Queen Elizabeth I
Artist's Impression 1913
ESSAYS / ARTICLES
A study on the reputation of Queen Elizabeth I through the centuries.
Elizabeth Tudor is undoubtedly one of the most famous English monarchs. Her life and reign have inspired many biographies, histories, novels, and dramatic works. If Lacey Baldwin Smith asserts that in this respect Elizabeth is a "Queen of Addiction" (1), she is also a "Queen of contention". She may have gone down in the annals of history as "Good Queen Bess", but this epithet belies the fact that her character and reign have been exposed to profound debate over the centuries. There is virtually no aspect of the Queen's life and reign that has not received comment and counter-comment. Her personal character has been debated, her physical appearance and physiological composition, her attitude towards marriage and children, and her relationship with her courtiers. On a more macroscopic level, her ability as a ruler, as a politician, and her religious policy, have been disputed. It can perhaps be said that the real Elizabeth has become so embroiled in myth and legend, that it is now impossible to recover her. Yet, by treading cautiously through this mélange, tracing as far as possible the origin and development of various trains of thought, in the process extricating both prevarications and truths, it is perhaps possible to get closer to what Elizabeth was really like as a person and a monarch. But the history of Elizabeth's reputation is a subject of interest in itself. It is not only the history of one woman, the way she was perceived by her people and subsequent generations, but the history of literature, of art, of politics, of religion, and culture, for each generation writes its own history, and they write it according to their understandings of the world, their experiences and expectations.
To begin with, the Queen's reputation in her own life time, can perhaps give an interesting insight into sixteenth century life - their values and beliefs, attitudes towards monarchy, religion, sex and marriage, and the role of women in society.
In order to study the factors exerting an influence on the perception of Elizabeth by her contemporaries, it is necessary to look at the development and changes in her reputation from the moment of her birth to her death. Elizabeth's early reputation is far from clear, and it has not been sufficiently examined in relation to the reputation of her mother, Anne Boleyn. Anne Boleyn's reputation in the last years of her life, is itself ambiguous. Certainly she was detested in Catholic Europe, but it is unclear how she was perceived in England. This perception is of paramount significance in understanding the nature of Elizabeth's early reputation. In Catholic Europe, Elizabeth, simply by being Anne's daughter, was abhorred as "the concubine's little bastard", which became "incestuous bastard" (2) following the accusations of adultery that were hailed against her mother - a legacy that haunted Elizabeth's reputation in Catholic Europe for the rest of her life. However, it is uncertain to what degree the crimes of the mother were held against the daughter in England. If Elizabeth had an infamous mother, then she had a famous father, and her paternity may have been sufficient to prevent such a vehement hatred of her in England. If both Anne and Elizabeth were abhorred by the people in these years, then this means that the sheer acceptance of Elizabeth as sovereign some two decades later, needs some consideration. The hypothesis that immediately arises, is that somewhere between her birth and accession to the throne, her reputation suffered a transformation from unpopular to popular. The question that follows is "how" and "why"?
Elizabeth's reputation from her accession to her death is no less perplexing to understand because of its many facets. On the one hand there is the "cult of Elizabeth", which presents Elizabeth very much as the capable monarch, the virtuous virgin who renounced worldly happiness for the sake of her country, and on the other hand, the scandalous rumours which asserted that Elizabeth was a nymphomaniac who presided over a court of corruption and lasciviousness. It was asserted, amongst other things, that the Queen used malevolent powers to seduce the men, even women, around her; would have those who refused her advances beheaded; and had secretly mothered many children. Arthur Southern, who preferred to be known as Arthur Dudley, even claimed to be an illegitimate son of the Queen and the Earl of Leicester. Those who clearly saw that Elizabeth did not have any illegitimate children, put forward other theories to explain why, after all this sexual activity, the Queen was still childless. It was whispered that she was infertile, that she had some physical deformity, that she was half woman, half man, or even completely male.
The difficulty for the historian lies in determining how much significance to attach to these rumours, and determining their timing, and social, regional and cultural origin. It is unclear to what degree these rumours were confined to Catholics alone, or were influenced by the rumours circulating about the Queen in Catholic Europe. It is equally obscure whether the rumours were primarily a plebian tendency, or also popular amongst the elite. The elite were certainly familiar enough with them - the Queen, who although admitted being perplexed by the rumours considering that her ever move was monitored, jested with the Scottish Ambassador about them, and Christopher Hatton was sufficiently familiar with his reputation as one of the Queen's lovers, to fervently deny that his relationship with her was a sexual one. However, there certainly appears to be a correlation between the intensity of the rumours and regional distance from London. It seems that slanders against Elizabeth were more pronounced in areas away from the capital. This is perhaps suggestive about regional variation in the perception of Elizabeth, and the remoteness of her monarchy in those areas that she never visited.
The belief that the Queen was really a man, is interesting in what it suggests about attitudes towards women and government in this period. The origins and prevalence of this belief are as yet obscure, but there is the suggestion that this belief was especially pronounced in the south west of England. According to Constance Pratt, an entire legend emerged asserting that the real Princess Elizabeth was supplanted by a male or hermaphrodite imposter when she unexpectedly died of a childhood illness. It is unclear whether this belief was present during Elizabeth's own lifetime, or was a posthumous development. If the belief that Elizabeth was secretly a man was sufficiently widespread, then it lends new interpretation to such statements as "Now I see the Queen is a woman" (3)and "Oh lord, the Queen is a woman" (4), perhaps otherwise rather strange remarks to have been made, as "Queen" by definition implies a person of female gender. Such a belief seems to emphasise just how unnatural a woman's rule, moreover an unmarried woman's rule was, and that it should have been successful. Perhaps it was even a source of comfort to believe that their Queen was "secretly a man" who was by divine law meant to be the leader of a nation.
Determining the frequency, and the cultural, social and regional origins of these rumours is of some significance in understanding further the nature and reality of the cult of the Queen. Christopher Haigh argues that the rumours died away once the cult began to take root in the 1570's, but even if this is the case, the reasons for this transformation, and it's manifestation, have not been adequately explained. Also it seems, as Christopher Haigh himself paradoxically states, that the rumours resurfaced during the hardships of the 1590's, precisely when the Cult of the Queen was allegedly at it's height. In Europe (perhaps as would be expected), stories of the Queen's sexual immorality were still rife, and Henry IV of France in a moment of joviality, maintained that it was one of the three wonders of the world, "whether the Queen Elizabeth was a maid or no".(5) In 1944, Milton Waldman argued that even if the Queen's subjects did believe that she was a still a virgin, it was not because they believed she was nun-like chaste.(6)Either they attributed her single state to political difficulties in securing a marriage for a female sovereign, or to psychological or physiological problems on her part, which made it impossible for her to have sexual intercourse. John Harington, the Queen's godson, wrote;
"In mind she hath ever had an aversion (to matrimony) and (as many think) in body some indisposition to the act of marriage."(7)
If it was widely believed that Elizabeth was a virgin because she was incapable of sexual relations with a man, not because she had risen above her human lusts and appetites and renounced marriage for the sake of her kingdom, then this seriously undermines the influence of the cult. If Richard Carey is to be believed, there appear to have been "many false lies reported" in England about the "the end and death" (8) of the Queen, which moved him to write for posterity her death as he witnessed it.(9) His statement is as interesting as it perplexing. It is perplexing in the sense that it once again gives rise to the question of which social, regional and cultural groups were prone to report these "false lies", and interesting in the sense that it again gives an insight into the reality of the artistic and literary cult. In theory, it could be argued that the cult was merely a response by Elizabeth's government to the endless slanders against her, by trying to redirect their focus on aspects of her sexuality from the negative to the positive, urging them to perceive her as the virgin, not the whore. To what degree the cult was genuinely believed by the people is perhaps impossible to discover, but the words of Edward Dyer to Christopher Hatton do shed an intriguing light on the whole mechanics of the cult;
"...commend such things as should be in her, as though they were in her indeed."
From this perspective, there may be considerable truth in Christopher Haigh's assertion that the cult was illusionary, and Lacey Baldwin Smith's belief that it was a way of manipulating the Queen - by declaring her to be something, whether she was or not, it was actually urging her to be so.
It is perhaps also possible to ask to what extent the cult of the Queen influenced perceptions of Elizabeth in Europe. It certainly appears that over her lifetime her reputation in Europe changed. At the beginning of her reign she was little regarded, and it was felt that she would be fortunate to keep her throne six months, but by the time of the Spanish Armada, there is the indication that the Catholic powers respected the English Queen for her accomplishments, even though they were openly opposing her.