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Book Review: The Men Who Would Be King

Keeping Up with the Tudors

The Men Who Would Be King

by Josephine Ross

William Morrow, 2012

Throughout her long reign, Queen Elizabeth II has made a steadfast, almost frantic effort to embody a normal, conventional domestic image (recent Vegas naked-partying pictures of her grandson notwithstanding), in keeping with the Windsor inspiration that such normality grounds her subjects’ affections. She’s been married to the same man longer than most of her subjects have been alive. The shadow of Queen Victoria’s “wicked uncles” is a very long one.

Her famous namesake, the first Elizabeth, also had a long-fingered shadow to deal with: the notorious deadly wantonness of her late father, King Henry VIII, whose serial divorce proceedings were sometimes punctuated by the soft thuck of steel on neck. Every day while she was growing to adulthood, Elizabeth had seen the insanity to which matrimonial manoeuvring could move otherwise balanced people – indeed, her growing young life had more than once been endangered because of it. In her early teens, while she was living with her stepmother the recently-widowed Queen Catherine Parr, she was allegedly received the advances of Thomas Seymour, brother to the late Queen Jane, uncle to the young King Edward, and, not incidentally, husband to Queen Catherine herself. A gossipy chambermaid claimed that he would often burst into the girl Elizabeth’s room in the morning and fiddle with her nighties. Josephine Ross, in her surprisingly short book The Men Who Would Be King: The Courtships of Elizabeth I, imagines the psychic repercussions:

The girl was unsettled by the unaccustomed physical encounters with a man. If at first she was delighted with the attention paid to her by her stepmother’s magnificent husband, and accepted his familiarities as friendly games, it cannot have been long before she became aware of the deeper element which so upset her governess and, eventually, her stepmother.

Or can it have been long? Maybe Elizabeth was just dense, or a slow learner. Maybe she wasn’t ‘unsettled’ at all but rather a bit of an instigator (the most famous tease this side of Scheherazade starting at an early age, that sort of thing). Or maybe the governess was lying. There’s no documented evidence that Queen Katherine was ‘upset’ by anything that happened at Sudeley Castle – but then, Ross is writing in that twilight borderland between fact and fiction where documented evidence might be viewed as something of a hindrance:

Physically, Elizabeth was intact, but emotionally she was rifled and despoiled. In addition to all the private pain she had to bear, she was faced with the threat of public ignominity …

Ross follows the outlines of the old familiar story, how the young Elizabeth both encourages and deflects matrimonial attentions both before her sister Mary’s death brings her to the throne and then – against all expectations – after as well. About the singular daring of the whole “Virgin Queen” pose, about its canny but extremely dangerous politics, Ross has little say.

And yet on her ostensible bull’s eye of a target subject, the various men who ran the risk of playing Actaeon to a vengeful Diana, she also has comparatively little to say. Excluding end-notes (because, astoundingly, there aren’t any – surely cavalier even in 1975, when this book was first published under the title Suitors to the Queen?), The Men Who Would Be King is some 200 pages long. A work of twice that length could easily be written (and often have been) about just Robert Devereux, the Earl of Essex, the dashing young firebrand who kindled the Queen’s passions toward the end of her life, or about Francis, the Duke of Alencon, who came closer than anybody to marrying her (and for whom she seems to have felt a very deep emotional attachment), or most of all about Robert Dudley, the Earl of Leicester, undoubtedly the greatest love of the Queen’s life.

Instead, these figures and others – the Earl of Arundel, the Archduke of Austria, the King of France – all are herded about with similar dispatchful economy, given conscientious but en passant descriptions that will leave even the most Tudor-satiated reader wanting more and not getting it. And the whole while, the purple passages of fictional reconstruction keep marching forward:

Everyone, everywhere, seemed to be talking about Elizabeth’s marriage in that first year of her reign. More and more suitors, old and new, entered the field, while the advantages of one match and the drawbacks of another were constantly weighed up and disputed; some of her Privy Councillors, eager for an English marriage, favored [William] Pickering, while others pressed for the great foreign alliance that the archduke would bring; only Elizabeth herself stood a little apart from it all, like a pale flame in the heart of a blaze.

There’s been no shortage of this sort of passionate, semi-history about Elizabeth and her various suitors, and that library of previous and uniformly fuller efforts underscores the subtle strangeness of Morrow’s decision to repackage and reprint this book after so long. It’s true that Ross frequently achieves a telegraphic delivery that has its own kind of back-fence charm – but even the Virgin Queen’s ever-hopeful suitors would have found that a fairly skimpy lure.