BOOK REVIEW: ‘The Queen’s Bed’

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By Anna Whitelock
Sarah Crichton Books, $28, 480 pages

There is no question that Elizabeth I was a formidable historical figure, especially given the fact that she not only survived being declared a bastard at the age of 18 months by her royal father, King Henry VIII, but went on to rule successfully for five decades.

Her personal life has been the subject of conjecture for centuries, and much of the speculation has focused on her relationship with Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, who may or may not have been her lover, but was certainly the love of her life.

What makes Anna Whitelock’s book different is its immense detail about how Elizabeth lived and how she used a wall of women as protectors and as friends as long as they did not question her iron will. Her two dozen ladies-in-waiting varied in rank at court and in the crucial pecking order of who was closest to the queen. She was hardly ever alone yet in many ways, Elizabeth was always alone.

Ironically, becoming queen deepened the solitude in which she had lived a life in which she could trust almost no one, and it certainly increased her wariness of those around her. Her female guardians gave her not only loyalty, but companionship. The author chronicles a regal life punctuated by crises ranging from marriages that were not approved in advance by Elizabeth (and this offense could send the lovers to the Tower of London) to the endless threat posed by conspiracies to kill the queen.

The penalties for treason were gruesome to the point that Elizabeth allowed executions to involve hanging the culprit without the hideous torture of disembowelment that shocked even the bloodthirsty crowds.

It was a bloodthirsty world in which heads were lopped off almost routinely, including that of Mary Queen of Scots, Elizabeth’s cousin and relentless rival for the throne of England. That was not a popular execution, and even Elizabeth was uneasy about it, but her closest advisers took the position that she would be in danger as long as Mary lived, and they were probably right.

As long as she was unmarried and had not named a successor, the possibility of assassination was what haunted her most. The most fascinating aspect of the book is the attention the author devotes to the lifestyle of a female monarch in the Middle Ages. Presenting Elizabeth as a woman was a major undertaking because she never acted as anything but a queen during the five decades from her ascension to the throne at the age of 25.

She was arrogant, she was highly intelligent and she relied most for advice on a handful of men who had been faithful advisers since her childhood. On a personal level, she was close to impossible. She demanded absolute loyalty from the two dozen women of varying age and rank who were her buffer zone in the palace as much as the armed bodyguards who locked the doors of her bedchamber.

The author emphasizes the importance of the queen’s bedroom as her refuge from her duties. Taking care of Elizabeth was not easy, and the ladies-in-waiting were expected always to be there. Illness, unless very severe, was no excuse for absence, and the birth of a child meant the mother could have only a brief respite before turning the baby over to servants.

Of the queen’s bed, Ms. Whitelock writes, it was “a valance of purple velvet laced with gold, garnished with a thin fringe of Venice gold and surrounded by thirty-four purple silk tassels hanging down from curtains of purple damask.”

That bed, she asserts, “became the very heart of Elizabeth's court and the stage upon which her life and reign would be played out.”

Moreover, it was not her only bed. She had a boat-shaped bed at Richmond, and one at Whitehall with Indian-painted silk draping. However, her best bed was taken with her when the court moved in progression from place to place at enormous expense. That bed had a carved, gilded wooden frame, a valance of silver and velvet and a crimson satin headboard topped with ostrich feathers.

Elizabeth was an insomniac who was afraid of the dark, so one of her faithful female corps either slept with her or on a bed beside her.

Then there was the dressing of the queen, which took hours, and applying cosmetics to the queen’s face and fake curls to her balding head. Her wardrobe contained more than 3,000 dresses. She reputedly took a bath only once a month, yet had a magnificently decorated bathroom.

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