Elizabeth Stuart, by Nadine Akkerman

A new biography of Elizabeth Stuart seeks to right the wrongs of previous titles.
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Casual students of history will know Elizabeth Stuart, queen of Bohemia, by her famous sobriquet – the Winter Queen (a name derived from a jibe against her husband) – or for her minor role in the Gunpowder Plot. Those a little more familiar with the period might recall the famous quote attributed to her: ‘I would rather be the Palsgrave’s wife than the greatest papist queen in Christendom’. Yet, beyond these totemic images – the wife, the puppet, the emphatic bride – she seldom receives the attention given to other royal figures of the early modern period. It is Akkerman’s goal to re-establish Elizabeth as she was: a key figure in seventeenth century politics whose own self-fashioning as a Queen of Hearts deserves reassessment.

There has been a tendency in recent years to rehabilitate previously marginalised figures and to suggest that they were in fact overlooked political geniuses, with every false step a calculated move and every action or utterance politically utile. Happily, Akkerman does not fall into hagiography, and Elizabeth Stuart provides a far more nuanced and thoughtful look at the queen’s life and times. This book is thus refreshing not only in its approach but in its scope. It is particularly strong on Elizabeth’s early years, which are often obscured in older biographical studies by the famous – and infamous – events and personalities of the England’s early Jacobean period. To her credit, Akkerman resists the temptation to be distracted, however, and keeps her subject centre stage. This allows the young princess and only surviving daughter of James VI and I to emerge as a developing figure who was the equal of her older brother (the ill-fated Prince Henry Stuart) and who was moulded – intellectually and physically – as a spiritual successor to the late Queen Elizabeth.

Elizabeth Stuart provides a comprehensive and in-depth study, exhaustively detailing and examining the queen’s reading material, her expenditure on clothing and jewellery, and her network of courtiers and friends. This does not, however, become tedious or turgid. Rather, Akkerman is skilful enough a writer and her enthusiasm and passion for her subject so evident that the details instead form a highly detailed mosaic of Elizabeth’s life and development as person, princess, and queen.

The book comprises both personal and political history in which, seamlessly, Elizabeth’s reported giggles at her wedding to Frederick of the Palatinate and her dislike of purgatives keep company with – and are as well handled as – Count Manseld’s military advances on Breda. The net effect of this approach is that the text untangles the complex and often incomprehensible web of alliances and power blocs which made up early seventeenth century Europe. This was, as Akkerman demonstrates, a period in which large-scale political tensions and conflicts were embedded in personal ambitions, personalities, and competing projected identities.

I was once dismissively told – to my chagrin – that research on female households was ‘mere taffeta’. Scholarship is currently undergoing a long overdue revisionist period in which information which was once confined to the margins – details of clothing, of masques and revelries, of women’s correspondence – is being recognised as inextricably bound up with more traditional (male orientated) power politics – treaties, wars, and alliances. Elizabeth Stuart provides the ideal subject in demonstrating how ‘taffeta’ was hardly ‘mere’: as Akkerman successfully and engagingly shows us, the Queen of Hearts was a political player who was first crafted by others and then crafted her own image, rising to a pre-eminent place on the European stage.

Elizabeth Stuart: Queen of Hearts, by Nadine Akkerman is published by Oxford University Press and is out now.