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Shadow in the sun: The real Elizabeth I

  “The Rainbow Portrait” (circa 1600) is an allegory of Elizabeth I as Gloriana, the virgin goddess of a nation.

“The Rainbow Portrait” (circa 1600) is an allegory of Elizabeth I as Gloriana, the virgin goddess of a nation.

Goodness, I don’t know how much longer I, an Elizabeth I fan, can hang with “Reign.”

This season, The CW series about Mary, Queen of Scots has introduced another nemesis apart from her ever-hating mother-in-law, Catherind de’ Medici – Elizabeth I of England.

But portraying Elizabeth as a mean girl is so limiting – particularly when the truth is more delicious than the fiction.

The real Elizabeth was a shrewd ruler in a tumultuous age who steered a careful, moderate course between the new Protestantism of England and the isle’s Roman Catholic past. And while it may be fun to turn her relationship with Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester – her childhood playmate, fellow captive in the Tower and Master of the Horse – into a bodice ripper, I have no doubt that Bess remained a virgin. For one thing, she understood the iconography, a Catholic holdover – like The Virgin, Mary, she belonged to all, the mother of a nation. Elizabeth couldn’t be Gloriana, symbol of a country, if she belonged to one in particular. There’d be no mystery.

But also consider her story – a father who murdered her mother, stepmothers who died in childbirth, were divorced or beheaded, a sister, Mary I, who threw her lot in with a foreign husband (Philip II of Spain) who had no real use for her, a stepfather who was overly familiar with her. What possible incentive could any of this have given her to marry?

It’s too bad “Reign” doesn’t pay more attention to history. It could achieve the same dramatic ends more plausibly. There’s a ridiculous subplot involving Elizabeth’s attempts to keep Dudley, her “Sweet Robin,” by her side, despite his scheming wife Amy’s attempts to wangle a French ambassadorship for him to get him away from his sovereign’s clutches. The real Amy was a pathetic creature who lived in the country and died having fallen down the stairs. Gossipmongers whispered that Elizabeth and Dudley plotted her death. But it’s more likely that she either fell or threw herself down the stairs, suffering as she was from breast cancer and the knowledge that her husband dallied with the queen.

At any rate, the real Elizabeth wouldn’t have had to scheme to keep Dudley by her side. She was an absolute monarch who could do and did what she wanted. She made him Master of the Horse, which ensured he was always by her side. (Which didn’t stop him from marrying her cousin, Lettice Knollys, in secret after Amy’s death.)

Nor did it stop Elizabeth from offering Dudley as a suitor to Mary, Queen of Scots after her husband, François II of France, died. I think Elizabeth counted on Mary and Dudley’s mutual antipathy. She would’ve never relinquished him to Mary. But oh, the possibilities: What if he had developed a sympathy for the Scottish queen? How very Henry James.

Neither her love for Dudley nor her virginity prevented Elizabeth from playing the marriage game, playing one suitor off against the other. But one she was genuinely fond of was François, duke of Alençon, a younger son of Catherine de’ Medici, not to be confused with the François who married Mary, Queen of Scots. (Too many people with the same name.)

The courtship came to naught. I thought you’d enjoy the poem Elizabeth penned “On Monsieur’s Departure”:

I grieve and dare not show my discontent;
I love, and yet am forced to seem to hate;
I do, yet dare not say I ever meant;
I seem stark mute, but inwardly do prate.
I am, and not; I freeze and yet am burned,
Since from myself another self I turned.
My care is like my shadow in the sun --
Follows me flying, flies when I pursue it,
Stands, and lies by me, doth what I have done;
His too familiar care doth make me rue it.
No means I find to rid him from my breast,
Till by the end of things it be suppressed.
Some gentler passion slide into my mind,
For I am soft and made of melting snow;
Or be more cruel, Love, and so be kind.
Let me or float or sink, be high or low;
Or let me live with some more sweet content,
Or die, and so forget what love e'er meant.