Like many another bookish teenager, I spent the years between 12 and 17 in a fog of romance, my nose buried in a book. Quite often that book was by Margaret Irwin, whose Tudor trilogy, Young Bess (1944), Elizabeth, Captive Princess (1948) and Elizabeth and the Prince of Spain (1953), tells the story of the early life and early reign of Elizabeth I. I read and reread these books, so that the characters seemed sometimes as real to me as my own family and a lot less annoying: instead of tidying my room, I could be dancing a pavane with a Tudor gallant, my heart beating with the tambours, while candlelight flickered over rich jewels and brocades.
The novels’ pitch is perfect for a dreamy adolescent, but Margaret Irwin’s books are also carefully plotted against real historical events, with dramatic set pieces – the deaths of Henry VIII and his last queen, Catherine Parr, the trial of the Seymour brothers for treason, the wedding of Mary I and Philip of Spain – and loving descriptions of ornate costumes, poetic masques, sweeping curtseys and thrillingly barbed dialogue. Characters speak a timeless English, with not a ‘prithee’ or a ‘thou’ to clutter the flow.
Young Bess opens with a party on a royal barge where the 12-yearold Elizabeth’s questioning of her favourite step-uncle, Sir Thomas Seymour – ‘My mother – was she beautiful?’, and Seymour’s answer: ‘No, but she was clever enough to make anyone think so whom she wished’ – provides one of the images that haunt the trilogy. Elizabeth’s mother Anne Boleyn is one of history’s enigmas, a Protestant who was also a shameless flirt, an intellectual who adored finery. Elizabeth was only 2 years old when her mother was executed and she was exiled from court as the bitch’s brood, though attended by a suitably large household since she came of royal blood.
But Elizabeth had to take care of her own emotional needs and never mention
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