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The keepers of Regina Intacta

Kanika Datta  |  New Delhi 

An Intimate History of the Queen's Court
Anna Whitlock

Bloomsbury; 357 pages; Rs 599

The Tudor dynasty, which ruled England from 1485 to 1603, has exercised endless fascination for anyone with a passing interest in world history. This was, after all, the dynasty that imposed seminal changes on European politics through the colourful lives of Henry VIII and his second-born daughter, Elizabeth I, and saw Britain's rise as a superpower.

Predictably, the era has spawned a lively culture of literature, song, drama, TV series and cinema (including an Oscar-nominated one by Shekhar Kapur). For more entertainingly informed recent works, few can match Hilary Mantel's fictional series (Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, a third is in the works). I would add Thomas Penn's The Winter King (2011), a splendid biography of Henry VII, the less-remembered founder of the House of Tudor who created the enormous wealth from which his much-married son could build a solid power base. Elizabeth's Bedfellows is a readable addition to this recent literature, though narrower in approach.

It is also less prurient than the title suggests. The "bedfellows" were not, as modern readers would suppose, a retinue of toy boys but the Ladies of the Bedchamber, women of noble birth and the queen's closest confidantes. Their duties included, apart from sharing the insomniac queen's bed and assuaging her nightly terrors, ensuring her safety and attending to her toilette and make-up. The last duty was not as frivolous as it sounds. The famous Mask of Youth, the alabaster skin and red hair that became the court-approved portrait in her lifetime, was their handiwork.

These "bedfellows" saw the queen in her most intimate moments - disrobed, without make-up, toileting and bathing. More critically, they controlled access to her and, therefore, were the most powerful women in the realm after her. As Anna Whitlock explains, "The Queen's body was more than its fleshly parts; her body natural represented the body politic, the very state itself. The health and sanctity of Elizabeth's body determined the strength and stability of the realm. Illness, sexual immorality and infertility were political concerns and it was the Ladies of the Bedchamber who were guardians of the truth, as to the Queen's and thus the nation's wellbeing."

Apart from her health - and despite living to 70, she had a delicate constitution - her sexual conduct and the question of her virginity were open to scrutiny not just in England but in every major European court. This was true for all monarchs but acutely so in Elizabeth's case. For one, Elizabeth's accession to the throne restored the Protestant faith to England after a brief interregnum under her devoutly Catholic step-sister Mary (daughter of Henry VIII's first wife Catherine of Aragon). Despite this, many people in her realm considered her illegitimate; the child of her father's second marriage to Anne Boleyn (derisively called "the King's Whore" even in her lifetime). A perpetual threat to the throne lay in another Mary, a cousin (the granddaughter of Henry VIII's sister Margaret who married James V of Scotland and whose mother came from a powerful French Catholic family).

For another, given the confusion over the success after her father's death, the pressure on Elizabeth to marry into a powerful European family and produce an heir was intense. Indeed, her single state was the subject of much scurrilous gossip and popular doggerel. This was mainly a result of her marked partiality to Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester and Master of the Horse. It was never clear whether the relationship of 20 years was sexual. Elizabeth's ladies never let on. But when Dudley secretly married one of them, Lettice Knollys, Elizabeth exiled her from court.

Dudley's behaviour was doubly duplicitous since he had tried to stall overtures from the Duke of Anjou, 27 years her junior, a match that did not materialise because of his steadfast loyalty to the Catholic faith. A later favourite, Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex, was executed for treason, underlining how much Elizabeth's private life was a public concern.

Given this, and serial assassination attempts on the monarch, the Bedfellows' duties were no sinecure. True, they leveraged their proximity to good account. But that was the reward for a job that was as 24x7 as any high-flying executive's today. Many, like Lady Katherine Knollys and Lady Francis Cobham, were married but expected to perform their royal duties with minimum respite - the former did so through 16 pregnancies and the latter through six. Dudley's sister, Mary, was another long-suffering attendant.

This is not a new history but essentially a multiple "insider" account of Elizabeth's reign, interesting in the gossipy details rather than the big picture but as good a way of learning history as any. It is fascinating to know, for instance, that as the queen aged, her ladies applied egg white to her skin to prevent wrinkles - a 16th-century version of Botox. Also, Elizabeth's love of sweets quickly rotted her teeth, her receding hairline was covered by a wig, and details of her wardrobe suggest she went commando at all times.

But most interestingly, after her death Elizabeth's body was exempted from the ritual disembowelling before it was sealed in its casket. This was done at the behest of the Ladies of the Bedchamber. Loyal to the last, they kept a vigil over her body and ensured that whatever the truth, their Queen would officially go down in history as Regina Intacta.

First Published: Tue, December 03 2013. 21:40 IST