This article is an edited transcript of Elizabeth I with Helen Castor, available on History Hit TV.
The biographer’s curse of falling in love with your subject is a very difficult thing to avoid. It’s a classic problem for historians that you become the friend of the person through whose eyes you’re trying to see the world. And I’m sure I’m guilty of that when it comes to Elizabeth I.
In my defence, however, I was more and more shocked as I went on with my research for a biography about her by the extent to which many historians before me have been the friends of her ministers.
Elizabeth through the eyes of her male advisers
In reading the papers of Elizabeth’s ministers, I have seen her through the frustrated eyes of the men who were attempting to get her to make decisions that she didn’t want to make. There’s a particularly wonderful moment in around 1577 concerning her adviser Francis Walsingham. Walsingham saw danger everywhere but at that time he also saw danger of a different kind from Elizabeth.
He wanted her to act, to root out treason and treachery and plotting and so on. But Elizabeth was taking her time when it came to deciding what action to take and he didn’t see this waiting as a suitable response.
He described her elusively as, “Us who are in a deep sleep and heedlessly secure”.
I can’t think of a worse and less accurate description of Elizabeth, who, apart from anything else, was a life-long insomniac. If anyone was in a deep sleep then it was not her. She was alert to danger the entire time.
So I think I did come away persuaded of the merits of the position she took. But I didn’t feel sentimental about her. I think she was terrifying and I think spending time in her company must have been a very challenging experience. And she herself was a deeply unsentimental person. But I came away with renewed admiration for her.
Strength in the face of adversity
When you stop to think about it, Elizabeth was under physical threat for most of her life. Her father, Henry VIII, was not shy about getting rid of people who displeased him. He’d killed her own mother, and who knew what else he was capable of.
Later, there were moments in her brother Edward’s reign, followed by the Lady Jane Grey crisis and then repeated moments in her sister Mary’s reign, that were profoundly dangerous for Elizabeth. The blade of the axe was very near at a number of points during her first 25 years of life.
Once she became queen then yes, she had many more protections than before, but sedition, treachery and the threat of foreign powers were everywhere. And the assassination of William the Silent in the Netherlands was really a wake-up call about how vulnerable rulers could be.
Even more so because he was shot and killed with a gun. Guns, of course, meant that there were new ways of killing rulers apart from the poison and the daggers that everyone had already been on guard against. In the face of all of this, Elizabeth was physically very brave.
The speech she gave to English troops at Tilbury in 1588, ahead of a possible invasion by the Spanish Armada, was a particularly great moment.
There, in her breastplate, she showed enormous charisma, enormous presence and enormous courage.
And, although the threat from the Armada had largely passed by that point, there were real threats to be brave about. Although, of course, male rulers might have had to get slightly nearer the front line than Tilbury. She talked about being in the heat and dust of battle, but she knew she never was going to be.
Elizabeth’s lessons for us
Elizabeth makes for a very interesting study today. She is a powerful reminder that we have to keep thinking about the ways in which power and government are shaped for men – they still are.
Our assumptions about what the neutral position is for our rulers is that they will be male. And I don’t think we see enough how being female shaped Elizabeth’s experience, her rule and reactions to her rule – both then and now. I think that’s a very powerful strand of her story that we have to keep hold of.
It’s also worth thinking about viewing “not doing” as a strategy just as much as doing. Not leaping into the bold and glamorous action or the overly hasty decision. Perhaps that’s something we ought to be thinking more about, particularly now.
It doesn’t mean that never acting is always the right thing to do, but that weighing up what vision actually is and weighing up when to act and when not to act are political exercises well worth contemplating.