Elizabeth’s Bedfellows: An Intimate History of the Queen’s Court by Anna Whitelock (Review)

On the morning of September 28, 1599, Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex burst into Queen Elizabeth I’s bedchamber without permission to explain his return from Ireland against the sovereign’s wishes. There, he found the sixty-six year old Queen devoid of any sign of her carefully crafted public image. When Essex appeared, Elizabeth I had just risen from her bed and was dressed in a simple nightgown and robe. Without the Queen’s usual thick layer of cosmetics, her smallpox scars, age spots and wrinkles were clearly visible. Essex also saw the Queen’s balding head with wispy grey hair “hanging about her ears” that was usually covered by a vibrant red wig.

Despite the circumstances, the Queen received Essex graciously and listened to his protestations. Only after the Earl departed did Elizabeth I reveal that she was not satisfied with his reasons for leaving Ireland and ordered him confined to his chamber. The Queen never saw her former favourite again and he was executed for treason following an attempted coup d’état in 1601. In addition to his dubious political activities, Essex had transgressed by entering the royal bedchamber, the domain of Elizabeth I’s ladies who crafted the Queen’s public appearance, guarded her reputation and even slept in her bed. In Elizabeth’s Bedfellows: An Intimate History of the Queen’s Court, Anna Whitelock, Senior Lecturer in Early Modern History at Royal Holloway, University of London and author of Mary Tudor: Princess, Bastard, Queen presents Elizabeth I through the eyes of these devoted “Bedfellows” who spent their days and nights serving the Queen.

The Queen’s reputation is at the heart of Elizabeth’s Bedfellows. Only the Queen’s ladies-in-waiting, who changed her sheets and shared her chambers, knew for certain whether she was actually the Virgin Queen. Whitelock reveals that Elizabeth I’s personal life was the focus of intense speculation from her youth in her stepmother, Catherine Parr’s household until her death when her ladies followed the Queen’s wishes and refused to allow her remains to be examined. The Queen’s ladies also became involved the marriage negotiations surrounding their mistress, offering to intercede for individual suitors. While the bookmakers of 2013 were fascinated by whether the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge’s baby would be a boy or a girl and what the name the child would receive, 16th century speculators placed bets on which – if any – of the foreign Princes and English noblemen would succeed in marrying the Queen.

Whitelock also provides a rich social history of the Queen’s court from the foul smells in her bedchamber caused by her sanitary arrangements and multitude of pets to the ingredients in the cosmetics that obscured her age and illnesses. These details often receive more attention in historical novels, such as Elizabeth I: The Novel by Margaret George, than biographies of Elizabeth I. The Queen’s sumptuous gowns and wigs served both political and personal purposes for the Queen, allowing her to indulge her love of fine clothes and project an image of power and majesty for her court and by extension, the Kingdom of England.

Although Elizabeth’s Bedfellows is ostensibly about Elizabeth I’s ladies, the Queen remains at the centre of the narrative throughout the book. This structure reflects the reality of the court. Elizabeth I expected her ladies-in-waiting to devote their lives to her service. Married Women of the Bedchamber remained by the Queen’s side until late into their pregnancies and gave their children to wet nurses almost immediately after birth so that they could return to service. The main events of Elizabeth I’s life are already well known, however, and a book devoted to the Queen’s ladies could have included more details about the small amount of private life allowed to the court women. Elizabeth’s Bedfellows is a fascinating social history of Elizabeth I’s bedchamber and reputation but her ladies remain in the background, just as the Queen would have wanted.

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  1. Pingback: Tales from the Royal Bedchamber: Sunday December 21 at 8pm ET on PBS | Carolyn Harris: Royal Historian

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