Elizabeth I by far outshines modern royals, says Jamie Camplin.
The festivities for May Day 1536 were marked by a tournament at the royal palace of Greenwich. During the excitement, Henry VIII's queen, Anne Boleyn, lent over the balcony, her handkerchief fluttering out of her grasp. Sir Henry Norris had the presumption to wipe his face with it before returning it to Anne on his spear, or so it was later alleged.
The king fell into the blackest of rages and swept out of the gallery. Within ten days Anne, Sir Henry and four others were indicted by a grand jury at Westminster for high treason. Anne was accused of multiple adultery, including incest with her brother, Viscount Rochford. The indictment spared no details and some centuries later taught the historian David Starkey the Latin for "French kiss". Anne Boleyn was executed before another ten days had passed.
The future Elizabeth I, daughter of Anne and Henry, was two-and-a-half years old when her mother was branded a whore. Like her father, she had been born at the brick riverside palace of Greenwich, which no longer stands but which was to become one of her favourite homes. Her reign - exceptional as well as long - is celebrated this year at the 400th anniversary of her death in an exhibition at the National Maritime Museum close to the site of the palace.
Elizabeth, ably edited by Susan Doran, is the book of the exhibition, whose guest curator is Starkey. Indeed, judging by the size of the type on the jacket, this is Starkey (who contributes an introduction) as superstar, his regal subject apparently better understood if safely scrutinised in our modern context rather than her own period. Starkey compares Elizabeth's control of the popular crowd to "Princess Diana at her best". His analogy is with a queen who in 17 days translated Boethius's De Consolatione Philosophiae, as Chaucer, Caxton and King Alfred had - but to a less hectic schedule - before her. The comparison may be strictly with Diana's instincts for courting popularity but the damage is done by the creation of an image all too seductive for today's reader in a hurry.
Historians, marooned in the eras in which they write - their values, preoccupations and aspirations - are doomed to rewrite their histories until the end of time. Yet this generation goes a stage further than the subconscious absorption of influences from its time, setting out to make the past seem relevant by relating it to events of the present.
The writers of the thematic essays into which Elizabeth is organised reveal how deep seated the problem of "make it relevant" has become. The distinguished historian of Puritanism, Patrick Collinson, identifies a Catholic desire for "regime change"; the archivist of the Society of Jesus, Thomas McCoog SJ, asks whether the Jesuit missions were "a papal SAS"; anachronisms ranging from "think-tank" to "flow chart" abound; and analogies from celebrity culture lurk in every paragraph - Elizabeth's Golden Speech, which was, in fact, a response to parliamentary criticism of her use of monopolies, becomes a "tear-jerking farewell".
It would be unkind to say that Starkey turns Elizabeth into a mere celebrity, though it might be more accurate to say that he sometimes seems close to turning her into a Hollywood star of the era of his 1950s childhood. If we want to understand this very special queen, we must begin, and end, firmly within her 16th-century context. No loss of drama is involved. On the contrary, her life is largely a moving human story of a brave and skilled attempt to deal with a series of intractable threats, all of them about as far removed as one might imagine from the England of the second Elizabeth and of Princess Diana.
The first Elizabeth's birth was attended by deep disappointment that she was not a boy. Her mother was beheaded. She faced insecurities of all kinds - not least because of her father, to whom she became close but on whose uncertain favour she depended. Then, in the reign of her half-brother, Edward, she suffered from the attentions of the lascivious Thomas Seymour.
Edward's successor, the Catholic Mary, had her imprisoned in the Tower - where her mother had been judicially murdered - on suspicion of involvement in Wyatt's rebellion. There was no false rhetoric when she later told her parliament: "I stood in danger of my life, my sister was so incensed against me."
In today's terms, we might expect these events to have traumatised the young princess. In fact, we learn more by simply registering that the dangers were real, rooted in 16th-century circumstances and very relevant to the hazards attached to the security of the throne throughout Elizabeth's life. In this pre-democratic era, what often appeared to be close to an absolutist system of government depended very much on consent, and consent within a society deeply divided along religious lines.
Elizabeth herself, when she succeeded Mary in 1559, had learnt resilience, restraint, a dislike of extremes, and she had a survivor's ability to manipulate those extremes.
The chairman of the sponsors of the Greenwich exhibition, Morgan Stanley, sees in Elizabeth "a remarkable leader". But she was also a subtle one. She was an inspired - most of the time - judge of who should help her, with a master organiser, William Cecil, as her chief adviser. She gave trust, but not without demanding absolute loyalty. She could speak plainly, in private or public, but dissemble when the situation demanded it. Above all, perhaps, she understood to the full how politics was the art of the possible.
It was as well, since the politics of her reign continued the themes of her childhood. Three closely linked issues posed three persistent questions.
What could be done to safeguard the succession? Could a small offshore island survive the threatening consequences of a European power struggle? Could the extremes of a world divided on religious lines be contained? When Elizabeth was accused, by both contemporaries and subsequent historians, of parsimony, inconsistency and vacillation, they were ignoring the first duty of any sovereign or political leader: preserve the integrity of the realm before contemplating the grand design. Semper eadem, Elizabeth's motto, was not a passive policy but one that, in 16th-century conditions, required constant intervention.
Elizabeth nearly died of smallpox in 1562, giving an urgency to the matter of the succession. She tantalised all her suitors - "a princess", as the French ambassador said, "who can act any part she pleases". All in the end were ruled out on political grounds, whatever the emotional involvement.
Elizabeth, except at the very last, never properly came to terms with her own mortality, for "think you that I could love my own winding-sheet (shroud)?" She would seek advice, but she would not cede control: "I will have here but one mistress and no master."
The long series of plots against her linked the succession to other challenges: resurgent Catholicism and the European power struggle. If at first Spanish dynastic hostility to France could be exploited, a fight for national survival became inevitable when the most powerful state on the planet went on the rampage. Even when the Armada was defeated, the sense of a beleaguered nation remained palpable. Elizabeth eventually presided over her own aggressive foreign policy but by default, when all diplomacy had failed. England's new maritime empire was supported by Elizabeth to the extent only that it served state ends. Pragmatic objectives, despite the rhetoric, preceded imperial ambitions.
In religion, unlike most of Europe and many of her subjects, Elizabeth was able to distinguish between a belief different from her own and the same belief as a harbinger of treason. But if missionary priests encouraged the deposition of "the usurper and pretensed queen of England" or proponents of "new-fangledness" suggested that the established church was more concerned to protect the kingdom of England than the kingdom of God, they had to be brought into line.
The great strength of the Greenwich catalogue is to give these shaping features of Elizabeth's rule an immediacy through a remarkable array of artefacts. These range from documents such as the ciphers used by Mary, Queen of Scots, to personal possessions and physical reminders of stirring events. A photograph of Hatfield Old Palace in Hertfordshire, where Elizabeth selected her first council, makes the point that the only thing missing is the surviving architectural evidence of Elizabethan England.
What is the balance sheet? Elizabeth's great strength was her concentration on limited, almost parochial objectives. She never left English shores, never saw Wales, Scotland or Ireland, hardly ventured further north than Warwickshire. The longevity and strength of the "British" monarchy is intimately connected with its concern that its writ should run in the southern territory ruled by Edward the Confessor. When threatened, it would respond by beating off or - most usually - absorbing the threat. From a firm base, you could rule the world, but not as an objective of policy.
Elizabeth's caution is not to be confused with timidity. She knew "whose daughter she was", as her godson Sir John Harington said. Unless there was an overriding reason, usually a need for money, she was quick to veto anything that impinged on her prerogative, "the fairest flower in her garden". She could be theatrical, petulant, cajoling, forgiving, all against the background that "a prince's patience must not be tried too far" because it was the role of the prince, not the subject, to rule.
The end was sad, as all ends are, the last years marked by ill-health, financial problems, the death of trusted advisers, continuing political insecurities. The final verdict might come from a source not - I think - used by the writers of the Greenwich catalogue: wonderful, sceptical, empirical David Hume, writer of the 18th-century bestseller History of England. For this hugely determined monarch, "her heroism was exempt from temerity, her frugality from avarice, her friendship from partiality, her active temper from turbulency and a vain ambition". Princess Diana? Hurrumph!
Jamie Camplin is publishing director of Thames and Hudson, for whom he is researching a history of the monarchy.
Elizabeth: The Exhibition at the National Maritime Museum
Editor - Susan Doran
ISBN - 0 7011 7476 5
Publisher - Chatto and Windus in association with the National Maritime Museum
Price - £25.00
Pages - 287