Reading books of European history is a salutary reminder of why we should cherish our democratic tradition, if only because it’s so much less complicated. We were lucky, we Americans. We got to start our nation and its government clean, impersonal, minus the plots and treacheries, the coups and chaos of royalty and the weight of tradition.
Leanda de Lisle is a writer and historian, Oxford-educated, so her credentials would seem, at least to someone on this side of the ditch, impeccable. No breezy account, After Elizabeth takes us day by day, in some cases hour by hour, through the few months during which the old Virgin Queen passed away and the new upstart Scotsman James, her cousin, ascended the throne. James was Elizabeth’s choice for successor because he was a relative, a Protestant, and had had practice in being a king in the savage land of Scotland.
Elizabeth likely died of a tooth abscess. We know her teeth were black and she wore a thick slathering of makeup to disguise her aging features. She had a “swelling of the glands under the jaw…” according to one observer. De Lisle writes: “She sat on her cushions, staring at the ground, her finger in her mouth.” After she finally expired, “mildly like a lamb,” Sir Robert Carey rode hell-for-leather to Scotland bearing a sapphire ring as a token, and in Edinburgh greeted Elizabeth’s cousin James as the new sovereign of what would thereinafter be referred to as Britain.
But none of this was without struggle and intrigue. Sir Walter Ralegh, for one, opposed the ascension of the Scotsman and had plotted to kidnap him during the waning days of Elizabeth’s life. Ralegh supported the claim of Arbella Stuart, James’s first cousin and a pawn in the many royal games played out by Ralegh, Essex and other men who fed off the Queen’s power.
It is helpful that this book begins with genealogies, though the English line “The Descendants of Henry VII” is by no means made easier to comprehend by the fact that Henry VII’s heir, Henry VIII, famously had six wives. There is a further spanner in the works for the uninitiated reader of English history - the tormented relationship between the Catholics and the Protestants, between the moderate and acceptable because state-sponsored Protestantism of the English and the extreme and unacceptable Protestantism of the Puritans, the fly in James’s ointment that ultimately spawned the “King James version” of the Bible. James was intelligent, a reformer who instituted many changes in the relatively new Church of England, but got no thanks for it. Almost anything he did was bound to irritate all parties.
After Elizabeth is rich in detail, such as this, about Anna of Norway, James’s wife, whom he called “my Annie”: “In January 1603, her wardrobe included gold-on-peach gowns with silver sleeves and her hair was habitually adorned with Scottish pearls strung on coronets on the back of her head.”
But in the last analysis, we learn that James, who strode triumphantly into London for his coronation despite all the plots against him, became the subject of nasty parody, described as “a king who wore stiletto-proof doublets, slobbered at the mouth and walked about fiddling with his codpiece.”
This is history with attitude and brings the times to life, even if one (an American one) occasionally needs a playbill to keep all the characters straight.