Review: Elizabeth’s Women, Tracy Borman

The concept behind this book was intriguing; Borman argues that Elizabeth I worked hard to be treated as a man in the public sphere and that therefore her female private circle has been neglected in biography.  This reminded me of how Hilary Clinton described how herself and other female Secretaries of State would travel to countries such as Saudi Arabia and be treated by government officials as men, since acknowledging their womanhood would make it too complicated for them to work together.  Elizabeth famously told her armies before the Spanish Armada that she had the ‘heart and stomach’ of a King despite having the body of a ‘weak and feeble woman’, she refused to take a husband and described herself as married to her country.  She rejected the contemporary norms for how a woman should be, so how did she relate to the women in her life?

Much of the book is fairly well-trodden territory, going over Elizabeth’s early life and her mother’s sudden and savage downfall.  Borman is an engaging writer however with an eye for picking up on under-reported details, such as the similarities with how Anne Boleyn ran her household and the manner in which Elizabeth later ran her own, implying a stronger feeling towards her mother than is typically depicted.  Borman traces carefully through the various female care-givers who were significant in Elizabeth’s young life, from Lady Margaret Bryan to the infamous Kat Ashley (strangely referred to as Astley in Borman’s book) and also Elizabeth’s various stepmothers.

I was interested by the way that Borman covered the infamous episode around Thomas Seymour.  The blind eye which Katherine Parr seemed to turn for the first while always seemed puzzling, but Borman places it convincingly as part of a wider tension between Katherine Parr and Kat Ashley over Elizabeth’s affections.  I have read a number of Elizabeth-related biographies and I never can take to Kat Ashley.  No matter how sympathetic the writer, there is no hiding the woman’s consistent negligence and indiscretion.  Elizabeth must have truly loved her as there is no other explanation for why she kept such a liability on the payroll for so many decades.

Another point which Borman raises was around the practical challenges of having a female sovereign.  Previously with male monarchs, roles within the royal household and council could overlap and function relatively interchangeably.  With the advent of Mary and Elizabeth, suddenly there were household functionary roles too intimate for a man to carry out.  It also led women into positions of confidence and potential influence in an unprecedented way.  The strangest thing though was how many of these women had such key positions so close to the throne and yet remain so utterly unknown to history.  Even as a long-term Tudor fan, much of the biographical detail provided around Blanche Parry and Helena Snakenborg was new to me.

Borman analyses Elizabeth’s fears around marriage with even-handedness.  She seems to discount Elizabeth’s alleged closeness to Katherine Howard as an explanation but does point out the lessons that Elizabeth seems to have drawn from the example of Mary I.  The public humiliation suffered by Elizabeth’s sister over her repeated phantom pregnancies damaged Mary’s stock both as a woman but also as a monarch.  While discounting the more outlandish theories around whether Elizabeth was a normally functioning woman, Borman does consider whether Elizabeth herself had concerns about her own biology.  Having suffered similar menstrual problems to Mary since adolescence, Elizabeth may have concluded that the risks around publicly displayed infertility did not outweigh the uncertain benefits of producing a legitimate heir of her own.

Of course, even if Elizabeth did choose the virgin state for health reasons, it did seem to lead her into conflict with other fertile women.  Borman suggests that part of her fury towards her cousin Katherine Grey was founded upon her jealousy at the ease with which the latter brought forth healthy sons.  Mary Queen of Scots also represented a threat not only as a fellow monarch but as a fertile one at that.  We talk so much in the modern era about the sensitivities around women who are unable to become mothers, it was fascinating to consider these uneasy dynamics existed even so many centuries ago.

That being said, there are certain areas where Elizabeth’s Women does seem to skim over the finer detail.  There are a few points of minor inaccuracy which seem more like typos (e.g. Kat Ashley/Astley) but which should have been avoidable.  Puzzlingly, Borman also refers to Mary Boleyn’s son Henry Carey as being mentally handicapped, even citing this as a possible genetic fear around why Elizabeth chose not to procreate.  Strangely, she then refers to Henry Carey’s later court career without seeming to note the conflict.  This would appear to be related to a misconception in an earlier biography which Borman had failed to examine more closely.  Additionally, having read Leanda De Lisle’s The Sisters Who Would Be Queen on the Grey sisters and Alison Weir’s The Lost Tudor Princess concerning Lady Margaret Douglas, I felt that those books provided far greater nuance on their subjects than Borman was able to.  While it will never be possible to say for certain, particularly in the case of Lady Margaret Douglas, it felt that Borman was providing broad brush strokes only.

The over-arching impression from Elizabeth’s Women however was that Elizabeth I did not particularly like other women.  In the modern era we look distrustfully upon women who are unable to maintain female friendships and this does seem to be something that Elizabeth struggled with.  Her demands of blind obedience and utter loyalty lead to fury when any of her ladies in waiting had the temerity to get married, still worse if they happened to wed any of her favourites.  Few of Elizabeth’s described interactions with her ladies paint her in a particularly positive light, even if some of the sources cited by Borman do appear a little speculative.

Elizabeth was not seeking a sisterhood, she did not want to fit in with other women, she wanted it be clear that she was above them, more than, better than – she wanted to be a man.  Unlike her cousin Mary Queen of Scots, she refused to sit and sew during the council meetings while the men did all the big thinking – she wanted it to be clear that she was in charge.  This determination for mastery translated to all areas of her life.  Like her father before her, she wanted to believe herself loved and desired by all.  This does not necessarily translate to being an easy person to have around.  Despite some of my doubts about Borman’s referencing, this was an enjoyable piece of popular history which shone a light on Elizabeth’s domestic sphere, a side of her that she was very keen to minimise.

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Elizabeth's Women by Tracy Borman
Published by Random House on December 15th 2010
Genres: Biography & Autobiography, Historical, Royalty, Military, Political
Pages: 464
ISBN: 9781446420904

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2 thoughts on “Review: Elizabeth’s Women, Tracy Borman

  1. Oooooh what a fascinating subject – and what a great review!! Hats off (once again!), I love the way you’ve dissected the inaccuracies and inconsistencies, very conscientiously and diplomatically. I actually recently watched The Ascent of Woman, a series on Netflix – if you haven’t seen it already, it’s REALLY worth a watch – and there was part of an episode on Elizabeth I, particularly the speech you referenced (“I have the body of a weak and feeble woman, but the heart and stomach of a king”) and the power of her language and choice of words in that moment, which gave really interesting insight into the machinations of her mind in ruling. Thanks for sharing this one, I’ll have to check it out!

    1. Thank you for commenting – it wasn’t a perfect biography but it was very readable, if you’re interested in the period then it’s definitely worth a look 🙂 Will absolutely have a look for that series on Netflix, sounds really interesting!

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