Guest article by Heidi Malagisi
When one thinks of a good ruler, there are some examples throughout history which we turn to like Winston Churchill, Alexander the Great, and Nelson Mandela to name a few. One of the most influential rulers of all time, however, was not a man but a woman; Queen Elizabeth I of England. In her Golden Speech to her subjects on November 30, 1601, Elizabeth said:
I do assure you there is no prince that loveth his subjects better or whose love can countervail our love. There is no jewel, be it of never so rich a price, which I set before this jewel, I mean your love. For I do more esteem of it than any treasure or riches, forthat we know how to prize, but love and thanks I count unvaluable.
It was this love that Elizabeth had for her country that kept her on the throne. However, when one looks at the reputation that she left, the love seems to get muddled. Judith Richards, a former Senior Lecturer at La Trobe University in Australia explains this messy situation:
Elizabeth has been described in many ways, by her contemporaries and ever after. Hostile accounts of her across the centuries are more than countered by implausibly romantic fantasies which often disregard the harsh imperatives of being- and remaining-a monarch in early modern Europe. What can be said of her is that, Elizabeth was an interesting and impressive monarch, capable of considerable charm, when she was so inclined.
One often sees the love that writers and historians alike share for the queen known as “Gloriana” or “The Virgin Queen”, but in order to understand who Elizabeth truly was, one must look at the criticism as well as the compliments given about her during the time of her reign as well as the modern and post-modern world. Has our opinion changed overtime as we studied her over five hundred years? Was she in fact a good ruler or was she just lucky and hidden behind a façade painted by the Tudor propagandist?
In order to understand what type of ruler Elizabeth was, one has to understand her past. Born on September 7, 1533 to Anne Boleyn and Henry VIII, Elizabeth’s early life was filled with turmoil as she was declared a bastard and her sister Mary Tudor placed her in prison. Elizabeth was a scholar at heart with some of the best tutors of the time as her professors including Roger Ascham and John Aylmer. At the age of twenty-five, Elizabeth came to the throne when Mary passed away, and she was finally “in control of her destiny.” One of the first things that she did as queen was present a bill “to restore the royal supremacy over the Church of England” which was thrown out. Another bill, the Acts of Supremacy and Uniformity, was passed a few months later on April 29, 1559 making Protestantism the official religion of England. It was blatantly obvious that the Pope had to act so he issued a bull which excommunicated Elizabeth and gave her people to dethrone her. This did not happen but the idea of removing Elizabeth from power was always prevalent during her reign. The top contender for the throne was Mary Queen of Scots, Elizabeth’s own cousin. Mary, in the eyes of many, had a better claim to the throne because she was in fact married and Elizabeth decided to partake a life of celibacy, which according to Alexander Nowell, Dean of St. Paul’s it was “ as great a plague.” After much debate, Mary was put to death for treason against the crown on February 8, 1587, which proved to be a difficult decision for Elizabeth to make. The greatest challenge to Elizabeth’s reign was of course Philip’s Spanish Armada a threat to the peace of England. On the eve of the battle at Tilbury, Elizabeth addressed her troops directly:
I know I have the body but of a weak and feeble woman, but I have the heart and stomach of a king and of a king of England too, and think foul scorn that Parma or Spainor any prince of Europe should dare to invade the borders of my realm, to which ratherthan any dishonor shall grow by me, I myself will take up arms, I myself will be yourgeneral, judge, and rewarder of every one of your virtues in the field.
It was the victory over the Spanish Armada that really solidified Elizabeth as the best ruler for England at that time. Here is when images of Elizabeth as “Gloriana” begin to emerge. The most famous piece of Elizabethan propaganda was written by Edmund Spenser entitled “The Faerie Queene”. It is his dedication where Spenser’s purpose is revealed:
To the most high, mightie and magnificent empresses renovvmed for pietie, vertve, andall gratiovs government Elizabeth by the grace of God queene of England, France andIreland and of Virginia, defendovr of the faith &c. Her most humble servant EdmvndSpenser doth in all hvmilitie dedicate, present and consecrate these his labors to livewith the eternitie of her fame.
This love seemed to extend even after Elizabeth’s death in 1603. There were famous laments to Elizabeth in the year of her death including Britanniae Lachrimae:
Weep, little isle, and for thy mistress’ death Swim in a double sea of brackish water.Weep, little world, weep for great Elizabeth: Daughter of war, for Mars himself begather, Mother of peace, for she bore the latter. She was and is (what can there more besaid?) In earth the first, in heav’n the second maid.
It is important to note that although Elizabeth was first and foremost a Christian queen, the use of Roman symbolism was important to connect her to the past, a significant part of the educated of the day. She may had been a warrior queen but she did it for the peace that her people longed for.
Compare this to a statement made by the Spanish ambassador to England, de Feria, to Philip. He considered her:
Sharp, without prudence. She is a very vain and clever woman. She must have been thoroughly schooled in the manner in which her father conducted his affairs. She is determined to be governed by no one.
Since de Feria was a foreigner to England, some might dismiss his thought as insignificant but it shows that there were some even in her time speaking against her. Another who spoke against Elizabeth during her time was populist Thomas Heywood who said that she was not the absolute monarch but someone who was “in a perpetual state of abdication.” The most famous view against Elizabeth, and in fact all women rulers at the time, was held by John Knox. In his book The First Blast of the Trumpet against the Monstrous Regiment of Women, Knox said, “It is more than a monster in nature that a woman should reign and bear empire above men.”
This was not a popularly held view at the time as we see men like Francis Bacon call Elizabeth “pious, constant, moderate, and could not away with innovations.” Sir Robert Naunton, a courtier of Elizabeth’s, said “She was absolute and sovereign mistress.” Sir Philip Sidney declared: “She was a queen and therefore beautiful.” Duc de Sully, a French minister, was reported to say:
I was convinced this great Queen was truly worthy of that high reputation she had acquired. She said many things which appeared to me so just and sensible that I wasfilled with astonishment and admiration.
As one moves away from Elizabeth’s age, it is interesting to see how similar the historians write about her reputation. Thomas Macaulay, a Whig historian noted that towards the end of her reign:
She, however, with admirable judgment and temper…brought back to herself the heartsof the people, and left her successors a memorable example of the way in which it behooves a ruler to deal with public movements which he has not the means toresisting.
Macaulay shows the Whig interpretation of history in which Elizabeth was an example of how to make England great again. Another historian during this time was Mandell Creighton, who seems to fall into the category of social historian. When examining Elizabeth, Creighton said:
It is easy to point out serious faults in Elizabeth, to draw out her inconsistencies, and define her character in a series of paradoxes. But this treatment does not exhibit thereal woman, still less the real queen….Round her, with all her faults, the England which we know grew into the consciousness of its destiny.
Even though Elizabeth was viewed in such a bright light during her own era, it is Creighton that helps one realize that she was in fact human and a human woman who had her own faults.
As one moves towards the modern and postmodern age, one sees the same trends emerge. Though Winston Churchill was not a historian, his view on Elizabeth sets the tone for this era.
She gave to her country the love that she never entirely reposed in any one man, andher people responded with a loyalty that almost amounted to worship. It is not fornothing that she has come down to history as Good Queen Bess.
The term Good Queen Bess has stuck as well as the more humanistic image of her. G.R. Elton, a historian who focused on Constitutional and Tudor England, placed Elizabeth in a light like Creighton.
She was a great queen and never less than queen; sagacious, brave, tolerant where itwas wise, and tenacious of her rights where tolerance would have been weakness. But she fell far short of angelic perfection- that inability ever to do wrong- which somewould like to ascribe to her, explaining even her errors of taste, and judgment assuperlative examples of political skill. After 350 years, the old spell is still at work.
It is this idea that Elizabeth was not in fact perfection itself which made many historians, like David Loades, view Elizabeth as just one fortunate woman. David Loades is a historian who specialized in the Tudor age and is Emeritus Professor of History at the University of Wales.
At the end of a recent, and exhaustive, study of Elizabeth’s reign, the author [Loades] concluded that she merited the title, not of ‘the Great’, but of ‘the Fortunate’.
Later Loades goes on to describe that the only reason she was considered great was that she was caught in the “English imagination.”
It has been fascinating that most of these accounts on Elizabeth’s reign thus far have been from the male perspective. What would women historians think of a woman like Elizabeth? Two major women historians who have written on Elizabeth are Lady Anne Somerset, a British historian, and Alison Weir, more of a popular historian. Lady Anne Somerset summarized Elizabeth’s reign as such:
Elizabeth’s success as a ruler was very much a personal triumph, for much of thedevotion and loyalty she inspired was attributable not solely to her authority, but to herglamour, magnetism and charm….She combined remarkable talents as an orator withthe surest of touches in dealing with individuals, and when she was out to please, she was well-nigh irresistible.
It seems as though the perspective of a woman historian had nothing to do with the gender of this ruler but rather the skills that she used to accomplish her goals, just like any male historian. Alison Weir takes a similar approach when it comes to this dynamic approach.
She saw herself as a paragon of ‘honour and honesty’ who dealt with others in a manner and would stand by ‘the word of a prince’, but the reality was somewhat different. She could prevaricate, dissemble and deceive as well as any other ruler of hertime.
Elizabeth in the eyes of these two historians was not only a woman but a leader who was a capable of dealing with the changing world around her.
To analysis such a dynamic ruler such as Elizabeth I it involves looks past the propaganda machine of the Tudor era and to look at what historians from every generation have said about her. In the case of whether she was lucky or a good ruler, it is blatantly clear that most historians concur that Elizabeth had her struggles in life, like any normal human being, but she did the best with what life dealt her. In return, she pushed England into its Golden Age where prosperity and peace reigned. To summarize Elizabeth’s reputation the best, one only needs to look at Camden’s biography of her.
No oblivion shall ever bury the glory of her name; for her happy and renowned memorystill liveth and shall forever live in the minds of men.
Over 400 years after her death, Elizabeth I is still revered and hotly contested, and she will be as we learn more about this queen and her role in transforming England into the country which it is today.
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