The Queen’s Bed by Anna Whitelock is a look back at the court of Queen Elizabeth I in light of her status as a female monarch. Whitelock writes of the attempts to shape and hold the image of Elizabeth’s body as unchanging and incorruptible and touches on the relationship between the queen and the ladies who attended her in her bedchamber. Whitelock also (this being Queen Elizabeth I) talks of the gossip surrounding the queen and her male suitors and favorites and evaluates the likelihood of her actually wanting to marry any of them.
The Queen’s Bed does give a sense of how crowded the court was and how many people the queen dealt with on a daily basis. Whitelock makes a strong case for the political need to present Elizabeth’s body as perpetually young, particularly after she was clearly not going to have an heir, and shows the political and personal aspects of many of her decisions. Her relationships with her various male favorites are clearly sketched.
The book is disappointing, however, in its portrayal of her relationship with the female members of Elizabeth’s court. I was drawn to The Queen’s Bed in a large part because the book’s blurb made much of these women, the queen’s “friends, confidants, and spies” who have been overlooked “until now.” To give Whitelock credit, she does mention many of these women by name and does make note of times when various ambassadors used contacts with the women in to gauge the queen’s mood or attempt to influence her. Whitelock also portrays them as politically savvy rather than as dupes in these maneuvers. However, the women are never very distinctively portrayed. Robert Dudley’s importance to the queen is far clearer than that of Kat Ashley or Katherine Knollys, and William Cecil’s political opinions are given more play than all of the women put together. Most of the women are unmemorable, mentioned perhaps when they were hired, married without asking the queen’s permission, or, if they were special favorites, died.
Whitemore may simply have had too little material to draw on to make these women her complete focus; Mary Scudamore is described as “the only lady of Elizabeth’s Privy Chamber to have left more than a few bits of correspondence.” Still, the fact remains that, while The Queen’s Bed is full of information about the court as a whole and about the political turmoil of the time, none of the women stand out vividly enough to be memorable.
The Queen’s Bed is recommended for those interested in Queen Elizabeth and Elizabethan politics, but will not satisfy those looking for a female-centric view of the court.