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An Imperial Intellect

Elizabeth's Legacy 400 Years Later

By Lisa Rogers | HUMANITIES, July/August 2003 | Volume 24, Number 4

"Her mind has no womanly weakness," one of her teachers said. “Her perseverance is equal to that of a man, and her memory long keeps what it quickly picks up.”

She was an independent woman in a world dominated and defined by men. How Elizabeth I of England navigated the often contradictory demands placed on her as both a woman and a monarch is the subject of a new exhibition marking the four-hundredth anniversary of her death. The exhibition opens September 30 at the Newberry Library in Chicago.

“Hers was an interesting education, a princess’s education,” says Clark Hulse, professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago and curator of the exhibition.

“She claimed later that she studied nothing but theology in her youth, but she also studied foreign languages and music. It was not preparing her to be a leader, it was preparing her to be a consort, head of court, and a patroness.”

As a monarch, Elizabeth became legendary. She transformed a small country on the periphery of European politics into a major international power. England’s population nearly doubled. Its navy was feared and envied. And its colonial outposts included the New World, challenging the dominance of Spain and France. The influence of Henry VIII was unmistakable. “Elizabeth had observed her father very keenly,” Hulse says, “and watched how people reacted to him and manipulated him, how manipulated him, how they tried to use his power for themselves, and how he wielded his own power. She was brilliant at spotting when people were playing games. A phrase that appeared early--she used it throughout her life--was ‘do you think me so simple’ that I can’t tell what you are doing? I think it comes out of that late childhood, early teen experience.”

One pivotal experience was the Seymour affair and it nearly cost Elizabeth her life. In an accusation fueled by sexual innuendo and family alliances, Thomas Seymour, an English noble with close ties to the Tudor ruling house, was charged with plotting to marry Elizabeth without Parliament’s permission, putting himself in line for the throne. For this and other treasons, Seymour was beheaded. The fifteen-year-old Elizabeth protested her innocence in a letter to the Lord Protector, decrying the “rumour . . . against my honor and honesty (which above all other things I esteem).” Next to her signature she drew a decorative box with loops at the corners and a cross in the middle. It was the same symbol her father used with his signature and served as a powerful reminder of whose daughter she was. She saved herself and her closest servants and learned a crucial lesson about the need to shield herself from the incessant political intrigues of Tudor England.

“Elizabeth faced scandals from the time she was fourteen or fifteen,” says Hulse. “In the Seymour affair, as she worked her way through it, you can see all the political skill coming out.”

Elizabeth used her political savvy a few years later when her younger brother, Edward, died after only six years on the throne. She sided with her older sister, Mary, who had proclaimed herself queen despite Edward’s deathbed pronouncement that Lady Jane Grey, a great-niece of Henry VIII, be the heir. Elizabeth rode into London with Mary as she pressed her claim. Backed by much of the populace and much of the nobility as the legitimate successor to the throne, Mary became queen. Her accession restored the direct line from Henry and put Elizabeth back in contention for the throne.

Mary’s five-year rule was not easy for Elizabeth. Mary was the firstborn of Henry’s children and the product of a marriage blessed by the Pope in a Roman Catholic country. The intervening years had entrenched Protestantism in England but Mary made violent attempts to reimpose Catholicism on an unwilling populace. The arrest and execution of nearly three hundred Protestants earned Mary the additional title of “Bloody.” Mary’s throne was far from secure and Elizabeth was next in line, yet she was skilled enough now at the political game to keep quiet, dress plainly (to suit her Protestant supporters), and wait. Elizabeth was able to avoid direct implication in the religious strife that marred Mary’s reign even though she did spend time imprisoned in the Tower of London.

In November 1558 Mary died without an heir and Elizabeth became queen. “She had a strong sense of herself--that she was a ruler and that she was not going to fall into female stereotypes,” says Carole Levin, Willa Cather Professor of History at the University of Nebraska and senior historical consultant to the Newberry exhibition. “She really worked hard crafting her own image, and she was effective at her self-presentation to her subjects.”

Among her first public relations successes was the morning of her coronation. Leaving the Tower of London on the traditional route to Westminster Abbey, Elizabeth paused outside the walls to address the assembled crowd. Just as she thanked God for protecting her, as he had rescued Daniel from the lion’s den, the lions of the royal menagerie roared on cue.

For more than four decades Elizabeth carefully constructed and controlled interaction with her subjects. She often made public appearances in London, riding in processions and appearing at plays. She traveled around the country in the summer, staying with the nobility but generating entertainment and work for everyone in the neighborhood.

One of the most effective methods Elizabeth used was through her speeches. A hundred years after the invention of movable type, Elizabeth was taking advantage of it. Copies of her speeches were sometimes available in print within days of her delivering them. The most important speeches, those to Parliament, were written to impress.

“She revised them before they were given, and she revised them afterward because they were for circulation,” says Hulse. Sometimes the drafts are in Elizabeth’s hand, sometimes they are in the hand of Robert Cecil, the closest of the queen’s advisers. And though many of the speeches were delivered for her, even those have what I call an Elizabethan voice. Like a modern political leader, she had a group of speechwriters who could craft the speech so it sounded like her. She had a modern speechwriting, policy-making team.”

Perhaps the most famous of her speeches is the one she made to English troops at Tilbury as they prepared to face the formidable Spanish Armada in 1588. Philip II of Spain was incensed that Elizabeth had sent English troops to the Netherlands to challenge Spain’s ally, the Duke of Parma. Not only that, she also had rejected his proposal of marriage and she continued to encourage her sea captains to plunder Spanish ships headed home from the New World. Philip ordered his massive fleet to join Parma’s army and invade England. Whatever qualms she may have harbored personally, in public Elizabeth was unflinching.

. . . I am come amongst you, as you see, at this time, not for my recreation and disport, but being resolved, in the midst and heat of battle, to live or die amongst you all, to lay down my life for my God and for my kingdom and for my people, my honour, and my blood, even in the dust. I know I have the body of a weak and feeble woman, but I have the heart and stomach of a king, and a king of England too, and think foul scorn that Parma or Spain, or any prince of Europe should dare to invade the borders of my realm . . .

Elizabeth’s speech was an instant success. Versions of it circulated among the troops as soon as the following day. This version is from a letter written in 1623 by Dr. Leonel Sharp, who was at Tilbury and heard the speech. “We know the speech did take place,” Hulse says, “though these may not be exactly the words she spoke. Rather they are a version of what she wished she had said.” Though they were doubtless heartened by their queen, English sailors also had tactical superiority, inspired commanders, and timely storms to help them vanquish the Spanish.

Elizabeth parlayed royal courtships into national advantage. Courtship, especially at the beginning of her reign, was unavoidable. “The pressure on her to marry was very, very strong,” Levin explains. Her Privy Council and succeeding Parliaments begged her to marry. Suitors abounded. Emissaries came not only from England’s noble families, but also from Austria, France, Spain, Sweden, and Scotland.

“She loved courtship,” says Levin. “But I think she did not really want to marry.” Sir James Melville, Scotland’s ambassador to England, reputedly told Elizabeth in 1564, “You will never marry . . . you think if you were married you would only be queen of England, and now you are king and queen both.” For twenty years Elizabeth used marriage negotiations as tools of foreign policy, playing for time as she maneuvered into a political position strong enough to reject each proposal.

Even as she conducted international marriage negotiations, Elizabeth focused on matters of state. She wanted to be perceived as a competent manager of the nation’s affairs. As early as 1559 she told Parliament that she could look after England’s interests effectively without a husband. When Elizabeth made her last speech to Parliament in 1601 she was still unmarried and unapologetic.

There will never Queen sit in my seat with more zeal to my country, care to my subjects and that will sooner with willingness venture her life for your good and safety than myself. . . . And though you have had, and may have, many princes more mighty and wise sitting in this seat, yet you never had nor shall have, any that will be more careful and loving.

A less benevolent side of Elizabeth’s character was on display in 1597 when she received a young ambassador from Poland. She expected the usual speech of goodwill from one monarch to another. Instead, as the ambassador made his speech in Latin, the queen and her senior counselors heard a detailed complaint about how England’s war with Spain was interfering with Poland’s trade.

An outraged Elizabeth replied with lecture on statesmanship, history, and manners, delivered in extemporaneous Latin. The most polite translations tell him finally to “go away and keep quiet.” The story has reached us because Elizabeth insisted that Cecil write a letter describing the scene so that others would catch a glimpse of the monarch as she wanted to be known: adroit, intelligent, imperial, and a little dangerous.

“Elizabeth pondered the Machiavellian issue: is it better for the prince to be loved or to be feared?” says Hulse. “Elizabeth believed it should be both. As Sir John Harington said of her, ‘We did all love her for she said she loved us.’ The alternative would have been to fear her, and she recognized that her father ruled too much by fear.”

Elizabeth’s health deteriorated in the winter of 1602, though no illness was diagnosed. A few days before her death she refused food and the ministrations of her doctors. She stayed away from her bed and summoned the Archbishop of Canterbury. Elizabeth died on the last day of 1602 by the Julian calendar still in use at the time. It was the eve of the Annunciation of Virgin Mary, appropriate for the ‘virgin quene,’ and it was Thursday, the day that her father and sister had died. “To an astonishing degree, considering that she was physically weak, she seemed even to stage-manage this event,” Hulse says.

Elizabeth never formally named an heir, but for years the presumptive heir had been James VI of Scotland, a direct descendent of Henry VIII’s sister, Margaret. He became James I of England, uniting the two countries. During his reign the political situation deteriorated across Europe and England became embroiled in wars at home and abroad. It would be another one hundred years before the monarchy reestablished a clear line of succession. “Nostalgia for Elizabeth was very strong, even during the years of James’s reign,” Levin says.

“November 17, Elizabeth’s accession day, was celebrated for two hundred years after her death.”

About the Author

Lisa Rogers is a freelance writer in Bethesda, Maryland.

Funding Information

The Newberry Library has received $340,460 from NEH to support “Elizabeth: Ruler and Legend” opening September 30 at the Newberry Library in Chicago. Smaller versions of the exhibition will travel to forty libraries across the country during the next two years.