Review: Catherine the Great by Robert K. Massie

Some books you cannot put down, some you plod through half heartedly, some you put down after a few pages and some you read for a while, put down for a long time, then strangely pick up again and actually finish. Catherine the Great by Robert K. Massie fell into the last category for me.

This was in part because the book was a gift. My wife knows that I like histories, and as usual this came from a recommendation by one of her friends. I’ve plodded through all sorts of unlikely histories. I enjoy the occasional history about a famous woman, such as my review of a book on Queen Elizabeth I. Catherine the Great came along about a hundred and fifty years after Queen Elizabeth I. She ultimately does make for an interesting read through the pen of historian Massie. First you must plod through a whole lot of backstory, and I got stuck in the middle of it.

Catherine ruled Russia from 1762 to 1796, a remarkably long span of time for a monarch of her age. Her story is interesting because she was an unlikely monarch. To start with, she wasn’t even Russian. She was born in Prussia, now Germany, as Sophie Friederike Auguste von Anhalt-Zerbst-Dornburg. She did have noble blood in her, but just barely. In many ways by today’s standards her upbringing was quite middle class. Her second cousin was Peter III, a man she widely detested but was convinced to marry. This was because Prussian Emperor Frederick II needed a more lasting alliance, of the biological kind, between Prussian and Russia. Peter was distantly related to Empress Elizabeth and Catherine to Frederick II. Her conniving aunt helped arrange the marriage.

Catherine at least knew to make the most of opportunities. Married to Peter there was at least the prospect that she would become an empress. If not, living a life in a Russian court beat being married to some minor nobleman back in Prussia. She and Peter, who she barely knew, moved to Russia at Empress Elizabeth’s urging and her aunt’s insistence. Empress Elizabeth, the successor and daughter of Peter the Great, made sure they quickly were married. Her goal was grandchildren, but in that sense Peter III was a failure. He was completely clueless on how to consummate a marriage, and Catherine remained clueless as well. Moreover, Catherine detested Peter, who drank heavily, bore pox marks, hated Russia but admired the Prussian military. Upon reaching Russia, Catherine went right to work learning Russian, reading widely, and making friends at court. Catherine was not only unusually intelligent but she was socially gifted as well, agile enough to keep out of the way of the domineering Empress Elizabeth, but clever enough to make the contacts and demonstrate a key grasp of affairs and to win admirers in Elizabeth’s court.

Nonetheless, her primary value was not intelligence but her breeding value. Both she and Peter eventually had to be taught by others how to make love. It’s unlikely that she and Peter actually ever had sex, but she produced an heir nonetheless, courtesy of one of the many lovers during her life.

Those who like a sexy historical romance will find plenty to enjoy in this biography. For once Catherine learned the art of love, she quickly mastered the art of lovemaking. Her royal status allowed her to be quite particular with her lovers. As empress, she had a steady stream of favorites. Her favorites were men who were basically her exclusive lovers. Screwing the empress was not necessarily as fun as it sounded since in addition to putting out like a stud, you basically served as her constant companion as well. Having lovers was by no means scandalous. She was hardly alone among European royalty. In fact, most of the monarchs, male or female, had a steady stream of favorites and consorts that amused them and provided bedroom delights. These lovers also produced children, children she bore and largely did not see.

What had me stop reading the book for many months were the many pages devoted to her husband Peter III. He was, to say it kindly, a most unusual man. Mostly he was a very annoying person: insensitive, thoughtless, ugly, persecuted and incurious but given his backstory and the cruel way he was raised, it was not surprising. You get to see him through Catherine’s eyes and the view is not pretty. Their life, such as it was together, is hard to read. When Empress Elizabeth finally died of a stroke, Peter III ascended to the throne, but only for about six months. He was so detested that his suspicious death after Catherine took over as monarch in a coup was likely from poison. His death was also completely understandable, as he seemed interested in surrendering Russia to the Prussia he felt at home in. Catherine at least knew how to govern as a Russian and work in the best interest of the state.

For her time, Catherine was amazingly progressive. She believed in monarchy but many things about Russian society appalled her, including the conditions of serfs, who were basically slaves. She tried quite hard to institute a constitutional government in Russia by calling together all classes of Russian society to draft such a document. It proved futile and certain things like the relationship between nobility and serfs proved institutionally impossible to change. In most other ways though she governed with amazing aptitude. Russia expanded its territory in wars against Prussia and Turkey. She did not believe in capital punishment, although one exception was made for a traitor. During her reign Russia became about as enlightened as the rest of Europe, a major feat. She opened hospitals in a country that had virtually none, staffed them, set up a system to take care of homeless mothers and orphans, and through trusted aids like Grigory Potemkin managed to turn large parts of Russia, which resembled the Wild West, into peaceful and prosperous territories. She even won Russia a warm water port on the Black Sea.

And yet she was a passionate woman, not just in bed, but also in temperament. She worked long hours, liked to hear differences of opinion and ruled with unusual enlightenment for her time. She wrote of her own foibles to intimates. She was also not infatuated with herself. This was probably due in part to her humble upbringing, and the way that it grounded her in real life.

Catherine turned out to be the last empress Russia would ever have. Many did not approve of Peter the Great’s decision that each monarch could choose their own successor. That is how his daughter Empress Elizabeth got the crown. The men who would follow her, including those who were assassinated like her son, would prove generally inept in a way she was not.

Readers can be forgiven if they skip over many of the chapters involving Catherine’s husband Peter III. If you like history though this is informative. This is my first exposure in any significant depth to Russian history. If the rest of Russian history is as interesting as Catherine’s life and her time as monarch, I’d gladly become a Russian history enthusiast. Moreover, if you are fascinated by examples of great women in power, it is hard to find a better example of a wise and beneficent ruler than Catherine the Great.

Book Review: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

Who wants to live forever?
Who dares to love forever?
When love must die

“Who wants to live forever”, Queen

We all secretly lust to be immortal. It’s too bad that our cells are programmed to reproduce only a finite number of times. If nothing else kills you, at some point your own cells will betray you and refuse to replicate themselves. It’s called dying of age. We are all programmed to die.

In the movie The Curious Case of Benjamin Button we are entertained by the fictional story of a man who lives his life backwards. In the biography The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot we learn about the curious case of a woman who actually achieved immortality, sort of. Unfortunately, this poor African American woman from the largely unknown town of Clover in Virginia’s tobacco belt did in fact die in 1951. Henrietta Lacks died an excruciatingly painful death from cervical cancer at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore at the age of 31.

Henrietta Lacks (circa 1945-1950)
Henrietta Lacks (circa 1945-1950)

However, some months before she died her physician performed a biopsy on her cervix to study her cancer cells. Her cancer cells turned out to be something of a Holy Grail in medicine: human cancer cells so virulent that they were almost impossible to kill and could be reproduced en masse for research. HeLa cells (HeLa for Henrietta Lacks), as they are known today, are used around the world today to test the efficacy of various drugs. HeLa cells have led directly to the discovery of all sorts of medical insights and cures. Unlike your cells, these cancerous HeLa cells prevent the incremental shortening of telomeres, which eventually causes a cell to not replicate. While the woman Henrietta Lacks has been dead nearly sixty years, her HeLa cells have survived and flourished and can be found in thousands of biomedical laboratories around the world. It seems likely that while there is life on the earth, HeLa cells will keep replicating. They may end up being the last thing alive on Earth. Some small and cancerous part of Henrietta Lacks has effectively achieved immortality.

This book by the Jewish author Rebecca Skloot not only tells the fascinating medical story of the HeLa cells, but also the much more fascinating and often grim story of Henrietta’s family. The book is a candid story of Henrietta Lacks’s all too short life, her death and the largely dysfunctional African American family she left behind. It is also the story of a family whose lives were changed forever by their mother’s notoriety, even though they mostly lived lives in the shadows in Baltimore’s poorer and crime infested wards. It is also the remarkable story of its author Rebecca Skloot, a white Jew from Pittsburgh and her friendship with Henrietta’s daughter Deborah, who bore much of the baggage from her mother’s death.

The book takes us into an intimate space unknown to most whites: poverty, systematic discrimination and the suboptimal African American experience. Those of us who truly believe that African Americans are still not being discriminated against need to read this often-heartbreaking book. Skloot was able to win over the family’s trust, but it literally took many years and required enormous perseverance. Skloot supplements the book with years of research, much of it spent with distant and not so distant relatives of Henrietta in and around Baltimore and Clover, Virginia.

It turns out that the heart of this story is not Henrietta, whose life is already viewed through something of a distant mirror, but her daughter Deborah and her family. Their lack of advanced education made it impossible to understand why her mother’s cells were important. In a time of horrifying incidents like Tuskegee syphilis experiment, where African Americans were used in medical research by whites without their consent, it was not surprising that Deborah and the Lacks family believed that there were clones of their mother alive, or that others had profited off their mother’s cells while the family lived in poverty. Back in 1951 when Henrietta’s cervix was biopsied, there were no informed consent laws. Even today, tissues that you give to your doctor may be used for medical experiments without your consent. Billions were made from drugs made possible by the unique properties of HeLa cells. Research using HeLa cells arguably saved or extended millions of lives. The Lacks family certainly had reasonable grounds to feel that they were being shafted. However, no such “share the wealth” precedent existed, and no one was really to blame. In particular, Johns Hopkins Hospital was not to blame, as it was required by its founder to provide free care to the poor, which Henrietta Lacks used. Without Johns Hopkins Hospital, at best the Lacks family would have been deeply indebted by her getting treatment elsewhere. Finding treatment at all was challenging for African Americans at the time, as Jim Crow laws existed in Maryland.

Today, the descendants of Henrietta Lacks still live largely in poverty in and around Baltimore. Most of Henrietta’s children are now dead, including the pivotal daughter Deborah. Many of Henrietta’s children and grandchildren came loaded with baggage and great anger. Many went to prison, some murdered and at least one remains in prison today. We also learn of a mentally ill daughter of Henrietta who was turned over to an asylum in Crownsville, Maryland, an institution so badly managed that it killed her daughter. Back in the 1950s, since it served Negroes, the citizens of Maryland for the most part did not care that it was overcrowded, understaffed, and filthy and crime ridden. Negroes were effectively second-class citizens.

Skloot offers perhaps an unprecedented work of investigative journalism, a work that required an extraordinary amount of time, trust, probing and listening to the Lacks family. It was a labor of love that took more than a decade. I do hope that sales from this remarkable book will in fact be sufficient to create a substantial endowment fund for the Lacks family, as Skloot promised Deborah. And yet their story is simply one of millions of American families systematically marginalized and discriminated against, largely because they were born black.

This book will haunt me for a while, and should haunt you as well if you read it. It is well worth your time to inhabit the world of Henrietta Lacks and her extended family. If this book is not a contender for a Pulitzer Prize for investigative journalism, it should be.

Review: The Artist, the Philosopher and the Warrior

I think it was pure coincidence that my Kindle came loaded with The Artist, the Philosopher and the Warrior by Paul Strathern then a few months later The Borgias appeared as a nine episode miniseries on Showtime. For once I could sit down and enjoy a miniseries feeling like I had some idea of whether it was reasonably authentic (Short answer: yes)

Alas, this is not a review of the miniseries, except to say the series is exceptionally well done and I look forward to a continuation of it planned for next year. Yet the book and the miniseries definitely overlap. The miniseries concentrates on Pope Alexander VI, a Renaissance pope of Rome and his corrupt family. It was during a time when priests were still allowed to marry. The book is about the intersection of one of the principle characters of the Borgia family, Cesare Borgia, the eldest son of Pope Alexander and two other prominent people of the time: the artist Leonardo da Vinci and the political philosopher Niccolò Machiavelli, best known for his groundbreaking book on leaders and politics, The Prince.

If you followed the miniseries, you get an extended encounter with Cesare Borgia at a time when he was not only the son of a pope, but a cardinal in the Catholic Church as well, promoted and installed by his father. In the book, Cesare Borgia’s time as a cardinal is relatively brief. Religious life did not agree with Cesare and he soon convinced his father to let him be what he really wanted to be: more Caesar than Cesare. A passionate, wildly diabolical and cunningly ruthless man, Cesare turns out to be a great leader of men. He was bent on acquiring more power and hoped to do something to Italy not seen since Roman times: unite Italy into a single country. At the time, Italy was divided into a series of kingdoms, dukedoms, and independent states. It is in the Republic of Florence that Strathern introduces us to Leonardo da Vinci and Niccolò Machiavelli. For a time, the lives of these three pivotal men intersected in and around Florence. The eldest, Leonardo da Vinci was a helplessly gentle gay vegetarian, gifted as an artist but with a heart that overflowed more with passion for invention and a fascination for engineering. Both da Vinci and Machiavelli would be pulled into the young Cesare Borgia’s orbit (he died at age 31) by his power and influence.

Both da Vinci and Machiavelli were citizens of the Republic of Florence. da Vinci was for a time employed by the powerful Cesare Borgia as his military engineer where the peaceful man oversaw the construction of innovative devices designed to kill armies. Machiavelli acted as a Florentine envoy to Borgia, and spent many months hanging around him while sending intelligence back to the Signoria (government) of the Republic of Florence. Simultaneously he earned something like a doctorate in political philosophy through observing Borgia’s amoral excellence at acquiring and wielding political power, and arguably was the founder of what we now call political science. When not observing Borgia, he worked for the Signoria of the Republic of Florence, doing his best to help keep various external forces from overrunning his city.

Certainly the men knew each other, but there is little direct evidence that Machiavelli and da Vinci had a close relationship. Each though was uniquely gifted. The Renaissance, unfolding in particular in Republic of Florence, was an exciting time for gifted men like these to be alive. Strathern reveals the real da Vinci mainly through extensive reading and research into his remaining notebooks. Not only do his notebooks reveal an expansive imagination and engineer centuries ahead of himself, but also a gentle pedophile of boys in a time when it didn’t matter. He was a man who started many projects but completed few of them. His masterpiece, the Mona Lisa, for example, was tweaked periodically throughout his life. It was never officially finished. It hangs today in the Louvre because he spent his last years in France, a patron of its young king, and he took the unfinished painting with his many notebooks with him.

Machiavelli’s seminal book on power and politics, The Prince, was written after he had fallen from power and into disgrace. Cesare Borgia though was his unwitting teacher. While Strathern’s book is about all three men, it is principally about Cesare Borgia, a fast climber whose mini empire devolved on the death of his father. In the miniseries, despite the killings that he commits or orders, Cesare comes across as reasonably civilized. Strathern’s book though reveals a much more powerful and devious side of this Borgia than can be squeezed into the miniseries. Perhaps subsequent seasons will reveal his darker and ambitious side. For a while, it looked like he would succeed in his quest for power, despite periodic invasions by both the French and the Spanish, who claimed titles to lands in Italy and whose forces were vastly superior.

The Italy revealed in this book is a far cry from its current manifestation. It seemed overrun by regular wars as republics and dukedoms expanded and contracted, and as invading armies and shifting allegiances continually altered the political landscape. Even the pope was not beyond having his own armies and states. It was a practical necessity for a pope to have an army. Italy’s invaders were typically Catholic but few of them saw any need to spare Rome from sacking and conquest.

Mostly, Strathern chooses to make this book be a study of Cesare Borgia. One cannot be drawn into his world without being drawn into the eternal conflicts between the many states within it. You may find, as I did, that the politics of the period are a bit overwhelming. So many alliances changed so often it’s a wonder anyone trusted anyone at all, and perhaps they never did. Borgia though did learn how to rule through a combination of ruthlessness and earned loyalty. The latter was earned through treating his subjects with respect and making sure they were governed by just men who shared his philosophy.

While rich in history, this book won’t make you feel like you are seeing historical Italy through the eyes of these characters. This is history that is largely complete, but with significant gaps, so the picture Strathern draws of these men and this time is still incomplete. Frankly, the miniseries is more compelling than this book, but the miniseries can only hint at the complexity of living and governing in this chaotic time. Along the way, you will meet many other interesting characters, some of which appear in the miniseries, including Borgia’s sister Lucrezia (for whom Cesare is overly protective and possibly had an incestuous affair) and the pope’s enemy Cardinal Giuliano della Rovere, both of whom appear prominently in the miniseries.

If you were drawn to the miniseries, you may appreciate this book for filling in the many details the miniseries cannot, as well as come away for an appreciation for all these prominent people, now lost in a time some half a millennium in our past.

Fanfare for the Workingman’s Man

Joe Bageant passed away a couple of days ago at age 64. Most likely you are saying “Joe who?” For those of us who haunt his site or have read his books, life without more of Joe’s writing is a huge blow. Just one reading of his seminal work, Deer Hunting with Jesus where he explores the hassled life of the working class of Winchester, Virginia convinced me that he was in the top dozen best authors I have ever read. If you read Deer Hunting with Jesus, you will find that the book will haunt you. Never again, if you come from a family of some privilege (and Joe would include middle class people like me as privileged), will you be able to tune out the working class around you.Joe Bageant

Before reading the book, I was more likely to tune out the guy who empties the trash in my office, the roofer, the clerk on the express lane at the superstore, or the guy haunting a booth at the gas station. Perhaps I turned away in part because I worked that life for a while and was glad to forget it. I spent my teenage and young adult years in suboptimal employment. The jobs I had back then paid enough to get by, if you lived with Mom and Dad, or failing that didn’t mind depending on public transportation and living in a room in a house with multiple roommates. None of these jobs paid enough to allow you to thrive. My workingman experience was designed to be brief. I wanted better things: a house in a nice neighborhood, a car, an office and enough money to indulge regularly in my passion for the arts.

It was unthinkable that I would be a workingman for life, but plenty of people live this sort of life who are constantly living on the edge. Joe chronicled them because he was one of them, and he knew intimately the world of the redneck. Something very weird though happened to Joe. He became part of a social experiment called The Great Society, served in the Navy during Vietnam, and was the first in his family to go to college thanks to government largesse. In college, Joe had a great awakening. In college he became exposed to a larger world and yet somehow he also remained a redneck to the core. He scraped together a living writing for military journals. Thirty years after he left Winchester, Virginia, Joe decided to move back. In his book, he chronicled the sad decline of the working class there. His writing is so good, so personal that you cannot help but step inside the souls of the working poor white people of Winchester. He wrote with such vividness, such empathy and so poignantly that the book was hard to put down even while it was at once both heartwarming and heart wrenching.

Joe knew what’s what better than just about any person I have ever read. His vision of society was largely nihilistic but fundamentally clear-eyed. After reading his essays it was impossible not to agree with him. Even if you could not agree with him, it was impossible not to be blown away by his prose. His discerning gaze saw everything and pierced through all pretenses. Joe was so totally grounded in real life. In style, his writing was much like Hunter S. Thompson, except Joe carried with him a keen sense of empathy and pathos. Joe didn’t like lots of people including, arguably, people like me cocooned in the safety of the middle class. He seemed beyond hate, but certainly not above disdain and loathing. Those of us in the middle class, but particularly the politicians, lawyers, and stockbrokers of the world he saw either explicitly or implicitly as pimps, who turned the backbreaking work of the working class into unearned wealth in the form of 401-Ks, sports cars and McMansions. He knew that the working class were largely unseen and when seen at all, judged with some disdain and contempt by their “betters”.

I enjoy writing, but I will never be as good a writer on a good day as Joe was on a bad day. Never will I be able to write sentences that grab you like two hands with a vice grip on your throat like these:

Below it all are the spreading pox-like blotches of economic and ecological ruins of dead North American towns and city cores, such as downtown Gary Indiana, Camden, Newark, Detroit — all those places we secretly accept as being hellish because, well, that’s just what happens when blacks take over, isn’t it? Has anyone seen downtown Detroit lately? Of course not. No one goes there any more. Miles of cracked pavement, weeds and abandoned buildings that look like de Chirico’s Melancholy and Mystery of a Street. Hell, for all practical purposes it is uninhabited, though a scattering of drug addicts, alcoholics and homeless insane people wander in the shadows of vacant rotting skyscrapers where water drips and vines crawl through the lobbies, including the Ford Motor Company’s stainless steel former headquarters. (See the works of Chilean-born photographer Camilo José Vergara.)  It is the first glimpse of a very near future, right here and now for all to see.

Once you got a taste for Joe’s writing, it grabbed you and you just wanted more. So you haunted his website and you joined Feedblitz so you were quickly notified when he made a new post because you knew it would be good. Only, Joe had to go all mortal on us. Apparently, Joe smoked, some things legal, some allegedly not, and perhaps because he was a child of the 1960s he ingested things that would land him in jail today. Perhaps that is why he spent so much time in Mexico. His lungs were bad, probably a product of smoking, and his habits probably contributed to his premature encounter with the grave. Doubtless, Joe met his maker pragmatically. He might have even been glad to punch his exit ticket. Joe saw, as do I, that mankind is entering a sad, resource-competitive phase likely to bring out the worst in us instead of the best. If he had been able to do so, I am sure he would have had an amazing essay or two about the overreach by Republicans in states like Wisconsin as just more evidence of a nasty class war already well underway.

Sometimes in tons of rock you will find a diamond. Joe was one of those diamonds. He was a glorious accident whose writing touched me (and thousands of others lucky enough to discover him) to the core. If you haven’t read Joe, check out his website as it may not be around forever. And yes, you absolutely must read Deer Hunting with Jesus. Your humanity will stretch in the process and your eyes will open wider than they ever have before. You may find yourself like me, sadly wiser on the ways of the world and appreciative of the workingmen and women all around us who make civilization possible.

Review: The Life of Elizabeth I

As I age, I am more and more drawn to history. Surveys report few students these days find history interesting. The 1998 book, The Life of Elizabeth I, by Alison Weir will dispel this notion. The book, which covers the 45 years of the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, is a page-turner. It is hard to put down and provides a fascinating, intimate and detailed look into the life of the last of the Tudor sovereigns, as well as the many fascinating characters that populated her court.

Elizabeth was born in 1533 to Anne Boleyn, one of King Henry VIII’s many wives who he found convenient to have executed. Having your mother executed by your father is a very traumatic thing for any daughter to deal with. Elizabeth herself once came close to being executed too and spent many months in the Tower of London. She was imprisoned by her half sister Queen Mary I for her Protestant faith. In the end, she was released and a dying Queen Mary permitted her to succeed her. She was crowned at age 25 and reigned for 45 long years. She remains one of England’s longest serving sovereigns. England’s current queen, Queen Elizabeth II, is one of the few to serve longer. During her reign, luminaries like William Shakespeare and Sir Francis Bacon were contemporaries.

Those lusting for a female president would find her a great example of a female leader. She was very well educated and spoke fluently in French, German, Latin, Spanish and Italian. She had thousands of horses at her disposal and was rigorous about morning walks and lengthy horse rides. She had one overriding goal during her reign: keep England out of foreign wars. She did not entirely succeed. While she wanted little to do with war, other countries very much wanted control of England. Spain was her principle enemy. She ended up lending support to Protestant governments fighting Spain, including the Netherlands and France. After her success defeating the Spanish Armada, she became proactive dealing with Spain. She periodically sent her fleet to destroy Spanish ships while they were in harbor. She also attempted to rule Ireland, often unsuccessfully. In general, she had little in the way of imperialistic ambitions. She realized that to the extent that England could get along with other countries it would remain at peace.

Known as The Virgin Queen, she remained a virgin in part because she felt it necessary to ensure England’s security. She had a constant stream of foreign suitors, which continued well past her childbearing years. There is little doubt that she was strongly heterosexual and she even fell in love a few times. She nearly married the French Duke Anjou, who was much younger than she was. However, it is clear that for a time their affections were real. It is even possible that their love was consummated. Elizabeth had much to recommend her as a spouse beyond the prestigious position of being queen. She was an accomplished equestrian, dancer, poet and scholar. She was politically adroit. She kept England at peace for so long by constantly leading on foreign suitors and playing them against each other. Playing the game of romance forestalled many military adventures against England.

She was often despised outside England for her militant Protestantism. She codified the Book of Common Prayer used by the Church of England. The Pope repeatedly offered bounties to anyone who would kill her. King Philip II’s Spanish Armada was one of many attempts that he made to revert England to what he said was the true religion of Roman Catholicism.

All these details are widely known. What Weir does is bring history to life. Elizabeth lived a public and very well documented life. She saw being England’s sovereign as a great responsibility. We are accustomed to presidents who are replaced in four or eight years. She led England’s foreign policy for forty-five years with one single and constant vision. She was both conservative and liberal. She was conservative in the sense that she was not anxious for England to change and wanted very much to preserve the status quo for future generations. She was also notorious niggardly, and ensured her royal household lived well within its means. She was liberal in being unusually compassionate. Perhaps because his father had so few problems having his opponents’ heads removed, she reserved this terrible punishment for a relative few. With every execution, she seemed a bit diminished. For decades, she dithered over the chronic problem of her stepsister, Mary Queen of Scots. Near the end, despite being protected in England, Mary was covertly working to violently overthrow her government and restore Catholicism. Equally traumatic was the execution she ordered late in her reign for her close advisor, Robert Devereux, more commonly known as the Earl of Essex. A headstrong young man with boundless ambition he failed miserably in his attempt to subjugate an Irish rebellion. When he returned to England, he tried to blame Elizabeth for his own failings and used his popularity to try to bring about civil insurrection. He paid with his life.

Catholicism was another constant problem that dominated her reign. After the Church of England was established, England remained full of Catholics, and many remained loyal to the faith. For many years, Elizabeth practiced benign tolerance of Catholicism, and even had some Catholic advisors in her government. As plots against her life and the state multiplied, she found it necessary to oppress Catholics. Eventually they were forbidden to attend mass and were required to attend Church of English services or be taxed. Today these actions would seem quite harsh. In the context of the times and the real need to keep England united, they were sensible strategies.

Elizabeth was also blessed with a coterie of top-notch political advisers, including the ever-present Lord Cecil, essentially her chief of staff and Lord Walsingham, who ran a huge spy apparatus for the state. If you have seen the two movies about Queen Elizabeth I starring Cate Blanchett (my motivation for reading this book), you will grow well acquainted with these two men. Movies can only give you a hint at the complexity of being a sovereign. She had many, many more in her cast of characters over her 45-year reign. She made the occasional misjudgment in her appointments, such as with Lord Essex. Overall though her record of appointing competent people to positions of power was excellent, and would be the envy of all politicians. That she did so over a 45 year reign is an extraordinary accomplishment.

This biography also captures the experience of living in Tudor times in a way that makes you feel as if you were alive back then. The prevalence of disease was a sad and overwhelming fact of life. Few people lived past their fortieth birthday. The plague hit London virtually every summer. The queen’s long life was due to being proactive. During the summer season, while Londoners died of the plague she took annual “progresses” into the English countryside to meet with many lords, ladies and the public. Indeed, she rarely stayed in one place very long. She had dozens of castles at her disposal. She and her court frequently moved from one to the other. There was no one place that she thought of as home.

Most kings and queens lived public and well-documented lives. Few though were kinder and acted in what were truly the best interests of her subjects. It is unsurprising that as a result she was so beloved. Alison Weir provides an exceeding intimate look at this remarkable woman that is compelling and brings history alive. I doubt that anyone can get past the first fifty or so pages of this biography and leave the rest of the book unread. Thanks to Weir’s biography, we are blessed with a human and intimate portrait of a truly remarkable woman. There is no question that in the top ten most influential women of all time, she would be on the list.