Elizabeth’s Women: Friends, Rivals and Foes Who Shaped the Virgin Queen
by Tracy Borman
Queen Elizabeth I once proudly proclaimed to her English troops that “I know I have the body but of a weak and feeble woman, but I have the heart and stomach of a king, and of a King of England too!” She often reminded her people that she was the daughter of Henry VIII, and that his blood ran in her veins, giving her the strength and wit to rule England. But though the English court was largely a man’s world, Elizabeth was a woman, and it was by women that she was shaped. Tracy Borman follows Elizabeth through her life, showcasing the stepmothers, relatives, and rivals that helped turn Elizabeth into the formidable force she became.
When I initially picked up this book, I thought it would be a series of biographies about various Elizabethan women. In this, I was disappointed – first and foremost, this book is a biography of Elizabeth. Yes, many women are discussed, from the queens of Henry VIII to rival claimants to succeed Elizabeth, but nothing new was put forth about them. If you’ve never read a biography of Henry VIII’s queens or Mary, Queen of Scots, then you will learn something new; if you have read books about these women before, the information is repeated here. I understand that it would be hard to write lengthy biographies about a lot of women, like Elizabeth’s governess Kat, because the information simply isn’t there to research, but I still felt disappointed by the focus on Elizabeth instead of the “friends, rivals and foes” mentioned in the book’s title.
Some of the information seems suspect, too. At one point Borman states definitively that George Boleyn, brother of Anne Boleyn, had a son. I’ve never seen the son referred to before, which seems odd – if he was legitimate he’d certainly be mentioned in official documents. If he was a bastard, it’d be harder to trace him, so at best one could speculate that he was George’s offspring, just as one can speculate that George was a homosexual or that he hated his wife, Jane. But there’s no evidence to back it up, so it shouldn’t be presented as a fact.
There was some good stuff in this book, too. Borman drew some interesting parallels between Elizabeth’s behavior and that of her mother. The Queen herself rarely mentioned her mother, and most biographers tend to focus on the similarities between Elizabeth and her father. There was also a great exploration of the influence of Mary I’s reign on how Elizabeth ruled the country. Their approaches were so different! Mary established that a queen regnant was to have the same power and authority of a king, but she immediately set about finding a husband to whom she could shift the burden of rule. Elizabeth, the Virgin Queen, avoided marriage at least in part to avoid ceding power to another. Finally, I had never realized how many rival claimants there were for Elizabeth’s throne and the succession to it…or more importantly, that nearly all of these rivals were women. I wonder how many of these contenders would have been given serious consideration if Mary I and Elizabeth I hadn’t proven that women could rule in their own right?
Overall, Elizabeth’s Women is a good introduction to Elizabethan England; the wealth of details paints a great picture of court life from a woman’s perspective. If you’ve never read much about Tudor England, many of the key players are introduced here. But for all the research done by the author – and there’s a very extensive bibliography at the back of the book – there didn’t seem to be quite enough information here to justify buying another biography of Elizabeth I, if you’ve already read one.
3.5 out of 5 stars