Review: ‘Elizabeth I, Genius of the Golden Age’ by Christopher Hibbert

Guest contributor Kaitlynn Norton explores Christopher Hibbert’s intimate portrait of history’s most fascinating monarch.

I think she must have a thousand devils in her body…

– Alvaro de la Quadra, Bishop of Avila on Queen Elizabeth I

One of the most memorable monarchs in history, Queen Elizabeth I had a fascinating life and personality, bewitching and vexing to all those around her. As the last Tudor monarch, her reign was simultaneously glorious in its height and tragic in its end. Other nonfiction biographies may fall short in their effort to instill a sense of empathy for the woman as well as veneration for the monarch, but not Christopher Hibbert’s The Virgin Queen: Elizabeth I, Genius of the Golden Age.

Author and editor of over one hundred unique works pertaining to history, English literature, and biography, Hibbert was known for his meticulous research into each of his biographical subjects. His work on Elizabeth I is no different: Hibbert’s writing style and attention to particulars provide an experience that takes the reader with Elizabeth as she grows up and gives them inside details about her character taken from a variety of letters, reports, and other primary sources. Such minutiae as the fact that she had an especially difficult time when teething and that a French envoy made fun of her for her accent when she spoke in French make one feel close to her; other details such as her refusal to admit when she was ill and several reports of her flying into tempers and assaulting her ladies remind one of the fierceness which aided her in keeping her throne.

Elizabeth I, Genius of the Golden Age

The prologue introduces the book in an engaging way, peeking the reader’s interest with the famous figures of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn before settling into Elizabeth’s life. Hibbert paints a vivid picture and goes into extensive detail about Henry VIII’s love for Anne Boleyn, their letters, and courtship, as well as Anne’s ambition. For Elizabeth, as well as every other figure in the book, Hibbert gives an extremely honest account, outlining the good and bad qualities of each. He writes rumors as well as facts and (for the most part) leaves it up to the reader what they choose to accept.

The remaining chapters follow Elizabeth’s life chronologically, focusing on major events before and during her reign. Rather than list facts on a page, Hibbert uses primary sources to recreate how Elizabeth and those around her felt and reacted to certain events. Her indecision and pain during the trial of Mary, Queen of Scots can be felt through the pages; her exasperation with her government during the beginning of the Spanish Armada in 1588 is unmistakable. The reader receives a well-rounded view of Elizabeth by living with her through her childhood, her dealings with the Church, suitors, and treasonous plots.

Hibbert writes for the general reader, filling in the gaps in knowledge for those who aren’t certified experts in Tudor history. He does a beautiful job at eliciting emotion from the reader into feeling empathy for the figures, something that many nonfiction books fail to do. With all of the quotes from primary sources worked into the text, Hibbert brings the characters to life almost as if one is really living the events with them and hearing their thoughts. It’s so well researched and has such detail that it reads as pleasurably as historical fiction. This work makes one feel as if they are reading about real people, not just a collection of facts on a page.

Elizabeth I in the Rainbow Portrait

In all honesty, I can’t remember the last time I felt so close to the Tudors. The Virgin Queen allows one to get to know Elizabeth on a personal level, while also learning about her greatest challenges, triumphs, and defeats. In no other history book did I learn that Elizabeth I once threw a slipper at her spymaster’s, Sir Francis Walsingham, head or that she adored the smell of marjoram. This novel is brutally honest biography revealing Elizabeth at her best and at her worst. The reader witnesses her world through the eyes of those around her as well as Elizabeth herself. Several biographies portray the Queen in a single light, good or bad, but the truth of Gloriana is much different and much more complicated. Christopher Hibbert brings all of these different aspects of Elizabeth I to light, offering the reader a chance to come to their own conclusion about who she was: a temperamental monarch or a genius of the golden age? 

There are plenty of biographies that one may read to learn about Elizabeth, but I would recommend The Virgin Queen to anyone who wants to know Elizabeth.

Kaitlynn Norton is an avid bibliophile and historian. She has a Bachelor’s in History from UCLA and currently spends her time proofreading, spending hours researching and reading history books, and embroidering. Her favorite historical periods are ancient Greece, Rome, early modern and medieval Europe. She can sometimes be found on YouTube @LadyNord.

You can also connect with Kaitlynn on Instagram!

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