Elizabeth: Apprenticeship charts the course of Elizabeth Tudor's life from birth until her early years as Queen of England. From the very beginning, when the birth of a daughter rather than a son was a major disappointment to King Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, Elizabeth's life was to prove eventful. She was just a toddler when her mother was tried and executed for high treason, on grounds of adultery. Like her older sister Mary, she was disinherited and her status was reduced to that of illegitimacy. Upon the birth of his only son Edward (later Edward VI) and the death just after childbirth of Edward's mother, Jane Seymour, Henry effected a kind of family unity. Just before his death he reinstated the claims of both Elizabeth and Mary to the succession. 

With her brother Edward on the throne, Elizabeth's life became easier; Edward, a fervent Protestant, tended to favour his younger, Protestant sister over the equally fervent Catholic, Mary. Although she spent much of her time at one or other of her own houses, including Hatfield Palace, she also attended Court. But life became dangerous for Elizabeth upon the succession of Mary. Determined to reinstate Catholicism as the state religion and eliminate the Protestant Church of England founded by her father, Mary put pressure on Elizabeth to convert to Catholicism and to marry, which would mean giving up her right to the succession. Elizabeth proved equally determined not to do so, and in spite of being implicated in a scandal involving Thomas Seymour, as well as conspiracies aimed at the overthrow of Mary, she managed to survive to become Queen upon the death of Mary.

David Starkey examines not only Elizabeth's life, her struggle to survive and her family, but also the all-important issues of religion and monarchy, issues so deep-rooted that it is difficult to fully comprehend the import they had during the 16th century; they could indeed become matters of life or death. Through Elizabeth, Starkey explains why England developed as it did.