Lisa Hilton is the author of the new biography Elizabeth: Renaissance Prince. Her other books include Athenais and Queens Consort. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The Spectator and The Times. She lives in London.
Q: You write, "Nearly every biography of the queen [Elizabeth I] begins from the premise that her role was in some way anomalous, by virtue of her gender." What do you think of that premise?
A: Elizabeth’s gender has been assumed to define every aspect of her rule, and has been a particular preoccupation of many recent writers. Yet in her own time, one old lady, observing her on progress, remarked in astonishment “What? The Queen is a woman?”
I believe that it was her royalty, not her femininity, which set Elizabeth apart, and that we cannot assume the 16th century shared our own conceptions of gender politics.
Elizabeth was indeed an exceptional woman, but she was more importantly an exceptional ruler, and it was this which I set out to reassess.
Q: Why did you decide to write about Elizabeth I, and what are some of the more common perceptions and misperceptions about her?
A: I really didn’t think the world needed yet another book about Elizabeth I, but when my publisher suggested the project, I began to think about how I could deal with her more originally.
As I researched, it became clear that too little is discussed in popular history about Elizabeth as an international politician, and far too much about her presumed romantic life, or lack of it.
The marriage question was much less of a personal preoccupation to Elizabeth than for her ministers; equally her power brokering in places as diverse as Turkey, Russia, and Transylvania are little discussed by many popular historians.
Q: How did you decide on the book's title, and what does it signify for you?
A: “Prince” was a title Elizabeth used about herself, as did Mary Queen of Scots. The use of the masculine noun is typical of the more subtle gender qualifications of her time, and also suggestive of Elizabeth’s self-conception as a ruler.
“We are a prince from a line of princes,” she told the Venetian ambassador. I used the title because, to me, it reflected more closely the period’s own ideas about gender and monarchy, rather than our own.
Q: You write that "Elizabeth had never sought to become the champion of the Protestant cause in Europe." Did she end up playing that role?
A: Elizabeth became the champion of European Protestantism almost by default, a position which was cemented throughout the course of her reign.
She was deeply involved internationally in the back-room dealings of the Reformation, and it is a testament to her brilliance and that of her ministers that England was able to endure as a Protestant nation without being exposed to the massacres and civil wars which threatened the stability of both France and the Netherlands.
The disadvantage to Elizabeth was that it forced her into taking a much harder line with English Catholics than her original religious settlement had made provision for.
I try to explain the compromises and hypocrisies she was compelled to, and to look at both sides of the question. Anglo historians make much of the glories of Elizabeth’s reign, but in the eyes of Europe she was the tyrannical dictator of a rogue state.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I have the first of a trilogy of novels coming out next year, something quite different than anything I have previously attempted, but after that I hope to return to the 17th century, where I have two projects lined up, one on Vanbrugh and one on Bernini.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: Just that I’m very grateful for your interest in the book, and hope that readers will find it as exciting to read as I did to write!
--Interview with Deborah Kalb