Sunday, January 25, 2015

Elizabeth - Renaissance Prince

Finished Lisa Hilton's excellent Elizabeth - Renaissance Prince. I know a fair amount about Elizabeth who is one of my heroes/heroines, but there is a great deal here that was completely new to me.

Her central thesis is that we should not see Elizabeth as first and foremost a Queen but as first and foremost a Prince. She shows that reigning women were not at all new - indeed very common at that time: so much so that John Knox had to backtrack rapidly when his Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women of 1558 which was aimed at Catherine de Medici and Marie de Guise in France and Scotland and Mary Tudor in England was then taken as critical of Elizabeth.

She also argues that in the Renaissance the category/rank of (reigning) "Prince" transcended gender and it was the Enlightenment that made gender differences all consuming. An interesting example: in Viking culture female leaders of these pirate bands, of whom there were surprisingly many, were called Vikings despite its nominally male gender.

There are so many details and insights that I would recommend anyone interested in Elizabeth to read it. Two things that were wholly new to me - though of course well known I'm sure to historians, were:
  • Fascinating details of her dealings with Russia (Ivan the Terrible and his successors) and the great profits she and England made from this - with the aid of the first joint stock companies in England.
  • Similarly her highly profitable though problematic trade with the Ottoman Empire. There is a rather delicious extract of a letter to her from Sultana Safiye, addressing Elizabeth as:
the wisest among women and chosen among those which triumph under the standard of Jesus Christ, the most mighty and rich governor and most rare among womankind in the world... I send Your Majesty so honourable and sweet a salutation of peace that all the flocks of Nightingales with their melody cannot attain to the like.

(did she really speak of "those which triumph under the standard of Jesus Christ" or was that a translator? The letter was written in Turkish and translated into Italian - that's certainly what the Italian says and of course I cannot read Turkish!) 
I was also interested to learn that a certain Robert Beale was Walsingham's brother-in-law and transported the warrant for the execution of Mary Queen of Scots. He's not an ancestor (he had no sons, only 2 daughters) and I have no idea whether he is a relation.

Not only is this book a very enjoyable and interesting history, it is really well written as one might expect from an accomplished novelist. Do try it!

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