In a recent survey of 2000 individuals, Elizabeth I was named Britain’s greatest female rebel. Her father, Henry VIII, was named the greatest male rebel, a dubbing that has puzzled more than a few, and which has garnered far more discussion. Pundits can easily discern why the public might view him as such: he did break off from the Roman Catholic Church to establish the Church of England, and he went through quite a few wives, after all. As many historians have pointed out, however, Henry’s religion was of a more conservative, Catholic (with a big C) flavor than the average grade-school class or internet “news” story gives him credit for.
But what of Elizabeth? Should we really label her a “rebel”? Let’s take it a few characteristics at a time, beginning with those that most obviously lend themselves to the moniker. First, she was a woman in a role that was decidedly and officially male dominated – that of the regnant. That she took on the role of Queen with the authority and dignity that she did flies in the face of those who – even in the modern era – argue that women are too “emotional” or too “imbalanced” to hold such a role. We like to read about such attitudes today with disdain, with the belief that our own time is above such ideas. Elections over the last decade in the United States, however, suggests that we are far from such thoughts. I found myself suspecting on more than one occasion, with more than one candidate from both sides of the political divide, that we as a society are just clever in our wording of “feminine weakness”. In this, we identify with Elizabeth, and her success allows us our own cultural rebellion: “see, a woman can be a leader, and darn successful, too!”
Elizabeth, however, was not only unique in that she was a Queen in a time that such pieces as “The First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women” were being produced (although, admittedly, its author did not intend its argument to be against Elizabeth). She also won out in the marriage game, steadfastly remaining single and claiming the title of “the Virgin Queen” for close to half of a millennium. This does, at face value, seem rebellious. Here was Elizabeth, at a time when women (especially Queens) were viewed as needing male guidance, playing the marriage game – and coming out the single winner. Add to that fact that the new Protestantism taking hold in England encouraged marriage, whereas Roman Catholicism allowed for both men and women to lead physically celibate lives in the form of nuns and monks, and she appears even more spirited and independent. We can imagine her loading a canon in the 18th century, wearing bloomers in the 19th, being locked up with the suffragettes in the 20th, and discussing the ability of a woman “having it all” – a career and family – in the 21st century.
But the fact was that Elizabeth knew she could not “have it all” in the 16th century. She had to keep her advisers happy. She had to keep other kingdoms in a passive relationship with her own island kingdom. And, perhaps most importantly, she had to keep England under her spell. Her tendency to change her mind was, and is occasionally hinted at today, as feminine indecisiveness. The medieval theory of the King’s Two Bodies – the idea that within Elizabeth’s body there was a natural, feminine body and then another body, the body politic – was alluded to by Elizabeth (or, at least accredited to Elizabeth) more than a few times throughout her lifetime as a defense of her position.
At her accession at age 25:
And as I am but one body naturally considered, though by His permission a body politic to govern, so shall I desire you all … to be assistant to me, that I with my ruling and you with your service may make a good account to Almighty God and leave some comfort to our posterity on earth. I mean to direct all my actions by good advice and counsel.
From the Tilbury speech, 1588:
I know I have the body but of a weak and feeble woman, but I have the heart and stomach of a king, and of a King of England too, and think foul scorn that Parma or Spain, or any Prince of Europe should dare to invade the borders of my realm.
It’s hard to rebel when placed in such a position. Elizabeth had an argument to work with, however – the Two Body defense existed before Elizabeth’s time, and she likely viewed such speeches as a logical explanation of what she viewed as her God-given right as Henry VIII’s daughter. Therefore, it would not have been “rebellious” to Elizabeth to occupy the position of sole Queen. The refusal to marry is one we can perhaps view as rebellious, but in the end, Elizabeth’s counselors, Parliament, and people can be viewed as much as a roadblock to potential marriages as Elizabeth herself. Even if Elizabeth were inclined to marry a foreign prince, her people were occasionally wary of the influence the husband might wield, and court politics made a native-born English husband a complication that counselors and Parliament would rather not have dealt with. And indeed, they did not have to deal with it. We cannot be for certain that Elizabeth would never have married if she was not the Queen of England – Elizabeth, at the end of the day, was not her own woman, she was a woman upon whose head rested the crown of England and Ireland. Like everyone else of her time period, she had her role to play – a role that allowed little room for challenge. And Elizabeth, while she carefully maintained her own position in the boy’s club, was not so rebellious that she worked to better the positions of other females.
These thoughts are only my own, however – there are a number of other aspects of Elizabeth’s life that could label her as either as a “rebel” or a conserative – her questionable activity during Mary’s time as queen, her religious policy, her role in the fates of other labeled “rebels” in Ireland. I’d love to hear other thoughts on these aspects, thoughts are not scholarship without lively group-tested effort!