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Monday, October 12, 2009

Book Review: Elizabeth’s Women by Tracy Borman

Elizabeth’s Women: The Hidden Story of the Virgin Queen
by Tracy Borman
UK Edition, Hardcover, 482 pages
Jonathan Cape
September 24, 2009
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Genre: Non Fiction, Tudor England

Source: Received from publisher for review

"Elizabeth’s Women contains more than an indelible cast of characters. It is an unprecedented account of how the public posture of femininity figured into the English court, the meaning of costume and display, the power of fecundity and flirtation, and how Elizabeth herself—long viewed as the embodiment of feminism—shared popular views of female inferiority and scorned and schemed against her underlings’ marriages and pregnancies.
Brilliantly researched and elegantly written, Elizabeth’s Women is a unique take on history’s most captivating queen and the dazzling court that surrounded her."

The story of Elizabeth I of England has been told many times. These stories tend to focus on the men in her life – Robert Dudley, her father Henry VIII, Thomas Seymour, just to name a few. This new book by Tracy Borman explores the effects that the women in Elizabeth’s life had on her – starting with her mother and moving on to courtiers, cousins, stepmothers etc. Don’t get me wrong, the men are still an integral part of the story, but they are not the focus.

This book was very interesting to me. I had only read one book about Elizabeth before and that book didn’t really focus on Elizabeth’s life but more of the effect her mother’s legacy had on her life. I had enjoyed the perspective of that book and Elizabeth’s Women took that perspective much further. This book was organized very well – each chapter focused on a different set of relationships in chronological order. You could see how interactions with women early in her life effected decisions she made later in her life. One of my favorite things about the book was that the author kept coming back to how these early relationships (particularly the deaths of her mother and stepmother, Katherine Howard) effected her decisions about men, marriage, and children.

The chapters that focused on her servants were sometimes hard to pay attention to. There were a lot of names that were thrown about and it was difficult to focus on who was who. I tended to just gloss over these parts. The only other part, and it was a very small part, that I had an issue with was there was a mention of a son between Jane Parker and George Boleyn that I can't find reference to anywhere else. Other than these small issues, I thoroughly enjoyed this book. I feel that I learned a lot about Queen Elizabeth – what drove her as well as the way she ruled. I respect her more because of the way she paid homage to her mother when it wasn't a popular thing to do.

I would recommend this to anyone who doesn’t know much about Elizabeth as well as those who would like to see the Queen from a different perspective.

If you would like to try out a sample of the book, check out the excerpt at the publisher's website.
Reviews of this book by other bloggers:
Buy the Book:Amazon | Barnes & Noble | RJ Julia
Also by Tracy Borman:
henrietta howard
Henrietta Howard: King's Mistress, Queen's Servant
Queen of the Conqueror: The Life of Matilda, Wife of William I
the ring and the crown
The RIng and the Crown (with Allison Wier, Kate Williams, and Sarah Gristwood)
thomas cromwell
Thomas Cromwell: The Untold Story of Henry VIII's Faithful Servant
Witches: A Tale of Sorcery, Scandal, and Seduction
Find Tracy Borman: Website | Twitter
Book Discussion

Marie from The Burton Review was my read-along buddy and we discussed this book and proposed questions to each other throughout our reading. You can find the first part of our discussion at her blog. The second part is as follows.

At this point in the book, (about Chapter 8) what is the most enjoyable thing for you or something that sticks out that you have learned so far?
Heather: I have really enjoyed learning about all of the ways that Elizabeth was similar to her mother and the ways that she tried honoring her. She was smart in the ways that she did this though, and did this is ways that wouldn’t upset her people. She promoted those who had been faithful followers of her mother (or in some cases their descendents), she modeled her coronation after that of her mother’s, adopted her emblem (the white falcon) as well as many others. Elizabeth had Anne’s attitude of requiring strict adherence of her women to her moral code and sharp punishment if they didn’t. She also had the power to charm the people, to a better degree than Anne ever could.

Marie: I am really enjoying seeing how these female relationships of Elizabeth's corresponded to what effected Elizabeth in her formative years. The fact that Kat Ashley was the most constant person in her life is sad but makes me glad that she did have someone to rely on, but it proved disastrous particularly with the Seymour scandal. I have now come to realize that Elizabeth probably felt at odds most of her young life, with the strained relationship of her half-sister Mary; and the fact there were a series of failed marriages of her father with deadly conclusions probably reinforced her fear of marriage altogether. Jane Seymour and Katherine Parr both died of the puerperal fever brought on by childbirth, which also could have greatly helped formed opinions regarding having a family of her own. Another person who was once close to Elizabeth was Jane Grey, and she was executed as a direct result of her family's greed for power. After being in a dysfunctional family herself and witnessing how family used Lady Jane Grey, what could have been Elizabeth's feelings about the strength and importance of family bonds? It becomes more understandable how Elizabeth learned to cope, and rule, as one person with no strict relationships as far as marriage or children, and knowing to not fully trust others.

In the chapter The Queen’s Hive, the author mentions how Elizabeth promoted many members of her family once she was queen. One of this people was the son of Jane Parker and George Boleyn, Anne Boleyn’s brother. What do you think of this?
Heather: I was under the impression that George and Jane did not have any children. I had heard that there was someone who was thought to be their son by historians, but was most likely to be just another distant relative. Even though it was just a one sentence mention, it bothers me a little bit.

Marie: I noticed it too and raised a red flag as well. I carried on and forgot about it till you brought it up again. I then googled it and can see no trace of the mention of any children at all issued to George and Jane, and I don't remember reading anything about it all either. All I can find on the post of the Dean of Lichfield which Borman says was given to this son, was that it a post in the Comerford family at that time, from the transition of Mary's reign to Elizabeth's. there was certainly upheaval and the posts were taken from Catholics (or Mary's favorites) and given to Elizabeth's favorites, but I can't see who held what post after Elizabeth became Queen.

Although no mention of the Boleyn's, an interesting history that comes from Patrick Comerford's site at http://revpatrickcomerford.blogspot.com/2009_08_14_archive.html:
"Henry {Comerford} was summoned before the Privy Council on 27 February {1559}. He was deprived of all his benefices because of his extreme Catholicism, and he was held in prison until April. Four months later, in June 1559, Ralph Baynes was deprived as Bishop of Coventry and Lichfield. At the same time, the Dean of Lichfield, John Ramridge, was sent to the Tower – when he was released on bail, the dean made good his escape to Flanders, where he was later murdered. In addition, the Chancellor of Lichfield, Alban Longdale, was deprived, the Treasurer, George Lee, resigned, and many of the prebendaries and cathedral clergy were deprived or forced to resign between 1559 and 1564"

From British canon resident records I found the list of canons and of Deans, and at that time period:
Henry Williams B.D. (dean) 1536-1554
From: 'Canons residentiary of Lichfield', Fasti Ecclesiae Anglicanae 1541-1857: volume 10: Coventry and Lichfield diocese (2003), pp. 78-94. URL: http://www.british-history.ac.uk/report.aspx?compid=34773

John Ramridge D.D. (dean) 1554-1559. {The Same John Ramridge mentioned above}
Instal. 2 Apr. 1554; depriv. c. 1559 (see Deans).
From: 'Canons residentiary of Lichfield', Fasti Ecclesiae Anglicanae 1541-1857: volume 10: Coventry and Lichfield diocese (2003), pp. 78-94.
but the most important coming:
Lawrence Nowell M.A. (dean) 1560-1576.
Instal. 29 March 1560; d. 17 Oct. × 22 Nov. 1576 (see Deans).
George Boleyn D.D. (dean) 1576-1603.
Instal. 22 Nov. 1576; d. Jan. 1603 (see Deans).
From: 'Canons residentiary of Lichfield', Fasti Ecclesiae Anglicanae 1541-1857: volume 10: Coventry and Lichfield diocese (2003), pp. 78-94.
24 Oct. 1599: Boleyn (dean), Babington (Bishop's Itchington, precentor), Bagshaw (Colwich), Exton (Offley) + Merrick (Bobenhull) (D30/2/1/5 f. 11) = 5]
From: 'Canons residentiary of Lichfield', Fasti Ecclesiae Anglicanae 1541-1857: volume 10: Coventry and Lichfield diocese (2003), pp. 78-94.

We know that Anne's brother, George Boleyn, was married 1525 to Jane Parker. He was executed in 1536, she was executed in 1542. There is indeed a possibility they had a child, but since there was no mention of it, it is hard to believe there was. Yet, as a countess, Jane may have had the necessary provisions to allow offspring to be raised and educated elsewhere while Jane was a courtier and Lady in Waiting to Queen Catherine Howard. So who is the George Boleyn who was given the post later in 1576 and held it till the end of Elizabeth's reign?
George and Anne Boleyn's father thomas was one of about ten children, giving Thomas at least three brothers to help carry on the Boleyn name. There is of course the possibility that one of these uncles had offspring that had offspring etc. that may have had the first name of George, who we see in the above role of Dean. I am not so sure of the fact that the George, Dean of Lichfield, that we see held the post from 1576 to 1603 is the offspring of George and Jane. If he was a son of George and Jane he would probably have been born between 1526 and 1535. This makes him between 51 and 61 when first given the post as dean, and holding it until age 68 or 78.. which seems highly unlikely in Tudor times. So I would go with the belief that this George, Dean of Lichfield is a descendent of one of George and Anne's uncles.

Midway through the book, Borman writes of Mary, Queen of Scots in the Cousins chapter 9. Was there anything that surprised you here, and what were the effects of Mary's many uncouth political actions onto Elizabeth?
Heather: There were actually quite a few things that surprised me in this part about Mary, Queen of Scots. I didn’t know much about Elizabeth and I knew virtually nothing about Mary. I was surprised by all of the turmoil that she went through after her seemingly great life in the French court. Her choice of husband, her second, turned out to be not quite what she wanted. Then she was forced to marry her third husband who raped her, and then she was forced out of the position of queen. I think that these relationships further showed Elizabeth how marriage wasn’t something she wanted – she didn’t need to suffer the abuse of men and the agony of children. She also saw how easily she could lose her throne if the people didn’t like some of her choices.

Marie: I had read several books pertaining this cousins relationship, and most of it was old news. This is the point in the book that was a little tougher to get through, this chapter being 50 pages long. The decisions of Mary Queen of Scots could have helped to solidify Elizabeth's negative views on marriage due to the fact that Mary's choices in men were very disastrous, which made Mary an object of ridicule. There was no way that Elizabeth would put her title as Queen in such peril that Mary Queen of Scots did, who was forced to abdicate Scotland in favor of her infant son.

After completing the book, who has now become an intriguing character to you?
Heather: I am very interested in Arbella Stuart and Mary, Queen of Scots. I had never heard of Arbella before this and hadn’t read anything about Mary before. From the description of Arbella in the book, she sounded kind of crazy – I would like to read more and see how other people described her and her personality. I had originally thought that I would dislike Mary (for some reason, I really had no base for the assumption) – but when looking at the situation between Elizabeth and Mary – I ended up liking Mary better. I would love to explore her life a little more.

Marie: Bess of Hardwick and her granddaughter Arbella Stuart have always been intriguing to me, but the author mentions more of the Boleyn cousins, the Howards, and the Careys who were Elizabeth’s first cousins as well. These relations were promoted to higher posts once Elizabeth finally had the crown, and I can imagine that they were very much involved in politics and the outcomes of some of Elizabeth’s decisions. This is where I would like to continue my reading, into more of the familial connections now that I have satisfied my thirst for the intrigues of the peers of Elizabeth in this book.

Copyright © 2009 by The Maiden’s Court


  1. Good job!!! I almost gave this 4.5 stars, but I took that last .5 star off because of the George Boleyn son you pointed out to me. Which I am sorry I got a little crazy on that George question, but I wanted to see why she felt they had a son. =) I get a little insane over Tudor facts. After reading what feels like MANY books on Elizabeth, I put this one up there on the Must Read list.

    Thanks for being my buddy for this read, I enjoyed it, especially that we both read it at the same pace, that was awesome. I lucked out last week with the family giving me some time.

  2. Now I'm convinced that I want to read this! It's funny, I can't 'like' Elizabeth but I find her fascinating. I do like how this book ties together her life as affected by her early relationships and the history of her parents. Robin Maxwell's book, The Secret Diary of Anne Boleyn, highlights her link with her mother in this way as well, and I really enjoyed it.

  3. Thanks for the review! I enjoy historical fiction, but I usually like to balance those books with interesting non-fiction on the same subjects. This looks great.

  4. Like Arleigh...now I too want to read this. I love your review! And after both yours and Marie's, who wouldn't want to read this? Doing the interview makes it that much more interesting as well. Fabulous-Thanks!

  5. I think this was SUCH a great idea by you and Marie to be "reading buddies" on this book. It's nice to see both of your opinions expressed on each others' blogs.


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