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Selling the Tudor Monarchy: Authority and Image in Sixteenth-Century England (review)
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Selling the Tudor Monarchy is the first volume of a projected trilogy that will carry the analysis all the way to the end of the Stuart dynasty. This hefty volume is the one based on the fewest remaining records because print and domestic visual arts were still new during the reign of the Tudors. Not until Elizabeth did councilors understand the power of distributing texts of royal speeches and not until then was a native-born royal portraitist employed by the Crown. Moreover, the brief reigns of Edward VI and Mary I sharply curtailed their abilities to create and sustain a royal image. Indeed, Sharpe’s discussion of the reign of Mary I brings many of the complex analytical questions raised by this book into bold relief. Conventions for queens differed markedly from those of kings, especially when it came to public appearances and speaking. Sharpe can recover only one important royal speech from this reign, that to the Guildhall during Thomas Wyatt’s rebellion. Moreover, the images of the unmarried queen are more exiguous than those of her with her husband, Philip II. Sharpe poses the central question about image making in this chapter when he reveals the frequently contested representations of Mary by Catholics and Protestants. These conflicting depictions were not done in retrospect but were a feature of the reign itself, especially in print. The queen and her consort were not capable either of controlling cultural representation or spinning interpretation of its meaning. Hispanophobia was not as virulent then as it was later to become, but the queen became doubly tainted by her Catholicism and her foreign husband in the eyes of rabidly Protestant subjects.

Sharpe moves from darkness into the light when Elizabeth accedes to the throne. In this context, his thesis is not novel; the conscious efforts made by the Queen and her councilors to create an association between Elizabeth and England have long been known. “Glorianna,” “Good Queen Bess,” and “the Virgin Queen” were all cultivated images. So too were overt comparisons between her and the female heroines of the Bible, especially Deborah. If Elizabeth were alive today, she would be a movie star, and it would be said that the camera loved her. She had a natural ability to attract and inspire; she could manipulate cheering throngs or veteran parliamentarians, using all manner of public appearances to polish her image. Her speeches are among the most famous in the annals of British statesmen, compared in this book to those of Winston Churchill. She revived the habit of her father of traveling the countryside and compelling the hospitality of her richest subjects. These excursions brought her into contact both with local elites and adoring crowds who lined the roads to catch a glimpse of their monarch. She routinely ended each year’s sojourn with an entry into London where she required the Lord Mayor and all of the liverymen to attend her.

Sharpe mines a rich vein when discussing the political representations of this queen. His chapter on Elizabethan portraiture is an outstanding survey. Although he relies on Strong for much sensible interpretation, he adds his own compelling readings of certain traditional images.1 Unfortunately, there is no section of color inserts in the book, for Elizabeth’s are among the richest of all royal portraits, especially in their self-conscious iconography. (Hopefully, the upcoming segment on Charles I with its promise of lush portraits by Sir Anthony Van Dyke will have color illustrations.) After reading the portraits, Sharpe attempts to survey the overabundant literature that created one set of myths about the queen. His overarching point about Elizabethan image making is that it was unstable, changing throughout the long reign to reflect both immediate events and a long range narrative. When she rallied the forces at Tillbury, she was the warrior monarch; when she lashed out at Catholics and Puritans, she was the defender of the Protestant equipoise. She could pose as a weak woman weeping or as a termagant howling. All of her moods were reflected in the print culture of the age, one of the richest in all of Britain’s history.

Selling the Tudor Monarchy is an astonishing achievement. Cultural...