Review

Elizabeth: The Struggle for the Throne

by David Starkey

Queen Elizabeth I of England is arguably the only woman ever to
give her name to an entire historical era. Four hundred years after
her death in 1603, this remarkable woman continues to cast a
fascinating spell over writers and readers on both sides of the
Atlantic.
British writer and historian David Starkey has now produced the
first installment of what will eventually become a two-volume
biography of "The Virgin Queen." It covers in engrossing detail her
first 25 years, up to the time of her coronation in 1558. Most
biographers slide over those years fairly quickly in their haste to
get Elizabeth onto the throne. Starkey will obviously plow that
already well-plowed field in his second volume, but this one sets
Elizabeth's reign in necessary perspective; the Queen she became
was obviously an extension of the princess she was from
birth.
Starkey ends his book with a fairly detailed discussion of
Elizabeth's first year or two on the throne, perhaps as a means of
setting the scene for his second volume. His final chapter is a
curious one, a sort of "previews of coming attractions," in which
the major events of Elizabeth's 45-year reign are briefly
sketched.
Elizabeth was the child of King Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, the
second of his six wives. Starkey gives us a fully rounded and by no
means entirely approving portrait of this complex and remarkable
woman, whom he sees as a master manipulator of people, a crafty
schemer adept at covering her tracks, and a brilliant woman who saw
much more clearly than those around her where England was headed
and what had to be done, by fair means or foul, to get it there
safely.
For
American readers, keeping track of the enormous cast of characters
of the Elizabethan era can be confusing to no end. Starkey does as
good a job as anyone of sorting all these people out and making the
more important among them come alive as real human beings beneath
their aristocratic finery.
One
major issue of Elizabeth's time, of course, was the relationship
between church and state. Starkey's book probes this central theme
deeply. Elizabeth craftily steered a middle course between the
conflicting demands of the deposed but still powerful Catholic
faction and the uncompromising anti-Catholicism of what he calls
the "hot Protestants" who surrounded Elizabeth. She was herself a
Protestant, of course, but she saw the need to at least appear
willing to accommodate the wishes of her Catholic subjects. For
modern American readers, the book is a sobering cautionary tale of
what can happen when church and state are allowed to collide in the
quest for temporal power. The reader finds himself thinking, "This
is madness --- may it never happen here!"
Starkey is an engaging and readable writer, not afraid to apply
a modern context to the religious and political affairs of
Elizabeth's time (there are delightful passing references to
Margaret Thatcher and Bill Clinton). He is excellent at contrasting
Elizabeth's secretive and subtle statecraft with the blunders of
her predecessor, the Catholic Queen Mary, whose uncompromising zeal
on behalf of Catholics provoked rebellion and endless crisis in
England.
Elizabeth was also the unwilling object of a lifelong crusade
by others to find her a husband, with the aim of producing a male
heir to the throne. Starkey follows this thread in her early life
with special care and concludes that she never intended to marry
but was not averse to letting people think otherwise --- all for
the purpose of keeping her reign secure. A clever underhanded
operator, that lady!
There are a few heroes and lots of villains in the story
Starkey here begins to tell. Elizabeth, he seems to think, was a
little bit of each. One is reminded of the famous capsule summary
of Machiavelli's ideas: a ruler should be "good when he can be, and
bad when he must."
---
Reviewed by Robert Finn (Robertfinn@aol.com)

Reviewed by on January 21, 2011

Elizabeth: The Struggle for the Throne
by David Starkey

  • Publication Date: January 1, 2001
  • Genres: Biography, Nonfiction
  • Hardcover: 384 pages
  • Publisher: HarperCollins
  • ISBN-10: 0060184973
  • ISBN-13: 9780060184971