http://northernrenaissance.org | ISSN: 1759-3085

Creative Commons License

Published under an Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported Creative Commons License.

You are free to share, copy and transmit this work under the following conditions:

Anna Whitelock, Elizabeth’s Bedfellows: An Intimate History of the Queen’s Court (London: Bloomsbury, 2013). ISBN: 9781408808801. 462 pp. Hbk. £17.99.

Reviewed by Estelle Paranque


[1] The reign of Elizabeth I has proved endlessly fascinating for spectators of the Tudor scene – from serious scholars to the television-viewing public. Books on the history of her Court have sold well and another volume on this topic might make one wonder whether there could be anything new to say. However, Anna Whitelock’s book, Elizabeth’s Bedfellows, proves such misgivings wrong. While it may not offer many new academic insights, Whitelock’s text is a revealing biography and will certainly help to promote public interest in the period. Her book is divided into sixty-two very short chapters, covering both political and more private Court events, such as the Queen’s recurring illness (p.141) and rumours of a secret son (p. 241-5). As well as revisiting secondary material, Whitelock helps the reader delve into Elizabethan England through detailed analysis of primary sources, such as letters, state papers and ambassadors’ accounts. She deftly depicts the places and people that surrounded the Queen. The author focuses on different women of the bedchamber to provide new insights into the daily life of her household. Indeed, she highlights the hard work of Elizabeth’s ladies, such as Lady Mary Sidney who nursed Elizabeth through smallpox; Lady Katherine Ashley who cared deeply about the Queen’s reputation; or Mary Scudamore whose presence and service was requested at Court when the Queen’s regular bedfellow, Lady Dorothy Stafford, had broken her leg in a riding accident. These events help to draw a more intimate picture of the Elizabethan court. Councillors may have assisted the Queen with national policy-making but her ladies provided important personal support.

[2] Three important subjects dominate scholarship regarding Elizabeth’s reign: firstly, the threat to her life and crown represented by Mary, Queen of Scots; secondly, her relationship with her great favorite, Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester; and thirdly, the projected Anjou Match of the late 1570s and early 1580s, Elizabeth’s last chance to marry and to potentially conceive an heir for her throne. Whitelock manages to shed some new light on to these issues and narrates them with verve. It has, for example, previously been argued that Elizabeth was hostile to acknowledging Mary Stuart as her heir but Whitelock emphasises that Elizabeth “made clear that Mary was her preferred successor” and that she acknowledged her claim to the throne. She could not, however, officially name her as “her chosen heir for fear of the unrest it might cause” (p. 57). Regarding the Scottish Queen’s execution, Whitelock focuses more on its consequences abroad than on those in the English realm. She vibrantly recounts the impact of the execution on Elizabeth’s relations with France (p. 238). With reference to French sources such as Adam Blackwood’s Martyre de la royne d’Ecosse and De Jezebelis Anglae, “a collection of French and Latin poems reviling Elizabeth” (p. 239), she demonstrates the effects which Mary’s death had on Elizabeth’s representation in Catholic countries.

[3] Histories of the European courts have long provided an alternative means of exploring how power was exercised by, and through, those who had immediate access to the sovereign. Whitelock’s text exemplifies this, demonstrating how the, often informal, channels of access, favour and grace could confer authority on those who might not have held the highest offices of state. The works of Stephen Alford, Natalie Mears and Patrick Collinson have previously focused on the importance and role of the Queen’s political advisors. Whitelock’s account of court-life sheds light on more private events and puts the Queen back at the centre of court politics. She considers the plots and conspiracies (real and imagined) that consumed Elizabethan England, from the secret marriage of the Queen’s other cousin, Katherine Grey, to the Essex Rebellion of 1601. She also repeatedly refers to Elizabeth’s health condition, drawing a portrait of her that is more human and vulnerable than before. The author highlights Elizabeth’s councillor’s fears regarding “the fragility of the Queen’s body”, prompted by her frequent violent stomach aches (p. 156). Whitelock considers all those around the Queen, both men and women, contributing a new way of looking at Elizabeth’s person, Court and monarchy. She reconsiders court intrigues, linking them to the bedfellows and their roles or dealings at the Court. William Stafford, the second son of the Queen’s lady, Dorothy Stafford, for example, was actually implicated in a plot to kill Elizabeth, revealing how close to the Court – and to the Queen, herself – conspirators and traitors actually were. The author does not forget to mention the pain caused to Dorothy Stafford who “remained selflessly devoted to Elizabeth” (pp. 231-2).

[4] Whitelock’s work employs various primary archival and printed sources. She mines the letters of French, Spanish and Venetian ambassadors, while also neatly encapsulating the historiography of royal courts during Elizabeth’s reign with reference to important secondary sources. Occasionally, some important historical events might have benefited from more explanation and a wider historiographical context, for example, the death of Anjou and its impact on the Queen’s relations not only with France but with Catholic Europe. But this book is clearly written to appeal a larger audience than merely the academic. The writing is engaging and vibrant. From Hatfield Palace to Hampton Court, she brings the reader back to Elizabethan England and reveals the complications and difficulties faced by the Queen.

[5] The real strength of Anna Whitelock’s book is its capacity to highlight aspects of the Court that have been too often neglected and, instead, dismissed as trivial. Through Whitelock’s writing, the reader witnesses some of the more private events of the Court, as well as its major political episodes. It is no surprise that the BBC is interested in filming a series based on this book. The author reveals the woman behind the Queen, with her human flaws, including her jealousy and vanity, while also extrapolating on her more celebrated qualities, such as her strength of character, devotion to her country and political cunning. The book will appeal to a broad audience – academics, students and the interested public will all be intrigued by the Court brought to life.

University College London, September 2013