Monday, March 28, 2016

Elizabeth I: A Machiavellian Prince

     B. W. Beckingsale. Elizabeth I (1963) A well done survey of Elizabeth’s life, emphasising the political life. Early on she learned that it was dangerous to let her personal life intersect with her role as Queen, and she very nearly destroyed herself as Queen when early in her reign Dudley’s ambitions outran her affection. But for most of her reign, she was a skilled administrator and exploiter of the existing political structures. On the record, she achieved pretty well everything she wanted. She listened to her advisors, but she was not ruled by them. She was the first monarch to understand the power of public opinion, and she cultivated it, so that what she appeared to be often cloaked what she did. She died leaving behind an England more prosperous, secure and peaceful than she found it.
     I think Elizabeth was a Machiavellian Prince.  She saw her duty to maintain peace and good order and to defend against foreign incursions. She governed her realm well, relying on the love of her subjects as well as the skill and wisdom of her advisors to maintain absolute power. But that power was beginning to shift to Parliament, and none of her successors were able to act as she did. Charles I lost his head trying to do so. She was willing to do what was needed, although there were times when it was not easy: she dithered about signing Mary, Queen of Scots execution warrant, and never gave the actual order to carry it out; that was done by the bureaucrats, acting on the authority implicit in the warrant.
     We will never know how much her sense of duty to the realm cost her. Power is seductive, but I think there’s enough evidence in Elizabeth’s actions and recorded words to show that she saw power as a means to an end, not an end in itself. She was capable of great personal sympathy and friendship towards people outside the power-structures of the court. But she also maintained a strict rule over her Maids of Honour.
      Beckingsale is very good at keeping to a clear narrative, introducing asides but never letting them obscure the central plot.  In the end, we understand both the legend, which persists to this day, Elizabeth’s role in developing it, and the reality which underlay it and which it often hid. The book is one in a series that were popular post-WW2, when people aspired to an education that still aimed at the cultivated individual. It was clearly intended as supplementary reading in secondary and post-secondary schools, as well as for the “interested layman”, that semi-mythical creature that provided a ready and profitable market for the publishers. Well-done of its kind. The book is out of print. I found a copy 30-odd years ago, and it languished on Jon’s bookshelves until I read it. ***

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