All the Queen’s Men: The World of Elizabeth I, by Peter Brimacombe. St. Martin’s Press, New York, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, New York. 214 pages. $35 hardcover.
Peter Brimacombe begins his account of the men surrounding Queen Elizabeth I with the story of how Elizabeth Tudor came to be Queen. Daughter of Henry VIII by his second wife, Anne Boleyn, “Elizabeth was not yet three years old when her father ordered the execution of her mother and barely into her teens when Henry died. At fourteen, she was sexually molested by her new stepfather and by twenty-one, the princess had been imprisoned within the grim fortress of the Tower of London. … an upbringing that was to mould the character of one of the greatest rulers Europe has ever known.”
Extremely bright, Elizabeth had to be politically shrewd to keep her head. She stayed in the shadows as Henry VIII’s longed-for son, Edward, by Henry’s third wife, Jane Seymour, ascended the throne at age nine, only to die in six years. After Lady Jane Grey, Henry’s grandniece, sat on the throne for a mere nine days, the crown passed to Elizabeth’s half-sister Mary, daughter of Henry’s first wife, Catherine of Aragon. A devout Catholic, Mary was the scourge of Protestants, including Elizabeth, whom she sent to the Tower of London on suspicion of plotting against her. The charges couldn’t be proved, and Elizabeth was eventually released. Mary reigned only a short time, dying of cancer after only five years on the throne. Then, it was Elizabeth’s turn.
The 25-year-old Elizabeth was a keen judge of character and shrewd in her choice of the men who would serve her as Queen. “I mean to direct all my actions by good advice and council,” she declared at her coronation. Initially, she retained 10 of Mary’s men on her Privy Council for the sake of continuity, but she also added her own. She chose William Cecil for her Principal Secretary of State, a man who proved to be an able administrator for four decades. She appointed her erstwhile suitor, the dashing Lord Robert Dudley, to the Privy Council after his romantic ambitions came to naught. To assure diverse opinions, she appointed Thomas Howard, no friend of Dudley’s.
Elizabeth purposely played her Councillors against each other to keep discussions lively and ideas flying. An attractive woman, she encouraged ardent admiration, but she also frequently flew into rages. To seek the Queen’s favour was to be constantly caught off guard. If she manipulated her Privy Councillors, they also manipulated her. She listened patiently and with great attention to the advice they gave, and then took forever to make up her mind. Even after making a decision, she frequently reversed herself. They learned to act quickly on her chosen course of action before she changed her mind. Mary, Queen of Scots, lost her head as a result of such hasty action. The Council feared that Mary would attempt to take over the throne, but Elizabeth hesitated to have her dispatched, so they acted swiftly when she gave her assent. She and Mary were cousins and had known each other as children, and Elizabeth wept bitterly after the deed was done.
The Queen never left England, but she ably administered international affairs through her emissaries. Men such as Sir John Hawkins, whom Elizabeth appointed as Navy Treasurer for development and maintenance of her fleet, assured England’s command of the sea. Hawkins’ struggle against corruption, wasteful spending, and shoddy workmanship helped prepare the way for the defeat of the Spanish Armada. Other seafarers who sought and received Elizabeth’s favour and support of their voyages included such illustrious men as Sir Francis Drake, whose raids on Spanish territory helped precipitate the war with Spain; Martin Forbisher, who fought admirably against the Spanish Armada; Lord Charles Howard, “conceivably one of the most underrated of Elizabeth’s seafarers”; and Sir Humphrey Gilbert, “one of the first people in England to appreciate the potential of establishing settlements overseas ….”
Elizabeth not only had to choose men to help her rule her country, promote its interests abroad, and assure its dominance on the high seas, but until she passed childbearing age she also endured constant pressure to choose a husband and produce a son. Ivan the Terrible of Russia was a suitor, as were King Eric XIV of Sweden and Queen Mary’s widower King Philip II of Spain. “Catherine de Medici, Queen Mother and Regent of France, successively offered her three sons for Elizabeth’s inspection and possible approval,” Brimacombe comments, “like prize bulls at auction.”
Closer to home, in addition to Dudley, there were Sir Christopher Hatton, Sir Thomas Heneage, and a host of others. A Catholic husband wouldn’t do, and giving a foreign ruler the right, by virtue of marriage to the English Queen, to meddle in English governance seemed ill-advised. Perhaps Elizabeth realized it was more useful to dangle the hope of a liaison before her suitors than to commit to marriage. When it became clear that a marriage was improbable, England shifted to making a virtue out of having a “Virgin Queen.”
Brimacombe also introduces us to the men of God in Elizabeth’s life and reign. She preferred a moderate Protestantism as opposed to the stricter form the Puritans insisted upon, and she chose for her first Archbishop of Canterbury a man she had known since childhood, Matthew Parker, a shy, scholarly man.
Though the Queen never founded a college, she supported them and expected those around her to do so. In a chapter devoted to the arts, Brimacombe reveals that Elizabeth loved having her portrait done, and painting and painters flourished during her reign. The creators of music and architecture enjoyed her support, as did the immortal Shakespeare.
Brimacombe’s fine writing brings the “Queen’s Men” to life and gives the reader a sense of what it was like to live within Elizabeth’s sphere. Though he describes her in great detail, Elizabeth remains an enigma, which she may have been during her life as well–a singular woman.
Judy P. Sopronyi