Elizabeth I: Renaissance Prince – A Biography by Lisa Hilton; Elizabeth I and Her Circle by Susan Doran - review by Anna Whitelock

Anna Whitelock

Machiavellian Queen?

Elizabeth I: Renaissance Prince – A Biography


Weidenfeld & Nicolson 370pp £25 order from our bookshop

Elizabeth I and Her Circle


Oxford University Press 397pp £25 order from our bookshop

A year never seems to go by when new books on Elizabeth I do not hit the bookshelves. These two works both seek to bring something new to this well-worn field of scholarship by offering Elizabeth from a different perspective. Lisa Hilton presents Elizabeth as a Machiavellian ‘Renaissance Prince’ who self-consciously fashioned herself as ‘male’, while Susan Doran considers the queen’s most important relationships.

Hilton’s main thesis is that historians have overstated the significance of gender in interpreting Elizabeth’s reign and in understanding the queen herself. Indeed, she maintains that those who have concentrated on this aspect are ‘simply wrong’. Instead, Hilton argues that Elizabeth’s ‘princely self-image’ was ‘not in the least circumscribed by femininity’ and that she should rather be seen as a new kind of ruler for England, a monarch who sought to refashion her realm towards modern nationhood. What follows, however, is rather less novel than the claims of its introduction. That said, attempting to move beyond ‘gender’ as the main lens through which to consider Elizabeth’s reign and placing England in a wider European perspective, leaving behind the Anglocentricity that continues to dominate many studies, are both commendable objectives. Discussion of trade and diplomatic links with Russia, Poland and the Ottoman Empire, and therefore of Elizabeth’s relations with Tsar Ivan the Terrible and his successor, Tsar Feodor (and the regent Boris Godunov), as well as Sultan Murad III, will doubtless be new and unfamiliar to many readers. 

In other areas, Hilton appears strikingly unaware of modern historiography, not least in her discussion of Mary Tudor, Elizabeth’s older sister, who appears as the ‘dour, disappointed and lumpen wife’ of Philip II. There is nothing here about the precedents Mary set for Elizabeth in fashioning female sovereignty, nor about

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