Review: Elizabeth & Leicester: Power, Passion, Politics – Sarah Gristwood

Elizabeth and Leicester, the Virgin Queen and her ‘sweet Robin’, are one of the great romances of history, immortalised in history books and Hollywood movies alike. Most people have some awareness of their relationship: the great queen and the man she loved but could never marry; the age-old question of whether the Virgin Queen truly was a virgin and whether she and Leicester were lovers…

Unfortunately much of what is known about their relationship is little more than myth, fabricated over the years to fit the romantic narrative. There’s the youthful passion, the drama of the death of Leicester’s wife, the on-off-on-off nature of their entanglement, Elizabeth’s dangling of foreign marriages, Leicester’s covert relationships with other women… No wonder Hollywood loves Elizabeth, enough to make several movies about her and Leicester.

In this book Sarah Gristwood sets out to get to the truth, charting their decades-long relationship whilst cleaving as close as possible to documentary fact. It’s a thoroughly enjoyable read, well-written, comprehensive, and with an ever so slightly sentimental style that suits the topic.

However, apart from the enjoyability of the read, as history it concerns me. The author’s training as a journalist and not an historian is obvious. The lack of foot or end-notes in this book particularly – I have no problem with history aimed at the lay reader but when an author is writing on a topic as smothered in historical supposition and amorous gauze as Elizabeth and Leicester, the very lack of that academic supporting evidence only weakens the impact. A section on sources and further reading does not quite suffice to make me feel I could rely on this book with any certainty. In large part this book is based on other secondary sources, with little primary material and nothing new in the way of historical research.

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