Book Review: Heretic Queen

Heretic Queen:  Queen Elizabeth And The Wars Of Religion

While Elizabeth I of England is a very familiar English monarch, widely credited for England’s rise to international prominence and the success of the Tudor dynasty in being able to transition from late medieval to early modern Europe successfully, this book does offer something that many readers will not likely well understand and that is Elizabeth’s savvy in dealing with the wars of religion that were sweeping over Europe at the time of her reign.  Indeed, the book’s focus on the wars of religion demonstrate that contrary to popular opinion, England was not viewed as a highly powerful nation but was a somewhat marginal one at the time and thus England’s ability to successfully avoid domination by France and Spain while hesitantly supporting the Protestant cause abroad in the low countries and also dealing with the tension between religious refugees in London and xenophobic London crowds as well as that between Puritanism and recusancy within England itself.  Elizabeth shows herself to have been a strong monarch but a beleaguered one and this book does not minimize the sort of threats that she was under in her reign, nor does it stint on discussions of how she sought to increase her own power base in the face of the dangers that England faced during her reign.

This particular book of a bit more than 300 pages is divided into four parts and twenty-six chapters and has an immense dramatic sweep.  After acknowledgements and an author’s note the book begins with a prologue discussing a sacrificial priest during the reign of Queen Mary.  After that there are eight chapters that discuss England as a wounded and divided land from 1558-1566 (I), as Elizabeth sought to remain a virgin queen and had to deal with the threat of her neighbor to the North, Mary Queen of Scots, as well as her own population.  After that there are nine chapters that deal with the Catholic ascendancy between 1566-1580, including the threat of rebellion, iconoclasm, the Dutch revolt, plotting and counterplotting, the massacre in Paris, and a look at the Puritan underworld in London as well as the suffering of English Catholics.  The third part of the book contains five chapters that address the years of religious terror from 1580-1591 (III), the time of the Armada as well as the witch hunts against those who would threaten England’s peace, and efforts to frustrate the designs of England’s enemies.  Finally, the book concludes with four chapters that discuss the division of England that remained from 1591-1603 (IV), as Elizabeth had to deal with her succession as well as attempted invasions from abroad and the continuing struggle for moderation with demands from Puritans and Catholics to change the Elizabethan settlement.

Indeed, this book is a triumphant demonstration of the ability of able leadership to overcome a great deal of internal division as well as external threats.  While France was busy caught up in civil war and Portugal unfortunately found itself swallowed up by a Spain that was struggling to deal with revolt in the Dutch provinces, England managed to deal with threats to its internal stability while simultaneously increasing its external prestige as a nation which required respect by other monarchs.  The author does a great job here at discussing both the internal life of England during Elizabeth’s reign, where actors and playwrights served as spies (sometimes, as with the case of Marlowe, fatally), where underground presses were involved in struggles between Catholic and protestant thinking and where rulers like Elizabeth sought to use the coercive power of the state to ensure domestic tranquility as well as possible even as popes and other rulers sought to replace her with a more tractable monarch.  Elizabeth’s ability to navigate the problems of her reign compels respect, not least in her skill of choosing the right sort of people to advise her who reflected the balance that she sought to attain for England.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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