Elizabeth I was one of England’s longest-reigning monarchs. She was not the only female monarch of her time: during her first decade or so a forlorn Catherine de Medici struggled to control France, and throughout her first three decades, her cousin Mary, Queen of Scots loomed (for most of the time as an unwelcome refugee in England).
But Elizabeth outlived them – and for 45 years held her own in a male-dominated world as they never did. Even a pope, Sixtus V (1985-90), rather admired her.
Yes, she was a remarkable human being: highly intelligent, cultured, charismatic and courageous. She was a gifted orator – as with that famous speech when the Spanish Armada threatened in 1588 about having “the body of a weak and feeble woman, but the stomach and heart of a king – yes, a king of England”.
However, Elizabeth was also aloof, devious, vain, notoriously mean and indecisive. Furthermore, it is difficult to find much that she achieved.
The famous “Settlement” of 1558/9 returned England to the Protestant fold – that is, returned it to where it had been when her half-brother Edward died in 1553. It did not innovate – except to make her “Supreme Governor” (rather than “Supreme Head”) of the new Church of England created by her father.
Otherwise, probably her most decisive actions were the order to behead her cousin Mary Queen of Scots, made after much hesitation, and later, to execute the outrageously provocative Earl of Essex.
Though much has been written about them, most of Elizabeth’s parliaments achieved little more than increasingly fierce persecution of Catholics and radical Protestants. She dreaded these parliaments and summoned them only when desperate for cash.
Nor was she a great patron of the arts. Spenser’s mighty Faerie Queene was dedicated to, but not commissioned by, her – and, in the author’s estimation, was inadequately awarded.
Christopher Marlowe was paid for spying in his younger days but not for play-writing later on. Indeed, he was about to be arrested for licentious atheism when he was stabbed to death in a drunken brawl. As for Shakespeare, she showed as little interest in him as he did in her.
England’s first Renaissance architect, Inigo Jones, did owe much to a queen’s support and patronage – but the queen in question was James I’s wife, not Elizabeth. Thomas Tallis and William Byrd were gifted court composers, but both crypto-Catholics. Protestantism was no friend of polyphony, or for that matter of humanism. It is more than arguable that a proto-Renaissance, led by Elizabeth’s admirable great-grandmother, Margaret Beaufort, John Colet, Thomas More, John Fisher, Holbein and Erasmus (not to mention composers like Robert Fayrfax and Thomas Taverner) had been flowering in early Tudor England, but was largely blighted by the Reformation.
Between c.1500 and 1547 a record eight new Oxbridge colleges were founded: two thanks largely to that same Margaret Beaufort (a major benefactress of both universities) and one by a reluctant Henry VIII. Two more were founded in Mary’s short reign – with her support. Only three were founded in Elizabeth’s 45 years: none of them by her.
Elizabeth showed minimal interest in overseas exploration: those famous Elizabethan sea-dogs like Raleigh (pictured being knighted by Elizabeth) and Drake were little more than pirates (the latter also a notorious slave-dealer). Their exploits were amateurish compared with what Spanish, Portuguese and soon Dutch sailors were accomplishing every day.
Yes, Elizabeth faced heroically that famous attempt by Philip II of Spain in 1588 to destroy her. Philip targeted Elizabeth because she was a Protestant and persecutor of her Catholic subjects, but also because she had been covertly supporting his rebellious Dutch subjects (despite her lofty views on the obedience due to anointed princes).
But it was a change in the weather – the celebrated “Protestant wind” – not English guns that eventually destroyed the Armada: that huge assembly of ships had sailed majestically past southern England despite attempts by a larger force to impede it.
Elizabeth is sometimes seen as a woman of the people, a much-loved popular leader. But the majority of her subjects probably never even saw her. Elizabeth spent most of her time on progress around the Home Counties, notoriously inviting herself and her large entourage to dine at the homes of wealthier subjects en route. She visited East Anglia several times, but the furthest North she went was Stamford and Wolverhampton. She never got to the South West, let alone Wales.
Despite all this, she remains a legendary figure: Good Queen Bess, Virgin Queen, Gloriana and all that. The myth-making began during the reigns of her rather dreary Stuart successors.
It has since become an essential part of our national mythology. She had supposedly personified Englishness; defied popes and mighty Spain; enabled Britannia to rule the waves; inspired a golden age of English culture; and perhaps most of all, helped create that eminently sensible, and typically English via media which is Anglicanism. Her reign “had to” happen.
Psychoanalysing historical figures is dangerous. But surely, with a father as ghastly as hers and a mother who had been brutally beheaded at his behest when she was scarcely three years old, Elizabeth had not had a good start to life.
Then, bastardised and excluded from the succession by Parliament, she had spent a lonely childhood hidden from family and public life, while her father continued his hectic matrimonial career and eventually his 9-year-old son Edward, Elizabeth’s half-brother, ascended the throne. Worse still, in her early teenage she had been sexually abused by the uncle of that Edward, one Thomas Seymour. A villainous man with ambitions even to share rule of England with his brother, he repeatedly assailed her in her bedroom – even abetted by his wife (Catherine Parr, Henry VIII’s sixth and last wife and herself now on her fourth husband).
Today we understand better the damage that such abuse can do. So when Elizabeth plastered her face with make-up (as she did), was she merely disguising pox-marks – or masking deeper scars? When, famously, she added yet more extravagant dresses to her wardrobe – and posed statuesquely in them – was this as much to display regality as to hide (or recompense) a body that had been violated?
When, equally famously, she failed to marry, was this simply because no suitable candidate was available?
And was there a sadistic streak in her? She seems to have taken special interest in exacting the full penalty for treason – being hanged till half dead and then butchered – for Catholic priests. And she made a lifelong friend of the monstrous torturer Richard Topcliffe (who revelled in racking prisoners).
Rumour had it that he may have been more than a friend. Indeed, while he was torturing (abominably) the gentle Jesuit poet Robert Southwell, he wrote to her asking if there was any more “in her heart” that she would like him to extract.
Elizabeth’s religious beliefs remain mysterious. On her tormented deathbed she angrily dismissed as “hedge priests” the archbishop of Canterbury, John Whitgift, and other prelates who had come to minister to her. What did she mean by this? In common parlance, a “hedge priest” was an ignorant country cleric – but it could also mean a bogus one.
The Elizabethan Church Settlement of 1558, which abolished the Mass, restored the Book of Common Prayer and established the queen as Supreme Governor of the Church of England, was largely the work of Matthew Parker, Elizabeth’s first archbishop of Canterbury. She had chosen him because he had been a chaplain to her mother and kind to her during her childhood – but she strongly disapproved of the fact that he had married. She had a ferocious row with his more Protestant successor, Grindal (and had even suspended him for a while).
But the archbishop now at her deathbed, John Whitgift, had been much to her liking – deservedly so. And you could never say that he was an ignorant rustic. So why were he and the others now “hedge priests”?
Was Elizabeth saying that she had seen through them? Was she facing the fact that the breach with Rome, the royal supremacy and all that were the ungodly work of an angry, vengeful father – not God’s?
She may not have been very devout (as recent scholarship has reminded us, her Christianity had not prevented her from establishing cordial relations with the sultan of Constantinople, a sworn enemy of Christendom); but she was theologically informed. Was she now admitting that the claim that Christ had intended His Church to consist of separate national churches ruled by monarchs was ludicrous, outrageous: that it rendered unto Caesar things that were God’s?
Had she even been affected by the constancy of the nearly 200 Catholic priests, like Southwell, lay men and (three) women whom her regime had put to a hideous death – and the hundreds imprisoned and fined for refusing to attend services they knew were bogus?
Was she now saying what she had known “in her heart” (to quote Topcliffe) that those prelates at her deathbed were not all they claimed to be – and her title “Supreme Governor” a sham? Had that mask fallen?
Perhaps. In morte veritas.
Professor Jack Scarisbrick is a historian and emeritus national chairman of Life
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