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Beer uses the life of Bess Ralegh (1565-1647?) to effectively illustrate the limited role of women in Elizabethan and Stuart England. During her nearly three decades of marriage to Sir Walter, he was largely absent because of expeditions or long stints in the Tower of London, and Bess was compelled to wear a number of "manly" hats: business manager, political infighter and guardian of her husband's reputation. As Beer makes abundantly clear, Bess succeeded quite nicely in all these roles. The couple were secretly married in 1591, while both were courtiers to Queen Elizabeth I. Beers stresses that the Elizabethan court was a dangerous place, filled with gossip and shifting loyalties. When news of the Raleghs' secret marriage leaked out, the queen considered the couple disloyal and imprisoned them. While in the Tower, Bess's infant son died. Beer uses Bess's pregnancy and childrearing as jumping off points to describe the life of mothers in Elizabethan England. Walter was imprisoned again (for treason) in 1603, and Bess lobbied tirelessly for his release and indeed, right before Walter's scheduled execution, he received a royal reprieve. When one of King James's favorites wanted to take Ralegh's home, Bess skillfully negotiated a highly favorable compensation package. After Ralegh was eventually executed in 1618, Bess worked heroically to rehabilitate his reputation. She was so successful that the "traitorous" Walter Ralegh is today viewed as the greatest hero of his day. This is recommended for those wishing to better understand the role of married women in Tudor and Stuart England.
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc.
The name of Elizabethan adventurer Walter Ralegh is familiar to many people, but few know anything about his wife, Bess. Born Elizabeth Throckmorton, her appointment as lady-in-waiting to Queen Elizabeth I was considered an important step for her family in an age when power and influence were achieved primarily through one's connections. At court she met the dashing Ralegh, and they were secretly wed. Ralegh was a royal favorite who had already had a hand in establishing a colony in North America and defeating the Spanish Armada, but this did not prevent his downfall when the queen learned of his marriage. Through years of Ralegh's imprisonment and further exploits to regain his status, it was left to Bess to keep the family estates together and preserve a legacy for her sons. The fact that it is not known exactly when she died attests to the difficulties involved in reconstructing the often hidden lives of women, even when they are prominent and powerful. Nevertheless, Beer fleshes out her readable account with fascinating details. Mary Ellen Quinn
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