Ahead of her talk, ‘Elizabeth’s Women: The Hidden Story of the Virgin Queen‘, we caught up with Tracy to find out more…
Q: What can audiences look forward to in your talk?
A: I will be giving them Elizabeth I as they have never seen her before. Historians have typically focused upon her relationships with men and have endlessly debated the question of whether she really was the ‘Virgin Queen’. But this only tells us half the story. By exploring Elizabeth’s relationships with the women in her life – from her scandalous mother Anne Boleyn, to her greatest rival Mary Queen of Scots, and many unsung heroines in between – we see an altogether different side to ‘Gloriana’. And I have to admit, it’s not always a pretty sight!
Q: Why are you so fascinated by this topic?
Elizabeth I is my all-time historical heroine. My career in history began with her and I have studied her for many years now. I have huge admiration for her strength, self-discipline and for the way that she shattered the stereotypes of female rulers. When she came to the throne, everyone thought it was a disaster to have another woman ruling over them; by the time of her death, we were a nation in love with queens and have stayed that way ever since. But what fascinates me even more is the crafting of Elizabeth’s public image – and the real woman that lay behind it.
Q: Tell us something that might surprise or shock us about this area of history.
Just how vicious Elizabeth could be! Although most of her relationships with women were very positive, they also certainly brought out the worst in her. She would fly into a rage if any of her ladies-in-waiting made a mistake when serving her: on one occasion, she even stabbed one of them with a fork! Having resolved to remain unmarried herself, she hated it if any of her female friends or attendants took a husband and would mete out some pretty brutal punishments. Lettice Knollys discovered this to her cost when she dared to marry Elizabeth’s greatest favourite, Robert Dudley, and had her ears boxed by the queen when she next appeared at court.
Q: What is the hardest question you’ve ever been asked about your area of expertise?
One of the reasons I love giving talks at events like the History Weekends is that I am constantly surprised by the variety of questions I am asked by the audience. Although there are some that crop up time and again (top of the list being: ‘was Elizabeth really the Virgin Queen?’), others have knocked me completely off-balance.
One that springs instantly to mind is when I was asked to compare Thomas Cromwell and Margaret Thatcher. When I started thinking about it, I did find one or two things they had in common – not least their ability to survive on about four hours of sleep!
Q: If you could go back in time to meet one historical figure, who would you choose and why?
It’s so hard to choose just one because, given half the chance, I would spend most of my life going back and meeting the people from the past who I’ve been writing about. But I think top of the list has to be Thomas Cromwell.
For so much of my career, I believed him to be the archetypal villain because this is how he had been presented by pretty much every historian since his death. But reading Wolf Hall changed all of that. Yes, it’s fiction, but Hilary Mantel was meticulous in her research and presented us with such a compelling version of Cromwell that it inspired me to find out how much of it was true (which, by the way, I think is the huge value of historical fiction). The Cromwell who emerged from my biography was much closer to the Wolf Hall hero than the traditional villain of history. I would love to meet the man himself and find out if I got it right.
Q: What historical mystery would you most like to solve?
It has to be who killed the princes in the Tower. Richard III is always in the frame, but there were others with a strong motive. Unless fresh evidence comes to light, we will never know for certain. I would love to lock myself away in the National Archives for a few years and try to find it. And given that Richard III is top of BBC History Magazine’s Hot 100 poll again this year, I think there might be one or two people interested in the result.
Q: What job do you think you would be doing now if you weren’t a historian?
Without a doubt, I would have a cake and coffee shop. Those two things have sustained me throughout the writing of my books. I love baking and could happily spend all day churning out lemon drizzle cakes and caramel shortbreads. As for the coffee, I recently went to Bologna for the weekend and had the best cappuccino I have ever tasted, so that’s my supplier sorted.
Tracy Borman is an acclaimed author and historian, whose books include a biography of Thomas Cromwell, and The Private Lives of the Tudors. Tracy will be speaking about Elizabeth I at BBC History Magazine’s Winchester History Weekend on Sunday 9 October.