The life of Queen Elizabeth I (reigned 1558–1603), and her legend, were first written up in her own day, while the work of the great Victorians (like Agnes Strickland) and Georgians (like JE Neale) is still cited today.
No apologies, then, for beginning with the horse’s mouth: Elizabeth I: Collected Works ed Leah S Marcus, Janel Mueller, and Mary Beth Rose (University of Chicago Press, 2000).Their authoritative selection of Elizabeth’s own letters, poems, speeches and prayers (with discussion as to whether they actually were her own) encompasses not only such old favourites as the speech at Tilbury but some moving and unexpected gems.
Among the many modern biographies written for the general market, Alison Weir’s Elizabeth the Queen (Jonathan Cape, 1998) stands out firstly by virtue of its sheer, highly informed, readability. Weir is perhaps best of all on the living, breathing domestic detail.
The forte of Anne Somerset’s Elizabeth I (Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 1991), by contrast,
is its comprehensive and well-sourced coverage of the political sphere. Both books deal with the whole of Elizabeth’s long reign.
Other writers have chosen a more restrictive focus. David Starkey’s Elizabeth: Apprenticeship (Chatto & Windus, 2000) effectively ends in 1559, less than a year after Elizabeth’s accession – but the insight and conviction with which he tackles Elizabeth’s turbulent youth has still managed to energise the field.
The Reign of Elizabeth I: Court and Culture in the Last Decade ed John Guy (CUP,
1995) is in no sense a biography, even a partial one, but rather a collection of essays. But the premise on which it is based – that the last 15 or so years of Elizabeth’s rule, the so-called ‘second reign’, represent a situation quite distinct from the 30 that had gone before – is one of the most useful perceptions of modern Elizabethan scholarship.
Those three decades – the gap between Starkey and Guy – are the subject of Susan Doran’s Monarchy and Matrimony: Courtships of Elizabeth I (Routledge, 1996). Scholars once saw an uneasy division between Elizabeth’s private and public lives: a century ago Martin Hume deplored reader interest in her “non-political philanderings”. Today, Doran highlights the fact that the personal is political, as surely for Elizabeth I as for the feminists of the 1970s.
Sarah Gristwood is the author of Elizabeth and Leicester (Bantam, 2008) and Arbella: England’s Lost Queen (Bantam, 2003)