Nothing is more effective for sending a patriotic shiver down the English spine than mention of Elizabeth I. We never think of an old woman caked with paint half an inch thick, a huge wattle hanging from her chin, stabbing tapestries in fury with her rusting sword, her fifth-rate councillors all over sixty. We think of Gloriana (the ‘weak and feeble woman’ with the ‘heart and stomach of a king’), of Shakespeare, of the Armada, and of dashing pirate heroes. Meanwhile Elizabeth’s hapless successor, James VI of Scotland and I of England, has never had a look-in. Despite the fact that he also presided over the age of Shakespeare, was behind the glorious King James Bible, and was perhaps England’s cleverest ever monarch (though that may not be saying a lot), in folk memory he is still the dribbling, drunken, autocratic, homosexual king.
And it could have been so different. Instead of a Scottish Stuart, we could have had his English first cousin Arabella, Lord Beauchamp (heir to the throne according to Henry VIII’s will), the Infanta of Spain, or even Essex – Elizabeth’s last