636 pages. $30. Elizabeth Tudor was a woman in a world of men, yet she gave her name to the age. For more than four centuries, her life has been a source of fascination for historians and readers.
Anne Somerset's biography is a strong, straight-ahead book that stresses context and explanation. Author of two previous histories, Ms. Somerset is after the why and how of things. She wants to see the connections -- between events, between people. This is a boon for readers, even those who have read much about Elizabeth.
Many previous writers have taken the ambiguities of the queen's life as jumping-off points for wide-ranging speculations. Ms. Somerset explains as much as she can and then is willing to say that some things are simply unknowable.
There is, for example, the queen's unwillingness to take a husband. Early on, Ms. Somerset spends 30 pages in a thorough discussion of the complications that Elizabeth faced in deciding whether to marry.
A foreign husband would be unpopular with the English; an English husband would breed jealousies. A refusal to marry would leave the question of succession open and leave the nation at risk of a civil war.
There were emotional reasons as well. "If Elizabeth admitted to being disenchanted by the high divorce rate in her family [her father, after all, was Henry VIII], it is surely permissible to speculate that the judicial murders of her mother and stepmother had a more damaging impact on her psyche," Ms. Somerset writes.
There is a mystery here, and Ms. Somerset lets it be, going on to focus on how Elizabeth used her unmarried state and aura of virginity as a tool of foreign and domestic policy. She writes: "Far from feeling in any way diminished by her lack of sexual experience, Elizabeth gloried in her virginity, which for her represented a triumph of the will over base corporeal desire."
Elizabeth, however, was in a bind. Everyone expected her to marry for the good of the nation. Parliament and her Privy Council all but demanded it. But the queen found ways to turn the situation to her advantage. In effect, she transformed her spinsterhood into a trump card she always held in reserve.
For example, her courtship by the Duke of Alencon, brother of the French king, was a case of Elizabeth using her availability to keep France on her side. It was also an example of the queen's need for pretty talk.
Elizabeth never married Alencon. She never married anyone -- except, in a sense, her people.
"There is no prince," the queen once told a delegation from the Commons, "that loves his subjects better, or whose love can countervail our love. There is no jewel . . . which I set before this jewel: I mean your love."
And Elizabeth's people did love her.