Excerpted from I, Elizabeth by Rosalind Miles Bestselling Author of The Guenevere Trilogy. Copyright © 2003 by Rosalind Miles. Excerpted by permission of Broadway Books, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Many U.S. readers know you primarily for your Arthurian novels—the Guenevere trilogy and the Tristan and Isolde trilogy—but you actually wrote I, Elizabeth first. There have been so many novels about Elizabeth; why did you feel it was important for you to write this “autobiography”?
Most of the work on Elizabeth was focused on the public figure, giving a rather one-dimensional picture of her as a world leader or as the Virgin Queen. But she was also a fashion leader who had thousands of gowns; a scholar who turned to her books every day; a fervent horsewoman; and a passionate, sensual woman capable of lifelong relationships and extraordinary love affairs. I wanted to do justice to all these sides of her nature, and to show that the Queen who defeated the Spanish Armada and led England through the worst of times was the same woman who broke her heart over unsuitable men and was always vulnerable to a charmer with a flashing smile. We also tend to have a rather static image of Elizabeth as she was in the prime of her life, but it is fascinating to trace her story from the unwanted child who was so frightened and so alone to the majesty of the aged Queen who held the whole world in awe.
You are a woman of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries—how did you approach the challenge of writing in the voice of Elizabeth, a woman of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries?
I was born in a Tudor market town beside one of the royal chases where Henry VIII hunted, so Elizabeth and her world were very real to me from my earliest days. As a child I was brought up on the Bible and Shakespeare, the language of Elizabeth’s day, and I struggled with Latin and Greek at school, enough to learn some of the texts she knew. Later on, the Elizabethans were my favorites when I studied English at university and I was able to steep myself in the speech of the time.
But Elizabeth herself was the primary source. She was unusually forthright and loved to speak her mind, and there are many recorded examples of her voice. She had a unique and passionate way of speaking, with a highly distinctive tang. She was sometimes salty, and would swear with the best when provoked, but she also showed tenderness, weakness, jealousy and all the feelings of a woman’s heart. When I was writing the book, I imagined I could hear her talking to me. Even now, when I close my eyes, I hear her still.
Elizabeth’s relationships with men are the subject of hundreds of years of speculation—do you truly believe that she and Robert Dudley were lovers? Do you think she seriously considered marrying him or any other man? Is there historical evidence one way or the other?
Elizabeth and Robert Dudley were often seen behaving on terms of great physical familiarity, and this occasioned wild gossip at the time, including repeated rumors that they were man and wife. I believe that they were lovers in the fullest sense of the word, although her natural caution and their constant lack of privacy severely limited their chances of full intercourse. When she was young, England’s desperate need for an heir meant that she was forced to consider marriage with almost every eligible prince or king in Europe, and we know that she thought of marrying Dudley because they joked with the Spanish ambassador about it. We also know that she pined for children and grieved at being barren, when the humblest of her subjects could be loving wives and mothers and she could not. But she had seen both her sister, “Bloody” Mary Tudor, and her cousin, Mary Queen of Scots, make disastrous marriages, and as a queen she feared that any husband would try to rule both her and the country, as their husbands did. As a child she also saw two of her four stepmothers, and many other women, die in childbirth after great suffering. This would have been another powerful argument against marriage in the days before contraception and prenatal care.
Do you think being a woman made Elizabeth a better ruler than her father or other male monarchs of the time? Ultimately, do you think her gender was a liability or an asset for her as a leader?
I believe that being a woman gave Elizabeth access to a far greater range of options than were available to the male monarchs of her time, and she seized these opportunities with both hands. The male monarchs had to project themselves as strong and invincible at all times, whereas she could play both the tough ruler and the “little woman,” as she did in the famous Armada speech at Tilbury when she claimed to “have the body of a weak and female woman and the heart and stomach of a king.” Her relationships with foreign monarchs always had a playful, sexual tone, which a king could not have used with another king, and she prolonged these dalliances to brilliant diplomatic effect.
When Elizabeth came to the throne, it was universally assumed that her gender was a liability because women were mentally and physically inferior to men. It is amazing to see how Elizabeth turned this liability into a strength, and used it for the country’s good. In the end she made herself both the Virgin Queen and the mother of the country and died knowing that she had reigned with England’s wholehearted love.
What can we learn from Elizabeth? What does her life teach modern readers?
Elizabeth was a woman of exceptional gifts, who in the modern world might have been a Nobel prize–winning intellectual or the first woman president of the U.S. But her greatest virtues were those available to everyone: courage, endurance, and common sense. Growing up in fear for her life, she quite literally never lost her head. In times of greatest terror she mastered her feelings and hung on. She made it her primary goal to get through from day to day without letting others down, and refused to panic even when the King of Spain loosed all the fury of the Armada on her head. I believe we can learn a lot from this in an era when we are encouraged to let all our emotions out and allow ourselves to be driven by whatever we feel.
In private life, too, Elizabeth did not give way to weakness, self-indulgence, or despair. However much she was in love, she did not allow men to devastate her life, but called on her basic doggedness to survive—even with a broken heart. Today’s young women are lucky enough to understand that they do not have to have a man to complete their lives, and that they can survive the worst that the world throws at them both in love and work. Because of this, the story of Elizabeth I is as heartening and inspirational today as it was in her time.
1. Both the prologue and the epilogue of the novel focus on Elizabeth’s undying love for Robert Devereux, Lord of Essex. Even when he runs amok with power and commits increasingly outrageous offenses to Elizabeth as both woman and Queen, she fails to curb this “Wild Horse.” Why do his bluster and uncontainable spirit attract her? Does she do herself a disservice by forgiving him repeatedly? Do we as readers ever fall in love with Essex? How does this affair compare to Elizabeth’s long affair with Robin?
2. Henry VIII is first described as “a married man who had tired of his wife,” then as “a man in his prime and a stranger to the word ‘no.’ ” He sculpts every angle of his environment to serve his own desires, taking on new wives, new popes, and a whole new religion when the old ones displease him. How does this trait influence Elizabeth? When do we see her emulating aspects of his personality, and when do we see her consciously choosing to do the opposite, particularly in how she runs her court? Is it accurate to describe them both as perpetually dissatisfied characters? Is Elizabeth’s refusal to marry some sort of belated rebellion against her father’s wanton attitude toward marriage?
3. As Elizabeth’s sister Queen Mary earns the nickname “Bloody Mary” for her violent enforcement of Papistry, Elizabeth’s position at court becomes more and more endangered. How and why does King Philip of Spain—also a Papist—save Elizabeth from her sister’s wrath? Why is it in Philip’s best interest to support Elizabeth for the succession to the English throne, even though she’s a Protestant, rather than her Papist cousin Mary of Scots? What lessons does Elizabeth learn from observing her sister’s public policies?
4. When Elizabeth saves Queen Katherine Parr from Henry VIII’s fury, she learns her first lesson in the power of flattery as a tool of diplomacy. She knows exactly what to say to stroke his ego, and, by her quick thinking, prevents an execution. Does this episode change the way Elizabeth thinks of her father? Does she require similar flattery later in her career as Queen, or does she simply tolerate it? Which of her subjects rely on flattering their Queen as an attempt at self-promotion?
5. Is Elizabeth serious in her plot to offer Robin to Mary of Scots as a marriage partner; is it just an excuse to shower him with land, titles and wealth to make him more suitable for herself; or is she simply being mischievous and toying with Mary? How does Mary foil the whole plot, and why does Mary’s sudden marriage to Henry Stuart, Earl of Darnley, spell disaster for Elizabeth?
6. The bane of Elizabeth’s existence is her identification as a bastard. Why does she say she is “a bastard three times over”? At what points in her life does this label reappear? When do we see her mother’s reputation as a whore haunt her? How does she finally discover the truth about her mother?
7. Elizabeth’s realization that her position in the royal lineup of successors is tenuous marks her first experience of true fear—the first of many. What gifts does her tutor Grindal give her right before she is forced to leave Hatfield by orders of the King? What does it mean? What fear compels Henry to order her to travel “enclosed and unseen” when she is summoned to court?
8. Despite Mary of Scots’s repeated attempts to overthrow her, and despite the mounting rage of the English people who “hungered for her death, thirsted for her blood, clamored for retribution,” Elizabeth refused to sign Mary’s death warrant: “She is a queen and one of God’s Anointed, she is a woman and my kinswoman, she is a Tudor, and she is my heir! And when subjects come to take the lives of kings, who knows what chaos follows?” Is Elizabeth reacting to her father’s notorious appetite for executions, protecting herself from the threat of future uprisings, or simply trying to create a more compassionate monarchy? What aspects of herself does she see in Mary? Why does Mary’s dilemma remind Elizabeth of her mother?
9. The refrain that torments Elizabeth throughout her tumultuous reign is “strike or be stricken.” Which option does she choose more often?
10. The novel traces Elizabeth’s progress from a naive, openhearted thirteen-year-old to a powerful, money-hungry, imperious old woman. Does she grow more or less likeable as her story unfolds? How does she change? What do you make of her chronic attachments to men who are either unmarriageable, unfaithful, or ungovernable? Do you blame Robin, Raleigh, and Essex for their secret marriages?
11. Why does Amy Robsart’s death reek of foul play, and thus prevent Elizabeth and Robin from uniting at last? What similar event does Mary of Scots experience in connection with her Lord Durnley? In what ways do Elizabeth and Mary handle the ensuing scandals differently?
12. Elizabeth’s true marriage partner is her country: “England, my England—how I love this land! Her rivers pour their courses through my veins, her loam makes up my flesh, her soul my soul, her proud spirit my hope, my inspiration . . . my first, last, greatest love.” It is for her duty to the State that she abandons Robin at the altar, and this moment of choice is perhaps the climax of the novel: “I lost my love, for England—to be not Robin’s bride, but England’s Queen. When the time came to choose, I chose her, and not him.” Did she do the right thing here? Do modern-day rulers face any choices as drastic as Elizabeth’s?
13. Elizabeth is a complex mix of queenly pomposity and self-deprecating cynicism about the world. Where does Miles use humor to endear us to her main character? How does Elizabeth’s banter with historical figures like William Shakespeare, Christopher Marlow, Sir Walter Raleigh, and Sir Francis Drake affect your reading of her story?