Right Royal tale of intrigue, power, love and virginity

Elizabeth and Leicester offers a new take on the Queen s affair, writes Bridget Galton WITH countless stage, screen and literary versions of Elizabeth I s reign, a fresh look at Gloriana s relationship with her favourite Robert Dudley could seem unwarra

Elizabeth and Leicester offers a new take on the Queen's affair, writes Bridget Galton

WITH countless stage, screen and literary versions of Elizabeth I's reign, a fresh look at Gloriana's relationship with her favourite Robert Dudley could seem unwarranted.

But Sarah Gristwood's enjoyable book steers readers confidently through the prejudiced, contradictory accounts to dig out the human interest story of unrequited love between a powerful woman and her subject.

Gristwood's fluent, perceptive account illuminates how the Tudor monarch used her relationship with the Earl of Leicester for emotional support, to help run the country and to stave off pressure to marry.

Gristwood doesn't aim to solve historical mysteries, as she says, "it's like trying to prove a negative - you just don't know what you don't know", but she does take the oft-belittled Dudley seriously as a politically astute - albeit vaultingly ambitious - statesman.

Gristwood posits that he loved Elizabeth but probably didn't murder his wife Amy to pave the way for a royal marriage.

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Elizabeth loved him in return - while seeing his faults. But as her reign wore on and she revelled in autonomous power, marriage became increasingly undesirable.

For the record, Gristwood thinks Elizabeth was smart enough to remain "technically a virgin" while enjoying "a measure of physical intimacy" with Dudley - perhaps snatched during late-night privy sessions which offered her only unwatched moments.

But after accepting spinsterhood as the price for power, and promoting the iconographic "myth of the Virgin Queen", she forged a working partnership with him that helped foster the flowering of culture, peace and prosperity that created the English Renaissance.

It is the unusual nature of a relationship where a woman held power, and the fascination of a secretive love, that makes Elizabeth and Dudley's story perennially interesting, says Gristwood, who lives between Highgate and Crouch End with Evening Standard film critic Derek Malcolm.

"Unresolved sexual tension is the cornerstone of many a male/female cop drama and, if the scriptwriters are wise, they never consummate that relationship," she says.

"I think she loved him and I am not sure he could have understood and supported her as he did if he did not on some level love her. There was a great physical attraction and affection on both sides - but love can co-exist with other emotions like ambition and greed."

Gristwood brings an empathetic female eye to Elizabeth's story, pointing out that it is usually male writers who assume she slept with Dudley and wanted to marry him.

"It's easy to see what a marriage with her could have given him - but less obvious what she would get from it.

"She had pretty good reason to see childbirth as dangerous and to be vividly aware of the different dangers to herself of marriage to either Dudley or any individual. Marriage had not proved a blessing for an awful lot of the women around her. I am inclined to feel that she got exactly what she wanted from Robert Dudley. By the end of the book I felt a bit sorry for him."

Gristwood believes Elizabeth could have married Dudley if she wanted - but chose instead to use him as an excuse for not marrying.

"She used the relationship with Robert with great versatility - to leak out an unpopular new policy, to run the country day to day and to lean on him.

"With her parents and siblings dead, she was short on close relationships and she often spoke of him as a brother. At rock bottom, she trusted him and, at rock bottom, she was right to."

Dudley himself risked her wrath - and a spell in the Tower - when he eventually remarried.

"At times she was furious with him, suspicious or wildly jealous. She was aware of his weaknesses and I doubt she had any illusions that he was a pure disinterested spirit," says Gristwood. "We see Elizabeth treating him badly and realise how humiliating it must have been for him."

Gristwood suspects Dudley might have won Elizabeth's hand early in their relationship were he not married. But the scandal surrounding Amy's suspicious death made any union temporarily impossible.

Considering the theories of Dudley, Elizabeth or even Cecil being responsible for Amy "falling down a pair of stairs", Gristwood thinks Robert's "baffled and deeply concerned letters to a kinsman" after her death preclude his involvement.

"Clues to Amy's depression and a "malady of the breast" point away from conspiracy theories and towards Amy's death lying in her own situation," she adds.

"We will never know about Amy Dudley's death. The water has been muddied and evidence lost. I am not one for solving mysteries. There are some things you are just plain never going to know and to some extent the layers of mystery must be part of the story's enduring appeal."

Gristwood points out that "each piece of evidence comes with its own cavils", including the all-important Spanish Ambassador's letters, which first flagged up murder.

"The letters of ambassadors were written in cipher so we are already dependent on someone's interpretation and then translation from the original language. The ambassador himself had his own agenda and he, in turn, was being fed information, accurate or otherwise, by interested parties at court.

"We see it today with newspaper stories about the Royal Family. Princess Diana's former press secretary said recently that anyone who reads a story about the Royals should consider who fed the information and why?"

As a Times feature writer, Gristwood has interviewed everyone from Frank Bruno to Mel Gibson.

But the Oxford graduate turned to historical biography after growing disillusioned with Hollywood junkets, celebrity obsession and group interviews.

Her previous books have uncovered unknown women's stories - the 18th century actress and courtesan Mary Robinson, and Elizabeth's would-be heir Arbella Stuart.

But, being "naturally drawn" to the Elizabethan era, she became convinced there was an untold story in Robert and the Queen.

While working on the book, two new TV films about Elizabeth, one starring Helen Mirren, the other Anne-Marie Duff, were broadcast.

Gristwood says:"There have been a million fictional representations and an endless stream of non-fiction. Her reign was an extraordinary time for England with massive changes in attitudes and movements that gave the country its future prosperity.

"It was the most staggering achievement to maintain the stability of the realm under the circumstances of the time. There haven't been so many towering female figures in known history and, those who are, stand out very clearly. The idea of an extremely powerful woman is still something that intrigues hugely today. People find it attractive and edgy."

Elizabeth and Leicester by Sarah Gristwood. is published by Bantam Press, price £20.