Elizabeth’s Bedfellows

Elizabeth’s Bedfellows:  An Intimate History of the Queen’s Court
by Anna Whitelock
London: Bloomsbury, 2013
462 pages

Elizabeth’s bedfellows, her most trusted ladies-in-waiting, were obviously, in a unique position to observe all aspects of the Queen’s life. An intimate history of Elizabeth’s Court would have been interesting reading.  Unfortunately, Whitelock lost sight of her own objective and relayed more information about the principal male players surrounding Elizabeth.

There were a few anecdotes that Whitelock related that were unfamiliar to this reader but generally this was a standard biography. Almost all of the women, from Kat Ashley to Mary Sydney, Blanche Perry, Mary Scudamore and Catherine Howard (Countess of Nottingham), were given very short rift. If the title is about the bedfellows, we needed to hear about their lives—background on their childhood, how they came to be associated with Elizabeth, their children, husbands, their estates, etc.  Instead, we learned that John Dee asked such and such to be godmother to his children, we learned about the Irish issue, we learned about Mary, Queen of Scots and we learned about Essex.  Do not get me wrong, those are interesting topics to this reviewer, it is just that a book on the ladies-in-waiting should be about the ladies-in-waiting.  It became a bit of a distraction (and a bit comical) after pages of political discussion there would be an attempt to finish the paragraph with something about a woman at Court and the word, bedfellow would be worked into it.  One began to think that Whitelock intended to have a certain page limit and was determined to reach it.  A shorter volume focused on the promised topic would have been more welcome.

All the gossip and scandal that circulated is well known to the general ‘watcher’ of Elizabethan history.  Whitelock seemed to relish this aspect (or felt it was the way to sell more books to the viewing public) without any proof from the ‘bedfellows’ that any of it had actually taken place.  The book’s jacket cover itself assures the reader that the women were “the guardians of the truth” which must have been scandal free as there is no evidence from them to point to Elizabeth being sexually active.  Repeating all the innuendoes seemed to prove that Whitelock wanted to cash in on sensationalized history.  The author found her voice when she focused on the preparation and dressing of the Queen, the royal accommodations and those isolated instances when she expanded on the life of one of Elizabeth’s women.

This sounds like a very negative review so the three and a half stars may not seem compatible.  It is a well-written book with fewer than normal errors.  Modern titles seem to be so quickly produced that there are often editing issues that could be so easily corrected before going to print—some words were missing in sentences and some punctuation needed correction.  Use of primary sources is always a plus and Whitelock incorporated many of them (although a large selection derived from the men of the Court).

All in all, an acceptable read for those interested in a basic biography of Elizabeth Regina and who do not have an extensive background in the time period.

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