Ms de Lisle’s skill lies in unearthing fascinating detail about little known topics, and this is as apparent in this, her earliest published work, as in her later work on the Grey sisters (Sisters of Treason) and the Tudor family (Tudor: The Family Story).
In After Elizabeth she examines the period of transition around the turn of the century seventeenth century when James VI of Scotland became James I of England. Because, ultimately, James took control without major incident, we tend to assume that it was all plain sailing. De Lisle shows us what was going on behind the scenes: the uncertainty which had permeated all levels of society about the succession for over forty years; the nervous anticipation in an England that had endured nearly ten years of plague, famine and war and was hoping for change; the secret hopes of Catholics that they would be allowed to emerge from the shadows and worship in freedom after forty-five years of oppression; the vision of the Puritans who hoped for a cleansing of the Church. Most of all, the eager anticipation of many of Elizabeth’s courtiers for a new King whom they hoped would spread largesse in their direction.
James was not the only contender for the English throne, but it is clear that the Privy Council, dominated by Robert Cecil, favoured his candidacy, which was certainly the strongest hereditary claim. De Lisle traces the history of Cecil’s courting of James, who had once been in correspondence by Cecil’s arch rival, the Earl of Essex. Having seen off Essex, who, undoubtedly talented and charismatic, was his own worst enemy, Cecil planned a careful campaign to ensure that he would remain in position as the monarch’s chief secretary of state. Cecil’s careful positioning of himself, and his manipulation of the situation to leave his rivals, such as Sir Walter Raleigh, out in the cold are gracefully depicted.
We follow James on his progress through his new kingdom, and learn some fascinating details about what was going on in the background – the Earl of Shrewsbury’s pleas to his neighbours to send poultry for the royal table, and Lady Anne Clifford’s observation that she and her mother had caught lice from one of James’ entourage, Sir Thomas Erskine. Everywhere de Lisle picks up the clash of cultures between the English and Scottish courts which James, despite his best efforts, never really overcame.
With so much expectation, it was inevitable that James could not please everyone. De Lisle shows how anticipation turned to disappointment, in the short term expressed with a flurry of small plots – the Main Plot and the Bye Plot, presaging the Gunpowder Plot and the discontent of the Puritans, which would culminate forty-five years later in the Civil War.
As always, Ms de Lisle manages to convey enormous amounts of detail in an elegant and readable style.