The Sisters Tudor: An Evolution in Evaluating Mary I and Elizabeth I

Mary and Elizabeth TudorThe following post is from Natalie Sweet, research assistant to Susan Bordo. She is the creator of Semper Eadem: An Elizabeth I Blog, and is currently at work on a book project that focuses on life within Abraham Lincoln’s White House (you can read a sample of that project here). The following is taken from a piece Natalie wrote in 2008, Two Tudor Monarchs: Analyzing Queenship in Early Modern England.

Scholarly literature on the two Tudor queens regnant, Mary I and Elizabeth I, suggests a number of past themes about their reigns. Authors once obsessed over Mary’s “bloody” moniker and Catholic faith, while others analyzed Elizabeth’s Protestant policies and her “Glorianna” status.  In the late twentieth century, however, the development of fields in women’s history and gender analysis signaled new ways in which to conceptualize the two sisters.  Obviously, historians had always recognized the fact that Mary and Elizabeth were anomalies as female rulers, but there was little discussion about what being a female ruler in early modern England meant.  Therefore, historians wrote their biographies and political histories with little consideration of how female rule challenged and altered the political scene.[1]  Not until the prime of women’s history in the 1980s did authors consider in detail Mary’s and Elizabeth’s struggle in a patriarchal world.[2]

By 1997, the number of articles on Mary and Elizabeth in the women’s history tradition steadily increased. [3]  Eventually, work on Mary I incorporated a method that had already been utilized to study Elizabeth’s reign: gender analysis.[4]   Today, efforts to locate both Mary’s and Elizabeth’s role in formulating English queenship through gender analysis demonstrates how far the study of the two queens has come.[5]  Where mid-twentieth century histories once reflected both the misogynist viewpoints of the queens’ sixteenth century counterparts and the author writing about them, the advent of women’s history and gender studies allowed historians to discover how the queens’ sex substantially affected how they projected their image and participated politically. This evolution in historical methods likewise produced an evolving definition of “success” for the two queens.  While Elizabeth’s unmarried status condemned her in mid-twentieth century misogynist texts, Mary was rescued from her “bloody” image because she represented a good wife and aspiring mother.  However, as women’s history became more popular, Elizabeth gradually gained respect for managing her autonomy while Mary suffered for her perceived failure in marrying Phillip II.  It was not until after historians fully “rehabilitated” Elizabeth’s image through gender analysis that they in turn discovered the legitimate successes of Mary as a female monarch.

In 1943, Theodore Maynard released his simply titled Queen Elizabeth.  With World War II still raging and the London blitzkrieg excruciatingly fresh in everyone’s minds, a biography of Elizabeth I and England’s triumph over the “invincible” Spanish Armada would have been a welcomed read.  Instead, Maynard primarily focused on the problems of Elizabeth’s reign, especially her treatment of Catholics.  Maynard gave no consideration to the inherent problems of female rule in a patriarchal society, and, indeed, wrote about Elizabeth and prior queens consort and regnant in a misogynist tone.  He described Anne Boleyn as a “shrew,” and deemed Jane Grey “a little prig” because of “her refusal to having a parting with her husband, on the grounds that they were soon to meet in heaven.”[6]  But he saved his most demeaning analysis for Elizabeth.  He believed that any ordinary woman would have broken under the strain that Elizabeth was under as queen, and this indicated that she was “no ordinarily constituted woman.”[7]  Instead, he believed Elizabeth suffered from “a sexual abnormality aggravated by syphilis.”[8] For this reason, he held “compassion for a woman so tortured in her body and soul as often not to be held responsible,” for her actions and, to her credit, believed the “abnormality” was “an asset to Elizabeth as a politician.”[9]

VictorianSistersIn this way, Maynard made Elizabeth into no woman at all.  He explained her successes as a result of her unfeminine anatomy while still blaming her failures on the “feminine spite” that “stifled her decent impulses.”[10]  Mary received no better treatment from Maynard in 1943 or in his 1955 biography, Bloody Mary. In Queen Elizabeth, Maynard found Mary to be “surely the best woman who ever sat upon the English throne, one absolutely devoted to what she believed to be right.”[11]  However, he also found her feminine virtue to be what made her “a poor politician.”[12]  By the release of Bloody Mary, Maynard continued to regard Mary’s reign in a misogynist context.  Mary received his sympathy because she- “not only as a woman…but…a very inexperienced woman”- correctly believed that she needed a husband to advise her.[13]  Because of her sex, Maynard asserted that readers should save their “reprehension” “for the men upon whom she relied and who failed her.”[14]

In brief instances, Maynard seemed close to addressing the problems of female rule.  However, like other books written both before and during the time, he ascribed the “real” problem to something other than Mary’s sex.  For example, Maynard noted that many of Edward VI’s councilors objected to Mary becoming her brother’s regent because she was a woman.  Maynard completely tossed the argument aside, however, in favor of his belief that “the real argument was that Mary…was a Papist at heart.”[15]  While Maynard’s assessment had validity, he missed the opportunity to review why the councilors could make such a statement.  Twenty-four years later, David Loades likewise missed the significance of sex in his 1979 Reign of Mary Tudor.  The political biography sought to recapture the dynamics of Mary’s overlooked reign, and Loades showed little interest in the social, let alone gendered, aspects of her rule.  Therefore, his chapter on “The Spanish Marriage,” a topic of obsession for later historians of women’s history and gender, paid little attention to why Mary felt the need to marry or what the consequences of a queen regnant’s marriage might entail.  Instead, Loades puzzled over the point that “[l]ess than twenty years previously Catherine of Aragon had been a popular queen and it is not very easy to understand why Englishmen should have conceived a particular dislike for Spaniards by 1553.”[16]

The development of women’s studies in the 1970s helped to halt the misogynist texts generated about Mary and Elizabeth.  However, it was not until the 1980s that historians of women’s history began to view either Mary or Elizabeth as a viable topic. Allison Heisch attributed this to their belief that “exceptional women are not representative women.”[17] In her 1980 article “Queen Elizabeth I and the Persistence of Patriarchy,” Heisch described Elizabeth’s struggle with patriarchal society in order to understand “those systems which oppress and exclude women” even at the “exceptional” level.[18]  Elizabeth’s councilors viewed her primarily as a bridge between “Henry VIII to some unnamed, but certainly male heir,” and spoke to her as if they were “lecturing a daughter on her duty.”[19] Comparing her to Gertrude Stein, Heisch claimed Elizabeth fought such treatment by becoming “an honorary male,” a woman who legitimized her rule by running with “the boys” and styling herself as different from other females.[20]

Constance Jordan’s in-depth examination of women’s rule in sixteenth century literature went beyond Heisch’s to examine the sex-related problems that both sisters faced in her 1987 article “Women’s Rule in Sixteenth-Century Thought.”  Noting that “[t]he prospect of [a queen’s] government could hardly have been regarded with anything but concern,” Jordan examined how male writers used Mary’s sex to attack her legitimacy but formulated excuses about queenship to defend Elizabeth’s ascension and more “abnormal” reign.[21] Mary’s religion was the primary concern of Protestants like John Knox, Thomas Becon, and Christopher Goodman, but they principally referenced her sex to denounce her. They firmly stated that God made woman inferior to man and submissive to her husband, and Mary’s ascension was thus “the principal mark of a tyrant” because she “step[ped] out of her place.”[22] More seriously, they charged that Mary’s marriage to the foreign, Catholic Phillip II placed England in danger since he could claim his rights as a husband at any time.[23]  Jordan noted that although Elizabeth sidestepped Mary’s problem by refusing to marry, her decision made her more of an anomaly in England’s now Protestant, marriage valuing culture.  However, since Elizabeth was viewed as a defender of Protestantism, there was a reluctance to make misogynist attacks.  Instead, defenders like John Calvin and John Aylmer explained that, like Deborah in the Bible, the “exceptional woman may be ‘raised up by divine authority.’”[24]

FamilyPortraitJordan’s and Heisch’s articles paved the way for Susan Bassnett to pen her 1988 Elizabeth I: A Feminist Perspective.  Bassnett believed it was time to confront “the strain running through the work of even the most eminent historians that reveal[ed] an uneasiness about Elizabeth’s sex” in a full-length book.[25]  Tackling misogynist texts head-on, Bassnett reiterated the problems of female rule discussed by Jordan and Heisch while simultaneously confronting the aspects of Elizabeth’s reign that could not be blamed on her sex.  For example, Bassnett believed that grumbles about Elizabeth’s feminine “whimsical and capricious” nature were contradicted by her passionate faithfulness to those who she truly cared about.[26]  Likewise, Bassnett did not, as Maynard did, blame Elizabeth’s “feminine nature” on her tendency to demand flattery or banish those who had married without her permission.  Bassnett believed such views were anachronistic “in a world where formal behaviour [sic] played a very important role,” and insisted that “the elaborate sequence of flattery and obsequies that surrounded her [reflected] ritual rather than…realistic demonstrations of feeling.”[27]

Bassnett, along with Heisch and Jordan, demonstrated that being female forced Mary and Elizabeth to deal with problems that no king had ever had to contend with.  Carole Levin’s The Heart and Stomach of a King: Elizabeth I and the Politics of Sex and Power enhanced their studies by placing Elizabeth’s reign under gender analysis “to understand the intersection of politics with gender, of sexuality with power.”[28]  Rather than simply describing the problems or results that Elizabeth faced as a female monarch, as Heisch, Jordan, and Bassnett did, Levin explored gender constructions and role expectations to determine exactly how Elizabeth surpassed her gender and unmarried status.  More importantly, Levin used the technique on Elizabeth’s subjects to determine how they responded to the queen’s manipulation of her sexual image as well.  In the process, she determined that although the problems Elizabeth faced during her reign – difficulties with nobles, quarrels with Parliament, and unpopular wars – were universal for monarchs, “[t]he way these problems manifested themselves in Elizabeth’s reign had to do with her sex.”[29]  For example, in order to evoke love from her subjects, Elizabeth utilized male and female imagery to secure her status.  She portrayed herself as a wife, a mother, and a female saint while simultaneously taking on the king’s mantle as a magical healer and warrior to maintain her tenuous position.   However, while Levin acknowledged, “Elizabeth was far more successful than Mary and the other women rulers of her time,” she also acknowledged that her refusal to wed, and thus not provide an heir, caused “serious problems” as well.[30]  Her subjects feared civil war, and they voiced their uneasiness about their female monarch in a variety of ways.  In popular literature, poems, and even recorded dreams, Levin discovered that Elizabeth’s subjects variously viewed her as a “sacred monarch” and a “wanton and whore “ at different points in her reign.[31]

Levin’s book marked an important point in scholarship about Elizabeth.  No longer could serious-minded scholars portray the younger Tudor queen as Thomas Maynard had, as a sexually deformed dissembler whose feminine nature made her a vain and capricious ruler.  Instead, historians of women’s history and gender analysis brought her into her own.  They acknowledged that Elizabeth’s sex was a legitimate handicap that, in personal instances, she handled surprisingly well.  As Heisch pointed out, her sex made her susceptible to the bullying of her advisors, but Elizabeth largely avoided the problem by making herself an honorary male.  Heisch may have unhappily noted that Elizabeth’s management of her “sexual problem” “did nothing to upset or interfere with male notions of how the world was or should be organized,” but Basset asserted that Elizabeth’s “feminist attitude” marked a triumph for all early modern women.[32]  Because Elizabeth had never allowed her sex to “diminish her prestige” but had utilized it to increase her esteem instead, Bassnett described Elizabeth’s reign as “a unique and extraordinary achievement” “in an age when the social value of women was in retreat.”[33]  Without these revisions to historical scholarship in the 1980s, it is unlikely that Levin could have argued in 1994 that Elizabeth blurred gender lines to be “more than a man and more than a woman too” in an admiring tone.[34]

At the same time that historians in women’s studies positively revised and rehabilitated Elizabeth’s image, however, they also steadily injured the already poor image of Mary.  Prior to the 1980s, “Bloody” Mary’s reign was popularly remembered for the number of Protestants she burned at the stake and the loss of Calais to France.  After the women’s histories of the 1980s were published, she also became the sister whose disastrous political marriage became an example for her successful sister not to follow.  While Heisch only briefly mentioned Mary’s example, Jordan’s article expounded on the issue, blatantly noting that “[b]y refusing to marry, Elizabeth could avoid risking the loss of control that Mary had experienced.”[35] Likewise, Bassnett viewed Mary’s reign as a lesson in what to avoid as a female ruler, commenting that, “Elizabeth must have seen that in order to stay in control,” she had to avoid the fate of her sister, whose “capacity to govern [was] impaired by the depth of…personal misery” her marriage caused her.[36]  Maynard may have made Mary into a Stepford wife in his chauvinistic biography and Loades may have considered her sex as an afterthought, but at least their treatments of the eldest Tudor queen attributed a few positive qualities to her.

The increasing commentary on the “successful” Elizabeth at least reminded historians of women’s history that there was another Tudor queen.  Since Mary was the “unsuccessful one,” however, the one that patriarchal society had seemingly dominated, historians portrayed her in a sympathetic light.  After all, not much could be expected from the unexceptional sister who had lost her autonomy when she married.  In the tradition of women’s history, Glyn Redworth’s 1997 article “’Matters Impertinent to Women’: Male and Female Monarchy under Phillip and Mary” focused on the Spanish marriage.  More specifically, Redworth zeroed in on Phillip’s influence over Mary.  She contradicted Loades’s assessment of the Hapsburg monarch’s influence, noting that he truly involved himself in Mary’s government to “’make up for other matters which are impertinent to women.’”[37]  As a result, Mary, as the “the first female in English history effectively to rule,” found that “the kingly images she could appropriate were few and far between.”[38]  Redworth noted that when the queen married, she lost both those few images and her will to oversee “kingly” issues altogether. Mary as a wife “would nearly always be obliged to surrender her command in the field,” although she had once “take[n] up arms to put down rebellion” after her brother’s death.[39]  As her subjects suspected, Mary’s sex outweighed any “constitutional attempt to cuckold Phillip [and] restrict his political influence” because “[h]is position as Mary’s husband belied all limitations.”[40]

M&ETombRedworth’s Mary seemed to contribute nothing more to the formulation of English queenship than an example of what could happen when a queen lost her autonomy.  In contrast, Judith M. Richards, through a combination of women’s history and gender analysis, suggested, “Mary’s reign is important in its own right, as well as a necessary introduction for any wider study of English female monarchy.”[41]  Instead of focusing solely on the Spanish marriage in her 1997 article “Mary Tudor as ‘Sole Quene’? Gendering Tudor Monarchy,” Richards examined Mary’s use of gendered symbolism and authority both before and after she wed Phillip.  She discovered that, like Elizabeth, Mary incorporated a number of female and male symbolisms into her coronation ceremony to remind her subjects of both her political and physical body.  Indeed, Richards asserted that Mary’s approaches to queenship “subsequently defined [the] central symbolic forms of Elizabeth’s reign and shaped their readings.”[42]  Additionally, although “how far a married queen could be a king remained a problematic question” at the end of her reign, Mary “produced some ingenious constitutional propositions” by marrying Phillip.[43]  Redworth asserted that the most important constitutional issue, “the ultimate political question…of whether the realm belonged to the monarch or the people” was raised because of the Spanish marriage.[44]

Richards’s article marked the resurrection of Mary’s image and the incorporation of gender analysis to study the eldest Tudor queen.  Suddenly, instead of being the queen whose mistakes Elizabeth avoided at all costs, Mary became the sister whose advantageous use of male and female symbolism provided Elizabeth with an example to emulate.  Likewise, as Richards had hoped, another scholar took up the challenge of incorporating Mary into his introduction to the problems of female queenship.  In The Lion Roared: The Problems of Female Rule in English History, Charles Beem utilized gender analysis to examine the problems of queenship from Matilda to Victoria.  Interestingly, Beem did not examine Elizabeth in-depth because he believed “her position as the archetype of English female rule” had caused her to too “long crow[d] the centerstage [sic] among gender studies concerning the nature of female rule in England.”[45]  Instead, he analyzed Mary and the other English queens to determine what they contributed to the formulation of English queenship.

Beem “identifie[d] Mary as the original architect of [his] conceptualization of female rulership within the social constructs of sixteenth-century womanhood.”[46]  Like Richards, Beem examined the gendered language and images that Mary manipulated in order to “inhabit [the] conventional constructs of womanhood” while “remain[ing] within the patriarchal parameters of legitimized female power, avoiding the mistakes that had cost the empress Matilda her coronation four centuries earlier.”[47]  Beem went beyond Richards or any other analysis of the Spanish marriage, however, when he noted that Mary’s pursuit of the Act concerning Regal Power emasculated Phillip.  Historians of women’s history had only asserted that the act affected Phillip’s pride, not his masculinity.  Beem noted that Mary’s “forceful” emergence “from behind the screen of feminine authority” in such times “served as a blueprint for Elizabeth I’s marriage negotiations with various continental princes after she became queen.”[48]  While admitting that the elder Tudor queen provided both good and bad examples for Elizabeth to follow, Beem asserted, “Mary triumphed against formidable odds…while creating a public image of benign queenship as she arranged for a marriage guaranteeing her autonomous sovereignty of queen.”

Over the past sixty years, scholars traveled a long ways in their studies on Elizabeth and Mary Tudor.  Certainly, no scholar of women’s history and gender analysis today could seriously consider the types of assertions that Thomas Maynard made in 1943.  Likewise, it is increasingly obvious that any future political study of the Tudor queens must include at least some discussion, conducted either in the tradition of women’s history or gender analysis, of their anomalous female position.  Elizabeth’s status as “the Virgin Queen” may make it achingly tempting to solely reference her as the example of extraordinary female queenship, but historians of gender analysis clearly demonstrate through their examinations of both sisters that Mary cannot be forgotten.  Thanks to the evolution in historical methods, it is unmistakable that Mary contributed a model of queenship, with both good and bad aspects, for Elizabeth to follow or ignore.

 

Works Cited

Bassnett, Susan.  Elizabeth I: A Feminist Perspective.  Oxford: Berg, 1988.

Beem, Charles.  The Lioness Roared: The Problems of Female Rule in English History. New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2006.

Heisch, Allison.  “Queen Elizabeth I and the Persistence of Patriarchy.” Feminist Review 4 (1980): 45-56.

Jordan, Constance.  “Woman’s Rule in Sixteenth-Century British Political Thought.” Renaissance Quarterly 40 (Autumn, 1987): 421-451.

Levin, Carole.  The Heart and Stomach of a King: Elizabeth I and the Politics of Sex and    Power. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1994.

Loades, David.  The Reign of Mary Tudor.  London and New York: Longman, Inc., 1979.

Maynard, Theodore. Queen Elizabeth. London: Hollis & Carter LTD, 1943.

Maynard, Theodore.  Bloody Mary. Milwaukee: The Bruce Publishing Company, 1955.

Redworth, Glyn.  “’Matters Impertinent to Women’: Male and Female Monarchy under Phillip and Mary.” The English Historical Review 447 (Jun., 1997): 597-613.

Richards, Judith M. “Mary Tudor as ‘Sole Quene’?: Gendering Tudor Monarchy.” The Historical Journal 40 (Dec. 1997): 895-924.


[1] Theodore Maynard, Queen Elizabeth (London: Hollis & Carter, 1943);

Theodore Maynard, Bloody Mary (Milwaukee: The Bruce Publishing Company, 1955);

David Loades, The Reign of Mary Tudor (London and New York: Longman, Inc, 1979).

[2] Allison Heisch, “Queen Elizabeth I and the Persistence of Patriarchy,” Feminist Review 4 (1980);

Constance Jordan, “Woman’s Rule in Sixteenth-Century British Political Thought,” Renaissance Quarterly 40 (Autumn, 1987);

Susan Bassnett, Elizabeth I: A Feminist Perspective (Oxford: Berg, 1988).

[3] Glyn Redworth, “’Matters Impertinent to Women’: Male and Female Monarchy under Phillip and Mary,” The English Historical Review 447 (Jun., 1997);

Judith M. Richards, “’To Promote a Woman to Beare Rule’: Talking of Queens in Mid-Tudor England,” The Sixteenth Century Journal 28 (Spring, 1997).

 

 

 

[4] Judith M. Richards, “Mary Tudor as ‘Sole Quene’?: Gendering Tudor Monarchy,” The Historical Journal 40 (Dec. 1997);

Carole Levin, The Heart and Stomach of a King: Elizabeth I and the Politics of Sex and Power (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1994).

[5] Charles Beem, The Lioness Roared: The Problem of Female Rule in English History (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2006).

[6] Maynard, Queen Elizabeth, 5, 50.

[7] Maynard, Queen Elizabeth, 135.

[8] Maynard, Queen Elizabeth, 135.

[9] Maynard, Queen Elizabeth, 139, 135.

[10] Maynard, Queen Elizabeth, 262.

[11] Maynard, Queen Elizabeth, 62.

[12] Maynard, Queen Elizabeth, 62.

[13] Maynard, Bloody Mary, 155.

[14] Maynard, Bloody Mary, 285.

[15] Maynard, Bloody Mary, 80.

[16] Loades, 69-70.

[17] Heisch, 45.

[18] Heisch, 54.

[19] Heisch, 48-49.

[20] Heisch, 45.

[21] Jordan, 421.

[22] Jordan, 432.

[23] Jordan, 427.

[24] Jordan, 437.

[25] Bassnett, 120.

[26] Bassnett, 9.

[27] Bassnett, 11.

[28] Levin, 9.

[29] Levin, 9.

[30] Levin, 8-9.

[31] Levin, 11, 66.

[32] Heisch, 53;

Bassnett, 125.

[33] Bassnett, 15.

[34] Levin, 147.

[35] Heisch, 49;

Jordan, 429.

[36] Bassnett, 40.

[37] Redworth, 598.

[38] Redworth, 599.

[39] Redworth, 611.

[40] Redworth, 611.

[41] Richards, 895.

[42] Redworth, 895.

[43] Richards, 924.

[44] Richards, 924.

[45] Beem, 12.

[46] Beem, 22.

[47] Beem, 98.

[48] Beem 98.

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5 Comments

Filed under Across/Beyond Genres with The Tudors: Guest Posts by Novelists, Historians, Cultural Observers, Poets, Memoirists, Artists, and Bloggers

5 responses to “The Sisters Tudor: An Evolution in Evaluating Mary I and Elizabeth I

  1. Anne Barnhill

    Great article-quite fascinating–thank you!

  2. Reblogged this on A Passion for History and commented:
    Interesting and well-written article…what do you guys think?

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