Rule of a ‘weak and feeble’ woman?
This collection of documents introduces students and teachers to the reign of Elizabeth I through the original State Papers held at The National Archives. They have been selected and introduced by eminent historian of the period, Tracy Borman. Students and teachers can use the documents to develop their own questions and explore their own lines of historical enquiry on different aspects of Elizabeth’s reign including the marriage question and succession, her style of monarchy, religious and foreign policy, or her relationship with Mary, Queen of Scots.
The documents offer students a chance to develop their powers of evaluation and analysis and support their course work. Alternatively, teachers may wish to use the collection to develop their own resources or encourage students to ‘curate’ their own ‘exhibition’ of the most significant sources on the topic. All documents are supported with some contextual information. Transcripts are provided and more difficult vocabulary is explained in square brackets.
By Dr Tracy Borman
Elizabeth I is one of the most celebrated monarchs in British history. She was also the longest-reigning Tudor. Yet, as the younger of two daughters born to Henry VIII, she was never supposed to be queen at all.
Elizabeth was just two years and eight months old when her mother, Anne Boleyn, was convicted for treason and executed. Her parents’ marriage had been annulled prior to Anne’s execution, which rendered Elizabeth illegitimate. The birth of her half-brother Edward the following year made her prospects of inheriting the throne even more distant. But thanks to his premature death in 1553 after just six years as king, followed by the short and disastrous reign of her half-sister Mary, Elizabeth at last came into her inheritance in 1558.
There was great rejoicing across the kingdom upon Elizabeth’s accession. Church bells were rung and bonfires were lit, and thousands of people gathered to drink and make merry. Beneath the euphoria, however, lay the deep-seated prejudice against female rulers that had existed for centuries. The vast majority of Elizabeth’s new subjects believed that women were naturally inferior to men in every respect. They had neither the intelligence nor the strength of character to make their own way in the world. Even Elizabeth’s closest adviser, William Cecil, was furious when one of the queen’s messengers discussed with her a dispatch for her ambassador in Paris, exclaiming that it was ‘too much for a woman’s knowledge.’
Whereas Mary Tudor had confirmed such prejudices during her brief but turbulent reign, Elizabeth set out to confound them. Although she shared her male subjects’ views on the inferiority of women, she saw herself as an exception and was determined to stamp her authority upon all aspects of her court and government. She started by refusing to marry – a deeply shocking concept in an age when it was universally accepted that a woman (let alone a queen) could not make her way in the world without the guidance of a husband. But Elizabeth was adamant: ‘I will have but one mistress here, and no master’, she told her courtiers. Although she encountered fierce resistance to this at first, over time her single state became one of the cornerstones of her success: it secured her place as the Virgin Queen of legend.
Another part of Elizabeth’s strategy to win over her misogynistic new subjects was to refer to herself time and again in masculine terms. She was a ‘prince’ who led her people with just as much authority as her formidable father, Henry VIII. But she also knew exactly when to flaunt her femininity. She created a court based upon the principles of chivalric love, with herself at the centre – at turns delighting, frustrating and enslaving the male courtiers who flocked to pay her homage. She would also use her womanly ‘weaknesses’ as an excuse not to take action. When under intense pressure to sign the death warrant of Mary, Queen of Scots, she told a parliamentary delegation that ‘my sex doth not permit it.’
Elizabeth’s first biographer, William Camden, claimed that she had ‘surprised her sex’. This implies that she triumphed in spite of being a woman, whereas in fact she triumphed because of this. Her feminine traits enabled her to stand out in a world dominated by men – and to dominate these men in turn.
The other keynote of Elizabeth’s queenship was her extraordinary self-discipline. She always put the interests of her country ahead of her own private hopes and fears – including the love she bore for her long-standing favourite, Robert Dudley. Her long reign witnessed a number of notable achievements: a new, moderate religious settlement, overseas expansion, great military victories like the Armada and a flowering of cultural life epitomised by Shakespeare. Little wonder that it has been described as a ‘Golden Age’.
But there was another side to the story too. Seen by most of Catholic Europe as a heretical and (thanks to her infamous mother Anne Boleyn) illegitimate usurper, from the very beginning of her reign Elizabeth was beset by rival claimants. The most deadly of them all was Mary, Queen of Scots, who was a thorn in the English queen’s side for almost 30 years. Elizabeth also courted opposition thanks to being notoriously parsimonious when it came to supplying and paying her troops – notably the sailors who won her most celebrated victory in 1588. A succession of failed harvests and economic hardship during the later years of her reign added to the climate of dissatisfaction, and prompted Elizabeth to introduce two new poor laws.
Despite all of this, Elizabeth won widespread adulation among her people as ‘Gloriana’ and ‘Good Queen Bess’, and transformed their attitude towards female rulers. It was a legacy that all subsequent queens had cause to be grateful for – none more so than her namesake, our current queen.
Dr Tracy Borman is a best-selling author and historian, and is also joint Chief Curator of Historic Royal Palaces. She is a specialist on the Tudor period, and her books include: ‘Elizabeth’s Women: The hidden story of the Virgin Queen’ and, most recently, ‘The Private Lives of the Tudors’.
Back to top