Friday, January 1, 2016

Elizabeth: Renaissance Prince by Lisa Hilton - Book Review


Elizabeth: Renaissance Prince by Lisa Hilton (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015, 400 pages, $27.00/12.99) is a dense and rewarding exploration of this remarkable English ruler who happened to be a woman. Elizabeth (1533-1603), Henry VIII's daughter by Anne Boleyn spent much of her life battling to establish and maintain herself as the ruler of a country divided by major issues of succession, religious conflict, and political threat from larger, richer countries Spain and France. Machiavelli's seminal work The Prince had been published in Italy in 1513, influencing the emerging European Renaissance to reconsider the role of its leaders and the conflict between declining feudalism and emerging rulers who learned to understand the developing idea of the nation/stage largely under his influence. Hilton emphasizes the conflict between the chivalric courtly politics of the middle ages and the era of national statecraft that comes to flower during Elizabeth's long and glorious reign. During this period, feudalism begins giving way to nascent capitalism. The book explores elements of Elizabeth's development, education, and precariousness that make her accomplishments seem even greater for their lack of inevitability.

While the world swirled around the religious and political ferment attendant to Henry VIII's sexual appetites combined with his desire to leave a male heir, Elizabeth spent her youth squirreled away, mostly out of the political whirlwind at Court, getting a first rate Renaissance education from a range of tutors, mostly associated with St. John's College – Cambridge. She spoke and read in French, Italian, Latin, and German while studying math, astronomy, natural science, music and geography. Her studies in rhetoric, grammar and logic helped polish her use of reason and argument. In other words, she was educated and smart, trained to become ruler of her nation in the increasingly likely absence of a male successor to the throne. Meanwhile, always in danger, she waited out the accession and quick passing of her sickly brother Edward as well as Mary, the Catholic daughter of Katherine of Aragon and Lady Jane Grey.

Hilton spends significant time explaining Elizabeth in terms of the iconography (artistic symbolism) and conventions of courtly love during the period she was ruler of England. While the political winds were rapidly changing all across Europe, Elizabeth established herself as the symbolic as well as actual ruler of her country at least partly through the manipulation of the symbols legitimizing her divine right to govern. Hilton uses details in contemporary paintings and descriptions of elaborate tableaux and pageants as support. The references to then common allusions to Greek and Roman mythology support her contentions.

The other major support for Hilton's portrait of Elizabeth lies in her description of the uses of the conventions of courtly love in Court relationships. This conventional behavior relied upon symbolic language and elaborate flirtation to develop and maintain relationships which actually had no recourse to ever being acted upon in private liaisons. While Hilton refuses to be categorical in this contention, she suggests that Elizabeth did, indeed, die a virgin queen. She successfully established herself as being beyond gender, except whe it suited her to appear weak and feminine.

The courtiers engage in an almost tidal ebb and flow of influence and power within the Court of Elizabeth as advisers and sycophants vie for becoming favorites or fall from favor, placing their lives in jeopardy. There were so many individuals and powerful families from across Europe discussed in the text that I was forced into fairly frequent referal to Wikipedia to help me keep all the personae straight. This is probably more a testament to lapses in my own education than to Hilton's writing. Within this miasma of interlocking power and betrayal, the use of spies, torture, incarceration and execution leads to plenty of intrigue as well as much blood a gore. The struggle for power and favor within the Elizabethan court was not a game for the faint of heart!

Lisa Hilton

Lisa Hilton grew up in the north of England and read English at New College, Oxford, after which she studied History of Art in Florence and Paris. After eight years in New York, Paris and Milan she has recently returned to England and now lives in London with her daughter Ottavia. In addition to writing biography, she also works as a journalist, lecturer and broadcaster. She publishes widely in popular periodicals as well as in professional journals.


Elizabeth: Renaissance Prince by Lisa Hilton (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015, 400 pages, $27.00/12.99) provides readers with a mature and nuanced view of Elizabeth I's life, with particular reference to her growing competence as a ruler and her often brutal responses to opposition or danger to her person or her country. Eventually, Elizabeth sacrifices any hope of personal joy or fulfillment for the sake of the realm and its continued development. The book is a solid piece of careful scholarship developing themes of Elizabeth's rule emphasizing her statesmanship and political savvy rather than her loves and adventures. It seems her major failure seems to have been an inability to achieve both continuity of succession and maintenance of her reign. I recommend this book to serious readers of history who are willing to work at their reading. I received the book as an e-galley supplied by the publisher through Edelweiss: Above the Tree Line. I read it on my Kindle App