Friday, March 07, 2014

The Queen's Bed: An Intimate History of Elizabeth's Court by Anna Whitelock

I have frequently written about my fondness for the Tudor Dynasty, which lasted from 1485 to 1603.  The period featured scads of colorful and interesting characters, drama, espionage, treachery, love, hate, corruption, and nearly any other positive or negative activity from tennis to mass executions one can imagine.   

Anna Whitelock’s recently published volume, The Queen’s Bed: An Intimate History of Elizabeth [I]’s Court peers into the most closely guarded secrets of the Court of the Virgin Queen.  These secrets involve the women closest to her.  This platoon of servants were with her from dawn to dusk; from the moment she opened her eyes in the morning through her several-hour ordeal of dressing, primping, and applying makeup, until she is disassembled and readied for a night’s sleep.  The most favored women share her bed chamber through the night, and sometimes even her bed.

Elizabeth I
Rumors of scandals quickly began swirling around Elizabeth almost from the moment she received the crown of England.  The rumors largely revolved around her single status.  Whitelock’s meticulously researched and documented work stuns the reader with its depth and breadth of detail.  Eight pages of color pictures – including well-known portraits of Elizabeth and those of her Ladies-in-Waiting and Maids of the Chamber -- are a treasure trove of insights into one of the most powerful women in history. 

Among a series of epigrams, Whitelock quotes the queen, “We princes, I tell you, are set on stages in the sight and view of all the world duly observed; the eyes of many behold our actions, a spot is soon spied in our garments; a blemish noted quickly in our doings.”  This was in the days long before cameras, paparazzi, and gossip columns. 

Anna Whitelock

Whitelock writes, “The Queen’s Bedchamber was at once a private and public space.  The Queen’s body was more than its fleshly parts; her body natural represented the body politic, the very state itself.  The health and sanctity of Elizabeth’s body determined the strength and stability of the realm” (8).  As pressure grew on England from without – the excommunication by the pope, plots by her cousin Mary, Queen of Scots, and Spanish supporters of Mary I, her deceased half-sister, and from within that she should marry and produce an heir, Elizabeth maintained her kingdom.  William Cecil, Lord Burghley, her most trusted advisor said, “The state of this crown depends only on the breath of one person, our sovereign lady.”

We also learn some astounding statistics.  “The court [included] more than a thousand servants and attendants, ranging from brewers and bakers, cooks, tailors and stable hands to courtiers and ambassadors” (17). Whitelock notes, when Elizabeth moved between her homes, three hundred carts of personal possessions moved with her (17).  146 yeoman of the Guard accompanied the queen wherever she happened to be (18).

Anna Whitelock’s, The Queen’s Bed, provides endless fascination for readers of history and biography of significant women on the world’s stage.  5 stars 

--Chiron, 3/4/14

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