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Elizabeth I: War and Politics, 1588-1603.

Elizabeth I, War and Politics, 1588-1603 is the last volume of Wallace MacCaffrey's trilogy on the age of Elizabeth. The first volume, The Shaping of the Elizabethan Regime (1968), and the second, Queen Elizabeth and the Making of Policy, 1572-1588, (1981) constitute the author's deep and magisterial investigation of selected themes in Elizabethan history. None was intended as a comprehensive discussion of every facet of the reign in the years identified in the volumes. Rather, selected themes were identified and investigated in detail, with reference when necessary to the broader context of the age.

The same pattern obtains in this latest - and last - book. Specifically, it deals with the issues of politics and war in the closing years of the reign, but not war in either the sense of military history or in the wider perspective of all the combatants. The point of view is that of Elizabeth's government, the means of financing campaigns, choosing commanders, determining objectives and, most subtly, investigating the queen's motives and goals.

Politics are the second theme, in particular the factional politics surrounding the rise and fall of the Earl of Essex and the relations which he developed not just with the queen but with the Cecils and other prominent members of the court. Earlier in the reign, faction had largely been tamed by the prudent policy of the queen which had led to her loyal minister and her favourites, Leicester and Hatton, working together in a common enterprise of royal service. With Essex, MacCaffrey argues Elizabeth made a significant error in judgement, an error which threatened the stability of the last years of her reign. Only Essex's foolishness and the lack of support from his potential supporters, including Scotland, resulted in the Queen's victory and the Earl's death as a traitor.

Certain subjects are brilliantly treated in this study. The masterful analysis of how England recruited, paid, supplied, and transported soldiers is clear and succinct; the discussion of the situation, especially the military situation, of Ireland reduces that impenetrable island to some measure of clarity and order, something the English appeared quite incapable of accomplishing; but it is the analysis of how war policy was made which illustrates most effectively the skill of MacCaffrey's narrative and the depth of his understanding of Elizabeth, a ruler whose personality he has lived with for almost thirty years.

MacCaffrey shows how the queen was not the controlled, decisive, effective ruler in time of war; the image of the Boadicea of Tilbury is only another element in the Elizabethan myth. In reality, Elizabeth was vacillating, uncertain, and parsimonious. The cost of a venture and the possibility of acquiring booty were often the determining factors in her policy. Even when convinced of the necessity of action, she regularly provided too few men, for too short a time, too late, and for too obscure goals. She expected her allies to honour every letter of their agreements; but she held her own promises hostage to circumstance. Her commanders, advisers, and allies were driven to distraction; she was driven to fits of rage and abandonment of engagements, if she believed that her objectives, especially financial objectives, were not being met.

It is in this subtle analysis of the mind and motives of the queen herself that MacCaffrey's book is most useful as an addition to the large scholarship on the reign. Elizabeth's relations with her councillors at times of national crisis, such as the armada, Tyrone's success at the Yellow Ford, or during the dangerous months of Essex's disaffection and subsequent treason, are brilliantly studied.

It is ironic, given the succession, that the weakest material in the book is that on Scotland and the relations with James VI and the Scots factions. Compared to the richly illustrative scholarship surrounding England's involvement with the Dutch states, Henri IV's France, Ireland and even Philip II, it is curious that Scotland plays so insignificant a role. Certainly MacCaffrey is right in noting that the factions of the Scots court and the divisions in the kingdom are almost impenetrable; but they perhaps deserve the depth of study accorded to other states.

This is, however, a very small complaint about a superb book, full of wisdom, learning and insight: a brilliant conclusion to the Elizabethan trilogy which will remain required reading for generation of students of Tudor England.
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Author:Bartlett, Kenneth R.
Publication:Canadian Journal of History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Apr 1, 1993
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