Author: Susan Doran
Rating: 4 Stars
I received this as an ARC from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.
I must first disclose that I am no particular fan of Elizabeth I. She was a spoiled, manipulative, whiny brat who made everyone around her suffer with her tantrums and outbursts. She could not stand to see her favorites happy with anyone but her, yet would or could not ever commit to any of them due to their varying statuses in society. However, that being said, I find the Tudor dynasty truly fascinating, and even Elizabeth's place in it. (Incidentally, I was concurrently reading God's Traitors: Terror and Faith in Elizabethan England, and Elizabeth was not nearly as religiously tolerant as some have been lead to believe in the past. I find it unfair that Mary Tudor will forever be 'Bloody Mary' because of her religious fervor, yet there are hardly any mentions at times of the terror that Catholics felt and faced once Mary died and Elizabeth assumed the throne. But that is another review for another book.)
I have read many books about life in Elizabethan England, including various books specific in regards to Elizabeth's relationships with certain people, such as her half-sister Mary, one specifically about Elizabeth and Dudley, and of course her doomed cousin who repeatedly made the most appallingly poor choices once could make, given her precarious position once in Elizabeth's custody, Mary, Queen of Scots. And don't even get me started on the fact that Elizabeth had no right to hold, or put on trial the monarch of another country, nor sign the laughable death warrant and PLEASE, of course she knew about it and sanctioned it and only played innocent afterwards to avoid war with James - who himself did not seem terribly bothered by the murder of his mother. But why should he, since he had never really known her and was too busy being a sloppily dressed king who apparently could not keep his tongue in his mouth, But I digress.
This book is well-researched and neatly laid out in a way that anyone could find interesting, whether they are just learning about Elizabeth's world for the first time, or they, like me, have an in-depth knowledge already. I liked that it was broken up into sections, family, courtiers (both men and women), and councilors. While I did skim over the chapter on courtiers as it related especially to Dudley (because seriously, that is a dead horse that continues to be flogged. He and Elizabeth truly were perfect for each other - whiny, manipulative brats, a lot of the time. And don't even try to tell me he cared one iota when Amy died, since he had not seen her in A YEAR. He cared that his reputation was in tatters over the murder allegations and he certainly could never marry Elizabeth after that.) I recognize that of course in any book about Elizabeth there will have to be sections related to Dudley, he was easily the most important man in her life for decades, I just personally am not especially interested in reading any more, as I am not sure at this stage what new information can be uncovered. Nor to I really care too much that they did or did not ever actually have a sexual relationship. I'm quite sure they probably did, though I can only hope that the stories of the babies resulting from the rumored relationship being killed are untrue, because that in itself is wholly heartbreaking to think of.
I especially found the section on Christopher Hatton interesting, as he is one of the courtiers I knew the least about. And we best not forget poor, stupid Devereux, busting into Elizabeth's chamber in a misguided attempt to win back her favor. Clearly he knew her not at all if he thought that was ever a good idea.
I wish there was more information available on the women who served Elizabeth in her lifetime. In this section about courtiers, each of the gentlemen (Dudley, Hatton, and Devereux) are given their own chapters, while the women are all lumped together in one long chapter. Again, this is likely due to the fact that there simply is not as much information about the women of the time, despite them being wholly more important than those three men, as they were the one who literally attended to the queen's ever whim and need. Kat Astley/Ashley, whatever you would prefer to call her, as every author takes their own liberty with her name, seems to be one of the few where there are more than a few sentences. This is owing to the fact that she is the one woman who was almost always constant in Elizabeth's life, despite a few times where she was locked up for various offences (did it ever really seem like a good idea to try to hook the teen-aged Elizabeth up with Seymour? Seriously?) But anyway, it felt as though the women were less important and less influencing then the men, which perhaps may have been the case, though it seems to be with as stubborn and narrow minded as Elizabeth seemed to be, that no one could really tell her what to do, save one man, William Cecil.
I especially enjoyed the section devoted to Elizabeth's councilors. Walsingham has always been a somewhat shadowy figure for me and this book really helped flesh him out and make him more real. I guess perhaps because he was so good at his job being a spymaster and all, even in all the books I've read, I have never been able to fully get a grasp on him as a person. But this text nicely laid out who he was and how he fit into this world, spying and all.
As I said before, I am not actually particularly fond of Elizabeth as a monarch, but truly found her treatment as a child horrible at times, that she can't really be blamed for turning out the way she did - just as I feel the same way about her half-sister Mary. Here is a baby, clearly one who has a devoted mother who cared deeply for her child, despite not being able to personally raise her (Anne Boleyn might have been a lot of things - manipulative and home-wrecker among them [though not incestuous, despite the accusations] but from other readings I have done 'terrible and inattentive mother' are not ways she could ever be described). You have to wonder how early on she learned the fate of her mother, and how deeply it might have effected Elizabeth for the rest of her life - and her relationship with her father. Now granted, family relationships look far different today than they did then, but children are still children, and trauma like that surely caused her grief. And by various account, Jane Seymour seemed far more fond of Mary than Elizabeth, to the point Elizabeth was all but ignored. So here, you have a child who may or may not know her mother was beheaded on her father's orders, who has been sent away from court, reduced from princess to lady, then to be rejected by a potential mother figure for reasons that are not in her control? I must say, while I certainly enjoy reading about this time period, and the Tudors especially, I am certainly glad I was born in the 20th century.
Overall, I found this to be a well-written, well-researched account of Elizabeth's life and the people who knew her. While the title may be a bit mis-leading (as Mary, Queen of Scots was certainly NOT part of her 'circle'), I understand what the author was going for with the title. These are the people who, for better or worse, shaped Elizabeth into the person she became, who history (though not me) remembers as one of England's greatest monarchs. Highly recommended for anyone interested in the time period or the Tudors.