- - Thursday, June 21, 2012

By Trea Martyn
BlueBridge, $22.95, 336 pages

Strolling with the queen in a beautiful garden could put a medieval courtier into bankruptcy according to this fascinating and original study of the most extravagant of regal hobbies.

Queen Elizabeth loved spectacular gardens and when Robert Dudley, the Earl of Leicester, entertained her for 19 days in 1572, it cost him 1700 English pounds, at a time when the average Englishman earned eight pennies a day. One aristocrat was so horrified at the prospect of playing host to Her Majesty that he deliberately absented himself, and came home to a letter announcing that the queen was sorry to have missed him and would arrive the following week.

Yet Leicester, who spent much of his life trying to persuade Elizabeth to marry him, competed with William Cecil, Baron of Burghley and the queen’s chief political adviser, for could come up with the most elaborate and costly garden to impress Her Majesty and lure her for a visit.

Throughout her long reign, Elizabeth walked in her gardens in the morning and the evening, for exercise and time to strategize. The Renaissance world of Italy and France was introduced into such gardens, and they also provided the queen lavish entertainment that often included fireworks. The safety of those living in the nearby communities was not considered in the planning of a display at Warwick Castle on which “the sky rained fire in the special effects that delighted Elizabeth.” The special effects set fire to the homes of local villagers including an elderly couple who had to be rescued from their blazing dwelling. Elizabeth’s reaction was to give the homeless couple 25 pounds, which was about double their annual income.

Trea Martyn has skilfully recreated the sumptuous scene of the 16th century when royalty could and did do whatever it chose, at whatever the cost. In the duel of gardens fought by Leicester and Cecil at Kenilworth and Theobalds, no luxury was unaffordable. There were magnificent sculptures and shining lakes that sent geysers of white light into the darkness of the night.

What makes the author’s work more intriguing is that such fantasties were wrought during a period of danger to the monarchy,when Elizabeth was constantly haunted by the knowledge of Mary, Queen of Scots, imprisoned in an English castle yet still a threat to the Elizabethan throne. Who made the decision to execute Mary still remains a matter of dispute, although Elizabeth held responsible the wily and cold blooded Cecil who took the position that his queen would never be safe as long as Mary lived.

There were also threats from abroad, yet Elizabeth could claim she saved money by keeping England out of war although the Armada was expensive. Yet the amount she caused to have spent on her beloved gardens bit deeply into the Exchequer and England was sinking into financial trouble by the time the queen died.

Elizabeth maintained her romantic relationship with Leicester throughout their lives, even forgiving his secret marriage and fathering of sons. It was with Leicester that she walked in her gardens and she never recovered from his death.

She allowed herself to become foolishly involved with the Earl of Essex, Leicester’s stepson who was decades younger than the queen and had to cope with not only his arrogance but his capacity for rebellion that ultimately sent him to his execution. In Elizabeth’s life, despite her numerous flirtations with suitors from many nations, Leicester and Cecil were the only men who mattered because she trusted them. They were also part of her dramatic and desperate youth.

Declared a bastard by her father, King Henry VIII after he had her mother, Anne Boleyn, executed, Elizabeth lived day to day, imprisoned and threatened with death by her half sister, Queen Mary Tudor. Her relationship with Leicester and Cecil dated back to the days when a child was forbidden to bring flowers to a princess imprisoned in the Tower. It was an incident she never forgot.

She clearly took comfort and psychological sustenance from the gardens blossoming with the most magnificent of blooms where she spent so much of her time. She loved flowers, but she also loved their spectacular presentation and that was one way to please the queen.

Ms. Martyn notes that in today’s England there are only fragmented ruins of the glorious gardens of Elizabeth. What is certain is that would have deeply saddened the queen.

• Muriel Dobbin is a former White House and national political reporter for McClatchy newspapers and the Baltimore Sun.

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