I don’t know what you take away on holiday to read – if anything at all? I enjoy a bit of politics (more of that later) and always at some history.I have had Wilsons the Elizabethans on the shelf for some time and it was one of those books that I had picked up but was not able to get into… Third time lucky here and I was quite enthralled by this wonderfully written book.
It is constructed in four sections, each covering a decade or so of Elisabeth’s reign, but cleverly not with a linear narrative. Wilson tackles themes or questions like the ceremonial surrounding monarchy, the relationship with particular individuals or events that took place during her reign.
It is a largely successful attempt to recapture the energy and spirit of a time of burgeoning self-confidence in a variety of fields – statecraft, pageantry, exploration, poetry, drama – which none the less does not pass over the more “difficult” aspects of the reign, including the plight of the majority of women, the poor, the Irish, Catholics and those whose systematic enslavement provided the blood-money for an incipient British Empire.
Wilson is unafraid to use the text by way of expressing his opinions – especially about the Church of England and the demise (that he hopes for) bishops in the second chamber! Various aspects of modernity come under his critical pen.
What he achieves for this reader is a feel for the age and reminds any student of history that it is almost impossible to understand this country without an understanding of the narrative of this period of Elizabethan rule. More accomplished historians will be left to judge whether Wilson has mastered his material, especially in the area of religious controversy and Elizabeth’s relationship to her predecessor Mary.
One wonders alongside Wilson why Elizabeth did not marry and this is discussed quite properly at some length – not entirely satisfactorily but how on earth can any historian get inside such a puzzling question? It is a reminder that we should be careful not to allow our modern values (however though we access or indeed to find them) to determine our attitudes to the past. Sometimes it’s important to study the past simply for the sake of it and not to imagine that it always has to be relevant to the present. How else might we live in a world that moves and changes? There are some particularly interesting issues here as it relates to theology and the work of the church – but perhaps more of that some other time?