Elizabeth I: The Woman Behind the Mask of Monarchy
By David Lee
Elizabeth I is one of the most famous and recognizable sixteenth-century female rulers. Her story of triumph over tragedy makes her relatable, and she continues to inspire both fictional and non-fictional books and articles, as well as numerous theatrical and cinematic dramatized portrayals of her long reign; known as ‘The Golden Age’. Her strength, courage, determination, and virginity led to her pseudonym – ‘Gloriana’.
Her virtue and defeat of the mighty Spanish Armada made her an icon, even during her own lifetime. Yet, for all her glory, there is still so much that we don’t know about England’s virgin queen. From birth, her destiny as a Tudor princess was outlined. She was expected to grow up in great comfort, and one-day become a pawn of a strategic marital alliance between England and another European dynasty. However, her mother’s tragic downfall and execution would propel Elizabeth on a journey so tumultuous and dangerous, that it is a miracle she made it to the throne at all.
Her father, Henry VIII, could never have known that his second daughter would rule England for an incredible forty-four years. Nor could he have suspected that Elizabeth’s reign would outshine Edward VI’s – his longed-for son. Henry’s divorce from his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, in his pursuit to marry Anne Boleyn would change English history forever. By 1536 however, Anne had failed to produce a living male heir. Henry became frustrated and Elizabeth’s mother would face an end so cruel and unjust, that her story continues to resonate with us today. She herself, has become an icon – the wronged and martyred queen, mother of the virgin. Though Anne was most definitely innocent of the charges brought against her, she was executed anyway. This would have a profound effect on Elizabeth’s life and her psychological attitude towards marriage.
Though Elizabeth was cautious regarding marriage, and openly vowed to never take a husband but ‘the Kingdom of England’, she had many suitors. Some of these suitors, including her life-long favorite, Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, and François, Duke of Anjou came close to changing the queen’s mind, yet, not close enough. We will never know for sure whether Elizabeth really loved Dudley, whom she affectionately referred to as her ‘eyes’. Nor can we know for sure whether her intentions to marry the Duke of Anjou, whom she nicknamed her ‘frog’, were genuine. However, as Dudley remained close to the queen for most of her reign, and because Anjou was the only foreign suitor that she actually courted in person, we have to re-consider Elizabeth’s later attitude towards courtship and marriage.
Certainly, Elizabeth was under enormous pressure to marry from the beginning of her reign. Her trusted chief advisor and perhaps the only father-figure she had, Lord Burghley, made it his mission to find his queen a suitable husband for the security of the realm and the preservation of the Tudor dynasty. Though she came close to marrying Anjou, Burghley would be sorely disappointed. Elizabeth never married, nor did she give England an heir to continue her father’s legacy. Instead, she left a different kind of legacy, which inspired the most famous of English poets and playwrights – William Shakespeare. This legacy continues to act as a form of British identity. However, we often forget that ‘Gloriana’ was mortal, and a woman with many different interests, vices, and complexities. The truth is, we have only begun to scratch the surface of understanding who Elizabeth was behind the crown.
The identification of Elizabeth as a shrewd female ruler, well-adept in the art of courtly love and foreign diplomacy, is not undeserving. Yet, to see Elizabeth as a semi-goddess is one-dimensional and overlooks her humanity. She may have been intelligent, calculated, and politically-motived, but she was not made of stone. This is not to dismiss her in the way she wished to be seen – for she would certainly have enjoyed the attention she receives today by scholars and authors alike. But due to the iconographic version of Elizabeth that has so vehemently shaped how we interpret her reign and character, we often forget that she was an extremely emotional and lonely individual, who longed for love and affection just like anyone else. What has formed over the past four centuries, is a historiography that conveniently suits the narrative of many historians, authors, and screenwriters. To be blunt, Elizabeth’s image as the virgin queen has proven to be most profitable.
Though she most certainly died a virgin, she formed a number of close bonds with her courtiers – mostly men. She also placed a number of her favored kinswomen in high positions in her Privy Chamber. She revived what has been referred to as a ‘Cult of Love’ within her court, which her father and mother began. This allowed her to become flirtatiously close to particular individuals. Her close relationships with Dudley, and her last suitor, Anjou, are examples of the complexities she faced regarding marriage and courtship.
She was pursued by Austria, Sweden, Spain, and even England, but none matched the charm of France, nor came as close to making a wife out of the queen. Despite this, the issue of religion and her traumatic childhood and adolescent years resulted in deep, physiological anxiety towards marriage, and thus, helped create the Elizabeth that we know today.
When Henry VIII died, the Dowager Queen, Katherine Parr, married her old love – Thomas Seymour. Elizabeth would join them in their home in Chelsea. It seemed that the young princess found some form of safe and stable family life. However, this was quickly replaced by something so malevolent, it is unsurprising that she shuddered at the idea of marriage during the early years of her reign. Just as Elizabeth would have begun to feel comfortable living with her step-mother and charming step-father, Seymour began to visit her bedchamber early in the morning before she had risen from bed. It was said that he tickled her and even kissed her on one occasion before she had time to dress. These visits must have startled Elizabeth, and she began to wake and dress earlier to avoid his advances. Katherine became pregnant around this time, and she soon became aware of her husband’s routine visits to her step-daughter’s bedchamber. Despite Katherine’s seemingly maternal relationship with Elizabeth, she became her husband’s accomplice on one occasion. Elizabeth told Kat Ashley, her chief gentlewoman, that Katherine held her down in the garden, while Seymour slashed her dress to pieces. This scenario has always baffled historians, and we simply cannot know why Katherine chose to aid her husband in this sinister act.
Seymour’s visits to Elizabeth’s chamber did not go unnoticed by others, however, and this led to rumours circulating the English court, and beyond. The reputations of Elizabeth, Seymour, and Katherine were seriously damaged, and though her step-mother sent her away, and relocated to Sudeley Castle with her husband, the damage was done. By the time Elizabeth came to the throne, she not only carried the memory of her mother’s disgrace in her shadow, but also the scandal of Seymour’s perverse behaviour.
Though it is important to avoid applying modern terminology to the past, the psychological effect of Seymour’s advances towards Elizabeth should no longer be overlooked. Many historians have dismissed his behaviour as perverse or abusive, and have blamed his actions on his endeavour to gain political influence. The tendency to dismiss his advances towards the teenage Elizabeth as anything other than predatory is to not only condone his actions but seems dated and somewhat misogynistic. Furthermore, we must consider that his behaviour was more to do with who he was as a man rather than his advantageous nature. There is no indication as to whether Seymour molested Elizabeth, but his intentions were most definitely ominous.
Throughout her reign, Elizabeth attempted to control the sexual behaviour of her courtiers. Indeed, for all her attempts to create a respectable and virtuous reputation, given her experiences with her step-father in the late 1540s, the courtly cult of love that she herself designed, witnessed a number of liaisons and secret marriages. This infuriated Elizabeth.
Some would suggest that she became jealous of the many affairs and secret marriages that began in her court. However, though she was notoriously bad-tempered and was furious when her favorite, Robert Dudley married her kinswoman Lettice Knollys in secret, it is more likely that Elizabeth found the lack of respect for royal approval harder to stomach than the marriage itself. Nevertheless, it was a betrayal of trust that she would never forget. She eventually forgave Dudley, but Lettice was banished from court and never returned to the queen’s service. Elizabeth, as queen, knew the importance of a lady finding a suitable match, regardless of her own favouritism or anxieties regarding marriage. She may have not initially wanted to marry, but that did not mean her ladies should follow suit if the match was suitable. Though she may once have been in love with Dudley, the suspicious circumstances of his first wife Amy Robsart’s death, made it impossible for Elizabeth to consider marrying him.
Elizabeth was one of few women during her time, and history in general, that ruled by right of succession. It was not her father’s intention that she, or her sister, would one-day rule England. Nor was it commonplace for a woman to rule without a husband. Other European queen regnants such as Isabella I of Castile, Lady Jane Grey, Mary I, and Mary Queen of Scots had all married. For many of her male contemporaries, despite their willingness to play into her cult of love and adoration, the idea that women could rule alone was inconceivable. And while many of her favourites preferred her to remain unmarried, there existed a general view that women were naturally weaker, lacking equal intellect to men, and thus in need of male guidance. As her contemporary, Thomas Bacon, a clergyman from Norfolk lamented: ‘Thou has set to rule over us as a woman, whom nature hath formed to be in subjection unto man’.
Though her position as a queen in her own right was not unprecedented, her choice to rule alone was. It may seem that her unmarried status gave her much independence during a period when women were deemed inferior to men, but it ultimately left her without a secure foreign alliance. It also brought her great loneliness. Over time, Elizabeth became more at ease with the idea that she would never marry, despite her great efforts to make a success of her courtship with the Duke of Anjou in the early 1580s. However, as she defied the gender-norms of the sixteenth century in various ways, her responsibilities as sovereign also varied. Indeed, by the time she was in her mid-forties, Elizabeth was more like a female-king than she was a queen.
The topic of gender identity has often been associated with Elizabeth’s reign, and indeed, her personal life. Even during her own lifetime, her court and those abroad questioned whether her choice to rule alone was acceptable. Some have stated that Elizabeth was simply a woman ahead of her time, and unlucky to have lived during a period that viewed women as property. However, though the status of women has improved much over the past four centuries, Elizabeth’s story is still relatable to many women across the globe today. This is one of the reasons why she is so often associated with modern feminism.
Though she revelled in her position as queen, there is the option to view Elizabeth’s reign through a more androgynist lens. In terms of androgyny, the virgin queen’s position allowed her some form of honorary male status. This is not to say that her courtiers themselves viewed their queen as a man, or as a king. The reality was much more complicated than this. While she ruled a male-dominated society, the queen was seen as more than just a woman. In her position as Supreme Governor of the Church of England, she was closest to God, and thus, answered to God alone. This had an ever-lasting effect on the English psychological view of female power. Today, her single-status is a representation of her duty to England, which she herself referred to as her husband.
The way in which her courtiers, and subjects in general, idolized her for her chastity almost erased any question of her legitimacy. Before she became queen, both her father and brother regarded her as illegitimate; and though her father restored her to the succession on his death-bed, she carried the stigma of bastardy well into her reign. It is easy to forget that at the beginning of her long reign, it was assumed that she would marry and produce an heir. Such notions of her virginity and sacrifice for England would not come about until after she triumphed over the Spanish Armada in 1588, and long after her death.
By the time Elizabeth was in her early sixties, her male courtiers were happy to worship her as a semi-goddess. Indeed, she has often been likened to the goddess of hunting – Diana. Though this reference is most certainly due to her virginity, it also represents a celebration of her unique reign and the ‘Golden Age’ that it brought. If we remove the regalia, iconography, and phenomenon of female power, we are left with a woman who simply had to navigate through a period of patriarchy in order to survive. So while it is easy to view her as the virgin, with flame-red hair, porcelain skin, and an intoxicating presence, it must be remembered that this collective memory of Elizabeth has taken precedence out of the necessity to make sense of her unique reign. In essence, the Elizabeth we see is every bit the queen that she would have wished us to see. This is true Tudor Propaganda. Both her father and grandfather used propaganda to secure their personal power. Though she was a woman, Elizabeth was no exception.
Elizabeth’s ability to promote dynastic propaganda was much better than any of her predecessors or successors. This was because of her unusual education as a woman and turbulent journey to the throne. Without her mother’s downfall, her father’s six wives, her brother’s staunch reform, and her sister’s ‘bloody reign’, Elizabeth Tudor may never have become Elizabeth Regina. Despite her indecisive nature and for all her insecurities, she was well able to play the parts of king and the ‘meek and feeble woman’ when she had to. She herself stated that she had the ‘heart and stomach of a king’. Therefore, it can be argued that Elizabeth embodied both the qualities and capabilities of a king, and the piety and subordination of a queen-consort. This is why her reign was so successful without the necessity of a husband. Therefore, she de facto became her own husband.
Elizabeth, like many of her fans today, may have regarded herself above the sixteenth-century attitude towards the female sex. She used her virginity, divinity, and femininity to her advantage. The concept of separating the divine from the mortal implies that there were two Elizabeth’s. The first Elizabeth is the one most recognizable today; the virgin, the iconic, the politically strategic, the courageous. The second Elizabeth is much more human, and yet, less recognizable to us; the lonely woman who yearned to be loved and to love. The woman who aged like all women and men. The woman who had many fears and afflictions which made her position all the more stressful. The woman whose vanity most-certainly contributed to her death. Neither of these versions of Elizabeth can be dismissed. There can be no Gloriana without Elizabeth Regina – the queen, and Elizabeth Tudor – the woman.
Christopher Hibbert, Elizabeth I: A Personal History of the Virgin Queen.
John N. King, ‘Queen Elizabeth I: Representations of the Virgin Queen’ in Renaissance Quarterly.
Josephine Ross, The Men Who Would Be King: The Courtships of Queen Elizabeth I.
Judith M. Richards, Elizabeth I.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
David Lee is an Irish historian, specializing in women’s history. As a child, he dreamed of becoming an author, and wrote many stories, essays and poems. He first became interested in Elizabeth I as a teenager. He was fascinated by her mother Anne Boleyn’s tragic story and wanted to know more. David’s interest in Tudor history, particularly Tudor women’s history, attracted him so much that he soon found himself on a path towards a career in the historical profession. In his endeavor to understand Elizabeth as a woman, he began by studying her position as a queen. To his surprise, he found that few have attempted to unravel the woman behind the overwhelming burden of monarchy. He finds the term ‘Herstory’ a much more appropriate application to the research and work that he does. David earned a Bachelor of Arts Degree in History from Maynooth University and is about to complete a Master’s Degree specialising in nineteenth-century women landowners and heiresses. He lives in South Dublin with his husband Victor. If you found this article interesting, keep an eye out for more of David’s work. He aims for his first non-fiction book The Queen’s Frog Prince: The Courtship of Elizabeth I and the Duke of Anjou to go to publication by the end of 2021.