Houses in Castle Street, Thornbury

Queen Elizabeth I

Talk by Ronald Hutton, Professor of History at the University of Bristol, on 14 May 2024

Report by Stephen Griffiths

At the last of the Society’s season of meetings in May we welcomed back Professor Ronald Hutton to present his version of Queen Elizabeth I.

Why is a local history society discussing a national icon I hear you ask? Well in this case the local interest is Professor Hutton himself. He is currently Professor of History at Bristol University, but those that know him would be unsurprised to learn that in a previous life he was a druid in deepest, darkest Forest of Dean, and that he once topped the bill at the Bristol Hippodrome as a theatrical hypnotist. Unsurprised but wrong, though he is a leading authority on ancient and medieval paganism and magic as well as on on the history of the British Isles in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

Anyway he certainly had his Society audience well and truly mesmerized.

The secret of Elizabeth’s success was her longevity. Had she ruled only five years like her sister Mary she might be remembered as a queen who divided the country over religion, oversaw military disaster in France, and left a serious succession crisis. As it turned out, during her long reign her European neighbours started to fall apart while England managed to keep calm and carry on, sowing the seeds of a global trade network. The image that Elizabeth meticulously manufactured is familiar to us today, but what was the lady really like?

To get ahead as a courtier to Elizabeth you didn’t need brains, you needed nice legs. She was more frustrated spinster than virgin queen. She was besotted with Robert Dudley but her nobles couldn’t face being under his thumb. Ditto the Duke of Anjou. She repeatedly made the mistake of giving her toy-boys jobs to do, like leading armies against the Spanish and French. When they failed miserably she had to sack them or chop off their heads. Many women today might sympathize with her predicament. The Earl of Essex is a case in point.

Rather than being cheerleader for the new protestant church, Elizabeth was a pathological conservative who hated change. She dithered with a halfway house that pleased neither protestant nor catholic. She was routinely indecisive, taking to her sick bed when faced with important matters. While moving her whole household to Windsor for the winter she changed her mind four times, keeping a cavalcade of waggons waiting all day. The Dutch actually offered her their throne, thereby gifting her an empire, but she couldn’t decide what to do and ended up offending them.

A supreme egotist who adored flattery and flirtation (just like her dad), she loved parading around London and progressing magnificently around England. She thought herself more goddess than woman, and commissioned a Dutch alchemist to create an elixir of eternal life. She couldn’t stand others taking centre stage. Young Nicholas Clifford made a big mistake when he flouted in her presence an opulent gold chain given to him in Europe. Her put-down was shrivelling. “My dogs wear my collars”.

As bosses from hell go, Elizabeth was up there. All her councillors had nervous breakdowns. She wouldn’t attend council and wouldn’t act on their advice. Intrigue and secrecy pervaded the court. Whatever you do, don’t tell the queen. Her council knew that Spain was building an armada but was too scared to tell her. She learned about it through a Scottish ambassador’s throwaway remark.

The image we have of Elizabeth comes from her spin-doctors’ poems and broadsheets and her artists’ carefully contrived and controlled paintings. That said, she undoubtedly had star quality, and would be ideally cast in a film of her life. She has had more screen time than any other queen, played by such greats as Cate Blanchett, Helen Mirren, Judi Dench and Glenda Jackson. Not to mention Miranda Richardson in Blackadder. She was even played by Quentin Crisp in the film Orlando (1992). Must dig that one up.

Many thanks to Ron for a mesmerizing performance. You are a local treasure.

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