book review, history

Review: Elizabeth: The Struggle for the Throne by David Starkey

Elizabeth: The Struggle for the Throne by David Starkey focuses on Elizabeth Tudor’s childhood and rise to power, rather than the majority of Elizabeth biographies that focus on her entire life or just her reign. I knew a bit about Elizabeth’s upbringing before reading this book, but Starkey filled in the gaps and offered interesting information regarding the young Elizabeth’s interactions with those around her. One point I’ve always found interesting was the “frenemy” relationship Elizabeth had with her half-sister, Mary, whose mother was the Spanish Catherine of Aragon. Growing up, Elizabeth and Mary suffered much the same in being “de-legitimatized” in favor of their younger half-brother Edward, whose mother was Jane Seymour. While Edward was alive, the young women commiserated their lot with each other, yet held tenderness toward their younger brother. Elizabeth, however, was closer to Edward in age and seemed to perhaps have a stronger bond with him than Mary. This case may also be due to the fact that both Elizabeth and Edward were Protestant, while Mary remained a staunch Catholic like her mother.

Although a princess, Elizabeth did not necessarily have a great childhood. She, along with her siblings, was shuffled among different guardians after her stepmother, Catherine Parr died. From what I gather, Catherine was actually kind and nurturing to Henry’s children and even led by example. Catherine had slightly “radical” religious beliefs at the time, and I believe Elizabeth absorbed those qualities, which only enhanced her Tudor qualities of ambition, confidence, and independence. Another adult who shaped her experience as a young woman was Thomas Seymour, brother of the late Jane Seymour. He was a guardian to Elizabeth after Catherine Parr’s death, but the relationship between him and Elizabeth is fraught with speculation. Even though Thomas in fact married Catherine Parr after Henry’s death, Thomas seems to have preferred Elizabeth as his wife despite her age. Historians are split on the relationship between the two: was it sexually abusive or was it consensual? The famous assault in the garden where Elizabeth had her gown cut up certainly points to abuse. Perhaps Elizabeth’s early negative experiences with Thomas Seymour instilled within her the belief that she must keep men at an arm’s length, for any man close to her only ever wanted her for her power. Elizabeth understood from an early age the importance, for herself and for the Crown, to maintain control over her own lands and legacy without a man taking that from her.

The religious divide between the Mary and Elizabeth, as well as the bad blood between their mothers, was enough to slowly and surely drive a wedge between the sisters. And when Mary took the Crown after the young Edward passed away, she cracked down on England to return to “the old religion” and align itself with Spain and the Habsburgs. In turn, she married King Philip of Spain, who was a very unpopular choice to the English people. Mary’s mistakes as Queen snowballed, and fueled by her rigid ways, soon imprisoned Elizabeth. To be fair, there were several plots occurring behind the scenes to get Elizabeth the Crown. All of which, Elizabeth claimed to know nothing about–although being an astute and politically minded young woman, I’m sure she knew and was involved.

If there is one thing that is consistent about Elizabeth’s rise to the throne, it’s that she was both her father’s daughter and her mother’s daughter: the product of ambition, intelligence, and cunning. Learned in literature, history, and various languages, Elizabeth was a born politician. At the same time, she always craved to be viewed favorably by her people and thus took a measured and counselled approach to much that she did, notably her slow transition away from Catholicism so as not to alienate half of the population. Despite her fierce independence, she understood the wisdom and value in taking advice from others for the good of the kingdom and to maintain popularity within her kingdom (aspects that were all in stark contrast to Mary’s reign.) Elizabeth was influenced by Mary and her reign in that she used it as a clear example of what NOT to do. Among these points: not to relinquish herself to a foreign power (like Mary to Philip), or a man, for the good of the Crown.

An interesting and enlightening biography of Elizabeth’s rise to the throne, David Starkey’s book will make you appreciate one of the greatest Queens in English history even more. I found the chapters about the religious transitions to be a be dry and dragging, but other than that, the personal details of Elizabeth’s experiences and personality were fascinating.


Grade: B+