Heretic Queen: Queen Elizabeth I And The Wars Of Religion by Susan Ronald: Reviewed By Kimberly Eve

Royal Arms of Elizabeth I, Royal Museums Greenwich

Heretic Queen covers the reign of Queen Elizabeth I (1558-1603). It is broken up into four parts as you would find reading a play.  Each part covers 10-20 year intervals where vital religious, political and historical events take place during Elizabeth’s reign.  In addition, quotes are used as well as document sources provided sometimes as footnotes and other times as supportive evidence.  

As expected this is not a biography of a queen nor is it a romance or love story. Instead, Heretic Queen details vividly the Wars of Religion dominated by France, Spain and England during the sixteenth century.  At the back of the book you will find an extensive Notes section with source books listed as well as a Bibliography section detailing which sources were State Paper and Manuscripts, Rare Books, Books and Articles.  I mustn’t forget the Author’s Note at the beginning and a Prologue pre-dating the Wars of Religion and events. 

I am well versed in the major historical events and key figures of the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. However, the Wars of Religion are not my strength which is partly my reason for reading Heretic Queen. A way to move out of my comfort zone and learn something new about Gloriana herself! So, I think it best to choose my favorite bits and people from each four parts of the book.  

Part I: A Wounded and Divided Land, 1558-1566: The New Deborah
A princess who can act any part she pleases. – Lord Burghley, speaking of Elizabeth

 The Clopton Portrait, 1558-60, Lady Elizabeth-Queen Elizabeth

 It’s a very good sign that the reader will enjoy the book when one of the opening quotes is from one of her favorite historical men: William Cecil!  With every ending there is a beginning. So was the story for Mary I when her reign ended on 17 November, 1558; ushering in a new era with Lady Elizabeth and her fully detailed coronation procession events on 12-14 January through to becoming Queen Elizabeth I on Coronation Day 15 January, 1559.  

It was Astrologer, Dr. John Dee whom Elizabeth asked which day she should hold her coronation. Dr. Dee cast her horoscope, with royal consent, of course and determined January 15th to be the most propitious date. Dr. Dee would remain a close friend and companion throughout her life.  Also, taking part was her father’s own Master of the Revels, Sir Thomas Cawarden, appointed to supervise the coronation celebrations.

O Lord, Almighty and Everlasting God, I give Thee most hearty
Thanks that thou has been so merciful unto me as to spare me
to behold this joyful day. And I acknowledge that Thou has
dealt as wonderfully and as mercifully with me, as Thou
didst with Thy true and faithful servant Daniel. Thy Prophet,
whom Thou delivered out of the den from the cruelty of the
greedy and raging lions: even so was I overwhelmed, and
only by Thee delivered. To Thee therefore only be thanks,
honour, and praise, forever. Amen (Elizabeth Queen of England, France, and Ireland, speaking outside the Tower of London, Coronation Day)

Part II: The Catholic Ascendancy, 1566-1580: Betrayal amid Dreamy Spires
I feel by myself, being also here wrapped in miseries and tossed…in a sea swelling with storms of envy, Malice, disdain, suspicion. – Sir William Cecil to Sir Henry Sidney, 1566

 Mary Queen of Scots, the Royal Collection
1566 was fast becoming the year of dissent what with a Catholic Mary Queen of Scots and a Protestant Queen Elizabeth I constantly at war with each other both politically, religiously and especially territorially.  Lord Darnley (Protestant)  and Rizzio would die, there would be plots aplenty, spies working overtime on both sides, and there was always talk and gossip about Elizabeth and her ‘eyes’ Lord Robert Dudley. Rival for her majesty’s attention, Lord Burghley made it his job to intervene by trying to dissuade Elizabeth not to marry Dudley, fearing it would bring about French tyranny! 

Author, Susan Ronald does not romanticize said relationship between Dudley and Elizabeth. She instead provides their story from the queen and Burghley’s perspective in regards to the Wars of Religion. For instance, it was during Elizabeth’s summer progress to Oxford she decided to visit in order to support its educational prowess, to guage the mood of the students and their masters and allow them to see firsthand the magnificence and munificence of their anointed queen. Oh, and because the Earl of Leicester ‘secretly’ and ‘privately’ confirmed that there were other contentious souls to be found.  In turn, Elizabeth had the Earl of Leicester appointed as its chancellor knowing that trusted eyes and ears were required in every corner of the realm, nowhere more than in Oxford and Cambridge, who better to keep a watchful ‘eye’ in these university cities than her eyes?  So, Leicester was appointed to Oxford and Cecil went to neighboring Cambridge!

Her head-dress was a marvel of woven gold, and glittered with pearls and other wonderful gems; her gown was of the most brilliant scarlet silk, woven with gold, partly concealed by a purple cloak lined with ermine after the manner of a triumphal robe. Besides the chariot rode the royal cursitors, resplendent in coats of cloth of gold, and the marshals, who were kept busy preventing the crowds from pressing too near to the person of the Queen…The royal guard…were about two hundred…and on their shoulders they bore…iron clubs like battle-axes. (Saturday, August 31, 1566, Queen Elizabeth I visits Oxford)

Part III: The Years of Religious Terror, 1580-1591: God’s Outriders
The expense is reckoned. The enterprise is begun. –Edmond Campion, 1580

A lot was written about, an unknown to myself, Jesuit saint Edmund Campion’s life and death during these years. However, we’re sticking with my favorite bits and while Campion made for interesting reading, it was a man named Francis Walsingham who now enters the picture. He was a secret spy, part of the Privy Council working for her majesty with two major events occurring: the beheading of Mary Stuart and The Spanish Armada. These events took precedence for me and made this section of her majesty’s reign most enjoyable reading.

 Execution of Mary Queen of Scots
On the morning of February 8, 1587 Mary Stuart mounted the scaffold in the Great Hall at Fotheringay, her sentence was proclaimed across England. She would serve as a symbol to all Catholics that, “stubborn disobedience…(and) incitement to insurrection…against the life and person of her Sacred Majesty” would never be tolerated.

Regarding The Spanish Armada, the English instinctively knew that the battle was over, won for them by a ‘great wind.’ The Armada fleet lumbered on northward, around the north of Scotland, then due south hugging the western coast of Ireland. Of the thirty thousand soldiers and crew, over twenty thousand lost their lives, most of starvation and disease. Contrary to fairy tales, many were executed as they tried to seek refuge in Ireland, killed for whatever plunder could be had, by locals or by English soldiers.

Of the ten thousand Spanish survivors, many more died of their wounds or privation once they returned to Spain. It was commonly murmured there that every noble family had lost a son in the Spanish Armada. Mendoza’s prediction to Philip that it had been ‘God’s obvious design’ to bestow upon him the crown of England had been proven utterly false. 

 Queen Elizabeth I Armada Portrait
Let tyrants fear…that under God I have
placed my chiefest strength and safeguard in the
loyal hearts and goodwill of my subjects (Elizabeth I. Armada Speech, August 9, 1588)

Part IV A House Divided, 1591-1603: The Norfolk Landing
…this young scholar, that hath been long studying
at Rheims, as cunning in Greek, Latin, and other
languages, as the other in music and mathematics
…Pray, accept his service. – The Taming of the Shrew, II.i.76-80

 Elizabeth at Tilbury
Elizabeth rides out to Tilbury, flanked by Leicester, to deliver her Armada Speech to the army gathered to fight the invasion that never came.  We have talk and description of the links between the theater, the secret service, and political controversy with honorable mentions to: Marlowe’s Massacre at Paris and John Lyly’s Endymion and Sappho and Phao.  The death of Bess’ ‘Sweet Robin’ occurring shortly after the failed Armada invasion in September 1588 as well as Francis Walsingham following suit in April 1590.  Loyal to the end, William Cecil, Lord Burghley, became gnarled with arthritis and crippled by gout and old age He remained her councilor until his death in August 1598. It was becoming obvious that even though Burghley’s voice was becoming fainter, those pillars of her Privy Council were succumbing to death and infirmity. The final blow was to her majesty herself when in March 1603 already ailing; she took a turn for the worse. We all know the famous scene of a sixty-nine year old Elizabeth, reigning for over forty-four years as Queen of England and Ireland, stood at her privy chamber window for two days, refusing food, running her index finger along her sore gums, staring blankly. Worn out by the burdens of office and age, having suffered through the loss of all those who had died before her, stricken by the execution of Essex forced upon her, Elizabeth simply gave up the will to live.

 Elizabeth I Allegorical Portrait
In the gray morning hours of Thursday, March 24, 1603, Tudor England expired with Elizabeth. Too weak to name her successor, she pointed her hand to her head and nodded as the name of James VI of Scotland was read out by Sir Robert Cecil. James VI of Scotland, the only child of Mary Queen of Scots, was proclaimed James I of England. Elizabeth Tudor allowed herself to slip away.

The King of Scotland has succeeded quietly. –Venetian ambassador to the doge

 Funeral Procession for Queen Elizabeth I

Please feel free to leave comments,


Stanley said…
Terrific review. I'll have to buy it. You make this book sound so interesting.
Kimberly Eve said…
Hi Stanley, thanks so much for commenting. Enjoy Heretic Queen!

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