Κυριακή, 7 Αυγούστου 2016

Reign of terror


Queen Elizabeth c. 1592, after Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger
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The focus of this “partial” biography is the final two decades of Elizabeth I’s reign. Elizabeth’s biographers have, John Guy claims, tended to examine these years only fleetingly; beyond the Spanish Armada of 1588 they run out of steam or merely accept unquestioningly the image of Gloriana and her enduring popularity and success. That narrative, Guy argues, remains heavily influenced by the work of William Camden, Elizabeth’s first biographer, whose hagiographical Annales (or The History of Elizabeth), completed in 1617, together with Sir John Neale’s highly influential Queen Elizabeth (1934), published more than three centuries later, represent an enduring tradition of uncritically celebrating “Good Queen Bess”. Guy’s intention is to puncture this mythmaking and build directly on the work of Lytton Strachey, whose bestselling Elizabeth and Essex (1928) sought to present a very different, emotionally tortured Queen, whose reign falls into two distinct parts. After twenty-five years of rule, Strachey observed, “the kaleidoscope shifted; the old ways, the old actors, were swept off with the wreckage of the Armada”. It is from where Strachey “blazed a trail” that Guy aims “to strike out”.

Guy’s trademark approach, in evidence again here, is a forensic rigour, accepting nothing at face value and believing that no accepted view is beyond scrutiny and re-examination. Yet for all the claims as to the novelty of Elizabeth: The forgotten years or more precisely its direct Strachean inspiration, Guy’s biographical narrative in fact builds on a thesis that the author presented more than twenty years ago. In a ground-breaking collection of essays entitled The Reign of Elizabeth I: Court and culture in the last decade (1995), Guy drew together a number of scholars to consider the 1590s as a distinctive period in Elizabeth’s long reign. A-level and undergraduate history candidates in recent years can attest to the appearance of various “second reign” Elizabeth I questions. Guy’s turning point in the collection was the Queen’s decision to send an expeditionary force to the Netherlands in 1585, which marked a decisive shift away from her hitherto non-interventionist foreign policy. Now, Guy’s watershed and the starting point of his narrative is a year earlier, 1584, the annus horribilis which saw the assassination of Prince William of Orange, the leader of the Dutch Calvinists in their struggle against the might of Catholic Spain. This presented Elizabeth with “the starkest, most dangerous choice of her life”: should she go to the aid of the Dutch rebels, thereby inevitably provoking war with the King of Spain, Philip II, or leave them to their fate and the prospect of the Spanish conquering the Netherlands within striking range of England? Her decision “would define the rest of her reign”, drawing England into a conflict after thirty years of peace that would continue for the rest of her life.
Given the collaborative nature of his work two decades ago, it is somewhat surprising that Guy doesn’t explicitly identify the work of the many other scholars who, since Strachey, have also sought to move beyond the myths, covering similar ground or asking similar questions. While many (though not all) of these works are referenced in footnotes, their absence in Guy’s case for the book is rather disingenuous, as is the claim that “the woman who will emerge from the pages of this book is an Elizabeth rarely glimpsed before”. Guy’s portrayal of a woman both “powerful and vulnerable, wilful and afraid” may be unfamiliar to many, but it is certainly not unknown, and has been the focus of a number of recent works.
Moreover, these “forgotten years” include the execution of Mary, Queen of Scots, the defeat of the Spanish Armada and the rise and fall of Essex – probably the three best-known episodes of the whole reign. In fact the narrative Guy presents is at once both familiar and not, and certainly contains some important correctives and revisionist vignettes. One can undoubtedly be confident in his methods. Rather than relying on the Victorian editions of the Calendars of State Papers, he has read and re-examined all the original manuscript material (although perhaps less quite the feat it sounds, given that all these documents have now been digitized and are available on State Papers Online) and has drawn on the often underused Chamber accounts, which record daily expenditure and therefore allow “Elizabeth’s day-to-day movements and those of her chief advisers to be worked out”. He has also read neglected or newly discovered manuscripts and these add typical depth and dis­tinction to Guy’s narrative. Drawing on a collection of letters related to the imprisonment of Mary, Queen of Scots which have recently reappeared in a London auction room after decades in private hands, Guy describes Elizabeth’s conflicted feelings towards her cousin and how she was evidently torn between “jealousy and mislike” and a desire for reconcil­iation. Other new documents identified in Brussels reveal, for example, that even after the Armada sailed, Elizabeth was desperately seeking peace and so concerned to avoid the prospect of Spanish soldiers landing on English soil that she would have accepted the most humiliating terms. It is perhaps a little surprising that Guy doesn’t apply his forensic scrutiny to discussion of the “Armada speech”, and readily accepts that Lionel Sharpe, the Earl of Leicester’s chaplain, is the “most authentic” source for Elizabeth’s famous address at Tilbury.
For many readers it will doubtless be Guy’s vivid account of Elizabeth’s cruel methods against Catholics or suspected traitors and the climate of terror amid economic crisis and political and social discontent that is most striking and unfamiliar. Guy convincingly argues that Elizabeth sanctioned, and even encouraged, the activities of the notorious Catholic-hunter and rackmaster Richard Topcliffe, who tortured suspects in a “strong room” in his house in Westminster. Indeed, “strong archival evidence exists that she knew him personally, thoroughly approved of his activities and received reports directly from him rather than through intermediaries”. The smoking gun which proves her acquiescence in some of Topcliffe’s worst atrocities lies buried in Burghley’s papers. When the Jesuit priest Robert Southwell was arrested in 1592, Topcliffe wrote to tell Elizabeth how the prisoner was shackled to the wall in his “strong chamber” and had responded to interrogation “foully and suspiciously”. Topcliffe sought the Queen’s permission to “enforce” the prisoner “to answer truly and directly”, by stretching him out against the wall using “hand gyves” (iron gauntlets). Although the Queen’s reply to Topcliffe’s letter was not written down, the fact that he proceeded with the torture methods he had described and with no further warrant as the law required, is in Guy’s view “chilling proof that she gave her consent in the full knowledge of what he was about to do. Topcliffe would not have dared to act as he did had the Queen forbidden it, and she was far from squeamish”. Moreover, when, after a two and a half years of solitary confinement in the Tower of London, Robert Southwell was finally brought to the gallows at Tyburn, Elizabeth specificallyordered that he be forced to endure extra suffering, and after being hanged, Southwell should be cut down while fully conscious and disembowelled. This was no one-off. Ten years earlier, she had issued similar orders when William Parry, a failed assassin, made the journey to Tyburn. After just one swing of the rope he was cut down from the gallows on Elizabeth’s order and while he was still fully conscious, had his heart and bowels ripped from his body with a meat cleaver. Finally, after he had let out a “great groan”, his head and limbs were severed from the corpse and the head set on London Bridge as a warning to others of the “terrible price of treason”. So much for Good Queen Bess.
This climate of terror came at a time of mounting economic crisis, as rising prices, harvest failures, plague and returning sick and wounded soldiers in search of work or charity, created acute social hardship for which Elizabeth and her advisers were ill-prepared. In June 1592, when an angry mob of apprentices, war veterans and unemployed men armed with cudgels and daggers filled Bermondsey High Street in Southwark, the government launched a crackdown. Playhouses, bear-baiting rings and other places of public entertainment were closed down and curfews imposed. The Privy Council forbade discharged soldiers from entering the city. Violence, and hostility towards immigrants who became scapegoats for poverty and recession, scorching temperatures, harvest failures and then storms and torrential rain which saw houses and cattle swept away, encouraged riots, muggings, looting and arson attacks. Elizabeth increasingly became the focus of discontent. Guy’s depiction is stark: “cocooned within the gilded bubble of her palaces, she feared social revolution but did little to help prevent it beyond exhorting others to action”. She was entirely “out of touch with the horrendous conditions experienced by the overwhelming majority of her people”. Elizabeth’s familiar rhetoric about how much she loved her people and how much they loved her rang increasingly hollow. “Smouldering resentment of the queen” sparked into open revolt when on Sunday June 29, 1595, several thousand men marched on Tower Hill. Elizabeth summoned her councillors to an emergency audience at Greenwich Palace and dictated what would become “arguably the most savage proclamation of her reign”, ordering martial law to be imposed throughout London and its suburbs. In the most serious cases, “suspects of no fixed abode who were caught roaming the streets were to be hanged from the gallows ‘by order of martial law’ without the need for legal process”.
Guy paints a vivid picture of the climate of terror enacted on the streets of London. Such extreme measures “sparked fears that Elizabeth intended more generally to override law courts prompting the judges of the Court of Queen’s Bench to send the queen a memo reminding her of their rights”. Guy’s observation that Elizabeth’s most trusted adviser Sir William Cecil, Lord Burghley, “did his best to rein in the queen’s desire for exemplary hangings” is equally telling. But the terror continued. During 1596 and 1597, shiploads of beggars, vagrants and thieves would be sent for military service to Ireland or the Netherlands, and demobilized war veterans caught begging for lack of pay were to be arrested and sent straight back to the front line. Elizabeth failed to honour her promise to reward the sailors who defeated the Spanish Armada, leaving many “dying in the gutters of Margate”. This all begins to feel like a very unfamiliar narrative.
Amid his vivid rendering of the terror and hardship of the times and the resentment felt towards the Queen, Guy also makes the case that these “forgotten years” witnessed Elizabeth’s own personal empowerment. Now beyond childbearing and free from the pressure to marry, she was able to assert herself more fully and resolved to “rule as well as reign”.While she remained reliant on men such as the long-serving Lord Burghley, Sir Francis Walsingham and latterly Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex, this was not a blind devotion. Burghley remained at the very heart of politics, controlling access, briefing ambassadors and drafting royal correspondence, but Elizabeth would never forgive him for his role in pressing for the execution of Mary. Guy maintains that in her early fifties, Elizabeth at last asserted supreme power over him. Guy’s portrayal of the Earl of Essex is particularly compelling, albeit with the occasionally jarring anachronistic turns of phrase, describing for example how Essex “nursed psychosomatic illnesses most likely brought on by stress”. He, too, though often seen as the object of Elizabeth’s post-menopausal infatuation, never had an unassailable place in her affections. He was no substitute for her former favourite the Earl of Leicester because as Guy notes, he “never really understood her”. Indeed for Elizabeth, Essex was “partly an accessory, ultimately disposable”: “She was not in love; that could never be”. Elizabeth was at odds with Essex and her other close councillors over her naval and military strategy during these “war years”, but it was she rather than they who was in overall control.
This is an important corrective to the traditional view that lingers on of Elizabeth losing her grip in her later years. In Guy’s view, she was stronger, far more interventionist and much “harder to handle than before”. And this highlighted even more acutely the issue of the succession that had dominated the reign. Guy does well to paint a picture of the times when “momentous, menacing uncertainties faced the country and the state: the course of events rested on a knife’s edge”. And in these “dark, doubtful, dangerous days, there existed a fine line between treachery and loyalty”. Essex and Robert Cecil (Burghley’s son, who succeeded his father as Elizabeth’s chief minister) both corresponded clandestinely with King James VI and his agents in Scotland. These are perhaps the real “forgotten” days and weeks of the reign. Having not married as had been continually asked of her, Elizabeth had allowed a situation to develop by which the succession would now depend on the whim of her dying wish, or else by conquest or civil war. When the Queen’s long life finally ended and amid a news blackout, rumours of plots and “false lies” as to whether she had named a successor, a new Scottish ruler, James I, was proclaimed king. Elizabeth remains widely regarded as one of England’s most successful monarchs, but by failing in the fundamental task of kingship – securing a smooth succession – she failed.
Significant, forensic and myth-busting, John Guy inspires total confidence in a narrative which is at once pacy and rich in detail, although somewhat haphazard initially as the background to 1584 is filled in. The claims of ground-breaking novelty are rather overplayed, but by re-examining the sources Guy refocuses the popular narrative. The result is not quite a portrait of an Elizabeth never seen before, but a significant account of a delayed royal coming of age.

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