Elizabeth I is most famous for her image as the Virgin Queen and Gloriana. Until recently historians have almost always seen Elizabeth as an amalgamation of these two images, and have scarcely questioned whether or not they were just illusions, or reality. The question of how well Elizabeth I lived up to her image, and how well she maintained it throughout her reign, especially in later years, has now become a topic that historians have a wide range of theories and answers about, that don’t necessarily correspond.
The assumption is that Elizabeth I created her own image, but there is debate over whether or not she did so. She strengthened it with her speeches and actions, but to a degree it was forced upon her at the beginning of her reign, and councillors advised her what direction to take a lot of the time. Elizabeth came to the throne in 1558 having being called a bastard, and “daughter of a whore” from the age of three. Catholics believed her illegitimate and Mary Queen of Scots the rightful heir, whilst her gender presented a great problem in Tudor patriarchal society.
As a woman she was now associated with the largely disastrous reign of her sister Mary I, which didn’t add to people’s acceptance of female rulers. Although devout catholics would always see her as an illegitimate usurper, she could still persuade the majority of the English people who were more nationalistic than catholic, aswell as those who were protestant. She did this through her resemblance to Henry VIII. On the day of her coronation she wore her bright red hair down to play on the nostalgic feeling people had for her father and to emphasise her purity (hair in the style of a maiden).
Derrick Murphy says that “Elizabeth herself was keen to reinforce the message that she was her father’s daughter”, and this, and various speeches that she made(“we hope to rule, govern … as the king my father”) show that she was prepared to emphasise parts of her character in order to keep her popularity. When she came to the throne Elizabeth and her advisors made sure that she pandered to what the English people wanted.
John Knox had also been decrying the “monstrous regiment” of women before Elizabeth came to power, but now he changed his tune, backtracking and coming to the conclusion that Elizabeth would be a good Queen as she was a protestant heroine and would rule as fairly and virtuously as a Deborah or Astraea. This view of Elizabeth was taken up by her subjects, as A. L. Rowse relates “[the pageant] showed a return to the Protestant theme: the Queen was Debora the judge, restorer of the house of Israel.
He goes on to document Elizabeth’s response, saying that “we see that none of the arts of propaganda were lost on Elizabeth. ” This shows that there may be some truth in both the traditionalist view and the “spontaneous monarchy” theory of Wallace MacCaffrey at this point in Elizabeth’s reign. Elizabeth’s subjects were willing to accept another female ruler precisely because she was Henry VIII’s daughter, and they spontaneously created the image of the protestant heroine and used it in the pageants of her coronation so she embodied the qualities they wanted at the time.
But Susan Doran suggests that the image was slightly more manufactured than it seems on the surface, and attributes more of the credit for Elizabeth’s popular image to the success of her propaganda: “Given that the queen had lent costumes to the City guilds for the pageants and that a full account of the procession was published in a propaganda pamphlet afterwards, there can be no doubt that the government had sponsored the event and influenced it’s content.
This shows that upon her succession, Elizabeth and her council were very much in control of her image, and were behind her positive image, but leaves spontaneous support of the people as only partly responsible for the image of Gloriana we know today. In 1560 Elizabeth again used these images in order to dissociate herself from scandal. She was rumoured to be having an affair with Robert Dudley, and his wife Amy Robsart died in suspicious circumstancesat this time. Although the verdict was suicide Elizabeth did not want to risk associating herself with what people were dubbing murder, and barred Dudley from Court.
At this point Elizabeth managed to contain any damage to her reputation by playing up her image as the Virgin Queen. In 1560 the Clopton portrait was painted, and this shows Elizabeth wearing black, ermine (to symbolise purity and right to rule) and holding a bible. This was undoubtedly intended to counteract the effect of the rumours at court and shows that Elizabeth and her council were actively responding to any threats to her reputation as Virgin Queen, and they continued to do so throughout the first decade of her reign.
The 1560-80’s have been described by traditionalists as an age of political stability and one in which Elizabeth was an extremely popular Queen. Keith Randell says that Elizabeth was “widely thought of as a great leader who was worthy of her people’s support and affection” during this time, and the fact the country was at peace until 1588 would have been celebrated by her subjects. Geoffrey Elton’s view of an “accidental monarchy” seems probable at this time.
Things went well for Elizabeth and through her “wait and see” policy she managed to remain secure in all apart from relations with Spain and the catholic church, when the pope excommunicated her in 1572. During this time Elizabeth’s image remained largely intact, but different parts of it were emphasised, as she had failed to live up to the idealistic portrait that had been painted when she was still a young Queen. Elizabeth had by now disappointed the great hopes of her as harbinger of major protestant reform.
The 1559 church settlement had been moderately protestant, but in the 1570’s Elizabeth expelled all puritans from the Church of England. She also failed to give the Dutch rebels the substantial help that English protestants wanted to. What was more, she was liasing with the enemy. When Catherine Di Medici initiated the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre of the French Huguenots Elizabeth not only did not help them, but remained allies with Di Medici, entering marriage negotiations with her son. Devout protestant englishmen were severely disillusioned.
The propaganda at the time focusses on Elizabeth as peacemaker, and she holds olive branches in many of the portraits commissioned then. The Virgin Queen image now became a necessity rather than an excuse for adulation. Elizabeth was now in her forties and had been through various failed marriage negotiations, and the council’s reponse to this was to project an image of Elizabeth as something of a “virgin sacrifice”, for example the image of the pelican is frequently used in her portraits, symbolising the sacrificial nature of her rule.
Some historians argue this interpretation is true. Joel Hurstfield writes “She loved the unity of England more deeply than the procession of suitors that came and saw”, subscribing to the traditionalist view that Elizabeth lived for her people rather than herself. Other historians though, such as Christopher Haigh, argue that this image was “an illusion” which began to slip at the end of the reign. He describes her as a “spinster” and a “fishwife”, and by now none of her subjects were fooled that she was able to bear children.
The Virgin Queen image now became official rather than unofficial, and through it Elizabeth managed to keep her image relatively positive. Although Elizabeth’s image was slipping during the 1570-80’s, the majority of people were happy with the situation. Yes they were becoming worried about the succession, with upheaval around Mary Queen of Scots and her young son, James VI throughout the period, and it is true that puritans were becoming unhappy with Elizabeth’s politique-style rule, but this has to be put in perspective. The country was not at war, people were relatively well off and puritans were a small minority of the population.
At this point in time the traditionalist view of Elizabeth as “arguably the greatest monarch we have ever had” (Jane Dunn) is more likely to be true than any other. The problems came in the 1590’s when the economic state of the country failed more. Harvests were bad and the second and third armadas came from Spain. In 1588 Elizabeth had been able to turn this to her advantage. When the wind drove the armada onto the rocks off Ireland she turned it into a religious victory, having the slogan “God blew and they were scattered” impronted on new coinage.
This maintained her positive image, but when people were suffering first hand in the 1590’s her image suffered as a result. Christopher Haigh makes the point that Elizabeth “had trouble when she was unable to live up to her official image as loving mother of her subjects”. Elizabeth had changed her image to that of the “mother” of her nation in the late 1580’s when it became clear that she would not marry and when she was surrounded by a new generation of younger courtiers. She became less and less able to keep a grip on men such as the Earl of Essex, who increasingly did as he wanted (eg: Ireland) and he rebelled.
Some revisionist historians believe that the public took a shine to the new male role models, and the evidence certainly points that way: “the Council had to prohibit the engraving of pictures of Essex and other nobles. ” Elizabeth and her Council successfully created and maintained an image of a Queen who lived for and embodied England, and this endured until the 1590’s when, with the death or retirement of most of those councillors, it is hardly suprising that the image failed to convince and became more negative.
I am inclined to think that it was more of an illusion than the truth that traditionalist historians have been proclaiming since William Camden in the 1630’s. Traditionalists have always had their own priorities when writing of Elizabeth:-Camden wanted to impress James I, and others have been influenced by the work which has gone before. Elizabeth’s image was more of a smokescreen, but that is no different to the politicians who are in power today, and it has always been the way. Elizabeth’s image was taken as the truth for about 30 years of her 45 year reign, and that is more successful than any other ruler has ever been.