In My Lady's Chambers
Elizabeth's Bedfellows: An Intimate History of the Queen's Court
By Anna Whitelock (Bloomsbury 462pp £20)
England was not a happy place in the autumn of 1562. Its queen had been four years on the throne, would not commit to the idea of marriage despite a string of foreign suitors, and spent much of her time in the company of Robert Dudley, the swarthy favourite and childhood friend whose wife had died in mysterious circumstances two years previously. Elizabeth's unmarried and childless state was believed by many to imperil her own security and the stability of the country itself. What if she were to die? Two very different women potentially stood in line to succeed her. One was Lady Katherine Grey, the Protestant sister of the executed Lady Jane, whose claim was supported by many in parliament. But Elizabeth never liked the Greys and was infuriated to learn that Katherine had married the Earl of Hertford without royal permission and hidden her ensuing pregnancy until the last possible moment. The unfortunate young woman ended up in the Tower of London, like her sister, where she exacerbated matters by giving birth to a son. Meanwhile the other candidate, Mary, Queen of Scots, Elizabeth's Catholic rival, was a highly eligible widow who had returned from France to assume personal rule in Scotland the previous year. But Elizabeth, as she made clear to William Maitland of Lethington, the able Scottish secretary of state who was pushing his mistress's claim to be acknowledged as the rightful heir, was not about to contemplate her own winding sheet. Not, that is, until she became unwell at Hampton Court in October.
She had contracted smallpox and for some days those around her despaired of her life. But Elizabeth, who had never really enjoyed good health, managed to survive. That she did so was probably a matter of luck, but it also owed something to the devoted nursing of Lady Mary Sidney, Dudley's sister, one of the ladies of her bedchamber. Elizabeth, it was announced, had come through the often disfiguring illness with her famously perfect complexion unscarred. This was probably an exaggeration - Elizabeth's increasing use of the ghastly cosmetics of the period suggests that there was something to hide - but she was certainly luckier than Sidney, who also contracted the disease and was marked for life. Sidney had been an attractive woman; her husband was aghast at the change in her appearance, remarking that he left her the 'fairest' lady and found her 'as foul a lady as the small pox could make her' when he saw her again. It says something for the strength of their marriage that his affection for her did not waver. The same cannot be said for Elizabeth, who reacted to Sidney thereafter with a distaste she did not bother to conceal. Elizabeth's response to Sidney's tragedy was typical of the way she treated her female servants. As Anna Whitelock demonstrates, being one of Elizabeth's bedfellows was frequently the most demanding and unrewarding (in every sense of the word) experience.
Alas, we do not learn a great deal more about Mary Sidney. She and the other women of the bedchamber are occasional players in this book. Readers wanting to know more about their personalities should try Tracy Borman's entertaining Elizabeth's Women. What Whitelock gives us is a new account of Elizabeth's reign, seen largely from the queen's personal perspective. It is a memorable portrait, though not one that unquestioning admirers of the Virgin Queen may find palatable. The Elizabeth who emerges from these pages is a thoroughly unpleasant woman when stripped of her undoubted statecraft. She was endlessly demanding, vacillating, self-absorbed, vain and occasionally capable of cruelty rivalling that of her father, Henry VIII. Her treatment of the women of her household does not make pleasant reading. To enter her service was, effectively, to give up your own life in order to dance attendance and cater to her every whim. Most of her women were married, but their own lives and families were always subordinated to the needs of the queen. If they became pregnant, they remained at court until shortly before their babies were due and were seldom allowed to stay away for more than a month after the birth. Ladies who married secretly or became pregnant out of wedlock felt, like poor Katherine Grey, the full force of the monarch's wrath. Their treatment grew worse with the passing years, as age withered the toothless and bald queen, despite the best efforts of her ladies to present her to the world as the red-headed vision of perfection she had been in her twenties. Even her memory began to play tricks with her after the Earl of Essex's execution. Sic transit Gloriana.
Of course, Elizabeth was not ultimately the brute her father had been. Acknowledgement of her devoted women's sufferings may often have been belated, but she could be tender and concerned for their recovery. The deaths of Kat Ashley and Blanche Parry, who had been with her since infancy, struck her hard. And Whitelock provides some nice details that allow us to see a more human side of Elizabeth. She was afraid of the dark and suffered from insomnia. Mornings were not her best time, but the whole process of dressing her and making her up provided her ladies with an intimacy simply not afforded to her male councillors. These women really did know everything about her bodily functions, dealing with such things as the lengths of linen used as sanitary towels and the special belt that held them in place. That such accessories existed at all appears to give the lie to the suspicion that Elizabeth never menstruated. It was not a topic her women would ever have talked of openly, and they, like Elizabeth, took such secrets with them to the grave.
It was this proximity to the queen and the unrivalled access it brought, rather than any financial reward, that made what to us seems like a life of self-sacrifice so attractive to high-born ladies. But did intimacy truly carry influence? Elizabeth actually reduced the size of the Privy Chamber when she became queen and made it very clear that her women were not to interfere in politics or have any political role. This did not stop everyone, from their husbands and suitors to foreign ambassadors, courting them, in the hope that they would be a means of gaining the queen's favour. The advancement of one's own family was everything in 16th-century England and the women of her bedchamber, who shared her life and slept beside her, forfeited much in pursuit of this wider goal. As Anna Whitelock notes, Mary Sidney left the court feeling aggrieved and neglected. She lost her looks and three small daughters when in Elizabeth's service, at the same trying to manage the family estates at Penshurst Place in Kent while her husband served the Crown in Wales and Ireland. It was a high price to pay for being one of Elizabeth's bedfellows.
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Linda Porter's next book, Crown of Thistles: The Fatal Inheritance of Mary Queen of Scots, is published this summer.