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Tricky regime change

7 May 2005

12:00 AM

7 May 2005

12:00 AM

After Elizabeth Leanda de Lisle

HarperCollins, pp.200, 348

At Queen Elizabeth’s funeral in April 1603, the predominant emotion among the spectators was relief. For the past 45 years her subjects had lived in continual terror of being engulfed in civil war when the childless queen died, leaving behind her a disputed succession. There were as many as 12 possible claimants to the throne and since Elizabeth had never made clear her own preference, it was far from obvious which one would triumph. Elizabeth had forbidden discussion of the matter on pain of death, but while this silenced speculation, it could not stop her subjects worrying about what would happen after she was gone. Upon her death, however, there had been no resistance when James VI of Scotland had been proclaimed King of England. Understandably delighted to find the anxieties which had so oppressed them ‘dissolved in a minute’, her subjects considered the queen’s demise to be less a grievous loss than a cause for celebration.

There were other reasons why only a few individuals were truly saddened by her passing. Elizabeth’s last years had been a time of widespread discontentment. The expense of a long and inconclusive war with Spain had resulted in high taxes and a financial squeeze at court, made worse, in the view of many, by the queen’s miserly nature. There was a perception that corruption was on the rise, and the execution in 1601 of Elizabeth’s last favourite, the Earl of Essex, had been widely lamented. ‘Weary of an old woman’s government’, her people looked forward to being ruled by a male sovereign in his prime.

In Scotland King James had laboured hard to ensure that the English crown would go to him. He had established surreptitious contacts with influential English- men, promising that things could only get better once he was on the throne. Sick of wartime austerity, the English salivated at the prospect, and as James travelled south to take possession of his new kingdom, there was ‘great hope of a flourishing time’.

Inevitably James proved something of a disappointment. He eschewed the old queen’s frugality, but his very generosity brought problems of its own. James awarded titles so profligately that it devalued the honours in his gift, particularly after he conferred knighthoods on ‘scum … such as it would make a man sick to think of them’. At the outset of his reign, James was equally liberal with financial grants, but the English were dismayed that much of this largesse went to the king’s compatriots. Before long there were grumbles that those responsible for bringing James to power had ‘sold England to the Scots’.

James’s unfortunate demeanour did not help matters. In contrast to his predecessor, he disliked exposing himself to public view, and when he did so was apt to cause offence with his coarse jokes and brusque manner. Leanda de Lisle somewhat startlingly suggests that he suffered from attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and that this accounted for his lack of tact, chronic restlessness and impulsive behaviour.

It had been assumed that the change of monarch would transform the political landscape, and the downfall of Robert Cecil, Elizabeth’s unpopular first minister, had been eagerly awaited. In fact, Cecil had safeguarded his position by secretly smoothing James’s path to the throne, and as a result he remained entrenched in power. Members of the opposing political faction found that they were still excluded from office, and for them Cecil’s uninterrupted dominance of the political scene provided an unwelcome element of continuity.

Within a year of James’s accession, discontent had taken dangerous forms. Believing that James had reneged on promises to introduce religious toleration, a Catholic priest named William Watson conspired with several others to seize James and force him to change his policies. Lord Cobham and Sir Walter Ralegh, who had fallen out of favour, were convicted of treason, having allegedly plotted to murder James and his children.

Leanda de Lisle’s lively account gives us an enjoyable insight into the tense transitional period between the Tudor and Stuart eras. She has a sure grasp of her story, and shows that a painless transfer to power was by no means inevitable. Skilfully capturing the fluctuating mood of the time, she brings into vivid focus Elizabeth’s edgy final weeks and the opening months of James’s reign.

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