Elizabeth & Essex by Lyttton Strachey

published 1928   chapter 2

Certainly no more baroque figure ever trod this earth than the supreme phenomenon of Elizabethanism – Elizabeth herself. From her visible aspect to the profundities of her being, every part of her was permeated by the bewildering discordances of the real and the apparent. Under the serried complexities of her raiment – the huge hoop, the stiff ruff, the swollen sleeves, the powdered pearls, the spreading gilded gauzes – the form of the woman vanished, and men saw instead an image – magnificent, portentous, self-created – an image of regality, which yet, by a miracle was actually alive. Posterity has suffered by a similar deceit of vision. The great Queen of its imagination, the lion-hearted heroine, who flung back the insolence of Spain and crushed the tyranny of Rome with splendid unhesitating gestures, no more resembles the Queen of fact than the clothed Elizabeth the naked one. But, after all, posterity is privileged. Let us draw nearer; we shall do not wrong now to that Majesty, if we look below the robes.

observations: Benjamin Britten’s opera Gloriana, with a libretto inspired by this book, is playing at London’s Royal Opera House at the moment: it was written to mark Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation in 1953, and the production reflects that very charmingly – there’s a framing device of a performance in a church hall, and lots of extras in 1953 clothes.

Elizabeth’s relationship with the Earl of Essex sounds like the wildest invention of a courtly novelist: she was 30 years older than him, but they had a flirtatious romantic friendship. They fought and made up: she gave him great power and then withdrew. He failed in his ventures, he eventually tried to foment a rebellion against her. He was found guilty of treason and she signed his death warrant in 1601. He was executed the next day.

Strachey tells the story beautifully. He writes wonderful long sentences that although complex are not hard to understand – look at the third one in the extract above. Although sometimes anyone would struggle:
The Earl’s favourite sister, Lady Penelope, had been the Stella Sir Philip Sidney had vainly loved. She had married Lord Rich, while Sidney had married Walsingham’s daughter, who, on Sir Philip’s death, had become the wife of Essex… A liaison sprang up…between Essex’s friend and Essex’s sister.

(I tried to draw a familytree/diagram for that one, but it didn’t really help.)

The age difference between queen and courtier is very marked: the Earl’s grandmother was Elizabeth’s first cousin, because his great-grandmother was none other than Mary Boleyn, sister of Anne, both sisters having turned up on the blog several times. In Hilary Mantel’s Tudor books, Thomas Cromwell is rather taken with Mary: ironically, he briefly becomes Earl of Essex himself before having his head removed.

The picture of Queen Elizabeth is from around 1600, by an unknown artist.


  1. Moira - I find Elizabeth a fascinating person actually, and it's good to know that this perspective on her life is well-done.

  2. Yes, and such a long life that there's always a new bit to find out about. This book is very much her final years.

  3. Just watched a little bit of Miranda Richardson talking about her costumes for Blackadder the other day. The sheer weight of those dresses!
    I have never read this one but shall search it out. Fascinated by the Elizabethans.
    Also, have you read Julia by Julia Strachey with Frances Partridge. Strachey's niece and quite fascinating in herself.

    1. Yes Sara, I read Julia years ago, and also her book Cheerful Weather for the Wedding; she sounded a funny and splendid person. I must reread them....


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