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The Reign of Elizabeth I: Court and Culture in the Last Decade.

Edited by John Guy. (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995. Pp. xiv, 313. $54.95.)

This collection of 13 essays, most of which were first presented during a 1991 conference at the Folger Shakespeare Library, demonstrates just how much court studies have come to dominate Tudor-Stuart history in the last 15 years. Every author but one, Kevin Sharpe, appears to have accepted David Starkey's identification of court as government. While this feature may stray from the intent of the collection, it is illustrative of just how few times council or parliament are mentioned in any of these essays. John Guy's introduction, in fact, proclaims that, with the deaths of several council members in the 1580s and 1590s, we enter a second reign of Elizabeth, which is characterized by social and political strife, renewed faction, and a loss of control by the queen, even if the monarchy itself was moving toward an "imperial supremacy." According to this scenario, power politics were played out against a backdrop of theatrical disguise, which was animated by the protocols of a neo-chivalric ethos.

The first one-third of the book, which deals with patronage, faction, and court intrigues, essentially fine-tunes previous research. Simon Adams asserts the emergence of a new patronage system by the 1580s, which was based on exploiting customs and granting monopolies. Revisiting the Cecil/Essex rivalry, Natalie Mears finds no calculated regnum Cecilianum, but rather a queen finally rejecting old aristocratic claims as embodied by Essex, while Paul E. J. Hammer credits the earl's downfall more to foreign-policy failures.

Many of the remaining authors argue that the 1590s were far from a "golden age," which gloried in the success of 1588, but, rather, a gloomy time of nastiness in religion (Patrick Collinson), disaffection among courtiers and writers over the decline of royal patronage (Linda Levy Peck and Alistair Fox), and symbolic opposition to creeping tyranny and intractability via court rituals and entertainments (Richard McCoy, Marie Axton, and Fritz Levy).

Two essays stand out. Guy's examination of ex officio prosecutions in the Court of High Commission, where vestiges of unreformed canon law contributed to greater royal claims, forges links with the constitutional problems of the next reign. Jenny Wormald convincingly advances the theory that Anglican divines (especially Bancroft) misconstrued James VI's relationship to the Scottish kirk as adversarial in nature, and thus exaggerated their own problems with English Puritanism.

The scholarship is impeccable throughout this volume, and the writers are acknowledged experts in their respective fields. But, after reading the sum total, one cannot help but feel that something is missing. The essays by "new historicists" especially seem to present boxes that are too neatly wrapped. While uncovering "hidden meanings" might be suggestive, it is also a slippery slope, as disguised intention can be inferred from any text and in a multitude of ways.

As Sharpe cautions, most historians have a "narrow notion of what politics may have been about," especially when only the center, the court, is considered at the expense of "popular" politics (or even culture, this reviewer might add) (211). In some ways this study is "old history" repackaged, attentive to events and artistic accomplishments of the age as if they were fraught with the greater meaning. Guy believes that these essays provide balance, and they do so; but now it is time to reconnect court and country, so the scales do not tip too far the other way.
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Author:Lowe, Ben
Publication:The Historian
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jan 1, 1998
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