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Lisa Hilton – Elizabeth: Renaissance Prince

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Just don’t tell this monarch she’s a strong female character…

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Pages: 342
Type: Non-Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-544-57784-8
First Published: 9th October 2014
Date Reviewed: 26th November 2015
Rating: 3.5/5

Hilton looks at Elizabeth I and her court, aiming to show how the queen was more of a prince than a princess (in keeping with the monarch’s own view).

Elizabeth: Renaissance Prince is a fairly good read that examines much of the period but has a tendency to follow forks in the road rather than remain focused on the Queen herself.

Let’s start with the writing style. Hilton writes in a way that is both highly academic and very colloquial. ‘Big’ words join phrases such as ‘he gave out that’, making for a book that suggests authority whilst remaining easy enough to read. Sometimes the text can be very dry – the prologue, laborious, in particular shouldn’t be considered an example of the book as a whole – but the fun episodes slotted in throughout keep it from becoming too much.

The vast majority of statements are backed up in some way, be it by primary or secondary sources. Hilton does tend to favour the research of others rather than her own, which can seem as though she needs to rely on other people’s thoughts when what she’s saying is sound, but it does add up the points in her favour so far as evidence is concerned. Sometimes the evidence is sketchy, for example her use of Bernard to make a point – Bernard’s the man who bases books on hunches – and, as another example, her use of what Anne Boleyn said in the tower in her last days as proof of what Anne believed (which again follows Bernard and, as I mentioned in my review of his book, one can’t really take as fact words said in times of trial). The author sometimes neglects other evidence or mainstream opinion without re-enforcing it, such as her statement that Anne Boleyn was not an active reformer and her talk of the gospel to Henry VIII was but part of courtly love (most historians see it as a subtle way of influencing the easily-influenced king’s mind, possibly on behalf of her family).

However when Hilton gets it right, she really gets it right. She is very biased against certain people others favour but relates stories in such a way that show why she is right to be biased – she may call Katherine Parr’s ‘collusion’ with Seymour during the tickling incidents ‘nasty’ but she makes plain the reason why without resorting to name-calling or manipulating the narrative of the event. She points out that, okay, perhaps Anne could have been a reformer but that there is no evidence of her individual involvement, for example, in ‘promoting sympathetic clerics to bishoprics’.

As a book on the whole it’s good; the problem comes with the title and stated focus: this book is not so much a biography of Elizabeth as it is a book about Elizabeth and her courtiers. So much time is spent detailing other people instead of looking at what the queen was doing and thinking, which is almost inevitable when we’ve no diaries and so forth, but does weaken the argument being made. The assertion of princeliness is compelling and believable but beyond a couple of quotations and repetitions of ‘Machiavellian’, the proposal isn’t strong enough to warrant a whole book about it, as shown by the amount of time devoted to other subjects. Instead, unfortunately, we have a book in which a queen does come across as more of a man but there is so much planning and law-making by the actual men, often away from the queen, that it can look like an afterthought.

Away from this believable but hard to show statement of manliness is a competent non-fiction that whilst it needs to be read with the knowledge it’s one person’s work – as most history books are – succeeds in being informative and a good choice for those looking to learn more about the Queen and the upper classes. Hilton’s background in television gives her book an edge others lack, making it, as suggested, both academic and commercial, and the amount of research undertaken practically oozes from it.

Elizabeth: Renaissance Prince is one to look for once you have a good grasp of the basics (the opinions mean you’ll appreciate it more if you’ve read the mainstream views first) and a good reminder for those who’ve been away from the history for a while. Granted, not all that much is new, but the handling of the information and the presentation of it is on the whole excellent; reading this book is a bit of an experience in itself.

I received this book for review from the publisher.

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November 27, 2015, 5:50 pm

I was intrigued by the title of this when it came up on Netgalley. I had to resist the urge though as I really do have too many galleys!

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