Reign On!

Four centuries after her death, Good Queen Bess still draws crowds. A regal rash of exhibitions and books examines her life anew.

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That year, the 25-year-old duke had called on Elizabeth in person, the only foreign suitor to do so. (The queen never set foot outside England.) The pair played at being courtly lovers, and Elizabeth was evidently quite fond of the gallant young man, whom she affectionately called “our frog.” Ultimately, says Carole Levin, a professor of history at the University of Nebraska,“I don’t think she ever wanted to marry. But I think she loved courtship and flirtation. I think she adored it.” She is vain, wrote the Spanish ambassador in 1565, “and would like all the world to be running after her.” As for men at the English court, a number of them, both married and unmarried, vied for Elizabeth’s attentions with flattery and gifts. It was how one did business with the queen. Thus, wrote British historian J. E. Neale in his classic 1934 biography, Queen Elizabeth, “The reign was turned into an idyll, a fine but artificial comedy of young men—and old men—in love.”


If Elizabeth herself ever fell passionately, foolishly in love, it was with Robert Dudley, her “sweet Robin.”He was handsome and headstrong, an accomplished horseman and jouster, popular with the ladies at court and unpopular with the men. He and the queen flirted openly; the gossipy Spanish ambassador reported rumors in 1559 “that her Majesty visits him in his chamber day and night.” It apparently bothered neither of them that Dudley was already married. He might well have sued for divorce in hopes of marrying the queen had his wife not been found in 1560 at the bottom of a staircase, dead of a broken neck. Though her death was more likely a suicide or an accident than a homicide, the ensuing scandal doomed Dudley’s chances of ever becoming king. He remained the object of Elizabeth’s affection all the same. When he knelt before her to be made Earl of Leicester (pronounced “Lester”) four years later, the then 31-year-old queen couldn’t resist tickling his neck. “I think she had an emotional and romantic relationship with Leicester,” says Carole Levin. “I think there was some intimacy, but I don’t think it ever went all the way.”


Quick-witted, tough-minded and imperious, Elizabeth wrote her own speeches to Parliament and was England’s chief diplomat—she spoke six languages in an age when none of the ambassadors to London spoke English. She once dressed down a Polish ambassador whom she found impertinent with a long, fluent harangue—in Latin. Her godson, Sir John Harington, wrote that she “left no doubtings whose daughter she was.”


Like her father, Elizabeth was vain, manipulative and a bit coarse. She spat, swore, gambled at cards and backgammon, and picked her teeth in public. She silenced those who tried her patience, even priests in mid-sermon, with oaths like “Jesus!” and “God’s death!” With questionable humor, given her mother’s fate, she joked just before naval hero Francis Drake was knighted that she had “a gilded sword to strike off his head.” And she was a practiced liar as well as a wit. Sometimes she lied apparently for her own amusement. In 1559, with Catholic Europe outraged at her steadfast Protestantism, Elizabeth toyed with the Spanish ambassador by telling him she wanted nothing more than “to be a nun and to pass her time in a cell praying.” The Spaniard was amazed by her gall, concluding, “This woman is possessed by a hundred thousand devils.”


On occasion—weighing a marriage offer, say, or a traitor’s sentence—Elizabeth could be maddeningly indecisive. But in large matters, notably foreign policy and religious affairs, her shrewd, deliberate style was what England needed. With rare exceptions, she refused to commit troops to Protestant insurrections on the Continent, sending the rebels modest cash payments instead. (Elizabeth was notoriously frugal in approving outlays from the royal purse.) At home, she preferred to threaten high-ranking miscreants with exposure rather than execution. Her natural caution, coupled with luck and political savvy, gave England nearly half a century of unaccustomed peace.


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