Saturday, January 13, 2007

Double Book Review : After Elizabeth by Leanda de Lisle (HarperCollins 2005) / 1603 by Christopher Lee (Hodder Headline 2003)

Two books - After Elizabeth - How James King of Scots Won the Crown of England in 1603 by Leanda de Lisle and 1603 - A Turning Point in British History by Christopher Lee - have recently studied the transition from the Tudor to the Stuart Age upon the death of Elizabeth. It is a story that befits retelling, as James, a normally maligned figure, was by no means a foregone conclusion as successor. Yet, despite nearly destroying everything by supporting Essex and his doomed rebellion, James was the one who played the devious but powerful Robert Cecil the best and finally gained the prize above all others - the throne of England.

These books chart the last days of the aging Elizabeth and her played-out regime. The glory had passed - her latter years were marked by famine, a corrupt court and a monarch who had lost the will to continue after her betrayal by Essex. All political regimes have a natural lifespan, and most go on beyond what is good for the leaders or their countrymen - however, with the unusual exception of the Emperor Charles V, voluntary resignation is seldom an option.

Cecil had the regime change sewn up - James was a Protestant, an experienced monarch, but most importantly for Cecil, likely to keep him in power. His dalliance with Cecil's enemy Essex was overlooked. As soon as Elizabeth died at Richmond Palace, all courtiers and staff were confined to the palace whilst Cecil and the Privy Council managed the flow of news. Soldiers were posted to all the ports for fear of invasion. Yet despite best laid plans, Robert Carey beat the embargo and rode furiously to Edinburgh to be the first person to bring the news to James. He was asked what he wanted as his reward - a post in the King's Bedchamber replied Carey, so that he could have easy access to the King's Ear and the flow of patronage which flowed from him.

As soon as James began his Progress to London, the flow of those seeking favour and patronage became a flood, such that a proclamation forbidding those uninvited to seek the Kings presence had to be issued. This did not prevent Sir Walter Raleigh, fearful at losing Durham House in London and his monopoly on tin, from seeking an audience with the King. Yet the King had already been turned against Raleigh. "I think of thee very Rawly mon" said James on their first introduction. Soon, Raleigh was in the Tower, pleading for his life for his supposed involvement in the the Main and Bye plots against the King - it paid to keep on the right side of Cecil.

After Elizabeth by Leanda de Lisle follows in detail the events of 1603 from the death of Elizabeth to the Coronation of James. Her particular focus is the events at court in England and Scotland, and in James progress to take the throne of England. She uses in particular the writings of Elizabeth's Godson Sir John Harington to reflect the reality of regime change and its uncertainty for a courtier, contrasting Harington's fortunes in particular with those of Raleigh.

1603 has a broader focus, looking at life in general in Britain in 1603, and also, for reasons best known to the author, in Japan. The book offers some interesting perspectives on the historical movements at work - the rise of the mercantile classes and their control of the Piracy trade, for instance - but he writes with an irritating style which is prone to facile comparisons with the present day and far too much reliance on long quotations. The book has an air of padding about it.

Together, however, they convey that this was simultaneously a time of change but also of continuity. That the regime change went smoothly was testament to the skill of Cecil; as was the fact that he and his Privy Counsellors on the whole managed to retain their positions despite the appearance of many Scotsmen on the make. Yet the Tudor era had passed, and one of James first act was to review the various Monopolies held by courtiers. The last vestiges of medieval patronage were being removed, capitalism was nascent and the reformation had already made individual consciousness a political issue. Unbeknownst to James, and entirely outwith his control, the seeds of the English Civil War had been sown.

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