The Life of Elizabeth I by Alison Weir

This is the first time I’ve read a history book that’s just about Elizabeth. Considering how much I’ve already read about her parents and their lives, I thought it was weird that I didn’t actually know that much about Elizabeth’s life after her parents died. This was a really good place to start.

Alison Weir is probably my favorite historian (yes I have a favorite historian). She doesn’t make as many easily-disputable claims in her books, like Antonia Fraser, and her writing has clarity and a nice humorous touch that appears every so often. She also writes about these people and their lives like she was there the whole time. Do you know what the weather in London was like on the day Elizabeth was crowned? Alison Weir does. It’s details like that that made me give this book five stars. For example, take this passage on Elizabeth’s clothing:

“Elizabeth I’s wardrobe, which was rumored to contain more than three thousand gowns, became legendary during her lifetime, as her costumes grew even more flamboyant and fantastic….The Queen’s portraits invariably show her in dresses of silk, velvet, taffeta, or cloth of gold, encrusted with real gems, countless pearls and sumptuous embroidery in silver or gold thread whilst her starched ruffs and stiff gauze collars grew even larger. Her favored colours were black, white, and silver, worn with transparent silver veils. Many gowns were embroidered with symbols and emblems such as roses, suns, rainbows, monsters, spiders, ears of wheat, mulberries, pomegranates or pansies, the flowers she loved best.”

Damn.

My favorite part of the book is actually at the very end, and isn’t even technically part of the book at all – think of it as a bonus track. After the epilogue and the eighteen-page bibliography and the three genealogical tables (damn), Weir adds a delightfully spiteful article that she wrote on movies about Elizabeth: which ones take the material seriously and still manage to be entertaining, and which ones make her want to tear her hair out. In case you’re wondering, Weir likes the BBC miniseries with Helen Mirren as Elizabeth (I heartily agree), and she spits on anything involving Cate Blanchett. According to Weir, Elizabeth “contained so many inaccuracies it would be impossible to list them all” (but she goes ahead and lists a lot of them) and The Golden Age “is another historical travesty, made with only the sketchiest regard for the facts and little understanding of the period.” The article is worth reading just for the way she goes apoplectic over the way Sir Walter Raleigh was portrayed – Weir sputters that no one would be allowed to appear in front of the queen in an open shirt, but I for one approve of that anachronism because Clive Owen.

I wonder if Alison Weir has ever watched that HBO series, The Tudors. Probably not. I imagine she’d last five minutes into the first episode before she broke the television by throwing something at it. (on that note, I would pay to be able to watch something like that with Alison Weir. It’d be almost as fun as watching New Moon with Sherman Alexie.)

Verdict: five out of five stars

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