Book Review: Danger to Elizabeth by Alison Plowden

Danger to Elizabeth is the second volume in Alison Plowden’s engrossing quartet about Elizabeth the First’s life and times. In this book, Danger, she examines the threats that Elizabeth personally faced as well as those that beset the kingdom during her reign, all of which arose from the religious schism that divided England, particularly in the years before the defeat of the Spanish Aramda in 1588.

Danger to ElizabethWhile the main focus of the book is the principal plots around which the menace to Elizabeth’s person coalesced, such as the Ridolfi, Throgmorton and Babington ones and the influx of Jesuits and Catholics into England determined to succour recusants and rescue Protestant souls, it also takes into account the Papal Bulls issued from Rome that fundamentally gave permission for English Catholics to not only renounce Elizabeth as their monarch, but do harm upon her person. While describing these various perils and their outcomes, it also explores Elizabeth the queen and woman.

After reading Alison Weir’s historical novel, The Marriage Game (and enjoying it very much, even if I didn’t like the portrait it painted of Elizabeth), it was refreshing to read the queen’s tergiversations and choices around marriage and policy (especially with Mary, Queen of Scots), in the terms Plowden describes them. On page 37, she writes:

“Elizabeth was very well aware of her value in the international marriage market and zestfully exploited the advantages attached to being the most eligible spinster in Europe, turning the apparent disability of her sex into a diplomatic weapon which for the next twenty years she was to wield with deliberate, ruthless feminine guile.”

There is no doubt this powerful and intelligent queen, whom Sir Francis Walsingham, her Secretary of State from 1573 until his death in 1590, once described as the “best catch in the parish”, understood her value and, despite some evidence and arguments to the contrary, knew her mind – even when it appeared she did not.

Plowden charts the various threats to Elizabeth posed by the Catholic Church, the Catholic countries that surround England and their advances into the Low Countries, the Enterprise of conversion (or “harvesting”) of English souls, all conducted with the blessing of the “Bishop of Rome” and which was led by William Allen and his followers such as Edmund Campion and Robert Parsons. Written in wonderful, colourful and detailed prose that makes what can sometimes be dense detail easy to absorb, this book is a great read. There were times when it felt like I was reading a picaresque novel, so fast and exciting was the action. I also found, after devouring many, many books on these threats, plots and their consequences, that Plowden’s book fills in many gaps the others either skimmed over or did not bother to elucidate. Having said that, I did wonder if I hadn’t read so many other books on this era, would I have gleaned as much as I did from Plowden’s book. I also wonder if some knowledge of events and personages helped me draw from this book what I needed, meaning I’m not persuaded it would be a good book for beginners wanting to learn about the era and the dangers Elizabeth and her realm faced.

That said, it is the second volume in a four-book series, a series I will now look forward to completing very much.

Highly recommended for lovers of history and Elizabethan politics in particular.

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Book Review: Daily Life in Elizabethan England by Jeffrey L. SIngman

Daily Life in Elizabethan England

This is the second book I have read in this series and it certainly won’t be the last. Part of the “living history” movement, this volume seeks to really immerse the lay reader in and provide them with the basic tools for reimagining what it would have been like to live in Elizabethan times. As Singman writes in the introduction, “If history only touches the historians, it is truly a lifeless form of knowledge.” Hear. Hear.

Daily Life in Elizabethan England seeks to correct the notion that history might be lifeless by first creating a context for understanding the times (which were fraught with religious tensions, espionage, plots and amazing discoveries) and then describing the daily life of people from different classes and professions – from the highest to the lowest and back and forth. Focusing on such things as religion and religious practices, literacy, education, clothes (patterns for various garments are included), music (there are lyrics and some basic sheet music), entertainment (there are various card and board games as well as others described at the end in detail), including jousting, bear and cock-baiting and other sports, relationships, family, trades, Singman beautifully sets the Elizabethan scene. Allowing us to imagine wandering crowded streets, entering a crofter’s or gentleman’s house, travelling across the country or abroad, he endows with the rudimentary knowledge to make our way. Warning us of diseases like the plague (which struck England many times throughout this period), the “sweating sickness” and other ailments, and to be wary of pickpockets, cut-purses and highwaymen, he also urges us to enjoy the delights of the theatre because of course, this was the era of Shakespeare, Marlowe, Johnson and many other wonderful creative souls.

Reminiscent of Ian Mortimer’s The Time Traveller’s Guide series, this one functions as a compliment rather than replicating the information and I found it provided information Mortimer’s didn’t and vice-a-versa.

Written in an easily accessible and always fascinating style, this is a must-read for teachers or students of history, a fabulous reference for writers and a great read for those curious about a resplendent, violent, rapidly changing, and extraordinarily inventive milieu.

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