Leanda de Lisle
Ballantine, 2006 (2005)
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Reviewed by Tim Davis
eanda de Lisle's intriguing new book takes a richly detailed look back at an immeasurably significant point in the progress of world history. Queen Elizabeth I of England, the durable monarch for whom the 1580s was the apogee of her long reign, was - at the very end of the 16th century - reaching the end of her life. During those final years, there was throughout England and the rest of Europe intense speculation and anxiety about who would be Elizabeth's successor.
he problems associated with succession, of course, had dominated the history of the Tudor dynasty in England, and in the late 1590s and in the first few years of the 17th century, those problems were further underscored by several other factors: England had become, for the most part, fiercely nationalistic, and - as part of that chauvinistic fervor - the stability of the monarchy was central; long-standing tensions and conflicts between Catholics (out of power during Elizabeth's reign) and Protestants (tenuously empowered although always facing challenges from oppressed Catholics in England and European governments during Elizabeth's reign) were on the verge of boiling over while at the same time the security of England, as exacerbated by the monarch's impending death and the country's anxieties over succession, might be threatened by civil war and foreign invasion; and as Elizabeth's government in the later years had become rather ineffective and unpopular, dissenters in (and out of) positions of influence and power - unhappy with the failings of an aged and frail queen - were already maneuvering to support any one of a dozen other potential successors who were vigorous, masculine, and comparatively young.
he problem of succession was also complicated by the fact that the Elizabethan world was not a stable political environment dominated by constitutional and statutory considerations. Instead, it was a world '
riven by scheming and distrust.
' The inner-circle of the monarch’s court '
fed on vanity and greed,
' and there was no shortage of brilliant and ruthless power-brokers (both inside and outside the court) who were hungry for prestige and wealth, and eager to affiliate themselves with whoever might prevail as successor. So, well in advance of Elizabeth's death at 1 a.m. on 24 March 1603, the political manipulators (inside and outside England) had already begun plotting and counter-plotting. The potential rewards were, of course, great for power-hungry Englishmen; however, the risks were also tremendous and (as discovered by many) over-playing one's hand could easily result in time in the Tower or a visit to the executioner. Finally, though, the whole matter was most dramatically complicated by one single factor: Elizabeth, for her own strategic reasons, belligerently avoided her apparent responsibility to settle the matter during her own lifetime by simply refusing to name a successor.
o, on that early morning in March of 1603 when Elizabeth's 45 year reign ended, the whole country of England might have easily deteriorated into terrible chaos. Instead, in a transition of power that can be viewed (in hindsight) as remarkably smooth considering the tensions and the turbulent circumstances, James VI of Scotland - because of a fascinating series of events adroitly orchestrated by an incredibly interesting cast of characters - left his home in Edinburgh (on 5 April), arrived in London (on 7 May), and was subsequently designated James I at his coronation on 25 July 1603 in Westminster Abbey.
is, at one level, the wonderfully documented and very readable story of Elizabethan politics, secular and nonsecular conflicts in Elizabethan England, social pressures and anxieties throughout the economic and social spectrum, and James of Scotland's surprising accession to the throne of England. More significantly, though, Leanda de Lisle's highly recommended book is an important study of the ways in which ambitions, both personal and political, influence history; in fact, perhaps more than any other factor that can be argued by political scientists and historians, personal rather than political ambitions - as demonstrated in
- absolutely determine the course of human history.
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