‘Elizabeth and Mary: Royal Cousins, Rival Queens’ at the British Library


I’ve been so busy recently it’s taken me a while to get round to putting this up on my blog – back in November when I was in London, as well as going to the Tower of London, Natural History Museum, and on a Jack the Ripper walking tour I, of course, had to find time to visit the British Library to see their exhibition on Elizabeth I and Mary Queen of Scots. This was just perfect timing, given that I was writing my first book on Elizabethan Rebellions which Mary was a huge part of.

There was so much to see and take in during the exhibition: portraits, books, letters, papal bulls, and jewellery. It was a real insight into the minds of these women and how they were trying to negotiate the murky political waters of the sixteenth century. Here I’m going to talk about just a couple of things in the exhibition which made a huge impact on me.

Letter from the Privy Council to the Earl of Kent giving permission for the execution of Mary Queen of Scots

The first is the letter from the Privy Council agreeing to the execution of Mary Queen of Scots. The original warrant long ago went missing, so this is the closest thing that we have. To see the signatures of William Cecil, Henry Carey Lord Hunsdon, Francis Knollys, and Charles Howard demonstrates just how willing these men were to go over and above their Queen and threaten the very idea of divine right in order to safeguard Elizabeth I’s throne. Mary was just too dangerous to be allowed to live and Elizabeth wouldn’t be safe while she did.

‘Gallows Letter’ from Mary Queen of Scots to Anthony Babington 1586

The second was the Babington ‘gallows’ letter which Mary Queen of Scots sent to Anthony Babington in 1586 during the Babington Plot and which led directly to her own execution the following year. The original was written in code and then burnt by Babington once he’d read it. This is a copy made by Walsingham’s codebreaker, Thomas Phelippes. When Phelippes realised that the letter incriminated Mary Queen of Scots in treason he drew a gallows on his copy before sending it onto Walsingham as evidence, hence the name ‘gallows letter’.

The final two things I’m going to talk about, I’m going to do together as they are related to one of my favourite Tudor people – Anne Boleyn. The exhibition included the written announcement of the birth of Elizabeth I in 1533 which was amazing to see, and the famous Chequers ring, which has portraits of Elizabeth I and, allegedly, Anne Boleyn, though this has never been conclusively proven. It seems likely, however, as Elizabeth wore it and never took it off until her death. It’s a stunning piece, smaller than I had imagined but absolutely beautiful. It links the two women together and helps us to consider what Elizabeth might have thought about her mother, who had been executed by her father when she was just 2 years old.

If you want to catch the exhibition before it closes, it is on at the British Library for another week, until 20th February 2022, or you can do a digital tour online.

https://www.bl.uk/events/elizabeth-and-mary

Book Review – ‘The Watchers: A Secret History of the Reign of Elizabeth I’ by Stephen Alford


This was a very intriguing read largely regarding the secret network of spies and informants built up around Elizabeth I, with William Cecil, Baron Burghley, Sir Francis Walsingham, and Sir Robert Cecil at its heart. It explores in detail the Throckmorton Plot of 1583 and the Babington Plot of 1586 where the use of spies and ciphers really came into their own.

It was well-written and clearly a lot of research had been done, much of which I hadn’t read about before. However, I felt that in places it also seemed overly complicated, and I couldn’t wrap my head around some of it until I’d read it at least three times. I also had to keep going back to check on the people involved in various plots. There was a lot of jumping about from person to person which I think is sometimes where I got a bit lost, and the writing then lost some of its cohesiveness.

There were detailed endnotes and a comprehensive bibliography, easy to track down the research used. The book plate section in the centre I also felt was well-chosen and linked to what was written about in the text. It was nice to also have some images spread throughout the text when they were particularly appropriate, it made a nice change actually.

There was an interesting introduction of ‘what if’ Elizabeth I had been assassinated after the spy network failed and how this could have influenced English and European history. It illustrated Alford’s point of just how important the Tudor spy network was in keeping monarch and country safe and prosperous.

This was a very helpful book to read for my own writing on Elizabethan Rebellions, but I did have to make a lot of notes and then go back through them to make sure I understood it. Not an easy read, but a very informative one, nonetheless.

Chapters:

Part One – Spying Out the Land

  1. Ten Days in November
  2. The Lion’s Mouth
  3. English Roman Lives
  4. ‘Judas his parts’
  5. Paris and London
  6. Hunting Edmund Campion
  7. Out of the Shadows

Part Two – Enemies of the State

  1. ‘Sundry wicked plots and means’
  2. The Secret Lives of William Parry
  3. ‘The enemy sleeps not’
  4. ‘A very unadvised enterprise’
  5. Dangerous Fruits
  6. Alias Cornelys
  7. Sleights of Hand
  8. Framing the Labyrinth

Part Three – Politics and Money

  1. An Axe and an Armada
  2. ‘Good and painful long services’
  3. Platforms and Passports
  4. The Fall and Rise of Thomas Phelippes
  5. Politics and Prognostications
  6. Ends and Beginnings

Book Review – ‘Execution’ by S.J. Parris


I really enjoyed this book. I am currently working on my first non-fiction book about Elizabethan Rebellions, so this was a really interesting fictional account of the Babington plot which led to the execution of Mary Queen of Scots the following year. This is the fifth in a series of books revolving around Giordano Bruno.

Giordano Bruno as a character was intriguing and keeps being so throughout each book in the series. He is complex, with different strands like his religious history, academic studies, and his spy and undercover work. Bruno was a real person who was in England spying for Francis Walsingham, although the exact nature of his assignments doesn’t seem to be known, and it look as though he left England in 1585 so couldn’t have been involved in the Babington plot in 1586.

A bit of historical license is OK, and Bruno is such an interesting character that I can imagine he would have been involved in the Babington conspiracy if given the opportunity. The conspiracy was the interesting bit for me and the relationships between those involved in the conspiracy – Babington, Titch, Ballard, and Savage. In historical sources we don’t see these relationships so that was what drew my attention.

Those who know the history will know how it ends and the basics of the progression of the plot, but Parris manages to hold you on the edge of your seat anyway, weaving the real history through with fictional sub-plots which blend in seamlessly to the rest of the story. The reason I didn’t give it five stars is because I found the beginning quite slow and hard going. It didn’t seem necessary to spin it out for so long.

I’ve always enjoyed reading this series because of the interactions between the characters and their involvement in various conspiracies. Whether there will be further books in the series, I don’t know, but there are several unresolved issues, so I really hope so!

Book Review – ‘The Queen’s Agent: Francis Walsingham at the Court of Elizabeth I’ by John Cooper


This was a really interesting book. It’s the first book I’ve read with Francis Walsingham at the centre, though I do also have the biography of Francis Walsingham by Robert Hutchinson. If you’re interested in the secret life of Elizabethan England and how the fairly new idea of a spy network came into being and developed, then this is the book for you.

This book is also very good at discussing Walsingham’s involvement in the downfall and execution of Mary Queen of Scots. There is a huge variety of both primary and secondary sources used, given full credit in the notes and bibliography, which means that it is fairly easy to track the sources down if you want to investigate further. The one thing that I will say is that the primary sources themselves could be discussed more within the text, as I find it useful to see the wider context of the sources and the events they describe.

The index is also quite comprehensive so if you’re looking for something in particular within the book it’s simple to look and find it. There is a good selection of images in a book plate at the centre, with portraits, sketches, maps, paintings, places, and artefacts. These are all clearly captioned as to what they are, but the sources of the images could do with more information otherwise it’s difficult to research them further or verify their antecedents.

It’s the first real book I’ve read in researching my own book, and the section on the Babington plot in particular is fantastic, though I could have done with more detail about the Ridolfi and Throckmorton plots as they aren’t as well described, though perhaps that’s due to lack of sources and information. I’m not sure. The Spanish Armada from an intelligence point of view is also discussed in great detail, which was very interesting, not something that you usually read about the Armada.

This book was very detailed and incredibly interesting. I want to know more about Walsingham now. I didn’t know about his ongoing illness or about his origins. You only really tend to find out about his relationship with Elizabeth and Walsingham and how he saved England in most books about Elizabethan England, so this was really fascinating for me to read.

Chapters

  1. Exodus
  2. Massacre at Paris
  3. Armed with Innocence
  4. The English Mission
  5. Security Services
  6. Bonds and Ciphers
  7. Western Planting
  8. Eleventh Hour

Elizabeth I Episode 2 Starring Lily Cole


Episode 2 – The Enemy Within, aired 16.05.2017

Elizabeth I c.1563 Hampden portrait by Steven van der Meulen
Elizabeth I c.1563 Hampden portrait by Steven van der Meulen

Aged 25 Elizabeth is queen but not safe

1559 Elizabeth crowned queen, but her path to power had been a long battle

She had survived but could never drop her guard

War was raging across Europe as Catholics and Protestants tore each other apart – Elizabeth was plunged into the middle of the battle

Elizabeth most powerful protestant monarch surrounded by catholic enemies

 

Privy council believed Elizabeth needed to marry

Elizabeth declared she was already married to England – sounded great, but just words

Queen had a good reason for not wanting to wed – would reduce her power, wanted to be a real queen not queen in name only

Understandable but left a huge problem – who would rule if she suddenly died?

Continue reading “Elizabeth I Episode 2 Starring Lily Cole”

Discussion Questions – ‘The Other Queen’ by Philippa Gregory


  1. Bess describes George and herself as newlyweds happy and in love. On page 2, she says, “Only my newly wedded husband is so dotingly fond of me that he is safe under the same roof as such a temptress.” What is it that first makes Bess uneasy about her husband’s feelings towards Queen Mary?

Philippa Gregory's 'The Other Queen' (2008).
Philippa Gregory’s ‘The Other Queen’ (2008).

I think it is the fact that Mary is so unusual and attractive. Bess of Hardwick was unusual but Mary was in a different league. I think it is the time that Shrewsbury spends talking to Mary that makes Bess uneasy. I think she wonders whether Mary is converting her husband to Catholicism and rebellion against the queen, which would threaten her own position. Shrewsbury turns into more than Mary’s captor; he becomes a kind of friend and protector.

  1. Authors often challenge themselves by writing from the point of view of characters of the opposite sex. Do you think Gregory does a convincing job of creating her main male character, George Talbot? Do you think he is more or less realistic than the women in this novel, such as his wife, Bess, or Queens Mary and Elizabeth?

I think George is quite a weak character. Bess comes across more strongly in my opinion. Possibly it is difficult for a modern female to get into the mind-set of a medieval man. I don’t think he is entirely realistic, as I don’t believe that Shrewsbury was, in reality, so easily taken in by Mary, otherwise he would doubtless have been removed as her gaoler. I think Bess and Mary come across the most strongly as the story revolves most obviously around those two. Elizabeth is a background character but you can still sense her presence and influence across the events of the novel. Continue reading “Discussion Questions – ‘The Other Queen’ by Philippa Gregory”

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