More rock'n'roll: watching a documentary about armour whilst ironing shirts. This Tobias fella, in addition to being American, is almost unforgiveably keen to suggest that various bits of the stuff he's looking at belonged to Henry VIII. Clearly there's a motivation, in that it's more interesting to most casual viewers that these suits belonged to the bloke on the front of all the books they've seen, to make it all about Henry. The second half is all about how Elizabeth didn't wear armour at all (breastplate supposedly donned for the address at Tilbury notwithstanding), and how a bunch of show off men at court all vied to look the business in order to impress her. What's so fascinating about this is that the young Elizabeth just doesn't look like the sort of woman who will become desperate for all this male attention later in life, that the early experiences just don't add up to the woman she became. At the very least it's the case that she was hugely capable, intelligent, brave, able to keep pace with the most brilliant minds in the kingdom, and that shows early on in her life. The experience she had at the hands of Thomas Seymour, her imprisonment on several occasions under accusation of treason (and with a real threat of the loss of her life), her suffering under Mary, all of these point to the making of a serious adult. And yet, by the later stages of her life, Elizabeth seems to be asking all these men at her court (Essex was thirty years her junior) to behave as if - to borrow a phrase of this here documentary - they had just fallen in love with her. I wonder... Perhaps, as with so many of the public faces of Elizabeth, this was a mask, worn to disguise some other, truly important thing going on behind it. Perhaps the playing was a distraction from the terror of assassination, or the fear of failure that must have been central to her life. Or, perhaps, she just really did want everyone to behave as if they were in love with her. I don't think so. I don't intend to explore her later life in my own fiction, so it's not for me to answer. History writing (almost) inevitably sees Elizabeth from the perspective of her being a woman, a queen regnant, and unlike her sister a successful ruler, comparing her to Mary Stuart (Queen of Scots), assessing her marriage prospects and how she managed her suitors. I've tried to show her to be a real human being, sometimes happy, sometimes sad, learning her lessons, navigating the abuse she suffered at the hands of Tom Seymour, to see her as a person rather than as a future queen, which at the time she most certainly was not.
What, then, of the complicity of Katherine Parr in that series of events? I've just been reading The Heretic, a seemingly obscure novel of the 1960s told from the perspective of the maid of Anne Askew (yes, she got burned relatively early on in These Matters). She (Askew) supposedly had a fair amount of contact with the sixth and last of Henry's queens, their shared attitude to new learning (for which read 'Protestantism') putting them at risk of the wrath of the utterly confused Henry in the last years of his life. I think the word itself ('Protestant') is an anachronism, at least in England, but the author (Alison MacLeod; no, me neither) uses it sensibly so that those of us reading the thing know roughly what she's on about. In any case, what is a minor punctuation in my stuff is the story in this. Anne Askew is shown to be (ish) a modern feminist, refusing to defer to her husband on all sorts of matters, insisting on the merit of education for as many as will take it, standing by her principles at the expense of her life. A good woman, no doubt, and perhaps, if MacLeod is to be believed, a great one obscured by history. It's hard to judge whether the anecdotes stand up to scrutiny, of course, and that includes the involvement (or lack of it) of Katherine. Katherine was a benign influence on her husband, although she came close to pushing him too far more than once on the subject of religious reform. She certainly helped him to reconcile himself with his daughters, and made sure the standard of Elizabeth's education (along with Jane Grey's) was very high. But her failure to protect Elizabeth from Tom Seymour seems totally out of character, as though she had a blind spot for his behaviour. Indeed, given what sort of man he was, it seems that she must have had a more general blind spot for him, because he just does not make sense for her. I suppose that is in the nature of things, though - that people will fall in love with the wrong person, that people will make different judgments for those they love, that people will get it wrong because of their love for someone - and Katherine Parr most definitely got it wrong for Elizabeth in 1548.
The Heretic is a good book, more so for being sensibly short, and written with a clear affection for its main subject that makes it highly engaging. As with a lot of the stuff I mention on here, though, it's not for everyone. And good luck finding a copy. Mine is inscribed to say 'This book is the property of Alison MacLeod...'
When to the sessions of sweet silent thought