The Favourite, my book about the relationship between Elizabeth I and Sir Walter Ralegh, is now out in paperback through Constable. The new edition includes a lengthy afterword taking the story through to the end of Ralegh’s life in 1618.
‘The Favourite is wonderful. Elegant and intriguing – a seductive portrait of a fascinating relationship. I couldn’t put it down.’
Helen Castor, author of She-Wolves and Blood and Roses. Helen also chose The Favourite as one of her books of 2011 in The Telegraph.
‘It is a compelling and beguiling read, full of little known details for the general reader. Like Ralegh himself, Lyons has a magical turn of phrase that compels the reader to turn the pages to find out what happens next…’
Susan Ronald, author of Pirate Queen: Queen Elizabeth I, Her Pirate Adventurers, and the Dawn of Empire
‘Stunningly researched, The Favourite pulses with the lethal intrigues of the Elizabethan court. Above and apart stands Ralegh, the adventurer who wanted to give his queen a new world. A moving portrait of two fiercely independent individuals and their intimate, secret bond.’
Barbara Kyle, author of The Queen’s Lady
‘Impeccably researched book by a real enthusiast for the subject, revealing the true story behind the relationship between Elizabeth I and the great Sir Walter Ralegh.’
Caroline Sanderson, The Bookseller
‘A beautifully-written, imaginative volume (and the prose really is superb)… very entertaining, eminently readable.’
Jonathan Wright, Herald Scotland
‘The Favourite offers an intriguing and perceptive understanding of a relationship that continues to fascinate down the centuries.’
Lucinda Byatt, Historical Novels Review
‘A vivid picture of the glitter and hazards at court, with its jealousies and intrigues.’
East Anglia Daily Times
The Favourite was also selected as a History Today summer read by historian Linda Porter.
I have lived too long
Among the dead and their stories
Turning my back on Luxor
Over the river
Where the very fields seemed
A green wound on the gold of the desert
And the milk-white doves
Nesting in the honeyed temples
Were nothing to do with life.
I have sought such glory
As I thought I needed
Among the memorials of these dead –
Hidden in the folds of the mountain’s hide
Cleft in the pelt of a lion
Sleeping the mute
Impermeable sleep of stone –
And when dawn has soured the day
I have eaten at their table
Sweated out their sorrows
In the noon heat
In the cool of their tombs.
Over the water
Olive green and olive black
The dazzle and roar of the city
Has scoured me
Dumbed every sense
Until even the touch
Of the river’s tongue
On my lips was nothing.
But the burr of the ferry’s engine
The flat warm vowels of its song
Have caught my ear at last
And I think I understand.
There is a place for me -
I can see without seeing -
On the high deck
Among the squall of the weary
The love-sick, the life-rich, the whole.
Now what kingdom awaits,
What gutter, what cell,
What bed under heaven
With no dread left to creep
Like smoke under the door?
Of course we let him go
Veering west across the road
From the restaurant –
Empty late afternoon –
Where we sit, watching.
He flickers from view
Descending the sea-wall’s steps
And emerges after some
Invisible passage of time
As a boy, a mere boy
Throwing stones into
An indifferent eternity,
Throwing what he can –
oyster shells, the pulpy husks
Of lemon halves left
Beside the oyster stalls –
Just because he can,
Savouring life’s unthinking delight
At what happens,
Heedless as he should be
Of salt air and citrus,
The tide of days.
We can return to conversation
And turn again to see him there
Where he will always be,
A boy on childhood’s beach,
The sea an unforgiving mirror
Of beaten grey and green,
A boy always and wholeheartedly ours
Though each day older
And a little more lost
Further down the shore.
I wrote this around ten years ago. It started with the Powell & Pressburger film of the same name, but ended up somewhere else more personal. As always, all comments welcome.
I know where I’m going:
Down to the black rocks on the ruined shore
The last of the land’s raw shelters.
Into the island’s foaming mouth, no longer deferred,
The boat rides on the broken morning tide.
The wind slaps the indifferent landscape
Like loose tarpaulin
And the deck slicks with gossip
Rolled on the ocean’s tongue.
Perhaps a life unspoken is fuller
Than a life fulfilled;
Certainly he would be lost
With nothing to long for.
It’s things not words:
What do the spilt curses matter
Or the aspirations furred
From last night’s self-control?
Things not words:
The hot stale coffee, a sight of harbour;
Bitter spray. Sunlight breaking through.
Not hope. Not now. Not hope.
Further to my earlier review of the National Portrait Gallery exhibition, Elizabeth I and her people, I thought I’d just post two contrasting portraits of Ralegh. The first, on the left, is a Hilliard miniature from 1584. The second is a close-up photo I took of the 1588 portrait currently on display at the NPG. (My apologies for the slight lack of focus!)
My first thought when I saw the latter was: what a toll those four years at the heart of Elizabeth’s court had taken on him. One can read too much into these things, but if the earlier portrait seems to capture the brash confidence – arrogance, even – with which Ralegh was and is often associated, the later portrait suggests a man whose self-belief – for all the studied magnificence of his appearance – is not what it was.
Those whose interest lies outside the Tudor era could be forgiven for exasperation at the extent to which the long sixteenth century still dominates our nation’s cultural life. But the new exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery – Elizabeth I and Her People, which runs until January 5 2014 – is nevertheless good enough to excite the curiosity of even the most stubborn Tudor-phobe; and for those of us who find the period particularly fascinating, it is a delight.
The exhibition has been curated by Dr Tarnya Cooper, both chief curator and 16th-Century curator at the gallery. She is the author of the recent Citizen Portrait – Portrait Painting and the Urban Elite of Tudor and Jacobean England and Wales, 1540-1620, and her interest in the representation of lives outside the courtly elite is evidenced throughout.
Late Tudor England grew into an economic powerhouse, based on a flourishing mercantile culture, the increasing financial heft of the City of London and the political and religious stability – relatively speaking – of the Elizabethan state. And this middling sort, aspiring, ambitious, self-conscious, are superbly represented here.
A trio of portraits, for instance, reveals the Wittewronghele, family – father, mother and son – who established a prosperous brewing business in the capital. Thomas Gresham – arguably the most brilliant financier of the 16th century – is here. We see, too, the court portraitist George Gower, who chooses to be painted holding the tools of his trade – the brush and palette – rather than with something that might represent a claim on family title or another, more obviously self-aggrandising, social status. The times were changing. Trade itself was becoming respectable.
But beyond the portraiture, we also see something of the texture of people’s lives. There is some wonderful Tudor clothing here, from a seaman’s cloak to a superbly detailed woman’s waistcoat. And there is much, much more: a tankard inscribed with ‘Think and Thank’, surely the 16-century equivalent of ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’; a pristine set of drawing instruments; pins, without which many Tudor garments wear simply unwearable; an intricately carved ivory comb featuring the Judgement of Paris and David’s message to Bathsheba; and so on.
For many, perhaps, the portraits will still be the point, and one room is given over to those of Elizabeth herself, including Hilliard’s sumptuous ‘Ermine’ Portrait. Even here, though, the exhibition is careful to delineate between the kind of representations that would have been available to the different strata of society, from the full length paintings that hung in noble houses, through the more modest copies owned by members of the gentry, down to the portraits that every person in the country had access to. When Elizabeth I recalled the coinage early in her reign, she became the first English monarch to sit for the image that represented her on her currency: it was a powerful statement of intent.
There is, too, a room of portraits of courtiers and nobleman. Again, however, the exhibition goes beyond representations of mere power, to offer a more unconventional and human perspective on the way portraiture embodied a kind of power – but also a negotiation with it. Elizabeth Vernon, Countess of Southampton, appears in – in context – a shockingly private portrait of herself in a bedgown beside her dressing table. She had been one of Elizabeth’s maids of honour and her marriage to Shakespeare’s patron, Henry Wriothesley, the year before had caused controversy at court resulting in her banishment.
William Cecil, Lord Burghley, whose ward Wriothesley had been, had wanted him to marry his own daughter. He is pictured here, mostly likely in his lost palace at Theobalds in Essex, somewhat charmingly athwart a donkey among some strawberry plants, as if to plead with his queen for the quiet pleasure of a country life away from the explosive tensions and rivalries of the court.
Last but not least, Sir Walter Ralegh is here, in 1588 at the very height of his power and influence. The gallery’s restorers have revealed a hidden detail in the portrait: a sea beneath the sway of the moon. It was a trope Ralegh used often in describing his own, often tempestuous, relationship with Elizabeth and here it affirms his subjection to her. He looks, if truth be told, exhausted. And perhaps he was. The tumults of the Tudor era took their toll on winners and losers alike.
This was never intended as a blog about myself, so I am posting this – with some trepidation – as an experiment. I am not at all sure how much I want to write directly about myself or my experiences, but I may post more purely creative things as time goes by, if people seem interested in reading them.
As some of you may know, I have only been intermittently active this year as a result of depression and, in particular, anxiety.
The roots of these things spread deep and wide, but two years ago – around this time of year – I felt suicidal for the first time in my life and was prescribed an anti-depressant. (Citalopram, for those who are interested.) I was also advised to explore therapy, which I avoided, hoping that the problems I had with life would prove to be purely chemical. Although the following six months or so were pretty good, I relapsed again in the autumn of last year and to a great extent ceased to function. I began an intensive programme of – largely – cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT) at the beginning of 2013.
I hesitate to say I am whole again. What would that mean? And perhaps wholeness is in any case a thing to be always reached for, never attained. But I am closer than I have been for a very long time; and I am learning how to reach for it. And I am learning, too, how to be more honest with myself and how not to hide. I have spent too much of my life in different kinds of hiding.
But one of the things therapy has certainly done for me is put me back in touch with the creative side of me, which had all but disappeared – creativity being one of the first cognitive functions that depression and anxiety attack. And I thought – almost as an expression of gratitude – I should post this poem, which grew out of a number of therapy sessions, and which I wrote in the summer.
For anyone out there now who is being bent out of shape by the gravitational pull of depression and anxiety, I know it will feel as if loneliness defines you. But you are not and never will be alone in your hurt. Rare is the person who never feels their soul mis-shapen by life. It is almost what it is to be human. And you will find the right balm to bring you through, because that is inside you too.
The only road back is the one in front of you. Onwards, my friends. Onwards.
When I was born
The moon sat on the garden wall
And sung me a lullaby.
My nights were foxlight,
The days willow and white gold.
Box kites skimmed the airfield
And falcons swept the evening sky
While poets lay bleeding on the graves
In the churchyard under the sunset.
I dreamt of cold lakes and kingdoms,
Hawthorns and cinnamon,
Semaphor, cedar, love.
But Vikings watched from the Andersen shelter
And crows danced in the stubble.
Rust lay in wait in the long grass
And blood shone on the thorns.
So I buried my heart beneath a young tree –
Cradled in its roots –
And I wished to the known stars
But the moon turned her back on me.
And the tree grew old and is gone.
Half a century on
I climbed the garden wall again
From the wilderness grown wild
And looked down on my darkness
Where the moonlight has all-but decayed
In the half-life of a child’s heart
And the wind conjures nothing but rain.
I am forgetting even this.
But a shooting star fell over the hill last night
And lit another life
Where the moon still charms
And a young tree remembers her song.