ESSAYS / ARTICLES
[Continued] A study on the reputation of Queen Elizabeth I through the centuries.
In successive centuries, criticism of Elizabeth by Protestants becomes more apparent. This is perhaps due to changing attitudes towards Catholics. In the Elizabethan era, anti-Catholic sentiments were high, and remained so throughout the seventeenth century. The idea of Elizabeth as Protestant saviour can still be discerned in the reign of Queen Anne, and it appears that there was still some importance attached to her accession day, seventeenth of November (15). However, it seems that as the eighteenth century wore on, and attitudes towards Catholics became less severe, the idea of Elizabeth as Protestant heroine, declined. Perhaps it even went into reversal, and the religious heroine was seen as a religious persecutor. By 1831, William Watson felt the need to write A vindication of Queen Elizabeth from the charge of unjust severity towards her Roman Catholic subjects.(16) This changing attitude towards Catholics may also help understand the changing attitude towards Mary, Queen of Scots. It seems that she was regarded with much more sympathy from the late eighteenth century onwards. Perhaps this was the beginning of the perception of her as a romantic, tragic figure, mistreated by destiny and Queen Elizabeth. Certainly there appears to have been a hardening of attitude towards Elizabeth in regard to her treatment of Mary. Jane Austen confessed that the main reason she wrote her little text, The History of England, was "to abuse Elizabeth", and exonerate Mary, (17) a character assassination of Elizabeth by a Protestant that would perhaps have been unthinkable a century before.
In 1867, John Bruce, following in the footsteps of William Watson, felt the need to write his Justification of Queen Elizabeth in relation to the affair of Mary, Queen of Scots.(18) Sympathy towards Mary at the expense of Elizabeth can also be found in early twentieth century popular culture. In the film Mary of Scotland, Mary Stuart, played by Katherine Hepburn, was presented as the paragon of beauty and virtue, praying earnestly on her knees and treating everyone graciously, while Elizabeth was portrayed as an unfeminine, shallow, vain, and bad-tempered woman.(19)
The influence of the changing attitude towards Mary Stuart on Elizabeth's reputation, suggests that it is perhaps necessary to consider Elizabeth's reputation in relation to those of her influential courtiers. Elizabeth's reputation has almost certainly benefited from the successes and romanticisms of the age - such as the literary genius of Shakespeare, Spenser, Sidney, the naval accomplishments of Drake, and the general flowering of the Renaissance. The reputation of individual men such as William Cecil and the Earl of Leicester are also significant. To a certain extent, it can perhaps be said that the Queen's reputation has been in competition with that of her Chief Minister. It has been debated whether the successes of the Elizabethan regime were due to his great legal mind, or to Elizabeth's political acuteness. If the successes are attributed to Cecil, then this significantly detracts from the image of Elizabeth as the great Queen. However, the issue once again opens the question of ideals of female government, and to what extent the attribution of success at Cecil's feet, is due to a more sophisticated disbelief in a woman's political ability than the contemporary supposition that she must have been a man. Thus, this suggests that in some ways, ideas have remained the same, but have simply manifested themselves differently as time has progressed. The Earl of Leicester's reputation is curious. His reputation as an ambitious, opportunistic lecher, has remained remarkably constant throughout the last four hundred years. If he was as unpopular in his own lifetime as has frequently been suggested, then this must have something to say on contemporary perceptions of Elizabeth. It implies, for example, that either she was considered too virtuous and naive to be aware of his debouche nature, or that she was as equally corrupt in allowing him to prosper.
Studying the development of Elizabeth's reputation in historiography is interesting - it can be seen that each generation builds upon the work of the previous, and although this is advantageous, previous works need to be treated with caution. History is best told from the sources, not from the interpretation of them by successive generations. It appears that historical study is not entirely free from the influences of Chinese whisper, and this may help account for the way the Queen's personal reputation has evolved. Until recent decades it was maintained by historians that Elizabeth was bald - a belief that is still prevalent in popular culture, whether it is attributed to natural causes, the smallpox or the lead painting that was used in the Queen's "mask of youth". Ideas that she was bad-tempered and vain also appear to have become embedded in historical interpretation of her character.
Indeed, the development of the belief that Elizabeth was a cold, ruthless harridan, is an interesting one. Time and time again it has been asserted that she was a selfish, conceited woman, who used and abused people for her own ends, and made the lives of all around her intolerable. This belief does not appear to detract from the popular opinion that Elizabeth was a successful monarch - her ruthlessness has been considered a part of it - but it is interesting in the sense that it stands in complete opposite to the image of Elizabeth that the cult tried to project. When exactly the idea that Good Queen Bess may not have been so good and pleasant after all developed is unclear. Undoubtedly it has been influenced by the fact that, over time, more and more documents relating to Elizabeth's personality have become available. These documents perhaps present Elizabeth in a less favourable light - giving details on her temper tantrums, unreasonable behaviour, obstinacy, ingratitude, and bullying - showing aspects of her personal character that the majority of her subjects would have been oblivious too. Again the difficulty for the historian lies in determining the value of these sources. They may have been over exploited by generations of increasingly cynical historians who maintain that history cannot have its heroes, or under exploited by those wishing to extol the Queen. There is the suggestion that perhaps the extent of her irascibility has been exaggerated - certainly some recorded events appear to have been magnified. One example is the often quoted incident between Elizabeth and her Maid of Honour, Mary Shelton. It has often been asserted that on discovering Mary's secret marriage, Elizabeth beat her so violently that she actually "broke her finger"(20), but this appears to be the magnified version of events that reached the ears of Mary Stuart some years later. The incident as recorded by Mary's companion, Eleanor Bridges, says only that;
"The Queen has used Mary Shelton very ill for her marriage, she hath dealt liberal both in blows and words...No one ever bought her husband more dearly." (21)
She makes no reference to a broken finger, and arguably, had there been one, she would have done so.
Much has been made of Elizabeth's temper and unpredictability, but the idea that she was a cold, ruthless harridan, does need some consideration when contemplating the way ideas on a historical figure emerge, and the way changing cultural understandings influence their analysis. There is certainly the suggestion that Elizabeth's supposed vanity may be due to the inevitable warping effect of historiography. Over the years it has been said that the Queen surrounded her private apartments with mirrors so that she could constantly admire her beauty, or conversely that as she grew older, she refused to look in a mirror so that she would not see time ravaging her face. There is, however, perhaps reason to believe that Elizabeth's vanity, if not a nineteenth century creation, was exaggerated in that century. Certainly during her own day foreigners reported that the Queen of England was vain, but foreigners reports of the Queen always need to be treated with caution. In general, the ambassadors did not highly regard Elizabeth, as a Queen or a woman, and perhaps did not appreciate the flamboyant nature of the English monarchy. To the dowered dressed Victorians, most concerned with frivolities in such matters as dress, Elizabeth as presented in her elaborate portraits, decked in rich garments and buried in jewels, would certainly seem to be a most vain, flamboyant, lady. In 1906, Agnes Strickland stated that Elizabeth looked far more like a "pagan Goddess" than a "Christian Queen" (22). Such statements too perhaps underpin a lack of appreciation that, in the sixteenth century, the power of the monarch was exhibited in the clothes they wore, and the need for a monarch, especially one in such a tenacious situation as Elizabeth was, to maintain loyalty to the crown by adhering the people to her physical person. Looked at in this light, Elizabeth's reaction to the possibility of being scarred by the smallpox becomes more understandable, as does her desire to maintain a youthful appearance as she got older.
Also, considering the volatile political and religious situation that surrounded the Queen, and her need to maintain good relations with her powerful nobles who could easily depose or assassinate her - a possibility that the northern Rebellion of 1569 demonstrated - Elizabeth had to be ever cautious of the image she was projecting. Although the occasional display of Royal anger served a political need in that it prevented those around her becoming complacent and kept them in awe, the vulnerablilty of Elizabeth's monarchy could have meant that continual personal unpleasantness had serious political repercussions. However, if Elizabeth was indeed as personally unpleasant as has been maintained, then this again can perhaps give an insight into late sixteenth century ideas of power, and it's manifestation. It would suggest that Elizabeth's position was perhaps more secure than has been traditionally assumed, in that she could behave as she liked without fear of political reprisals. Alternatively it would suggest that anger was accepted and admired in a monarch, in that it was a sign of personal strength. It would perhaps also be suggestive about the way the Queen maintained her position, questioning the assumption that she always tried to present herself as the loving sovereign, and the general effectiveness of the Elizabethan propaganda machine on the masses, if the people could envisage an image of Elizabeth's personal character that was complete opposite to the truth.
The history of the reputation of Queen Elizabeth as a woman and a monarch, both during her life and after, thus has the potential to yield a wealth of information about this enigmatic, controversial historical figure, her age, and succeeding generations. By questioning time old assumptions, by studying all aspects of her reputation - the rumours as well as the cult - it is perhaps possible to gain a further insight into the way the Queen was perceived by her people, how she was perceived in areas beyond the capital city, and the significance of these perceptions in understanding Elizabethan culture. The Queen's posthumous reputation has the potential to give further insight into changing attitudes towards monarchy, femininity and religion, as well as a further understanding of the way modern scholarly interpretations of her life and reign have developed. It is perhaps immediately striking that Elizabeth has been assessed as a good monarch or bad, a virtuous virgin or violent virago, according to the historian's own values, attitudes and beliefs. She has thus been subjected to the cultural expectations of a culture that was not her own. This is perhaps inevitable, but it does suggest that previous works need re-evaluating. To understand Elizabeth's "popularity" and "success", it is perhaps necessary to place her in cultural context. On reflection, it perhaps matters little if we in the twentieth century consider Elizabeth to have been a successful monarch or not - that perhaps says more about modern understandings of political success - but only the way she was viewed in her own lifetime, by her own people, who shared her cultural existence.