16th century, Humanities

Elizabeth: The First Things to Remember

By Anna Simpson

The reign of Elizabeth I was undeniably a politically tumultuous and dynamic one. Embroiled in romantic, diplomatic and bloody foreign battles, Elizabeth died leaving her successors to pick up the pieces of her debt-filled and heir-less legacy. It may therefore seem surprising that she continues to be celebrated in most modern day memories as arguably the most successful and iconic female monarch in British History.

A kind of tripartite classification of the Virgin Queen’s focal movements can usefully highlight how she negotiated and overcame the gendered obstacles challenging her rule. Surmounting such demoralising and destructive hindrances only further proves her formidable tenacity and determination to remain true to her renowned words to Robert Dudley: ‘I will have here but one mistress and no master’.

  1. The Bride-not-to-be

    Monarch to her nation, mistress to herself
    Monarch to her nation, mistress to herself

A ‘good’ woman in Tudor England was expected to obey her husband within every domain both private and public. Facing such patriarchal and ideological assumptions regarding women, Elizabeth knew it would be difficult for her to marry without chaining herself to a master in the process. Many issues of gender and authority had already been confronted when Elizabeth’s elder sister Mary succeeded the throne, but contrastingly she married Philip II of Spain and naturally conformed to the stereotype of the subservient wife.

Elizabeth, however, did not end up marrying and as long as her fertility countdown kept ticking, the Queen remained a pawn of immense political and diplomatic interest. Elizabeth confidently asserted her political authority through various marriage negotiations, retaining foreign allies in France, Spain and even the Netherlands. Virginity conferred special status in post-Reformation England: as long as a woman was ripe for marriage, she remained a prized possession. Yet Elizabeth used such status to her own advantage in keeping power over her body and country to herself.

  1. The Chamber of Women

During Tudor England, court personnel were hired and fired within the Privy Chamber according the monarch’s personal friendship preferences. The chamber encircled the ruler, dressing, washing, playing, gambling, gossiping and informing.

The only friends deemed appropriate to wash, dress and spend considerable personal time within Elizabeth’s chamber had to – by principle – be women. Thus a gendered revolution took place, in which women were exercising considerable patronage (if not political power) within the tight circle of Elizabethan court, thus becoming the recipients of political requests of support and favour from visitors. Elizabeth was altering the structure of Tudor politics, channelling power through women and somewhat circumventing men in the process.

  1. Transgressing Gender

Elizabeth had to earn the respect of both men and women in order to guarantee their political cooperation. Upon her accession, Elizabeth was seen as an inexperienced woman in need of male guidance. Men in court and parliament, both at home and overseas, were not used to being answerable to a woman.

Yet she successfully founded her supremacy over Church and State based on the idea that she was blessed with masculine qualities. Her famous remarks in 1588 prior to the Armada highlight such thought: ‘I may have the body of a week and feeble woman, but I have the heart and stomach of a king.’ She enjoyed proving that within her lay masculine strengths of bravery and intelligence inherited from her father Henry VIII (even tracing her lineage back to the hero of Virgil’s epic Aeneid).

Elizabeth may have attributed her natural successes to masculine genes, but we must remember that in doing so she also proved that as a woman she was equal to men in her abilities – something extremely radical for sixteenth-century contemporaries. Whilst conforming to gender stereotypes, she manipulated them to retain rule for herself, as a woman.

Elizabeth I's Effigy Corset. She may have been a highly-strung matriarch, but she certainly left the question of succession untied...
Elizabeth I’s Effigy Corset. She may have been a highly-strung matriarch, but she certainly left the question of succession untied…

What Legacy?

Elizabeth’s legacy of principle, prestige and poise is in my opinion attributed to her ability to retain power until her death, despite the gendered odds stacked against her. We must not forget that Elizabeth’s short-term personal successes during her life created many problems that were inherited by her successors. Yet despite the fact we can acknowledge her numerous failings in diplomacy, foreign policy and court, we should continue to observe Elizabeth’s life as a phenomenal one in the context of Tudor misogyny and patriarchy.




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