Elizabeth’s Bedfellows: An Intimate History of the Queen’s Court

Peter Gwyn seeks more interpretation in a biography of the Virgin Queen and her male favourites and Ladies of the Bedchamber

July 18, 2013

When I read on the inside of this book’s cover that “this riveting, revealing history of the politics of intimacy uncovers the feminized world of the Elizabethan court, establishing Elizabeth’s women as key players”, I have to confess that my heart sank. Fortunately, Anna Whitelock has written a very different sort of book, essentially a biography of Elizabeth I with a special concern for the Queen’s relationship with her male favourites and the various marriage negotiations that dominated England’s external relations until at least the early 1580s. As for her “women” – essentially those who were appointed Ladies of the Bedchamber and whose duty was to be in attendance on the Queen both day and night, often indeed sleeping in the royal bed – Whitelock makes no extravagant claims for their political importance. Which is just as well, for almost certainly they had none.

As for “riveting”, perhaps it was for her publishers, but for my part I found it a bit of a plod to begin with, as Whitelock has a rather plain style with a great liking for the short sentence. But gradually she won me over, principally by her very skilful use of contemporary quotations, and since much of the contemporary comment was extremely lively, the book became a very good read.

“Revealing” I doubt, especially for anyone who knows even a little bit about Elizabeth, and certainly Whitelock makes no claim to have discovered anything very new. But one thing that I picked up on, which since I am not a great admirer of Elizabeth gave me pause for thought, was her great concern for any of her acquaintances who were ill, often sending her doctors to visit them and even visiting them herself. On the other hand she could be extremely demanding, especially of her ladies, to the detriment of their private lives. And heaven forbid that they should marry, or even worse, have affairs with people who were supposed to be in love with her. But then one does not have to be a queen to find such behaviour rather annoying.

So what one has here is a readable and well-documented biography, but one that not only avoids the speculations that you might expect from the blurb, but contains virtually no interpretation. With the subtitle “An intimate history”, one might expect some answer to the question of whether the Virgin Queen did remain a virgin. It was a topic that much intrigued her contemporaries and, accordingly, frequently appears in the text, but what Whitelock actually thinks about it never really emerges.

The same might be said about whether Elizabeth really loved anyone, and in particular whether she was in love with Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, who here is referred to, rather annoyingly, as Dudley, when most writers refer to him as Leicester. When commenting on Elizabeth’s reaction to his death, Whitelock writes that “she had lost her greatest love”, but the case is not really argued, and it needs to be, for it touches on what is at the heart of any interpretation of Elizabeth’s place in history.

Was she, as for instance J. E. Neale famously argued, a great stateswoman, very much in control of her feelings while using every political trick available to her – including feminine wiles – to successfully steer the ship of state for more than 40 years in extremely dangerous seas? Or was she rather a highly emotional and irrational lady saved from shipwreck by luck and the wisdom of others? Whitelock presents much evidence for both these views, but what she actually thinks she keeps to herself, which seems to me a pity.

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