Elizabeth I: Gender, Power and Politics. By Susan Doran

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Elizabeth I

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Elizabeth I: Gender, Power and Politics. By Susan Doran

Susan Doran looks at what it meant to be a female monarch in a male world and how the Queen responded to the challenges.

Judging from the results of 2002’s BBC television poll of Great Britons, Elizabeth I is the best known and most admired English monarch, at least among those members of the public who decided to vote. Given her high profile in films and biographies, the Queen’s relative success in the poll is perhaps unsurprising, especially as her life was so full of incident and drama. The evidence suggests, however, that it was specifically Elizabeth’s ability as a woman to exercise power successfully in a man’s world that earned her the votes and commanded the respect of today’s viewers; she scored highest on her bravery and leadership qualities, while the comments of her supporters, as reported on the BBC website, emphasised her difficulties as a female ruler and her role as ‘the ultimate British feminist icon’.

Recent academic opinion is usually less kind to Elizabeth. Christopher Haigh has described her as a bully and a show-off, while Susan Brigden seems to share the Elizabethan Council’s irritation with their Queen’s indecision, prevarications and sometimes faulty judgement. Nonetheless, whatever their views about the character of the Queen, many historians today share the preoccupation with Elizabeth’s gender; they tend to stress the problems she faced as a female ruler in the patriarchal sixteenth century and the ways she attempted to circumvent them. I would suggest, however, that these difficulties have been overstated and that Elizabeth’s methods of negotiating her gender have been partially misunderstood.

Of course, there is no question that early-modern society was deeply patriarchal in its structure and attitudes. Male primogeniture governed most property arrangements as well as the laws of succession to the crown. In theory, at least, women were not expected to assert any independent authority but were deemed subservient to male relatives whether fathers, brothers or husbands. The Scottish Calvinist preacher John Knox (c.1513-72) famously railed against female monarchy as an abomination in his The First Blast of the Trumpet against the Monstrous Regiment of Women, a work written in 1558 to contest Catholic Mary I’s right to be queen. Yet, despite patriarchal attitudes, female rule was no great novelty in the sixteenth century; not only had women inherited the thrones of Castile, Scotland and England before Elizabeth’s accession, but more importantly they had also been selected to act as regents in Spain, Scotland, the Netherlands and France during the absences of their monarchs. Furthermore, Knox’s views were extreme and reiterated by only a handful of other Protestants.

In fact, at the time of Elizabeth’s accession, barely a murmur was heard querying the legitimacy of female rule. Catholics at home and abroad presumably did not think to use Knoxian-style arguments to challenge Elizabeth’s right to the throne, because their claimant, Mary, Queen of Scots, was also a woman. In general, the prevailing sentiment within England in mid-November 1558 was not concern at the accession of another queen of England, but rather relief that Mary Tudor’s reign – marked by harvest failure, epidemics and military humiliation – was now over, and that Elizabeth’s succession was smooth and for all practical purposes undisputed without military intervention from France, Scotland or Spain. Protestants were obviously delighted by the new regime: Thomas Becon, who in 1553 had bemoaned the accession of a female ruler as God’s punishment towards a ‘people unworthy to have lawful, natural and meet governors’, now accepted with joy Elizabeth as:

... whensoever God shall call [Queen Elizabeth], I perceive we are not like to be governed by a lady shut up in a chamber from all her subjects and most of her servants, and seen seld but on holidays … but by a man of spirit and learning, of able body, of understanding mind.

With a male monarch on the throne, thought Harington, the privy chamber would again be staffed by men, and male courtiers would no longer be denied opportunities for intimacy and advancement.

Undoubtedly, Elizabeth’s authority was affected by this new attitude at court. Once out of England, her military commanders flagrantly disobeyed royal instructions. During the Rouen campaign of 1591, for example, Essex conferred no fewer than twenty-four knighthoods in defiance of the Queen’s express instructions. More seriously, during the Cadiz campaign of 1596 he planned to seize a base in Spain in total contradiction of Elizabeth’s orders, and was only thwarted in his design by his co-commander, Lord Admiral Howard. Part of the problem was that Elizabeth was at a disadvantage in not being able to go in person to the battlefield. As an unmarried queen, moreover, she could not even call on her husband to act as a figurehead in her place, as had her sister Mary at St Quentin. But age was another factor. In the 1590s Elizabeth was old enough to be the grandmother of the new generation of courtiers, many of whom found her out of touch with their culture and aspirations. Their declining respect for their queen was demonstrated in the many sexual scandals that disrupted the court in the 1590s. Not only were a significant number of male courtiers prepared to flout Elizabeth’s authority by embarking on illicit sexual relationships with maids of honour, but also every elopement and pregnancy that occurred was a stark reminder of ‘her own physical and political sterility’. Nonetheless, despite her age, Elizabeth could on occasions impress observers with her majesty and intelligence: in 1596 her impromptu speech in Latin reprimanding a Polish ambassador who had offended her, so delighted English listeners that it was published; in 1601 her ‘Golden Speech’ which silenced complaining members of parliament was similarly printed and distributed to the wider populace.

All in all, Elizabeth’s gender had less impact on political life than is generally assumed. The key political issues of the day were those that had dominated earlier reigns: religion, the succession and international affairs. While Elizabeth had her own style of leadership, she worked within the same institutional structures and adopted the same royal conventions as earlier monarchs. Even Elizabeth’s image was not so very different from that of her male predecessors and contemporary kings; like them she emphasised her regality, religion and role as carer of her people. The part that Elizabeth’s conservatism and reliance on tradition played in making female rule acceptable to male subjects should not be forgotten; she provoked no fears that the social and gender hierarchy would be subverted by female monarchy. In this sense, Elizabeth was no feminist icon. Her reign did however demonstrate that a woman could be an exceptionally successful ruler even in dangerous times. In this sense, she was!

Susan Doran is a lecturer in Early-Modern History at Christ Church Oxford. She is the editor of the catalogue Elizabeth I: The Exhibition at the National Maritime Museum (Chatto & Windus, 2003).

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Author: John Guy

Matters which Elizabeth did not allow to be discussed, or at any rate, she did not take the advice of the Privy Council when they arose.

Here the agenda comprises:

  1. Clashes on the decision to intervene in Scotland in 1559-60;

  2. Clashes of 1563 and 1566 on the queen's marriage and succession;

  3. Clashes of 1572 and 1586-7 on Mary, queen of Scots and again in 1584-5 on the Bond of Association

  4. Clashes on the intervention in the Netherlands in 1585.

  5. Clashes over the execution of Mary, queen of Scots

Elizabeth more or less "invented" the idea of arcana imperii, or "mysteries (matters) of state". Her privy councillors sought to persuade the queen to marry and to settle the succession. They themselves turned to Parliament and public opinion:

In relation to the clashes listed at (1)-(3):

  1. Cecil wished to depose Mary queen of Scots even during her personal rule in Scotland, and the correspondence with his agents and with Mary's opponents in Scotland shows that Cecil sought not only to establish responsible conciliar government in Scotland, but that he could happily brook regicide if this was the only way to defeat the powers of Catholic darkness (as he saw them) which themselves sought to use Mary as an agent.

  2. Cecil wished to incorporate Scotland (and possibly Ireland also) within an "imperial" British state under Elizabeth as queen and empress. While Elizabeth also talked this language, there was a very important difference in that Cecil saw a fully-Protestant Britain as the necessary precondition of the survival of Protestant England, and for this reason he wished to pursue a vigorous politics of culture: i.e. Protestant cultural colonialism within the British Isles. This was the essence of his case for the intervention in Scotland in 1559, and his position was so radical on that occasion that even Bacon, his brother-in-law, opposed him in the Privy Council. Cecil finally got his way, and Elizabeth was bludgeoned into the intervention in support of the Lords of the Congregation, but this was the moment that Cecil discovered the queen's conservatism -- threatened to resign, etc.

  3. Cecil and the Privy Council wanted to persuade Elizabeth to marry and to settle the succession to the throne. Elizabeth refused to do both these things. What we have in the clashes of 1563 and especially 1566, is evidence of spontaneous speeches by those who were Cecil's men of business or were within his conciliar orbit, and also there is massive evidence of Cecil ignoring the queen's express instructions, verbal and written, to stop pursuing the issue of her marriage and the succession, and also ignoring her instructions not on any account to link to the grant of taxation imminent in 1566 the issues of the succession or her promise of 1563 to marry. Cecil flatly ignored the queen's express commands, and covered reams of paper with pro and contra arguments and with drafts and redrafts of position papers in defence of his case for action. The strategy advocated by Dudley and his circle was that Elizabeth should name an heir instead of marrying. That preferred by Cecil was that she should marry and have children before it was too late. Cecil lobbied openly in the Privy Council and covertly in the House of Commons by sending his secretary, Bernard Hampton, to a committee with pre-packaged drafts of a preamble to a bill that linked taxation to the Queen's duty to marry and settle the succession.

  4. We see in these documents Cecil's private attempts at self-fashioning. Was he the personal servant of the queen, or the "public servant of the Protestant state"??

  5. In Elizabeth's reign the tension was played out between the queen's high view of kingship -- the idea that sovereignty was vested in her alone -- and the conviction of Cecil and his supporters on the Privy Council that "the preservation of the [Protestant] state of this realm" took precedence. Prof. Collinson has noticed this, and called it "monarchical republicanism". Others have called it the doctrine of "mixed" polity. In political theory, this was the beginning of the classical conceptualization of the "state" as an ideal. Moreover, in the hands of puritan-inclined authors, this was a "state" which gave a political role to Parliament and to the House of Commons. In this respect, there was a grain of truth in Neale's volumes on the history of Parliament.

  6. There were also times when Cecil actively conspired, force majeure, to "protect" the Protestant state at the expense of the queen's instructions. (Cf. Cecil's notes for the succession in 1563 and 1584-5.) If the queen's presumed heir to the throne was to be the Catholic, Mary queen of Scots, then Cecil and the Privy Council intended to infringe the Crown's sovereignty and the subvert the rules of succession if the worst happened. As I have several times remarked, what Cecil and the Privy Council planned was comparable in many points of detail with what happened in 1688-9. In this way it can be argued that the most powerful and subversive critique of the Tudor monarchy did not derive from the Marian exiles in the 1550s or presbyterianism in the 1570s and 1580s: it emanated from the very heart of the conciliar regime.

The clashes over the intervention in the Netherlands:

  1. The first major clash was in 1576-7, when Elizabeth authorized diplomacy in support of the Protestant cause in the Netherlands, but then refused to act on it. This caused massive friction with the Privy Council, and the issue rumbled on until 1585.

  2. Cecil and Leicester/Walsingham were much closer on this issue than the conventional historiography has suggested.

  3. From 1576 onwards, the Privy Council was pushing for financial aid to the Dutch against Elizabeth's reluctance. Cecil wrote sympathetically to Walsingham, and supported both financial aid and alliance too. NB Cecil warned Elizabeth in autumn of 1584, "Your strength abroad, it must be in joining in good confederacy, or at least intelligence with those that would willingly embrace the same".

  4. There was no factional dimension to debates of 1584-5. On the contrary, councillors and MPs compared the queen's wrong-headed attitude to the Netherlands and Scotland (since 1559!).

  5. Climax reached in debates of July 1585. Privy Council sought:

    • "protection" from Spain and the Guise conspiracy;

    • urged creation of Protestant coalition;

    • urged reinforcement of militia and navy;

    • hinted that Elizabeth should accept the sovereignty of the Netherlands;

    • concern at encirclement by Hispano-Guise alliance.

  6. Leicester finally allowed to take expeditionary force to Netherlands, but when he arrived he was told not to do anything by the queen. When he accepted the offer of governor-general from the States without consulting Elizabeth, he was recalled and ruined. Moreover, he failed to recoup the costs of raising and equipping his forces, which contributed to the breakdown of his health and death in September 1588.

The clashes over the execution of Mary, queen of Scots

  1. These revealed the full implications of the dissonance between Elizabeth and the Privy Council. The warrant's delivery was authorised by the Privy Council, who acted out of a sense of utter frustration at Elizabeth's reluctance to put the death sentence pronounced against Mary into effect. The letter that the Council attached to the execution warrant justified their action as taken "for [the queen's] special service tending to the safety of her royal person and universal quietness of her whole Realm".

  2. In this matter, the Council acted not only clandestinely, but in defiance of Elizabeth's most recently expressed instructions, a blatant act of republicanism for which she sought to hang her secretary, William Davison, by royal prerogative (i.e. summarily and without trial) for allowing the warrant to leave his possession. For three months, Cecil feared that her wrath would usurp the rule of law, and relations between the queen and Council took four months to return to anything approaching normality.

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