Reflection on historical scholarship … Susan Doran on Elizabeth I

In this blogpost we responded to requests for book reviews linked to a teacher subject knowledge reading list. It’s a resource that we can keep expanding as #obhd. Please send additions when you find them.

We are also keen to share colleagues’ thoughts about useful books they have read. How has a book changed your thinking? How has a book given you new ideas for future practice?

In this series of daily blogposts, teacher trainees reflect on a book that they read and discussed with their mentors. The purpose of this reading was not necessarily for use directly in teaching, rather to emphasise to trainees the importance of continuing to update their subject knowledge and the value of discussion with colleagues. Sometimes the reading has led directly to specific teaching ideas for a particular class or to a change in practice, but the posts also illustrate the different ways in which reading and discussing historical scholarship can support continuing professional development – for experienced teachers as much as for trainees.

Today’s reflection on Susan Doran’s book ‘Elizabeth 1 nad her Circle’ is written by Emily Shaw

Why we chose this:

We decided to choose some literature on Elizabeth I because the Tudors are part of the A-Level syllabus, that I would be starting to teach later in the term. Instead of focusing on some of the more common themes such as religion or foreign policy, we chose to look at the personal and political relationships of Elizabeth, to enhance our understanding of her life and reign. The book is divided into three main thematic sections: kin, courtiers and councillors, and examines how these groups shaped her policies. While not explicitly covering the OCR syllabus, we hoped that this book might enable us to add a slightly different dimension to the scheme of work.

Thoughts on the book:

I really enjoyed reading chapters of this book. Doran’s style of writing is very engaging and clear to follow. Her portrayal of Elizabeth is undoubtedly a positive one, and is well supported by Doran’s use of Elizabeth’s personal correspondence, especially between her ladies-in-waiting. Doran challenges some widely held views of Elizabeth, such as her wrath at ladies-in-waiting who married without permission due to her own jealousy, and her relationships with suitors such as Robert Dudley. Doran argues that understanding Elizabeth’s relationships is crucial to understanding her reign, given that monarchy in the sixteenth century was centred around personal politics. Reading Doran’s interpretation of Elizabeth’s relationship with Mary Queen of Scots was particularly interesting: she defines it as a “bad marriage” and discusses the complexity of this bond, given that both were one another’s victims. Equally, it was fascinating to read about the ladies in Elizabeth’s service, how they were used by her at court, and whether they had any political influence. Doran highlights that over 44 years, Elizabeth had only 28 women in paid positions, and 55 women unpaid, at court, showing how great the competition for spaces would have been and also how intimate this group of women was likely to have been. Given that there is little documentation on these women, Doran is unable to analyse their relationship with Elizabeth in the same depth as is possible for some of the male figures such as Burghley; however, it is insightful to read about who these women were, Elizabeth’s expectations of them, and in turn the status, patronage and privileges that these women enjoyed.

How could we use this?

Doran’s book targets a popular audience, and thus her language and writing style are more accessible for A-Level students. It would perhaps work as an introduction to Elizabeth and her court; it would therefore perhaps be more useful at the beginning of the syllabus, or when looking at the section of the OCR syllabus dealing with faction and the role of gender in the Elizabethan period. Doran’s work could also be used to add colour and flavour to students’ understanding of Elizabeth’s reign, with its focus on some areas omitted from the curriculum. Furthermore, Doran employs a range of sources, from private correspondence to official records to poetry, which could very much be incorporated into lessons. I would have looked to see if I could have introduced some extracts to contextualise Elizabeth’s political actions, in particular her relationship with figures such as Burghley and Walsingham as well as with Mary Queen of Scots, and use some of the source material that Doran has collated and analysed.

Please do share more examples of reading, thinking and discussing historical scholarship as blogposts by sending them to enquiries@history.org.uk.

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