At a state banquet in Dublin in May of this year, the Queen remarked: ‘With the benefit of historical hindsight we can all see things which we would wish had been done differently or not at all.’ Her speech was warmly received as a formal British admission of past mistakes and the painstaking ‘loosening’ of ‘a knot of history’. A N Wilson, too, sees the drawing of a line under the past, but argues in The Elizabethans that it is something even more. He believes that settlement in Ireland means that we can never see British – and specifically English – policy towards Ireland as we used to. He makes the same point about the slave trade. The inhumanity we now recognise must, he believes, alter the way we see the maritime exploits of Hawkins, Drake and the Elizabethan ‘sea-dogs’. According to Wilson, modern history started with the reign of Queen Elizabeth but the myth that grew up and made sense of it – nationalism, Protestantism, the Church of England, overseas exploration and expansion – no longer has any credibility. That posed the fundamental problem he faced in writing this book. How could he write about the Elizabethans without being ‘unimaginatively judgemental’? That is ‘the Difficulty’ – of which more anon.
The book is constructed in four sections, each covering a decade or so of Elizabeth’s reign, but not with a linear narrative. Wilson selects topics for consideration from each decade. Some are thematic, for example the role of ceremonial in constructing the image of the queen. Others focus