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John Guy, Elizabeth: The Forgotten Years
by Neil Younger

John Guy, Elizabeth: The Forgotten Years. Viking, 2016. vi + 490 pp. ISBN: 978-0670786022. $21.00 cloth. 

John Guy made his reputation as a painstaking, rigorous and often innovative exponent of old-style political history, focusing principally on Henry VIII’s reign. His 1988 textbook Tudor England is still perhaps the best single-volume treatment of the period; his work on star chamber and Tudor political culture, while less read, is highly important.[1] More recently, however, he has turned to more popular history, and to popular publishers, as in the case of this book, which sits somewhere between a biography and a broader history of England over the “forgotten years” of 1584-1603. The topics covered in the 23 chapters are mostly focused on the traditional political narrative: domestic politics, religious developments, the debate over the succession, foreign policy and the war against Spain which dominated the years after 1585, arranged in roughly chronological order. Interspersed among these are chapters on broader themes: Elizabethan voyages of discovery, the queen’s public self-presentation, court festivals and entertainments, portraiture and so on. This is a perfectly serviceable structure, although, picking up the story in midstream as he does, Guy is obliged in early chapters to introduce extensive flashbacks.

The style is light, the prose eminently readable, provided one has a strong stomach for neologisms, and the content generally authoritative. One feature which particularly marks the book out as a cut above the standard popular history of the period is that Guy has gone back to the original sources for the vast majority of his material; he solemnly undertakes in the preface to “scythe through spin and legend and come closer to her ‘authentic’ voice” (6) by disregarding calendars and summaries and using only original sources in full. This is an undertaking not to be dismissed lightly. The notes suggest he has put a great deal of effort into fulfilling his promise, and it endows the resulting tale with freshness and interest, turning up some lively and interesting anecdotes. There is a certain amount of genuinely new material: some recently rediscovered letters relating to the last days of Mary Queen of Scots, as well as extensive use of Elizabeth’s chamber accounts. Guy has also sought out the original versions of a few sources generally used in translations, such as the report of the French ambassador André Hurault, Sieur de Maisse, who visited Elizabeth in 1597, and whose account is often cited to suggest Elizabeth displayed herself immodestly to him, charges which Guy convincingly corrects. All of these are valuable, although none are genuine bombshells. Perhaps more effective in this regard are the careful reconstructions of a number of well-known incidents with inadequate or conflicting documentation: the Tilbury speech of 1588, the “golden speech” of 1601, and notably Elizabeth’s death, and the question of whether she did indeed specifically nominate James as her successor (Guy is sceptical).

This said, the endnotes do not always seem fully comprehensive. A couple of brief examples: in chapter 8, Guy makes the interesting claim that during the 1591 royal visit to Cowdray Park, home of the Catholic Viscount Montague, the privy council “agreed the texts of two of the harshest royal proclamations against Catholics of Elizabeth’s reign” (154), which were published some months later and marked a significant shift in the regime’s religious policy. The endnote cites a 1989 article by Curtis Breight, yet the article makes no mention of this.[2] On 161, Guy notes that a 1591 letter from Elizabeth to James VI about the threat of presbyterians was written following “Hatton’s report to her of the existence of a highly organized group of Protestant sectaries who called themselves presbyterians”; again, the footnotes provide no source for this report. This is disappointing. 

More broadly, with regard to the book’s value to academic history, it is difficult to be so positive. The central claim of the book, that these are “forgotten” years, is in these terms so inaccurate as to verge on absurd. Guy is at pains to claim originality for his focus on the later period of the reign; his preface discusses the shortcomings of a remarkably small selection of Elizabethan historians: the near-contemporary William Camden, the Victorian J. A. Froude, the Bloomsbury dabbler in Tudor topics Lytton Strachey, and J. E. Neale, whose well-known biography came out in 1934. With the best will in the world, this overlooks a considerable number of historians, both popular and scholarly, who have given due attention to this period (a period which, after all, covers the death of Mary Stuart, the Armada and the career of Robert Devereux, second earl of Essex). In fact, the late Elizabethan period has been by far the liveliest and best studied period of the reign over the last twenty years, not least because of John Guy’s own work. In 1995, he edited a seminal collection on the later period of the reign, which he dubbed a “second reign” of Elizabeth; containing penetrating analytical essays by the likes of Patrick Collinson, Simon Adams, Jenny Wormald, Jim Sharpe and Paul Hammer, this volume did much to set the agenda for this period.[3] One can criticise various aspects of the “second reign” thesis, and indeed I have done so; like many of history’s “big ideas,” it is arguably a reductive approach, which obscures as much as it illuminates.[4]

Nevertheless, it helped to prompt a resurgence of interest in this period. Since then, there have emerged no fewer than three fine books on the most eye-catching figure of this period, the earl of Essex, by Paul Hammer, Alexandra Gajda and Janet Dickinson. There has been intense interest in the earliest point of this “second reign,” the mid-1580s, from the late Patrick Collinson, the originator of the so-called “monarchical republic,” and many others. Hammer has provided us with a survey of the war, and I have published a monograph on the war effort. Most recently, Susan Doran and Paulina Kewes have edited an excellent collection of essays on the question of the succession in this period, and Doran has published Elizabeth I and her Circle, which contains good essays on Essex and Robert Cecil.[5] All of this has made these “forgotten years” by far the liveliest area of Elizabethan studies within the academy. For literary scholars, too, the later Elizabethan period is likely to be just as familiar as the earlier, if not more so. Ironically, there has been a considerable paucity of good scholarship on the early part of the reign, particularly the 1560s, in recent years. It would be fair to say that the very last years of the reign, the two years or so from Essex’s execution to the queen’s death, have been largely ignored, although the case is not very different here. They were not eventful years, but it is perhaps something of a shame that Guy does not probe further into the way in which Sir Robert Cecil asserted control of government, in collaboration with his allies Lord Buckhurst and the earl of Nottingham—a triumvirate which emerged as central in the closing few years of the reign, but one about which little has been written.

Guy cheerfully draws on much of this scholarship, citing it in the endnotes but seldom referring to it in the text. In effect, he has drawn the skeleton of his book from existing scholarship, but fleshed it out through his own detailed scholarship in the archives. The approach throughout tends to be narrative rather than analytical, with an eye for the picturesque detail. There is little on shifts in political culture, the recent interest in ideas about history, Renaissance culture, the spread of news and information, the role of parliament (which has barely a walk-on part here), or the question of state formation. There is a little discussion of social and economic issues when riots or outbreaks of plague bring them to the fore. The causes of the rebellion in Ireland are barely mentioned. It would perhaps be unreasonable to expect detailed analysis in this format.

Such analysis as there is is primarily analysis of character, above all of those two fascinating characters, the queen and the earl of Essex; others are sketched more broadly. Whereas Hammer’s work was influential in developing a more sympathetic account of Essex which recognized his undeniable talents and intellectual capacity, here Essex is seen in a more traditional and critical mode. He was an ineffective military leader, at times paranoid, absurdly egotistical, and he never developed a sustainable way of dealing with the queen; Guy does, however, have some sympathy for his predicament in facing many enemies on the council, who, as recent historiography increasingly makes clear, were actively seeking to destroy him after his failure in Ireland in 1599. Guy rightly dismisses the idea that Elizabeth saw him as a straightforward replacement for his stepfather the earl of Leicester or that there was any real romantic relationship between them.

Nor does Guy provide a flattering portrait of the queen—again, a less surprising approach than Guy sometimes implies, in this iconoclastic and cynical age. She is an “ageing, irascible spinster” (214, 263), “devious” (270), “vindictive” (324). None of this seems too unreasonable. She was a poor war leader, unable to enforce her authority over her commanders in the field, and lacking an effective war strategy by comparison with the likes of Sir Francis Walsingham, Sir Walter Ralegh, or Essex. This is perhaps more debatable; even leaders of the calibre of Abraham Lincoln had great difficulty in directing military strategy from far behind the lines, and, as Guy acknowledges, the grandiose schemes to crush Spain were beyond the capabilities of English arms. Guy also places considerable stress on her lack of interest in her people’s welfare and her indifference to the plight of her wounded soldiers and the poor in general—which is true, albeit perhaps an anachronistic standard to apply to Early Modern monarchs. Perhaps his most original contribution here is to stress Elizabeth’s conception of her relationship with God; Guy diagnoses her as having suffered from “a run of severe episodes of intense depression” in 1593 (197), at which time she made a translation of Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy.

Overall, therefore, this is a solid, readable and thoroughly researched book, and it would be a very useful introduction to the period in question for the general reader or those unfamiliar with the political narrative. For the academic reader, careful checking of the original sources is recommended. It would be no bad thing if Guy should now return to the earlier part of the reign, and provide a similarly convenient and readable overview of that period too, to complete the coverage. 


Neil Younger
The Open University


[1] John Guy, Tudor England, Oxford UP, 1988, The Cardinal’s Court; the Impact of Thomas Wolsey in Star Chamber, Rowman and Littlefield, 1977, and The Tudor Monarchy, edited by John Guy, Arnold, 1997.

[2] Curtis C. Breight, “Caressing the Great: Viscount Montague’s Entertainment of Elizabeth at Cowdray, 1591,” Sussex Archaeological Collections, vol. 127, 1989, pp. 147-66.

[3] The Reign of Elizabeth: Court and Culture in the Last Decade, edited by John Guy, Cambridge UP, 1995.

[4] Neil Younger, War and Politics in the Elizabethan Counties, Manchester UP, 2012, esp. pp. 234-5, Janet Dickinson and Neil Younger, “Just How Nasty Were the 1590s?,” History Today, vol. 64, no. 7, July 2014, pp. 10-16.

[5] Patrick Collinson, “The Monarchical Republic of Queen Elizabeth I,” Bulletin of the John Rylands Library, vol. 69, 1987, pp. 394-424, Janet Dickinson, Court Politics and the Earl of Essex, 1589-1601, Pickering & Chatto, 2012, Susan Doran, Elizabeth I and Her Circle, Oxford UP, 2015, Doubtful and Dangerous: The Question of the Succession in Late Elizabethan England, edited by Susan Doran and Paulina Kewes, Manchester UP, 2014, Alexandra Gajda, The Earl of Essex and late Elizabethan Political Culture, Oxford UP, 2012, Paul E. J. Hammer, The Polarisation of Elizabethan Politics: the Political Career of Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex, 1585-1597, Cambridge UP, 1999, Hammer, Elizabeth’s Wars: War, Government and Society in Tudor England, 1544-1604, Palgrave Macmillan, 2003, John McDiarmid, The Monarchical Republic of Early Modern England: Essays in Response to Patrick Collinson, Ashgate, 2007, Younger, War and Politics in the Elizabethan Counties, Younger, “The Practice and Politics of Troop-raising: Robert Devereux, Second Earl of Essex and the Elizabethan Regime,” English Historical Review, vol. 127, no. 526, June 2012, pp. 566-91.


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Neil Younger, "John Guy, Elizabeth: The Forgotten Years," Spenser Review 47.1.8 (Winter 2017). Accessed May 28th, 2018.
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