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Reign On!

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

 

“Her refusal to cater to the extremes of politics or religion, at a time when civil wars were raging through the rest of Europe, was a triumph of the via media, the middle way,” says the NationalMaritimeMuseum’s Sian Flynn. “Somehow Elizabeth personified many things—stability and lack of extremism, for example—that are now considered to be quintessentially English.”

 

Thanks to the relative tranquillity of English life during her reign, the arts flourished. Two treasures in the Folger’s exhibition are first-edition quartos of Shakespeare’s Love’s Labour’s Lost and The Merry Wives of Windsor. “When Shakespeare’s plays were first printed during his lifetime, they appeared as these cheap little paperbacks,” Ziegler says. The title page of Love’s Labour’s notes that the text is “as it was presented before her Highnes this last Christmas.”

 

At the other extreme in the Folger’s collection is an enormous English-language Bible that the archbishop of Canterbury presented to Queen Elizabeth in 1568. The tome is bound in red velvet with ornate gilt clasps embossed with Tudor roses. Oddly, the text is accompanied by hand-colored woodcuts of Elizabeth’s court favorites, including Leicester. Vernacular Bibles were a potent symbol of English Protestantism in Elizabeth’s day—under her Catholic sister, Mary, prayers and scripture in any language but Latin were deemed a sacrilege. Playing to the crowd during her coronation parade, Elizabeth had hugged an English Bible to her chest.

 

To show herself to the populace beyond London, Elizabeth undertook frequent “progresses” from one estate to another. A court on the move was like an occupying army, involving as many as 400 luggage-filled carts. “There were so many people,” says Ziegler, “that they couldn’t stay in one place for more than a couple of weeks because the privies became a health hazard.” Learning she would pass through Sandwich in 1573, the town fathers ordered that the streets be paved, that all hogs be penned and that brewers “brew good beer.” At an open-air banquet the evening of her visit, the queen endeared herself to her hosts by giving her foodtasters the night off. “She was a master of publicity,” says Flynn. “She courted popularity the way Princess Diana did.”

 

On formal occasions when dignitaries gave long-winded orations praising her virtues, Elizabeth would bite her lip and shake her head with mock humility. But once, when a speaker cited her virginity, the queen called out proudly, “God’s blessing of thine heart, there continue!”

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