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Elizabeth and Anne Boleyn, Elizabeth Through the Ages

Anne and Elizabeth: “Playing Too Much the Queen” in the Victorian Era

On the Victorian stage, playwright W.G. Hole’s Elizabeth I voiced her fear that she “play[ed] too much the queen,” and demanded of her suitor,  “do you still hold me a woman?”[1]  Indeed, her question was one that many Victorians grappled with in the late nineteenth century.  While their fondness for bestowing Elizabeth with majesty and imperial power undoubtedly arose from British eagerness to trace the history of its empire, the celebration of Elizabeth as the Virgin Queen presented problems for the Victorians who celebrated Queen Victoria’s motherhood.  Victorians questioned how Elizabeth reconciled herself to virginity while the nation’s survival depended on an heir.  In contrast to this, but in a similar vein, Victorians were also preoccupied with Elizabeth’s sexuality and the masculine qualities of her suitors.  The emergence of a “masculine” British empire also created questions about Elizabeth’s role in creating that empire.  Although a woman presided over their own enterprises, Victorians acknowledged that Elizabeth ruled over a much more dangerous world than their own, and thus she needed masculine qualities to survive.  All of these factors led to a paradox in how Elizabeth was portrayed in British popular culture.  She sometimes “play[ed] too much the queen” in a masculine manner, but at other times she played too much the naughty woman, too. For at least one Victorian author, the source of this problematic contradiction was her mother, Anne Boleyn.

Victorian authors overwhelmingly indicated their belief “that a strong modern England was rendered possible mainly by the boldness, astuteness, and activity of Elizabeth at the critical turning-point of European history.”[2]  As some modern scholars have suggested, Victorians were willing to portray a stronger image of Elizabeth in the late nineteenth century in order to rehabilitate Queen Victoria’s image.  The creation of “a strong modern England” could not have been possible without strong leadership, and luckily for the British, Elizabeth seemed to posses a sufficient amount of strength.  The complication of explaining how this extraordinary strength came from within a female who also possessed remarkable skills in coquetry, however, would take some effort on the part of (admittedly prudish) Victorian writers.

For example, Victorian author Michael Creighton reasoned that Elizabeth’s character was connected to her heredity.  He noted that her more cautionary and discreet qualities must have come from her grandfather, Henry VII, who for so long exercised prudence and weariness of others in order to keep the English throne.  From Henry VIII, he believed that Elizabeth “inherited the royal imperiousness and personal charm which always secured his popularity.”[3]  Creighton did not criticize these strong inherited qualities, and indeed equated them with masculine character.  However, he stated that Elizabeth’s bad qualities, “[h]er vanity, her unscrupulousness, her relentless and over bearing temper,” came from her mother, Anne Boleyn.[4]  This “coarse, ambitious and self-seeking woman” passed on all of her undesirable feminine traits to her daughter, “in whom they were modified by finer qualities and were curbed by a sense of duty.”[5]  In other words, Elizabeth’s feminine foibles were kept in check by the masculine command she inherited from her father and grandfather.

 

It is interesting that Creighton equated the poor qualities of Elizabeth with women, especially when one considers that her father, Henry VIII, could be described in much the same manner. However, although Creighton asserted that “Elizabeth always remained more truly the daughter of Anne Boleyn than of Henry VIII,” thus tying her identity more closely to a female identity rather than to a masculine, kingly one, Creighton believed that Elizabeth could not have been as great of a ruler if she had not inherited the qualities of “a coarse, ambitious and self-seeking woman.”[6]  Indeed, he asserted that there were “times when anyone, save Anne Boleyn’s daughter, would have been tempted to make terms” with the powers that threatened England’s security.[7]   Creighton’s consideration of Elizabeth’s heredity appears to be unique, but it is not a surprising explanation when one considers the late nineteenth-century Victorian fascination with heredity and eugenics.[8]  Yet, his argument is also a paradox.  While Creighton argued that her feminine traits interfered with strong, masculine leadership, he also asserted that her feminine cunning and stubbornness was what helped England to survive the turbulent sixteenth century.

[1] W.G. Hole, Queen Elizabeth: An Historical Drama in Four Acts (London: George Bell and Sons, 1904), 85.

[2] Hume, vi.

[3] Creighton, 4.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid, 197.

[8] For more on this topic, see the essays in Philippa Levine, ed., Gender and Empire (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007).

The above is taken from a paper titled “Sex, Masculinity, and the Virgin Queen: Victorian Views of Elizabeth I,” written by Natalie Sweet in 2009.

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