Tag Archives: Elizabeth Tudor

A Formative Childhood? A Comparison of the Reigns of Mary Stuart and Elizabeth Tudor

Above: queens, cousins, rivals. Mary Stuart, queen consort of France and queen regnant of Scotland (left) and Elizabeth Tudor, queen regnant of England (right).

Above: queens, cousins, rivals. Mary Stuart, queen consort of France and queen regnant of Scotland (left) and Elizabeth Tudor, queen regnant of England (right).

Conor Byrne is a history student at the University of Exeter whose research interests include gender, cultural, and social history. His excellent blog focuses on historical issues but also touches upon contemporary political and social events. 

Being a queen regnant in sixteenth-century Europe was no easy task. Prevailing misogynistic notions questioned whether women, as the inferior sex, had the right to rule over their male superiors. John Knox, the vehement Scottish Protestant preacher, opined in his The first blast of the trumpet against the monstrous regiment of women, attacking the rule of female monarchs such as Mary Tudor and Mary of Guise and published in 1558, that female rule was contrary to Biblical law. He bitterly concluded: ‘For their [women’s] sight in ciulie regiment, is but blindnes: their strength, weakness: their counsel, foolishenes: and judgement, phrenesie, if it be rightlie considered’. In view of this, the experiences of the queens regnant Mary Stuart, queen of Scotland, and Elizabeth Tudor, queen of England, should be considered in light of the customary expectations of figures such as Knox. 

Modern psychologists often suggest that childhood experiences are formative in governing later choices, actions and motives. Alfred Adler believed that people develop desires and drives during the childhood phase which later affects adulthood. Ann Smith concluded, in her article published by Psychology Today, that ‘our own childhood experiences, which include parents, combined with our own personalities, our reaction to siblings and peers and the context of our lives send us off on a path with a particular set of beliefs and patterns that have a huge impact on our future relationships’. Although the psychology of queen regnants such as Mary and Elizabeth, living four hundred years ago, can only be guessed at, it is credible that the childhood experiences of these two queens, which were vastly different, dictated significantly their later actions and beliefs, particularly in relation to queenship and authority.

Above: John Knox's The first blast of the trumpet (1558) was aimed at attacking female rulers such as Mary Stuart and Mary Tudor (right).

Above: John Knox’s The first blast of the trumpet (1558) was aimed at attacking female rulers such as Mary Stuart and Mary Tudor (right).

Both women descended from the first Tudor king, Henry VII, who had attained the crown of England through his defeat of the last Yorkist king, Richard III, at the Battle of Bosworth in August 1485. Elizabeth Tudor’s birth had only been brought about by the annulment of her father’s first marriage and his subsequent marriage to Anne Boleyn in 1533, with her birth occurring in September of that year. This marriage and the accompanied break with the Roman Church proved highly significant in European politics, particularly later on in the sixteenth century, for Catholic powers such as France and Spain viewed Henry VIII’s divorce as illegal and his remarriage void, rendering his second daughter Elizabeth a bastard with no right to accede to the throne of England. Mary Stuart, by contrast, was the grand-niece of Henry VIII since she was the daughter of the Scottish king, James V (nephew of Henry), and his French queen Mary of Guise. Her line of descent and her claim to the English throne came through Henry’s eldest sister Margaret Tudor, second child of Henry VII.

Elizabeth Tudor’s childhood was extremely complex and must be viewed as, at best, topsy turvy. For the first three years of her life, she had occupied a central place in her father’s affections as the heir to his throne following the bastardisation of her elder sister Mary. Besotted with his new wife Anne, the English king continued to hope, however, that she would bear him the much longed-for son to succeed Henry on the throne of England. Like most European rulers, Henry adhered to prevailing ideas that female rulers were unacceptable and contrary to God. This idea had, of course, provided the context for the annulment of his first marriage and his belief that his daughter Mary was illegitimate. Elizabeth enjoyed the luxury and splendour befitting an English princess, with her own household and servants, but because this occurred in the first three years of her life it is questionable to what extent she remembered or fully appreciated these luxurious early years.

In 1536, before her third birthday, Elizabeth’s fortunes changed dramatically with her mother’s loss of favour and eventual execution on charges of treason, adultery, and incest. While most historians firmly believe in Anne’s innocence, her daughter was presumably shattered by the news of her mother’s death, although at two years old how much she understood of the situation was very limited. Historians such as Sarah Gristwood and Maria Perry question how closely Elizabeth had bonded with her mother, for she had never resided with her. Following the custom of sixteenth century royal practice, Elizabeth had been nourished by a wet nurse and had been assigned her own household at Hatfield. Her visits to court had been relatively infrequent. Perhaps, as John Neale suggests, Elizabeth’s ’emotional life was unaffected by her mother’s fortunes’.

But this is slightly dubious. Following her mother’s execution, Elizabeth was also, like Mary, declared a bastard, no longer in line to the English throne. Her title of princess was stripped from her, and it is probable that her father, by virtue of who her mother was, viewed her with considerable disfavour for a time. Probably Henry neglected Elizabeth in the immediate aftermath of her mother’s death, for in the late summer of 1536 her governess Lady Bryan was forced to beg Cromwell for new clothes for the toddler. Later that year, however, she had returned to court and the Cardinal du Bellay observed the king’s affection for his youngest daughter. By all accounts, during her life Elizabeth revered her father’s memory and proudly proclaimed her parentage. By contrast, she is said to have mentioned Anne Boleyn’s name only three times in her seventy-year long life. Does this indicate suspicion or even hostility towards her mother, who had been executed for the foulest of crimes? Historians such as Alison Weir think not, believing that she may have, as queen, commissioned George Wyatt to write a secret defence of her mother.

Although Elizabeth was probably not severely affected personally in the immediate aftermath of this event, it is likely that her mother’s execution ‘must have overshadowed Elizabeth’s childhood. Over the years, guarded revelations, gossip, rumour and innuendo… and the growing awareness of her bastard status, must have caused the maturing Elizabeth recurring distress and enduring insecurities, and certainly affected her emotional development’ (Weir, 2009). The executions of both Katherine Howard (1542) and Lady Jane Grey (1554, by her sister Queen Mary) likely caused Elizabeth considerable distress, bringing back painful memories of her own mother’s brutal end. But how did these early childhood experiences govern Elizabeth’s decisions and choices as a ruler?

For one thing, as Antonia Fraser suggests, she learned from a very early age to hide her true feelings. Although Elizabeth was notoriously prone to fits of anger, distress, and annoyance, her own personal feelings regarding, for instance, personages such as Anne and her cousin Mary Stuart, queen of Scots, remain mysterious, as do her personal feelings for Robert Dudley, earl of Leicester and her lifelong suitor. Wisely, Elizabeth chose not to become embroiled in plots against her sister Queen Mary, although she was imprisoned in the Tower of London for a time. When Thomas Seymour tried to seduce her in 1549 during the reign of her brother Edward as a means of pursuing power at court, Elizabeth wisely refused to have nothing to do with him, and at the news of his execution she noted his ‘very little judgement’. 

In other ways, too, the impact of Elizabeth’s early childhood experiences can be clearly discerned. She was notoriously touchy about her status, and reacted furiously to allegations that she was a bastard and thus no rightful queen of England. 

Elizabeth’s reign was characterised by her caution and indecisiveness. She sought to placate foreign powers such as Spain while cautiously supporting fellow Protestants in the Netherlands, who sought to free themselves from the tyranny of the Spanish monarchy. Nevertheless, she did not seek to invade Scotland or France as a means of asserting her authority as her father, Henry VIII, sought to do. Her own horror of bloodshed and her desire for clemency can also be explained as a result of her personal aversion to the bloody experiences of her youth. Famously, she spent weeks, even months, agonising over her duty to sign the death warrant of Mary Stuart, and unlike her Catholic sister, refused to instigate a full scale Holocaust of religious deviants during her throne. Notwithstanding this, English Catholics were, of course, harshly persecuted from the 1570s on in light of the menacing threat of Spain and, to a lesser extent, France.

But above all the impact of Elizabeth’s childhood can most illuminatingly be seen in her attitudes to marriage and her decision to remain unmarried as England’s Virgin Queen. Her father had not prioritised her marriage in her youth, although suggestions of a betrothal to the son of the French king had surfaced during her early years. Later, when Mary Tudor sought to marry Elizabeth to the duke of Savoy, Elizabeth personally refused, on grounds of her decision, already made in her early twenties, to remain single, a decision which revolted her unhappily married sister. Why she chose to do so can only be guessed at, although most historians attribute her momentous decision to the bloody experiences of marriage suffered by her mother Anne and her stepmother Katherine Howard. Potentially, the death in childhood of two of her stepmothers, Jane Seymour and Katherine Parr, also influenced Elizabeth’s aversion to marriage, for she may have come to associate the married position with an early death, pain, even bloodshed. Others argue that she feared the loss of both personal and political power if she had to give way to a husband, while some contended that she refused to marry because she was physically unable to bear children.

In her illuminating article ‘Why Elizabeth I Never Married’, Retha Warnicke suggests that political issues were far more important, for ‘every British queen regnant who married soon discovered that her husband and his family complicated her life politically’. The unsuccessful marriages of three other queen regnants at this time, Lady Jane Grey, Mary Tudor and Mary Stuart, probably influenced Elizabeth’s marital beliefs. Jane’s Dudley in-laws were unpopular, while Mary Tudor’s Spanish husband was so hated that a popular rebellion was directed against him in 1554. Mary Stuart’s second marriage to Henry lord Darnley had, of course, ended in his brutal murder, attributed by hostile individuals to the Scottish queen herself. Her third husband brutally raped her and left her alone in a hostile Scotland. In view of Warnicke’s arguments, it is extremely likely that both Elizabeth’s childhood experiences and the experiences of later queen regnants in relation to marriage governed her momentous decision to remain unmarried.

Above: Queens Elizabeth Tudor and Mary Stuart in their youth.

Above: Queens Elizabeth Tudor and Mary Stuart in their youth.

It is clear that Queen Elizabeth’s personal views and decisions regarding foreign policy, marriage, and the shedding of bloodshed were strongly governed by her formative childhood experiences. Is the same notion true for Mary Stuart, queen regnant of Scotland and, at one stage, queen consort of France? As second cousin to the English queen, Mary Stuart had enjoyed a far different childhood to Elizabeth. While Mary as dauphiness of France was to enjoy a life of luxury and splendour similar to that of the English princess before the execution of her mother, beforehand her birth in 1542 to the Scottish king James V occurred at a time of political and foreign difficulties in Scotland. The hostility of Henry VIII, directed in continuing invasions of Scotland, was worsened by the death of James six days after his daughter’s birth. At 6 days old, therefore, Mary Stuart became queen of Scotland. Her mother, Queen Mary, became regent of Scotland during her daughter’s minority, but her French lineage and her Catholic faith rendered her an unpopular figure to Scottish Protestants. It is significant that the Scottish Reformation occurred from this time.

The hostile misadventures of the English king encouraged the Scottish dowager queen’s decision to send her infant daughter to the land of her own birth, France, where she would be brought up by her Guise relatives and groomed for a splendid marriage to the French dauphin, Francois, who would day accede to the crown of France. Although, like Elizabeth, Mary’s infant years had been traumatic and complex, during her adolescence she enjoyed a life of luxury and fulfilment as a princess of France. She grew into a tall, striking, charming woman who enjoyed poetry, music, and dancing, and who sought personal satisfaction in outdoor physical exercise. While she was of the Catholic faith, during her teenage years she was not devout. However, the year 1558 was significant for Mary and the course of her life. Aged fifteen at the time, Mary’s position in Europe was immeasurably strengthened by the death of her cousin Queen Mary Tudor, ruler of England, in November. Because Catholic powers, as mentioned, identified Elizabeth as a bastard, in the eyes of Europe, Mary Stuart was now the rightful queen of England. Elizabeth’s Protestant faith rendered her a heretic, and her illegitimacy was proclaimed to be a pressing reason why she should never accede to the crown of England. Accordingly, Mary and her French husband, whom she had married in April of that year in Paris, began using the royal arms of England alongside those of France and Scotland and it was ordered that they should be referred to as the king and queen of France, Scotland and England.

Mary’s childhood and adolescence had encouraged her to believe that, by virtue of her excellent lineage and her Catholic faith, she was the rightful queen of England. But her future became uncertain in 1560 when, aged only seventeen, the French dauphin died prematurely. No longer queen consort of France, Mary decided to return home to Scotland as its queen regnant, although not after considering a second marriage alliance with a powerful nation such as Spain. Once in Scotland, Mary’s political decisions and choices as queen are intriguing in view of her childhood experiences. Her religious policy was famously fair and liberal, for although she was a Catholic, the Scottish Reformation had progressed so extensively that she quickly discerned that it would be unwise to press for Catholicism to become the state religion. Her own mother had faced mounting hostility in view of her Catholic faith, culminating in an invasion. Wisely, Mary learned from her childhood experiences in accordance with the political and religious situation prevailing in Scotland. Like Elizabeth in the early years of her reign, who famously desired not ‘to make windows into men’s souls’, Queen Mary sought peace and stability in a kingdom which was slowly experiencing increasing inner tensions. She may also have been influenced by the religious violence in France between Catholics and Huguenots during her childhood. As Fraser contends, she seems to have had a personal aversion to bloodshed and violence, like her cousin Elizabeth.

Mary’s beliefs regarding marriage and motherhood were significantly different to those of Elizabeth, most likely because of her own childhood experiences in that regard. While Elizabeth may have equated motherhood and marriage with bloodshed and an early death, Mary’s acquaintance with the fertility of the French royal family, coupled with her own maternal feelings, meant that marriage was a promising prospect for her. She also regarded it as essential in order to preserve dynastic and political stability in Scotland. Unlike Elizabeth, who feared the loss of her authority through marriage, Mary naturally desired a strong ruling hand to aid her in her queenship. In view of this, in 1565 Mary, having fallen in love with the dashing but volatile Henry Stewart, lord Darnley, chose to marry once more. Her choice, aside from his own personal failings, was a wise one, for Henry had royal blood by virtue of being the son of Lady Margaret Douglas, niece of Henry VIII as the daughter of Margaret Tudor. Since Mary Stuart was the granddaughter of Margaret Tudor, she was first cousin to Lord Darnley.

Mary’s political decisions and views were dictated entirely by her childhood experiences in France. There, absolutism reigned, and the monarchy was entirely respected with its due reverence. By contrast, the Scottish monarchy was beset with difficulties in view of increasing religious conflict among the Scottish lords. They were violent and sought only to pursue their own interests. Abduction and rape of rich widows was commonly used as a means of achieving power and greater wealth. It was therefore impossible for Mary to appreciate the tensions and resentment prevalent among her nobility. Despite her religious tolerance, her Catholic faith rendered her unacceptable to hostile Protestants such as John Knox and her brother, the earl of Moray. Her husband, Lord Darnley, soon proved to be a disastrous choice as consort. Immature, jealous and easily manipulated, he was soon embroiled in a plot to kill Mary’s beloved secretary Riccio, who was blamed for causing the Queen’s disillusionment with her second husband. Less than a year after Riccio’s brutal end, Darnley himself had been murdered, his strangled body found at Kirk o’Field. His house had been blown up in a plot to kill him, probably governed largely by the Earl of Bothwell who subsequently abducted the Scottish queen and raped her. Their marriage ceremony followed shortly afterwards. Mary now totally lost any support she had formerly enjoyed from the nobility. Viewing her as an adulteress and whore, they imprisoned her at Lochleven, and forced her to abdicate in favour of her infant son James. Months later, she managed to escape to England, where she would endure 19 years of imprisonment before Queen Elizabeth signed her death warrant, when evidence gradually but quickly emerged that Mary had been involved in a number of plots against her. Mary’s life came to an end at the hands of the executioner’s axe in Fotheringhay Castle in February 1587.

While Elizabeth’s decisions were governed by caution and indecision, Mary’s have often been considered reckless and impulsive, although her early religious policies were tolerant and well-considered. She also sought to pursue a policy of conciliation with the nobility, in order to avoid bloodshed and violence at the Scottish court. Both women were influenced supremely by their childhood experiences. In relation to marriage, Elizabeth shrunk from the prospect due to her own psychological views and her political awareness, while Mary’s association of marriage with lineage and power, formed at the court of France, governed her decisions to remarry once in Scotland. Both women pursued strong alliances with European powers as a means of strengthening their positions politically and personally; Elizabeth because of the experiences of her father and sister in their reigns and because of England’s own insecurities; and Mary because she was aware that Scotland’s conflict could only be assuaged by the helping hand of a loyal Catholic ally. Both women also sought conciliating religious policies since both had a horror of bloodshed and violence. But in the most important decisions, it seems clear that Elizabeth was both more politically astute and more aware of the importance of her people’s opinions. Consequently, she refused to marry Robert Dudley in 1560 following the mysterious death of his wife because she was aware that she was implicated by some in Amy Robsart’s death; she refused to go to war with fellow Protestants because she feared England’s loss of security at the hands of hostile powers such as Spain; and she refused to suffer the loss of her virgin status. Elizabeth was understandably reluctant to place her political and personal authority in doubt were she to marry an overbearing husband. Her own sister’s example had demonstrated such a risk. 

By contrast, Mary Stuart’s decision to marry Darnley appears singularly misguided even if, at the time, it was considered a strong alliance. But her own decision to marry Bothwell scandalised her people and alienated her nobility, although it seems hardly fair to blame Mary since he had both abducted and raped her and it is certain that she had very little choice. But the belief that she was a constant schemer and plotter against the English queen, whatever the truths of it, and the association of her name with murder blackened her reputation irretrievably. Unlike Elizabeth, who at an early age by virtue of her childhood experiences became cautious and indecisive, Mary was more impulsive and reckless by virtue of the fact that her childhood had not prepared her in the same manner for a successful queenship. Her sense of absolutism political sense and her views regarding marriage were significantly different to those of Queen Elizabeth.

Queen regnants faced hostility and suspicion in the sixteenth century, when it was believed that women were inferior to men and as such had no right to rule over them. The example of Queen Elizabeth proved that a woman could rule successfully, while that of Mary Stuart indicated the difficulties a female ruler faced by virtue of her gender. Both women’s childhoods dictated their decisions later in life and their own personal characteristics, but while Elizabeth has been generally praised as a successful ruler and perhaps even England’s greatest monarch, Mary has often been condemned, as a result of her political and religious decisions, as a failure, notwithstanding the prevailing image of her as a religious martyr or tragic figure.


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

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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