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Elizabeth and Gender, Elizabeth Through the Ages, Historiography

Masculinity, Sex, and the Virgin Queen: Victorian Perceptions of Elizabeth I, Part 2

This blog post come from a 2009 essay by Natalie Sweet.

Modern Historiography on the Victorian Perception of Elizabeth

Early Victorians were fond of depictions of Elizabeth I in old age. Until Victoria put on mourning, that is.

It is not difficult to understand how Elizabeth became such an object of fascination for the English population.  Born the daughter of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn in 1533, she was the symbol of the Protestant cause in England long before she was able to speak.  Her father’s order to behead her mother for adultery brought tragedy into her life at a young age, and she survived the scandal of being accused of an improper relationship with the Lord High Admiral, Thomas Seymour, when she was a teenager.  Under the reign of her half-sister Mary I, she was placed in the Tower for suspected treason.  She began her own reign in a time of religious turmoil, and she strove to find a “middle way” between Protestant and Catholic beliefs.  She never married, but that is not to say that she did not enjoy her suitors’ attentions, either.  Excommunicated by the Pope in 1570, she weathered the fallout due to the loyalty of both her Protestant and Catholic subjects.  In 1588, her fleets faced the “invincible” Spanish Armada and survived, while a “Protestant Wind” received the credit for blowing the Spanish vessels onto Ireland’s shore.  She died an old lady in 1603, and after a few years of Stuart rule, the English people began to describe her reign as a golden age.[1]

Scholars have recently shown an increasing interest in how Elizabeth was portrayed in the centuries after her death.  In her 2004 book The Elizabethan Icon 1603-2003, Julia M. Walker examines the visual image of Elizabeth.  Although she notes that a variety of “rich opportunities [are] afforded by the literature – both high and low – of the [Elizabethan] period” she maintains that “the visual art is more fascinating.”[2]  Walker leads her readers through a collection of memorabilia ranging from biscuit tins to oil paintings depicting the Tudor queen in order to demonstrate Elizabeth’s hold on the English popular imagination throughout the ages.  In her chapter “1837-1910: The Shadow of a Paternalistic Queen,” Walker sets out in part to determine “the differences between the reign of Elizabeth and the reign of Victoria.”[3]  She notes that “despite suggestions by Parliament that Victoria rule as Elizabeth II,” Victoria vocally asserted that she shared little in common with her early modern predecessor.[4]  In fact, Walker confidently states that “[i]f Elizabeth had the heart and stomach of a king, Victoria had the heart and stomach of a pater familias.”[5]  The only characteristic that the two women had in common was “the title and a strong sense of duty, for all that they would have defined the latter quite differently.”[6]

As the proposal from Parliament suggests, however, this did not keep Victorians from drawing parallels between the two women.  Early in Victoria’s reign, Englishmen attempted to portray Elizabeth’s power within early-nineteenth century British political thought.  Walker notes that while the Victorians realized that “Elizabeth wielded real life-and-death political power,” they were also extremely proud of the fact that Victoria “was not the divinely empowered monarch of the Renaissance, nor could she ever be, for all that she had the title of Empress.”[7]  Therefore, “[c]elebrating Elizabeth’s power, glory, or conquests was…an exercise in distinctly bad taste” in the early Victorian period.[8]

Complementing Walker’s research, authors Michael Dobson and Nicola J. Watson also investigate the popular image of Elizabeth I in their 2004 book England’s Elizabeth: An Afterlife in Fame and Fantasy.  Unlike Walker, however, who primarily bases her study on the visual arts, Dobson and Watson investigate “the many lives [Elizabeth] has lived…in drama, poetry, historiography, propaganda, fiction, and the cinema, from the aspiringly epic to the frankly kitsh.”[9]  They determine that Elizabeth was always in some form or fashion a symbol of English nationalism, and that discussion of Elizabeth as Gloriana “variously enabled and blocked both consensus and debate about the relations between state, nation, and crown from the seventeenth through the twenty-first centuries.”[10]

In their chapter on the nineteenth century, Dobson and Watson note that two different images of Elizabeth existed during the Victorian era.  Like Walker, they note that the British fashioned an image of Elizabeth that would complement Victoria.  They also discuss a common early Victorian depiction of Elizabeth as “old and sterile.”[11] The authors argue that this image was meant to stand in direct contrast and therefore compliment the early years of Victoria’s youthful reign.  However, when Victoria clothed herself in mourning in the later nineteenth century, the Victorians depicted Elizabeth “as the presiding spirit of imperial adventure and naval supremacy.”[12]   The authors reason that depictions “of Elizabeth as old was for the Victorians the clinching statement of her lack of womanliness, and of the consequent fraudulence of her political power.”[13]  She was too powerful and masculine when compared to the contemporary monarchy that Victorians understood.  The voluntary isolation of the “increasingly unpopular Queen Victoria,” however, forced Victorians to rethink Elizabeth’s image.  Victoria’s image needed rehabilitation, and some among the British reasoned that the best way to rescue the queen from a perception of weakness was to connect her to the powerful icon of Elizabeth.[14]

Dobson and Watson also note that Victorians in the late nineteenth-century introduced  “[a] new set of characters and incidents” into their popular histories on Elizabethan England in order “to dramatize the Queen’s relationship with her country.”[15]  Sir Walter Raleigh and Sir Francis Drake were celebrated “as the flowering of national Protestant masculinity in opposition to Catholic effeminacy and degeneracy.”[16]  However, while Dobson and Watson explore the Victorian fascination with the “manly” characteristics of these explorers, they suggest that Victorians had ceased to view Elizabeth as powerful in a masculine sense.  Instead, they argue that later Victorians produced an image “depicting her as [a] glamorous, but deadly double to the mother.”[17]

A close survey of several popular works on Elizabeth in the late Victorian period, however, suggests that Victorians viewed the early modern queen as both dangerously feminine and acceptably masculine. It was a difficult paradox to reconcile.  On the one hand, Elizabeth was a woman who very obviously did not conform to the Victorian ideal of femininity.  Victoria, especially in the youthful days of her reign, better fit that image.  She was at various times “the ‘innocent queen’, the married woman, [and] the homely mother figure.”[18]  She “managed to embody the ‘feminisation’ [sic] of a once powerful male symbol” although “the price of feminsation [sic]…was the downgrading of a gendered power structure.”[19]  Her image was tied to her husband and she at first appeared as the “devot[ed] wife and the mother of [her husband Albert’s] children and later as his loyal and inconsolable widow.”[20]  Elizabeth was a different story, as Walker clearly demonstrates.  However, if Dobson and Watson are correct, and what is important about Elizabeth is “what has entered her mythos, and when and why, and which different aspects of that mythos successive generations have felt they needed to argue about,” then the popular gendered depiction of Elizabeth in the late nineteenth century should reveal what Victorians wished to see in Elizabeth as both woman and monarch.

Stay tuned for Part 3, which will be posted tomorrow.

[1] For English reaction to Stuart rule, see Mark Kishlansky, A Monarchy Transformed: Britain 1603-1714 (London: Penguin Books, 1997).

[2] Julia M. Walker, The Elizabethan Icon: 1603-2003 (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2004), 124.

[3] Ibid., 140.

[4] Ibid., 124.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid., 140.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Michael Dobson and Nicola J. Watson, England’s Elizabeth: An Afterlife in Fame and Fantasy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), 2.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid., 11.

[12] Ibid., 11, 168.

[13] Ibid., 168.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid., 180.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid., 194.

[18] Regina Schulte, The Body of the Queen: Gender and Rule in the Courtly World 1500-2000 (New York: Berghahn Books, 2006): 241.

[19] Ibid., 242.

[20] Ibid., 246.



4 thoughts on “Masculinity, Sex, and the Virgin Queen: Victorian Perceptions of Elizabeth I, Part 2

  1. A fascinating article – thank you.

    Posted by lucychurchill | November 12, 2012, 9:37 am
  2. Elizabeth herself played with gender–looking at the language she use and how she used her femininty to bring her advisers to heel is a fascinating display of gender switching–though she was a ‘weak woman’ she had the heart and stomach of a king. She always referred to herself as a prince when she was indicating her royal status, not a princess. When you think about Shakespeare’s plays and all the gender-bending that went on there, it’s pretty obvious the roles were in flux, I think largely because Elizabeth had ruled for so long, though she was a woman. That idea toppled the idea of everyone in his/her place in the Great Chain of Being. Thanks so much for this–quite a fascinating look at how the Victorians viewed women, the monarchy and Elizabeth. Great!

    Posted by Anne Barnhill | November 12, 2012, 3:47 pm
    • Absolutely, Anne! The subject of how Elizabeth played with gendered language is one of my favorite topics. And I agree with your Shakespeare comment, too. By the way, did you send me an email a few days ago? All I received in it was a link, and I’m usually a little nervous about clicking on links without explanation (a friend’s account was hacked a few years ago, and I’ve been weary ever since!).

      Posted by Natalie | November 16, 2012, 4:20 pm

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