Elizabeth’s Women: The Hidden Story of the Virgin Queen

Written by Tracy Borman
Review by Lucinda Byatt


Elizabeth I knew well the challenges facing her as a woman in a man’s world, yet her genius lay in the transforming image as Gloriana, into something to be celebrated and admired. Yet, to date, little has been written about the only other women at court, those in her household who supported and comforted her throughout her extraordinary reign. Borman has produced a compelling and fascinating account of these women, from Elizabeth’s difficult childhood through to her death, and at the same time gives a picture of her court that reveals the domestic and more intimate side of Elizabeth’s life: what went on in the Privy Chamber, and indeed the Queen’s bedchamber which was barred to all but a few of Elizabeth’s most trusted ladies. In this male-dominated world, the Queen’s household was “one of the very few institutions in which women had a role to play”, and there was fierce competition for these positions. Above all, while her ladies had to be immaculately dressed, none should outshine the Queen’s own magnificence. It took her ladies at least an hour to dress their monarch, and later in life, to apply the mask of cosmetics and the elaborate wigs that preserved her carefully constructed image. Kat Astley and Blanche Parry are the two women who stand out, having serving the Queen respectively twenty-nine and fifty-seven years of service. Reading of the conditions in which Elizabeth’s ladies worked and the way they were sometimes treated, it is clear that there was more than just personal loyalty at stake. Although the events of her life are well known, I thoroughly recommend this revealing but rigorously unsentimental account of Elizabeth’s women.