BY TRACY BORMAN
Tracy Borman subtitles her book the hidden story of the Virgin Queen. This might suggest that she has uncovered new facts about the life of this most enigmatic monarch. But this is not the case. What the author has done, with skill and flair, is to gather all the aspects of Elizabeth’s reign that deal particularly with other women so as to highlight certain features of her character.
We read again of her fraught relations with her older half-sister, Mary Tudor, sometimes close in her early years, later tinged with mutual suspicion and hostility; her long, uneasy relationship with Mary, Queen of Scots, who obsessed her but whom she always refused to meet.
Most interesting for modern psychology was her attitude to her mother, Anne Boleyn, beheaded on the order of her father when Elizabeth was only two years and eight months old.
Although in her childhood and youth she never spoke of her, Elizabeth kept a locket ring with miniatures of herself and Anne Boleyn, deliberately copied the details of Anne’s coronation in her own coronation of 1558 and allowed herself to be painted wearing a pendant with Anne’s initial “A” on it. Then there were her attendants. In Elizabeth’s troubled childhood, motherless, her status swinging from royal to illegitimate then back again, surrounded by the ferocious intrigues of the Tudor court, she was fortunate in the women who nurtured her: the motherly Lady Bryan, Lady Mistress of her household; Katherine Astley, her governess; and Blanche Parry, calm and devoted, who succeeded Astley as Chief Gentlewoman of the Privy Chamber and who died in 1590 after a devoted 57-year service.
It is interesting to note that during her long 45-year reign only 28 women were appointed to salaried posts in Elizabeth’s privy chamber. She encouraged this long service, significantly choosing several female relatives of her mother among their number. To be a lady of the privy chamber or bedchamber was an arduous honour: as Queen, Elizabeth took over two hours to dress and to have her long auburn hair (later, a series of wigs) pinned and decorated with pearls.
One of her ladies always slept in her bedroom and tasted her food. Her attendants had to be accomplished, able to read aloud to the Queen in other languages, ride, hunt, dance and play cards.
The precocious little girl who, aged three, demanded of her guardian the reason why she was no longer addressed as “Princess” but only “My Lady”, grew up to be the most intellectually brilliant of England’s female monarchs.
Borman briefly raises an old chestnut here: did the Queen suffer from an intersex condition now known as Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome? Was a realisation of her sexual ambiguity the reason for Elizabeth’s very early (1559) statement to the Commons about living and dying a virgin? Why did she insist that her body be neither seen nor examined after her death, except by female attendants? We will never know the answer.