Myths and history are often so interwoven we are not even aware there is a distinction between the two……
Elizabeth I is associated with two adjectives – golden and virgin. Hers was a Golden Age; its argos perhaps the Golden Hind; its heroes Drake and Raleigh; its healing golden fleece the queen’s ever-virgin status. 7th September marks every year the anniversary of the birth of Elizabeth I. She was the last in a long line of the English monarchs not to rule the entirety of this archipelago known as the British Isles; and its two kingdoms together on the largest island known as Great Britain.
On Elizabeth I’s death in 1603 the English kingdom was united to the Scots kingdom of Tudor dynastic rivals – the Stuarts.
As the same Scots nation now teeters on the verge of possibly leaving that union personified by a single monarch it seems a good moment to pause and consider the Virgin Queen and her legacy.
The difference between succession and succeeding….
It is an obvious question to ask of any dynasty. In the case of the Valois in France we can describe its failure in painful detail. We similarly can describe the end of the Habsburg monarchy in Spain in 1701 and the wars that follow it are aptly named the Wars of the Spanish succession. In chronology those wars were preceded by the Wars of the English succession which established William III over James II; and followed by the wars of the Polish Succession and then the wars of the Austrian succession. The fall of the houses of Bourbon and Romanov are linked in our minds with Revolution. The Yorkist kings rose and fell in battles royal in the previous century to the Tudors. Yet, in 1603 the Tudors pass from history without a struggle.
Elizabeth I never married. That this cutlural and social behavioral abnormality passess without question – on the nod from History – that itself should on reflection appear very odd. And it’s on reflection that the whole irrational and exaggerated mythology of the Elizabeth rests; the reflection of a wonderland cast in the looking glass from where the construct of Elizabeth I looks back at us secure in her place in the royal pantheon as England’s greatest queen. That this construct should largely be man made is only another irony. The film Elizabeth sought to portray this Elizabeth directly as a construct of an evil genius – Secretary Francis Walsingham. Popular Tudor history is replete with evil genii – to which Ms Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell is only the most recent addition. Others have tended to see Elizabeth as etched with the golden glow of the semi-divine.The starched iconography of the virgin-queen in fact arrived very late in her reign and only when it was beyond peradventure that Elizabeth could not bear a child. Until then her virginity had rather been used as the conventional signal of maidenhood – the concomitant female virtue of eligibility to marry and have children.
Elizabeth’s decision not to marry as a reasoned necessity of policy has been parsed in some historians’ grammars as a declension of the Divine wisdom. While it is clear that Elizabeth was ambiguous about marriage the notion – most popular amongst her adulatory biographers – that this was a politically deliberate act of foresight – is unsupported by any evidence. Elizabeth’s heartfelt cry “The Queen of Scots is lighter of a fair son but I am but barren stock” rings down the centuries. Her reference was biblical. In Jewish tradition being barren, alike the eponymous fig tree in the flower of youth, refers to possibility of fruitfulness passing in time not to it being impossibly beyond reach. Her allusion meant she was as as eligible a queen but as yet still left unmarried and thus as yet unable to equal the feat of her Scots cousin. It might have been the cry of a jealous or angry woman but what Elizabeth certainly did not mean is what some biographers (using cod-psychological argument) have supposed that she knew she was physically or emotionally unable to conceive.
Elizabeth often considered marriage; there is no evidence she couldn’t marry; nor that she would have been unable to have children had she married. With Mary Stewart and Robert Dudley (whom she made earl of Leicester for this express purpose) she proposed they all three lived together in some sort of quasi-matrimonial ménage à trois. In the late 1570’s with the Duke of Alencon (one of Henri II’s many sons) she came as close to marriage as any woman might before finally once more losing her nerve. Elizabeth continued to endure the necessary regular medical examinations to establish her continuing capacity to conceive. So, marriage was always on the menu if not ever quite the dish of the day. Like a cat with a mouse or perhaps a connoisseur with a favourite wine – Elizabeth toyed with the idea of marriage and in the 1590’s with the Earl of Essex she even toyed publically with its laughable impossibility.
In the end it was a bridge to far. She was not to marry. There was to be no heir apparent or presumptive, Tudor or Grey, Stuart or otherwise. Self-evidently this was not a good thing for the Tudors themselves and given Henry VIII’s heroic struggles to ensure the very the contrary it might be described as catastrophic failure of the entire project at the very heart of what we might call Tudor age. Indeed perhaps Elizabeth passively resisted her father’s imperative as her own quiet revenge on the man who destroyed her mother and her own childhood: who knows?
However, at this very time when the Media positively coos with delight over the prospect of yet another royal baby for the fecund House of Windsor, it is pertinent to ask why Elizabeth should have refused the primary duty of any dynastic head of family in any time – to have her own children to secure the succession for the good of the dynasty? It is worth asking but we must always as historians admit it cannot be answered from evidence. We can say that on the narrow criteria alone Elizabeth was as much an enigma to her contemporaries as she is to us today; and to them on these terms she her refusal to marry and failure to have children were inexplicable.
It is equally not possible to answer the question whether this refusal to marry was it good or bad for England as a kingdom – again that’s a speculation for the minds of Ms Gregory or Ms Mantel and their ilk. It is certainly not history’s business. However, the historian must observe that this outcome, if it was deliberate, was not inevitable. History must also observe no monarchy, neither patriarch or matriarch before or since, have voluntarily taken Elizabeth I’s final solution as a programmatic dynastic model. Even the godfathers of the Mafia see securing family succession as key to their concept of inherited wealth; power; and position.
As so often, the Elizabeth from history who meets us never meets us halfway nor halfway addresses herself to the problems she created by her decision not to marry. Again, as with so much in relation to Elizabeth there is always a sense that this was not an active but rather a passive choice born of chronic indecision.
Elizabeth I is history’s most notorious procrastinator. Her hagiographer Sir John Neale coined the phrase “masterly inaction”. It is a odd notion honed by Neale in the 1930’s that the temporising, postponing, procrastinations of the indecisive queen rather than being an impediment to effective rule were rather a politic stroke of genius. It was certainly not what her contemporaries thought nor even her Victorian admirers – Macaulay, J.A.Froude and Pollard. This deft infelicity with truth and logic rather well reflects wonderland of all the Elizabethan myth-makers before and since. Vices that curse the hands of mere mortals hands in Eliza’s become virtues blessed by the gods.
Contemporary biographers of Stalin, Mao and the Fuhrer were likewise dazzled by the cult of personality. Historians ought to be more chary of suspending belief in the rational or inverting usual historical criteria and resting judgements instead upon the exceptionalism of personality. Outside myths and fairy tales virtues are rarely transmuted into vices or vice-versa. There is no alchemy that marries the human gifts of intelligence and wit with human frailties of vanity and indecision to make political gold.
The skills Elizabeth owned – and they were many and they are rightly fascinating – kept the show of mono-monarchy on the road for forty years and carried her successfully to the end of that particular road. There’s a sort of genius in that – beyond the luck of longevity – but on her departure she left a trail of baggage across the political stage for her successors to pick-up. These unresolved problems were destined finally to overwhelm the notion of personal monarchy itself.
The issues she left all had their origins in the political actions of Henry VIII: they encompassed prerogative power and the nature personal monarchy; they touched on notions of political consent; they composed the idea of law and personal liberty; they touched foreign policy and war; they touched finance and the coinage; they touched upon taxation, monopolies; they touched on patronage; office-holding and wardships; they touched religion and the doctrinal and economic viability of the Anglican church; and all these together challenged government and confronted effective exercise of monarchical power in England. Elizabeth had forty years to resolve some of these problems. Practically, beyond the reform of the coinage inherited from her sister Mary, she resolved none of them.
Contemporary academics would now point to the fact her half-sister Mary had continued successfully (if controversially) to govern alone even after her marriage to Philip in 1555. Mary Stewart may not have married wisely but there was no question that she and not Darnley was sovereign. Indeed Mary Stewart’s many troubles were fomented by the very fact that she had outwitted her opponents on policy matters on several occasions before the explosive events at Kirk o’field. Mary Stewart’s problems were made infinitely worse by the English gold surreptitiously sent to her noble enemies behind her back. To her face Elizabeth I was an effusion of solidarity. Behind both queens’ backs Cecil pretty was much directly implicated in the Rizzio business. That said, Mary Stewart’s problems arose as much from her own high-flown dynastic ambitions to be formally acknowledged as Elizabeth’s heir presumptive. However, Elizabeth did not need to stir up rebellion and sponsor the sponsors of murder in Scotland when she might have resolved the problem of the succession by unilateral action of her own.
This disengagement from the ordinary rules of dynastic politics in a personal monarchy spawned a circle of interlocking problems which Elizabeth and her government struggled to square for forty years. Even the event her many apologists see as the defining moment of her reign – the defeat of the Spanish Armada – was not an engagement actively sought but a rather a war that passively blew her way. For thirty years – from 1558 until 1587 – – Elizabeth’s voiced a resolute public policy of peace with Spain. It’s true her more Puritan advisers, led by Walsingham, had long wanted to drag England further into an ideological anti-catholic engagement in European affairs – in Scotland supporting the protestant nobility in their plots against their Catholic sovereign – in the Dutch wars – a politico-religious entanglement Elizabeth wanted to avoid – taking the side of the Protestant estates against their sovereign prince – Philip II. Elizabeth resisted and gave way in ever vacillating equal measure. It’s true her advisers often subverted her policy to achieve their own ends. yet is was a game Elizabeth permitted to be played again and again – as with the ghoulish mime she played over signing Mary Stewart’s death warrant. If Elizabeth willed amoral ends her conscience was squeamish over means. It was not really the Tudor style that characterised the politics of Henry VIII or Mary I or even Edward VI let alone one which they would have permitted to their advisers. With Elizabeth this laissez-faire game became a way of governing.
In the end – like the succession – her peace policy failed – partly because Elizabeth lacked allies – partly because the queen lacked will to to say no to Leicester and others in the governing male elite itching for its chance for glory on the field of battle – and partly because the counter-reformation sweeping the continent in the second half of the sixteenth century had turned the religious schism of Reformation into an unbridgeable ideological divide where there was never any viable via Media. But the fact is also that Elizabeth’s juggling act also failed because she failed to throw the one club into the performance that might have stolen the show – to marry and thereby secure her succession and gain a sufficiently large ally to support her policy of splendid isolation.
In England Philip II’s reign is seen as a failure epitomised by the plucky English stinging like a bee and dancing rings around the stolid Spanish armadas like maritime butterflies. In Europe Philip II is seen rather differently – as the man who made the dynastic possibilities of the rambling agglomeration of kingdoms and provinces of Emperor Charles V into a reality. It was Philip who turned Spain into the European superpower of the sixteenth century. This had nothing to do with little England and her virgin queen. Far from London and as far from Madrid, it was off the coast of Cyprus, in 1571 that Spain became the world power. There she fought and won the most important naval engagement of the sixteenth century – Lepanto. This victory proved to be the decisive check in the march of Ottoman Turks into central Europe and the central and the western Mediterranean.
If in the nineteenth century when the maps of the world were painted pink and with the sun never setting on the British Empire it seemed sensible to suppose the opening of the Atlantic was to be the decisive moment in European history and thus in British history too. In so supposing it was not unnatural to see the Armada again in the very terms extolled by Elizabethan propagandists and their poets and playwrights. Today the same kaleidoscope may been as easily shaken to form another pattern and thus remind the West of the importance of those events in the Mediterranean in 1571 – which finally halted the advance of Islam into Western Europe – and which are in this twenty-first century retrospective of Islamic State perhaps as defining.
The defeat of the Armada of 1588 was never quite as catastrophic as it has been painted. The war with Spain dragged on for another decade and drained resources from an English treasury that was never quite equal to the military pretentions of the Tudors. There would be more Armadas from Spain. There would be even more blood and treasure lost in the struggle to hold on to an Ireland the Tudors had by venality and policy lost. Protestant preachers at the time of the Armada described the storms that blew it off course as the breath of God. There’s no question this passed and passed very understandably into part of the English nation’s psyche as a demonstration that God was indeed on their side and was indeed both English and Protestant. it is still part of our cultural heritage. That however does not make it history.
These manufactured stories are stamped with popular approval. They are retold. Television historians love these comforting simplicities that play fast with facts. In their retelling the puerile assertions have become unquestioned and unquestionable truths. They have stamped themselves all over the history curriculum. The problem is the stamps are intellectually counterfeit. They rest on an intellectual conceit that is just history’s version of Social Darwinism.
It once was supposed by ‘scientific’ method that historical cause and effect gave rise to a linear progression from past to present. This method encouraged antiquarians and later historians to ignore inconvenient facts and to attend only to the facts that fitted with a line of argument. Marxist historians became the most vocal exponents of this historical inevitablism but the vice infected an awful lot of historical thinking for the worse. It’s sticky fingerprints are all over Winston Churchill’s best selling History of the English Speaking Peoples. It wasn’t history. It was racial elitism dressed up as history. It also traduced the theory of evolution as Darwin had expounded where the mechanisms of evolution – like natural selection and genetic drift – worked with the random variation generated by mutation and other factors in the environment. We would like to think the line from us to our ancestors is as straight as the road to heaven but rather like the ways to hell it is full of twists and turns and blind alleys.
Mortality makes us heirs to eternal longings but if we make gods of our fellows we are doomed to childish disappointment; for the best of us is made of clay; and like any colossus in time we are all easily toppled by death’s end.