ESSAYS / ARTICLES
[Continued] A study on the reputation of Queen Elizabeth I through the centuries.
If there were many interpretations of Elizabeth's capacities as a monarch, and virtues as a woman, during her own lifetime, the quantity has been no less after her death. With perhaps the brief exception of the seventeenth century, there does not appear to have been a united consensus amongst the Protestant English over Elizabeth's merits. Conflict over the merits and demerits of monarchs, or any historical figure, is perhaps inevitable, but what is so remarkable about the perception of Elizabeth over the years, is that she has been presented in two completely different lights. She has been both Good Queen Bess, the virtuous virgin, and Bad Queen Bess, the violent virago. Such a stark difference of opinion calls for explanation, and it cannot be found in religious affiliation alone as has been traditionally assumed. However, although there may have been many opinions aired at any one time on this Tudor Queen, it is possible to determine dominant modes of thought, and the way these have changed over time. Over the four hundred years since her death, Elizabeth's reputation appears to have evolved from the seventeenth century uncritical praise of her reign and character, to the twentieth century scepticism of both.
These changes are interesting, not only because they throw light on how Elizabeth's reputation has changed over the years, but because they give an insight into changing political ideas, theories of kingship, humanity, femininity, as well as changes in culture and religious fervency.
It is certainly possible to see a relationship between Elizabeth's reputation, both during her lifetime and posthumously, and changing perceptions of monarchy. Over the sixteenth century it is can be seen that the institution of monarchy was changing. It was evolving from the medieval form of baronial lord, still distinguishable when Henry the Seventh won the crown, to supreme secular and religious head of the country. It was also evolving into a personal monarchy, a monarchy that governed by the popular consent of the people. This was due largely, but perhaps not exclusively, to the influence of the Reformation which swept away many traditional festivities and celebrations and the vacuum this created called for new ones. Secular celebrations such as the monarchs birthday or accession day, which were politically safe, began to take their place. Helen Hackett emphasises that the cult of Elizabeth became a substitute for the cult of the Virgin Mary, but perhaps the cult can be explained further if the emphasis is momentarily taken away from Elizabeth, and focussed on the institution of monarchy. What can be seen is that the institution of monarchy was changing generally, that the monarch was becoming a national symbol, moreover a popular national symbol, and increasingly the focus of national celebrations. Thus, it is possible to see the cult of the Queen, not so much as a statement about Elizabeth's greatness as a ruler, but as the first, experimental stage, of a new type of personal, national monarchy.
Elizabeth's reputation in the early seventeenth century has been studied quite intensely. It is clear that her memory was of political significance, in that it was used to manipulate the Stuart kings, and used as a mirror for what true sovereignty should be. It also appears that Elizabeth was held in high regard during the reign of Queen Anne. Anne thought it politically expedient to use Elizabeth's memory to promote her own image. She adopted her predecessor's motto, "Semper Eadem"(10), as her own, and her Coronation portrait is immediately evocative of Elizabeth's. However, it is unclear to what extent attitudes towards Elizabeth changed under the Stuarts, the way the posthumous cult was manifested, and the influence this has had on subsequent historiography. There is perhaps the need for caution when looking at all the literature praising the Tudor Queen, all the sermons in her memory, and bellringing in her honour. It is perhaps tempting to assert that under the Stuart's, the Queen and her age were viewed with only awe and admiration, and seen as nothing but a glorious success. However, a passing statement made by Samuel Pepys in his diary, somewhat darkens this dazzling picture;
"I confess I have sucked in so much of the sad story of Queen Elizabeth from my cradle, that I was ready to weep for her sometimes."(11)
What was this "sad story"? And what was it's significance? Even the use of Elizabeth's memory by Queen Anne cannot categorically be used as evidence of the continuing cult. It needs to be asked to what extent Elizabeth's image was used as a means of revoking the past in order to remind people that a woman's rule could be successful.
As political ideas changed in the eighteenth century and there was more emphasis on democracy, Elizabeth's reputation seems to have changed. Certainly a change can be discerned by the childhood of Jane Austen. There was still literature praising the Queen, but there is a suggestion that she was no longer the heroine that she had once been. Jane Austen, and her sister Cassandra, for example, simply loathed Elizabeth. As the power of Parliament grew, Elizabeth, with her extensive power, and continual attempt to suppress her Lords and Commons, was beginning to be seen in a much less favourable light. Certainly by the nineteenth century, it seems that she was no longer considered the ideal monarch. It is also possible to discern twentieth century political ideals manifesting themselves in opinions of the Tudor Queen. In the twentieth century it is political ability that seems to be most valued, and thus Elizabeth is assessed primarily as a politician, a decision maker, rather than as a monarch in a more general sense.
It has been suggested that Elizabeth's reputation as a successful monarch has influenced in a positive way ideas about female rule. However, whether this is the case, remains obscure. It also remains rather obscure to what extent Elizabeth's reputation has been influenced by changing attitudes towards femininity. To the Victorians she was considered everything that a woman should not be; opinionated, forceful and immodest, but she was also breaching gender norms in her own day. This perhaps means that certain aspects of the Queen's reputation in her own lifetime cannot be taken on face value alone. That Elizabeth was given an impressive education is undoubtable, as is her intellectual capacities, but nonetheless, the question to what extent her reputation as a great scholar was due to unusually high intelligence alone, or to a less remarkable intelligence, but one found in a woman, at least needs to be posed. In this period, little was expected of a woman's intelligence - William Cecil himself, on an occasion early in the Queen's reign, was concerned that she had been presented with state papers that he considered beyond her ability to understand. Thus even to find an intelligence that matched a learned man's would perhaps be in itself considered remarkable. In time, Cecil came to respect the Queen's abilities, but his statement that he considered Elizabeth to be the "wisest woman" in the world, is perhaps not as extolling as it superficially appears. However, Elizabeth's reputation looked at in conjunction with the reputation of other women leaders, can perhaps discern ideas on women and power. Take, for example, the figure of female power in the recent world, Margaret Thatcher. Both she and Elizabeth, because of their ability to subjugate men, have been branded as "the iron lady" - Elizabeth the initial, and Margaret Thatcher the ultimate. Thus, the idea that a woman in power must be hard, to a degree cold and ruthless, perhaps suggests that even today, the combination of women and power still rests uneasily in what is still a male dominated society.
One of the added difficulties in trying to determine to what extent changing attitudes towards femininity have influenced Elizabeth's reputation, is the fact that cultural expectations have changed simultaneously. There is the suggestion that by the late eighteenth century, with the growth of the much more rigid morality of the non-conformists, the Elizabethan world was beginning to be seen as rather uncivilised. Even earlier in the century, Samuel Johnson had declared that Shakespeare's "Love's Labour's Lost" contained many passages in it that were;
"Mean, childish, and vulgar; and some which ought not to have been exhibited, as we are told they were, to a maiden queen." (13)
Such an attitude paves the way for an eventual reappraisal of Elizabeth, for if she could enjoy "mean, childish and vulgar" plays, then she must have been to an extent, "mean, childish and vulgar" herself. Therefore the Victorian assertion that Elizabeth was unladylike, may have been due to their lack of appreciation of Elizabethan culture generally, as it stood in complete contrast to their own.
Indeed, there is clearly a relationship between Elizabeth's reputation and religious development, even if this is not the overriding factor as has been suggested. Admittedly during Elizabeth's own lifetime, and into the seventeenth century, perhaps the major factor influencing the way that she was perceived, was whether she was viewed by a Protestant or a Catholic - to Protestants she was the English Deborah, and to Catholics the whore of Babylon - but even this correlation is tentative. The attitude of English Catholics towards the Queen was probably different to European Catholics, and criticism of the Queen was by no means unforthcoming from Protestants. Puritans in particular were most dissatisfied with their sovereign's church, and their sovereign's attitude towards their grievances, and openly criticised her. Indeed, her personal religion was a source of much criticism. To Catholics she was a heretic, a crime made all the more sinful because through her heretical church, she was endangering the immortal souls of all her people, and the Puritans were not above saying that she was an atheist, or of so loose a religion, that she would "one day give God the vomit"(14). Among certain circles, it was even whispered that she was a devil-worshipping witch, who in return for worldly success, had sold her soul to the Devil - perhaps again indicative of how incomprehensible a successful woman's rule was.