16th century / Humanities

Women Historians and Female Kingship in Early Modern England

By Signy Gutnick Allen

Jane. Edward. Mary. Elizabeth. By the end of Elizabeth I’s reign the population of England was practically, if not philosophically or ideologically, very used to having a woman on the throne. However, what living under a female monarch for an Early Modern population was actually like, from how ‘female kings’ were treated by their ministers to the symbols they used to assert their power, is still being debated. Equally, the long-term impact on English, and later British, politics is much discussed. Perhaps not surprisingly, female historians have been drawn to this subject and brought new, sometimes controversial, points of view on these debates. The historiographical status quo set up by their (often male) predecessors has been deeply upset in the process.

That’s not to say that female historians have always placed themselves in opposition to their male counterparts, although this has of course happened. Susan Doran and Helen Hackett have effectively rejected the assertion, promoted, for instance, by J. E. Neale, but running through studies of this period, that a Marian portrayal of Elizabeth as an untouched virgin was key to her appeal. Nor is to say that male historians of the period have ignored women, or done poor jobs of representing them. Christopher Haigh has in his biography of Elizabeth paid close attention to the ways in which gender affected her ability to rule, concluding that her sex must have had a detrimental impact. However female historians, and female theorists coming from non-historical backgrounds, have often been able to bring unexpected perspectives and complicate the interaction between gender and power as a necessary corrective to the adopted viewpoints about these rulers and their authority. These historians have managed to move away from seeing early modern representations of gender as a series of purely individual interactions, and instead see shifts occurring in society, which at times were of course contradictory. This is particularly evident when looking at the work of Ann MacLaren, Judith Richards and Glyn Redworth.

Richards and Redworth have both written important articles on Queen Mary’s reign and, especially, the impact her marriage had on her ability to rule. The greatest threat to her individual power Mary Tudor experienced came not from prejudiced subjects but from her own husband who, it must be said, she may have helped in his ambitions. The use of portraits, ceremony and symbol such as the floating crown that appears above the heads of Mary and Philip on later coins of her rule has been convincingly traced. Such visual arguments for the elevation of Philip to status of perceived King of England as opposed to king consort were not only allowed but encouraged by the Queen. There is also evidence that Philip did not merely wish to be seen as King by the country’s people, but to reign over them as one; the creation of a ‘select council’ based upon the Spanish model was designed specifically with the goal of not only keeping the King informed, but to allow him to plan strategies for Parliament.  This interference was to a certain extent expected and endorsed by the English, as it was assumed that a husband would expect certain jurisdictions over his wife. Thus a limited participatory role for Phillip was written into the marriage contract. Because in this case the foreigner was the male, new ideas of inheritance and husband’s rights had to be used with regards to the inheritance of the crown; under normal circumstances a husband would have rights over anything left behind after his wife’s death. This was of course impossible, and we therefore can already see the beginning of the dissociation of the crown and nation from the person of the monarch, an idea which probably needed a woman to catalyse it from idea to workable reality.

MacLaren, in her study of Elizabeth’s reign, makes this connection explicit. In response to the various pamphleteers who railed against the presence of a woman on the throne, such as John Knox and Thomas Becon, others wrote in defence of a female monarchy. By promoting a ‘mixed-monarchy’, in which the caprices of a female ruler would be restrained by the cool-headed forces of counsel and Parliament, John Aylmer did not argue that a woman was necessarily as good a man, merely that the English system was strong enough to withstand the pressure. We can see then an increasing emphasis on the role of the ruler as part of a functioning government, as opposed to a separate force ‘above’ government. MacLaren has traced the changing of the classification of the three estates, as they move from nobility-clergy-commoners to crown-nobility-commons.  The idea of a mixed monarchy was not a new one, with writers such as Sir Thomas Elyot producing books such as his The Book named the Governor (1531) in which it is suggested that in order to prevent a monarch from becoming a tyrant he and his advisors should be in a state of near equality. This idea could obviously be given impetus under a series of female monarchs.

Thus paradoxically many of the arguments which helped to convince sceptics that a queen would not be a disaster for the nation actually help to undermine the role of monarchy. Aylmer, in 1559’s An Harborowe for Faithful and Trew Subjectes, writes that ‘I graunte that, so farre as pertaining to the bandes of marriage, and the offices of a wife, she may be a subjecte; but as a Magistrate she maye be her husbande’s head’. Again we see the separation between ‘crown’ and an individual monarch. This separation, of course, was not absolute. During the great debate over whether or not it would be meet for Elizabeth to marry a catholic the force of her own personality and faith was invoked by those who argued that it would be in no danger, prioritising the interaction between individual and role.  Elizabeth remained a monarch. Yet her advisor Cecil began to view himself as a ‘public servant of the state’ during this period. There is a linguistic change over the course of the sixteenth century which begins to emphasize the commonwealth as an institution over ‘the common weal’ as the public good which arises from the interactions of the estates. In 1598 and 1601 two separate MPs remark on the extraordinary event of commoners taking an interest in parliamentary affairs. In drawing these strands together MacLaren posits that the intersections between legal, emotional and political understanding about female rule had a major impact on English political thought. In seeing gender as a social force, and not simply as a sometimes-regrettable personal characteristic she, with Redworth and Richards, forces us to revaluate not just these ‘womanly kings’, but to think about the interaction between gender and history more vigorously.


C. Jordan,  ‘Women’s Rule in Sixteenth-Century British Thought’, Renaissance Quarterly, 1987
C. Haigh, Elizabeth I (1988)
J.M. Richards, ‘Mary Tudor as “Sole Quene”?: Gendering Tudor Monarchy’, Historical Journal, 1997
S. Doran and T. Freeman (eds.), The Myth of Elizabeth (2003)
J. King, Tudor Royal Iconography: Literature and Art in an Age of Religious Crisis (1989)
H. Hackett, Virgin Mother, Maiden Queen: Elizabeth I and the Cult of the  Virgin Mary (1995)
A. Maclaren, Political Culture in the Reign of Elizabeth I: Queen and Commonwealth, 1558-1585 (1999)
G. Redworth,  ”Matters Impertinent to Women”: Male and Female Monarchy Under Philip and Mary’, English Historical Review, 1997