Review: Elizabeth’s Sea Dogs

Elizabeth's Sea Dogs
Elizabeth’s Sea Dogs by Hugh Bicheno
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I don’t know about you, but I love reading non-fiction history books like this, as much as I like reading fiction books. Packed with interesting information, insight and juicy tidbits all the way through, it really is a pleasure to lose myself back in the 1500s once again.

However (I won’t say ‘but’ as of course ‘everything before the ‘but,’ is bullshit,’ as you well know) when a book is so richly and densely packed with detail and insight as Elizabeth’s Sea Dogs is, I wonder how much of it can we really hope to take in? How much of it am I going to be able to recall a year from now? In my case I spend the first half of such a book worrying I’m not going to remember all this. Then I relax, remind myself I’m not actually going to get tested on it afterwards, enjoy the second half and resolve to dip back in and out should the need arise in the future. It is nigh on impossible to take on (or in) the wealth of facts presented here and it’s probably more beneficial to my overall reading experience, to know I have this book available to me in the future, if I need. I think if you’re more relaxed when reading you probably absorb more. But then, how much should/could/can I really reasonably expect to learn, or remember, of books like this? I would imagine, if you were right now asked to write down what happens, in a book of fiction you read and enjoyed a year ago, you might reasonably be expected to fill a half or two thirds of an A4 page. So why, when a book like this is packed with ten times the information of the average fiction book do I expect myself to remember more, but think I will actually remember less?

So, I think we’re dealing with impressions. And my impression is, that this is an excellent book for background of the period, written by an author clearly at the top of his game and it is packed with wit, style and strong opinions. See here; “It says much about the demise of once-thriving Tudor scholarship in England, that the most recent biography of Sir John Hawkins is a prissy tome, whose premise is that he was ‘Queen Elizabeth’s slave trader’, written by Harry Kelsey, an American archivist so mitred in the modern obsessions of the American Academy that he projects them back to the 16th Century.” You gotta love an author who doesn’t mess about and names names. He knows he’s writing the definitive piece on the period, don’t you think? Surely, no one is going to dare to venture he might be mistaken in his opinions. And live to write again…

It kicks off with a very interesting look at how different – and yet how amazingly similar – these first Elizabethans were to us second Elizabethans (I am still an ‘Elizabethan’ until I take Danish citizenship, OK?). Right off, you’re with him in what he knows of the period and not thinking “Errol Flynn” every time there’s mention of Drake, Hawkins and Raleigh and the like. He then looks at the society and social conditions that gave rise to the ‘golden age’ of Elizabethan exploration, conflict and conquest. Good and bad. The good are Drake, Hawkins, Frobisher and Elizabeth. The bad are the various Popes, Philips, Spaniards and Catholics in general. We go all the way through the period until, of course, Elizabeth’s death and what this time meant for later periods and the way Britain developed afterwards. The overriding impression of the period I’m left with is – how on earth did they achieve so much, travel so far and fight when they got there, when lack of even a basic understanding of hygiene (especially that when large numbers of people are gathered to get her for extended periods) so decimated their numbers? Like eating lemons to avoid Scurvy, for example. You were a Lemon seller in the ports of England at the time, you went bankrupt! Forget cannons, muskets and swords, perhaps the most deadly weapons the English had, I seem to remember one Spanish source speculating, was the deadly diseases their ships arrived in the Americas/Spanish ports, riddled with. You don’t see sailors dropping like flies in the background of Errol Flynn’s version of Sir Walter Raleigh, but you do in Elizabeth’s Sea Dogs. It often reads as though to have survived as long as some of them did (and the life expectancy was low, because so many died young, a fortunate few could indeed live around about as long as we do now) you needed to be born lucky. That includes of course, being born rich, but as the book often details, that didn’t safeguard you against deadly diseases cooped up on a galloon on the Spanish Main, with several hundred others all suffering from all sorts of rampant diseases. Or from falling out of favour with the wrong people at the Palace…

And what a set of bastards they were. Not just to the Spanish, but also to each other. And what a penny-pinching, dithering, old schemer Queen Elizabeth I was.

If you read this, or this sort of period is your ‘thing’, I can also recommend The Confident Hope of a Miracle. The True Story of the Spanish Armada (the title line there is also quoted in Elizabeth’s Sea Dogs), by Neil Hanson. As well as The British in the Americas 1480 – 1815, by Anthony McFarlane. All, along with Elizabeth’s Sea Dogs are more than worthy of a place in the Non-Fiction section of your bookcase.

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