David Starkey – Elizabeth (2000)
Biography – 340 pages – my copy (2001; paperback) bought for 1 penny from Amazon in August 2011
- 3 nods out of 5 -
Let’s get this straight: David Starkey is a pompous ass. For those who have watched his many upon many history documentaries, as well as his comments on the likes of Question Time (and more recently and controversially on Newsnight) you will agree with the Worm’s initial and cemented assessment of the man. That smugness, that air of haughty disdain for others, that general permeation of snobbery all confirms this. But we cannot take an enduring contribution of his: the great outpouring on Tudor history.
British television has few recognisable historians (Schama and Ferguson are a couple of others), and perhaps Starkey is the Big Cheese of them all. (Pomposity, it seems, has its advantages.) He has produced a long list of works on the hundred years of Tudor rule, and here, under the Worm’s spotlight, is Elizabeth: his treatment of the early years of Elizabeth The Very First in the mid sixteenth century, all before she became queen.
Like his documentaries, the book is divided in many small, bite-sized chapters, including Elizabeth’s childhood; the death of her father, Henry VIII; her reputed dalliances with her stepmother’s new husband; the death of her brother Edward VI; the possible plots against her sister, Mary; the battle between Protestantism and Catholicism; concluding on her settlement on coming to the throne in the late 1550s.
As to be expected with any biography, there is a fair amount of padding in Elizabeth’s earlier childhood years. Starkey is keen to place great emphasis on small events (including the detail and emotion of her handwriting, p.49); but more to the point of settling historiographical scores. The conjecture is great, but also great is the amount of detail.
The book gets into its stride with the death of Elizabeth’s brother, Edward the boy-king, and the resulting large shadow of doubt and deceit this caused. It seemed for a short while that both Elizabeth and bigger sister Mary were to be shunned from the crown in favour of the Protestant Lady Jane Grey, before Mary seized the throne and put to death all those who opposed her: and very nearly Elizabeth herself. It is one of British history’s greatest What Ifs on a possible heir of Mary and Philip, and what this would have meant from Catholicism on these isles.
All together, Starkey does an admirable job on Elizabeth’s formative years. For those who wish to gain a greater understanding of the queen, then they must search into the inner girl: of those insecurities and childhood struggles. However, it would be disingenuous to say Starkey provides the definitive biography on this period; that honour surely belongs to the efforts of a future historian. It seems being a pompous ass only gets someone so far. But, then again, he is our pompous ass. It takes one to know one, after all.
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