Book Review – David Starkey, Elizabeth: Apprenticeship

David Starkey – Elizabeth: Apprenticeship


As you may have noticed in my previous post – I expressed an interest in reading more historical texts and this is one of the books that I was gifted by my lovely boyfriend. I had mentioned that I wanted to read it as from a bit of internet research it seemed like David Starkey was a pretty safe bet when it came to the Tudors. Elizabeth the 1st is such a fascinating character – as a child I loved looking at pictures and paintings of her. She was to my young mind, like a fairy tale queen; her pale skin and red hair set off by massive starched ruffs atop bejewelled dresses. Throughout junior school I was interested in Lady Jane Grey and her nine day reign, followed by Elizabeth taking the throne in such tumultuous times.

The blurb on the back of this book captures perfectly the intrigue that surrounds Elizabeth’s reign;

A woman in a man’s world, confident of her destiny to reign, intensely intelligent, passionately sexual yet (she said) a virgin, Elizabeth was to become England’s most successful ruler. Finding her way through the labyrinthine plots that surrounded the court, she had to live by her wits, surrounded by betrayal and suspicion, not knowing who to trust with her desire to be queen, or her desire to be a lover…’

Within the text Starkey focuses on Elizabeth’s early life, an area relatively unexplored, with the belief that this holds the key to her behaviour throughout her reign. The book begins with the event of her birth, an event which King Henry the 8th had divorced his first wife and married Elizabeth’s mother for, but unfortunately Elizabeth was not the longed for prince and heir. Nevertheless the first few years of her life were golden ones; she had her own house and was showered by gifts from her royal parents. Starkey points out that this might marks the beginning of the rift between her and her elder sister Mary, whose own house was dissolved and put under the charge of Elizabeth’s. However the doted-upon toddler’s life was soon to change, with the death of Elizabeth’s mother Anne Boleyn. Starkey follows the effect Henry’ next three wives had on upon Elizabeth’s life – and I think very cleverly, throughout this childhood section sows the seeds of themes which will develop throughout her life.

Starkey’s impeccable scholarly research shines throughout, with his referrals back to letters and ledgers of the time. His interpretation of them is really interesting; particularly in regards to the words Elizabeth spoke and wrote around the time of her coronation on the topic of religion. Starkey says that careful ambiguity in her turn of phrase is the reason why she was so successful in making the changes to religion throughout the country. She had never stated her Catholic intent, and thus was able to make changes through her behaviour – and the court followed. I don’t know enough about religion in the Tudor times to state how accurate this interpretation is, but it made for interesting reading.

However – there is one thing that niggles, and I mean REALLY niggles at me about this book. Starkey’s aim is to make it read like a historical thriller, and there is enough in the life of Elizabeth the 1st to make this plausible, however he cannot resist making some little aside comments throughout. These, I feel, are intended humorously or descriptively but to me they just feel a bit overdone. He describes poor Mary as ‘pudgy’, and there is an exceptionally ill-mannered comment about attitudes to foreigners in England having not changed since the Tudor period. Small things, I know – but I just felt they were in bad taste.

Overall I would recommend this book to anyone with an interest in the Tudors. You don’t need to be knowledgeable about the time period to read it, and it is a good read! Hopefully you will gel with Starkey a little better than I did. Are any of you interested in specific historical periods? I’d love to receive any historical fiction or non-fiction recommendations!