Book Review: “Elizabeth I” by Anne Somerset

915mqJWdp2L.jpgQueen Elizabeth I, “the Virgin Queen”, was the daughter of King Henry VIII and his second wife Anne Boleyn. She was the step sister to Edward VI and Mary I. Her story is full of so many twists and turns, starting from the very beginning, that it is almost a miracle that she lived and became queen. So what type of trials and tribulations did Elizabeth go through to become one of the most successful rulers in English history? What was her life like? Anne Somerset decides to explore these questions, and more,  in her book, “Elizabeth I”.

Anne Somerset puts Elizabeth’s reign into perspective:

When Elizabeth ascended the throne, her kingdom was weak, demoralized and impoverished. A member of Parliament subsequently recalled how at her accession, England was ‘in war with foreign nations, subject to ignorant hypocrisy and unsound doctrine, the best sort under great persecution, some imprisoned, some driven to exile for their conscience, the treasure… corrupt.’. Under Elizabeth, the nation regained its self-confidence and sense of direction. At a time when the authority of the majority of her fellow monarchs was under threat or in decline, she upheld the interests of the Crown while not encroaching on those of her subjects, restored the coinage, and created a Church which, for all its failings, came close to being truly national. While many European countries were being rent by civil war, insurrection and appalling acts of bloodshed , she presided over a realm which (with the exception of her Irish dominions) was fundamentally stable and united. She herself was proud of the contrast between the condition of her own kingdom and that of others….Besides this, Elizabeth was responsible for raising  England’s international standing, defying the most powerful nation in Christendom, and frustrating Philip II’s attempts to overrun both England and France. (Somerset, 570).  

Anne Somerset begins her book with Elizabeth’s birth, the fall of her mother Anne Boleyn, and the death of her father Henry VIII. She then transitions to where Elizabeth was during the reigns of her step siblings, Edward VI and Mary I, which includes her take on Elizabeth’s relationship with Thomas Seymour and Catherine Parr. Somerset does not spend a lot of time in this part of Elizabeth’s life because her real focus is Elizabeth I and her reign.

Starting with Elizabeth’s coronation and the first year of her reign, Somerset breaks her chapters down by certain years and the different conflicts that occurred during that time. I did appreciate this aspect of her book, but it did make for very long chapters. The middle of her book had a chapter on Elizabeth’s court and culture, which I found quite appropriate since the court was the center of Elizabeth’s world. Somerset included information that tends to be overlooked in other biographies of Elizabeth I. For example, she went into depth about the Ridolfi Plot, which was before the famous Babington Plot, and is often overlooked. It is that attention to detail which I found rather enjoyable.

While I was reading this book, it felt like I was discovering a new side of Elizabeth I, which I loved. I have read many biographies about Elizabeth I since she was my favorite Tudor queen, but this one felt different. I actually learned a lot of new information about Elizabeth and her reign that I did not know. If you want a fresh take on Elizabeth I, her life and her reign, I highly encourage you to read Anne Somerset’s book “Elizabeth I”.

Book Review; “The Queen’s Agent: Sir Francis Walsingham and the Rise of Espionage in Elizabethan England” by John Cooper

51FnxQ9BN5L._SX326_BO1,204,203,200_When we think about spies, we often think of modern examples like the ones we see in movies. However, spies and their spymasters have been working hard to protect their countries and their rulers for centuries. For Queen Elizabeth I, the only man she could trust to be her spymaster was Sir Francis Walsingham. But is it fair to call Walsingham as only Elizabeth’s “spymaster”? That is the question that John Cooper tries to answer in his book “The Queen’s Agent: Sir Francis Walsingham and the Rise of Espionage in Elizabethan England”. Who was Sir Francis Walsingham and what did he do to help his queen and his country?

First and foremost, Walsingham was a Protestant. This is very important to understand because, in this time, your religion determined where you stood on certain political and international issues. Walsingham would flee to universities in other countries while Mary I was queen, he would help Huguenots in France during the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre, and helped Elizabeth navigate through her marriage prospects.  In the religious quagmire that was Europe at this time, it was Walsingham and Elizabeth who stood by their Protestant faith and would help the Reformation on.

As Secretary of State, it was Walsingham who helped set up the national defenses against the invading Spanish Armada and helped crack the code of the Babington plot that tried to put Mary Queen of Scots on the throne of England. Walsingham would also help solve the “Irish issue” and help make colonization in America possible. Walsingham and Queen Elizabeth I would often butt heads on issues, but in the end, they would come to a compromise that would benefit the entire country. Through all of this were men that Walsingham could trust, and some he thought he could but they turned out to be double agents for other countries. Walsingham had to navigate it all to protect his beloved queen and country.

John Cooper navigates the complex web of Walsingham’s life and his spy system to seek the truth about the man who became a legendary spymaster. There was a lot of information, but Cooper was able to organize the book in such a way that it was not overwhelming. This book had many twists and turns, as any good book about espionage would, however, the one thing that I wish Cooper would have included was a list of names and what they were known for. For me, it would have made the web a little less complex.

Overall, I found this book very enjoyable. Before this book, I did not know a lot about Walsingham or what he did for Elizabethan England. Walsingham was not just a spymaster, he was so much more and Protestant Elizabethan England would have been lost without him and his actions. If you want to learn more about Sir Francis Walsingham, the complex Europe world with Protestants versus Catholics, or espionage in Elizabethan England, this is the book for you.