Elizabeth I and Her World

Elizabeth I and Her World, by Susan Watkins

Whether you are meeting Gloriana for the first time, or indulging a long-time love of all things Elizabeth and Elizabethan, you will find this book an absolute delight. Elizabeth I and Her World is notable for the number and quality of its color photographs. They are surpassed, however, by the intensely visual descriptions of its text.

The book is organized along a general chronology of Elizabeth’s life but, rather than a simple narrative of what happened first, etc., we are provided with the settings in which the major events of Elizabeth’s life occurred.

Watkins describes the queen’s chambers within the palace – the privy chamber, bedchamber, presence chamber and council chamber – and gives a sense of what it was like for Elizabeth to inhabit these spaces. A description of Elizabeth being served dinner relates how the “royal dinner was brought in by the Yeomen of the Guard – ‘clothed in Scarlet, with a golden Rose upon their Backs’ – to the music of two kettle-drums and twelve trumpets, which made the hall ‘ring for half an hour.’”

She describes the queen traveling by water to her various castles; “The Queen’s particular barge was powered by twenty men-at-oar, with an interior decorated with coats of arms, cushions of cloth of gold, a blanket of crimson velvet, and a carpet of flowers. When the Queen traveled by river, oily perfume was burned to camouflage the odours that constantly reeked from the Thames.”

And, once Elizabeth arrives at one of her castles, whether it be Greenwich, Hampton Court, Windsor, or Richmond, we “see” the architecture and metaphorically wander through the colorful well-planned gardens. At Richmond, we even hear the weather vanes that, as the wind blew, played “a kind of music ‘marvellous to know and understand.’”

The second half of the book delineates the way Elizabeth impressed her image on England. The magnificent portraits, of course! But also, the great Elizabethan country houses that were built by her courtiers – William Cecil’s Theobalds, Christopher Hatton’s Holdenby House, and others – to demonstrate their love for their queen, and reflect her image and accomplishments. The ultimate goal, of course, was to entice a royal visit.

Watkins describes the greatest and most elaborate of these, Elizabeth’s visit to Robert Dudley’s Kenilworth in 1575 where, for nineteen days, she was entertained by Arthurian fantasies, fireworks, banquets, masques and a metaphorical water pageant with Neptune blowing a seashell trumpet.

A more manageable visit of three days to Sir Edward Seymour’s palace of Elvetham in 1591, included poetry and music as well as the inevitable water pageant, banquet and fireworks.

Elizabeth I and Her World is visually stunning. In its examination of Elizabeth, as reflected in her portraits, her castles and her surroundings, it allows the reader to slip into her shoes and imagine the sensory richness of her life.

The book is not a history of Elizabeth’s reign; there is no attempt to analyze Elizabeth’s foreign policy, or even her domestic one. This is, rather, an immersion into the physical world inhabited by Elizabeth the Queen. If you would like to feel and imagine what it might have been like to be a part of Elizabeth’s world (minus her anxieties), this book is definitely for you.