeth, of course, had no heir. It is worth noting here, however, that John Guy, by virtue of a discursive style that deals with issues rather than a mixture of chronologically organized events, offers as context much background material related to the years before 1588. This Image that is supposed to be a selective encounter with the last years of Elizabeth’s reign contains a very complete and detailed description of her entire reign.
John Guy makes several assumptions that should guide our understanding of the period. In the 16th century, he says, status did not prevail over gender. Elizabeth was a woman, and that meant that many of the men at court respected her little or nothing, other than the recognition of her birthright. And, because his mother was Anne Boleyn, whom his father married after he was denied a divorce, even that was questioned by many, especially those of the old faith, who also would have wanted to do more than simply undermine this Protestant queen. The author, by the way, is not implying that gender issues are or have been different in other centuries. As a professional historian, you are simply defining the extent of relevance that should be attributed to your comment. Second, since Elizabeth was a single woman, the question of succession had to dominate her reign. In the early years, this meant various struggles to find her a husband in the hope that a male heir might materialize. But later, in the period that John Guy’s book covers, Elizabeth was too old to have children anyway. The discussion about succession, therefore, shifted from pairing to more strategic and political territory.
In Elizabeth – The Forgotten Years, the queen is portrayed as a primarily medieval monarch. She viewed herself as a descendant of God, the secure family of all others who shared this enthroned proximity to the Almighty. Therefore, he could not bring himself to sign the death warrant for Mary, Queen of Scots, believing that anyone’s decision to kill a royal would legitimize the practice, and who would be the next to receive it in the neck? And since this, by definition, was a direct attack on God, it also carried condemnation as a consequence. Hence Isabel’s duplicity in making it known that she wanted him to get rid of María and, at the same time, denying any responsibility for the act, for which she demanded that the person who expressed her wishes be accused of treason. These medieval royalty were above reason, it seems, as well as above the law. And messengers, it seems, have always been fair game.
This unwillingness to sign a death warrant was not a weakness that plagued Elizabeth very often. It seems that the mere smell of plot or conspiracy quickly resulted in all smells being masked by the smell of fresh ink that formed his signature on an invitation to the Tower. John Guy’s book regularly hangs us with these doomed people, usually men of course, and offers details of their fate. A particularly memorable prayer, specifically suggested by the queen, caused a condemned man to be hanged by a single movement of the rope, so that he could then be cut off and, still alive and conscious, witness his own guts and beating heart being placed in soil. ground next to him. In an age that still believed in the resurrection of the mortal body, these treacherous criminals had to be dismembered and their parts separated to ensure that their souls would never be saved. It may have been God’s will, but it certainly was His reigning representative on earth.
This Good Queen Bess, by the way, had a habit of broadcasting similar fates quite regularly. She also refused to pay salaries to the soldiers and sailors who fought for her, dressed in finery while her war wounded received no assistance or pension and were forced to sleep in the open. She made two eyes blind to the diseases and epidemics that devastated her forces and population. Isabel, the patriotic heroine, too, and perhaps deceptively, demanded peace with Spain, offering Felipe II terms close to surrender if he and she could agree to divide economic interests between them.
He handed over monopolies to his courtiers and lobbyists in exchange for a share of the profits. A real strength of John Guy’s book is the insistence on translating the values of the Elizabethan era into current terms. The resulting multiplication by one thousand reveals the extent to which the elites shared national finances. Although she was parsimonious when others had to receive her, Elizabeth requested for herself only the best and most expensive treatment. After all, it was his right.
Elizabeth also supported an English economy that elevated theft on the high seas to a strategic objective. And their intermediaries treated the expeditions like capitalist enterprises, with ministers and the like taking shares in the companies in exchange for a share of the loot. And much of this would be stolen before it was declared or when it was landed by manipulators or mere thieves who clearly learned its morals and behavior from the best assumptions. The market was apparently free, but those who operated it ran the risk of being imprisoned.
Hence, Elizabeth – The Forgotten Years will be a complete reveal for anyone who has absorbed the popular culture representation of this era. John Guy’s book identifies the very human traits displayed by this pious queen and absurdly posits them along with the attitude of her contemporaries that she was a mere worthless woman.
There are not many figures in John Guy’s wonderful book who come out unscathed, either in reputation or in body. Nor does it set out to destroy anyone’s reputation. As a historian, you present evidence, evaluate it, and then offer an informed and balanced opinion. However, this is healthy, as in the current climate populism is too often allowed to merge its own version of history into its message. He does this to gain some control of a contemporary agenda through the creation of myths, and Tudor melodramas are no exceptions to this rule. Elizabeth – The Forgotten Years demands that we accurately remember our real past in all its madness, and in doing so, blow up many dangerous myths.