The Queen’s Bed: An Intimate History of Elizabeth’s Court, by Anna Whitelock
The Queen’s Bed is an absolutely riveting account of the court of Elizabeth I. I loved every page and every minute spent reading. And there were a lot of minutes!
Whitelock presented so many interesting new details that I kept stopping to write myself notes on people and events that I wanted to know even more about!. And then there were the passages I read out loud to my very patient husband – all prefaced by the query “Did you know that…?”
Whitelock discusses the expected “intimate” details of Elizabeth’s life at court, from how she took care of her teeth, to her make-up routine (and how that changed as she aged), to how she dressed.
Whitelock also discusses the individual ladies who were close to Elizabeth. This was not, however, a group biography of these women. For that, Tracy Borman’s Elizabeth’s Women (Bantam, 2010) remains a better source. Borman, however, did not put Elizabeth and her women into the context of the times as deeply as Whitelock does. The result, in Borman’s book, was an Elizabeth who was not only resoundingly unpleasant and spiteful, but who seemed to deprive the young women around her of opportunities to marry, purely out of irrational jealousy and personal pique.
In contrast, Whitelock makes it clear that a position as one of the queen’s ladies came with serious responsibilities. Yes, they provided company and decoration and practical service as dressers and personal assistants. They were also, however, the queen’s last line of defense against physical perils as well as being the ultimate protectors of her public reputation. These perils were not imaginary or light. Whitelock lays out in terrifying detail the ongoing threats to Elizabeth’s life, including introducing poison into and onto her food, clothing and furnishings. She recreates the contemporary sense of fear on the part of the queen, her government and her nation, who did not know her reign and her life would be long and glorious.
We also clearly sense the deep uncertainty about the fate of a nation left without an obvious heir, if its unmarried and childless queen should die.
Whitelock also makes clear that a queen who was perceived to be without personal honor was in constant peril of being unseated. Above all, the job of Elizabeth’s ladies was to guard her reputation.
Undoubtedly, Elizabeth could be selfishly cruel in her treatment of her ladies. A maid of honor, however, could not do her job if her mind was on her sweetheart. The situation was rather like the 21st-Century guardsman at Buckingham Palace who was punished for dancing as he patrolled the entrance to the palace. For queen’s guardsmen and queen’s women alike, focus was and is all important.
On the question, did she or didn’t she?, Whitelock seems to think not. She makes it clear, however, that this is not the important question. The real issue is how the rumor that Elizabeth had been lovers with Robert Dudley and/or a myriad of possible other candidates, affected her security on the throne and her ability to govern.
Whitelock also traces how the need to protect the younger Elizabeth’s sexual reputation gradually turns into the need to prevent concerns about the aging Elizabeth’s health. Her women now worked their magic with make-up and clothing to project an image of a dynamic, vigorous and strong ruler even as Elizabeth’s physical strength and mental acuity became erratic.
Ultimately, Elizabeth’s success lay in her survival – a survival made possible, in part, by the devoted cadre of women who surrounded and supported her.