Elizabeth I: A Study in Insecurity

Elizabeth I:  A Study in Insecurity
by Helen Castor
United Allen Lane, Penguin Random House Books UK, 2018
96 pages

Short and succinct are the first two words that come to mind when describing Helen Castor’s, Elizabeth I:  A Study in Insecurity. Castor has covered Elizabeth’s entire life in under 100 pages.  As with all teaching (a natural by-product of historical writing), knowing what to cover, what to skim and what to eliminate are key elements. Castor amazingly includes all of the major events in Elizabeth’s life giving the perfect amount of detail within broad context.  Not an easy feat.  The reader is given an excellent impression of Elizabeth’s understanding (and enjoyment) of all that is dramatic and need for public relations events.  We see her personality traits and her intelligence.

Where this reviewer feels Castor fell short, was in the over-promised and under-delivered bait of the title– a study in insecurity. There was little evidence or stress on the theme.  A book review from the BBC History Magazine, 22 February 2018, titled, The Unfathomable Queen, (which simply reworded much of the Introduction and first chapter of the book) was more straight forward by restating several of Castor’s sentences: “It is plausible, at least, to suggest that her internal psychological landscape was shaped by the kind of traumatic emotional dissonance that can produce not overweening confidence, but deep-seated insecurity.” Sadly, there was little support of this strongly stated theme throughout nor supported by phycological studies / evidence.

Elizabeth’s upbringing could not but help give her insecurities, but also strength in knowing she had survived and thrived. She had endured her father’s actions, the Court’s intrigues and even her own siblings’ policies. Elizabeth had to be emotionally tough or at least not show her emotions, as that would create easy prey for any of the wolves at Court.  Even her interest in her own mother had to be stifled; although, when she reached adulthood her possession of the portrait locket proved her mother was not forgotten. Learn more about this poignant piece of jewelry at Elizabeth Regina: Her Mother’s Memory https://elizregina.com/2014/01/20/elizabeth-regina-her-mothers-memory/
he topic of her mother was too politically fraught and too charged with religious emotion for many to mention her during Elizabeth’s upbringing.  Her very existence was from a religious revolution.  Her early years through young adulthood were based on surviving said revolution and it’s inspired violence and recriminations (and the aftermath of her sister Mary’s counter).  Survival gave her the strength to rebuff more radical religious reformers (with the insight that she had “no desire to make windows into men’s souls”) and to resist pressure to marry.

Castor, as any historian, had to cover the issue of her marriage–it was a matter of state. Discussion of any royal marriage would be important but this was intensified because the royal in question was a female ruler.
Students of Elizabeth understand her isolation which was part of the territory of a female sovereign.  This reviewer, as an Elizabethan historian, considers that elements of the Queen’s personality stemmed not from her insecurities per se but that her fear of failure which caused her to hold off making decisions rather than commit to the wrong one, the stress from being under constant threats, and her wide-range of options to consider when making decisions because she, unlike most royals, made her choices based on the good of her country not her family.