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Elizabeth and Gender, Elizabeth Through the Ages, Historiography

Masculinity, Sex, and the Virgin Queen: Victorian Perceptions of Elizabeth I, Part 4

This blog post comes from a 2009 essay by Natalie Sweet

One Victorian author asserted that “Elizabeth always remained more truly the daughter of Anne Boleyn than of Henry VIII.”

Overwhelmingly, Victorian authors indicated that they believed “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.”[1]  As Dobson and Watson have indicated, Victorians were willing to portray a stronger image of Elizabeth in the late nineteenth century in order to rehabilitate 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 Victorian writers.

For example, Michael Creighton reasoned that Elizabeth’s character must have had something to do with her heredity.  He noted that her more cautionary and discreet qualities must have come from her grandfather, Henry VII, who for so long had to exercise prudence and weariness of others if he were to keep the English throne.  From Henry VIII, he believed that Elizabeth “inherited the royal imperiousness and personal charm which always secured his popularity.”[2]  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.[3]  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.”[4]  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.”[5]  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.[6]   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.[7]  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.

For all of the theorizing on inherited traits, however, Victorians seemed to be more convinced that Elizabeth’s early education played the greater role in creating the strong qualities that she needed to be successful in her later years. Indeed, in contrast to what Dobson and Watson observe in their study of Elizabeth in the Victorian era, several Victorians blatantly used gendered language to explain that Elizabeth’s childhood experiences bred in her the masculine qualities that she needed to survive.  Sydney Wilmot believed that the early loss of her parents’ protection forced Elizabeth “to think for herself and regulate her own conduct on all important points at a time of life when most young ladies are still in the schoolroom.”[8]  This loss developed Elizabeth’s “self-reliance” and “helped to strengthen and develop the masculine side of this remarkable woman’s character, and enable[d] her to fill with greater wisdom her destined office as Queen-regnant of England.”[9]  Self-reliance and strength, it seemed, were masculine traits.

Yet Wilmot also believed that “the want of suitable guidance, support, and restraint in girlhood will account for many of those follies and vanities for which as a woman [Elizabeth] has been justly condemned.”[10]  Other Victorians shared similar sentiments, especially when they discussed the period of Elizabeth’s life that is known even today as the Thomas Seymour affair.  Elizabeth lived with her stepmother, Catherine Parr, after her father’s death.  Very soon after the king’s passing, Catherine Parr remarried a man named Thomas Seymour who, according to one modern scholar, sexually assaulted Elizabeth by being overly familiar in publicly touching her and by busting into her chambers to “tickle” her while she was still asleep.[11]  Victorians portrayed the situation as wildly inappropriate, but they never formulated the idea that Seymour’s actions constituted sexual abuse. Indeed, they demonized Seymour for his behavior, but they viewed the event as being as much Elizabeth’s fault as it was Seymour’s.

Creighton, for example, asserted that “Seymour was making love to Elizabeth in a corrupting way, and that Elizabeth showed no displeasure at his revolting attentions.”[12] Wilmot noted with disgust that “Seymour amused himself romping with the Princess in a manner quite indecorous for a girl too grown up to be considered a child” and went on to label Elizabeth as overly passionate and Seymour as “licentious and unprincipled.”[13]  Wiesener placed a larger amount of blame on Elizabeth, and stated that this affair revealed that “[s]he was precocious in mind and knowledge, but not so in delicacy, one of the qualities that were not the special pride of the sixteenth century.”[14]  Because of this, she flung herself into her passion for Seymour “[w]ithout much regard to either modesty or gratitude.”[15]  These statements seemed to indicate that Victorians believed women should possess a certain amount of self-control, even if supreme mastering was deemed a masculine trait.  At any rate, Elizabeth should have demonstrated “delicacy,” the decidedly feminine sister of masculine self-control.[16]

All of the above stated authors agreed that Elizabeth’s governess, Katherine Ashley, deserved some of the blame for what happened.  Wiesener, for example, lamented Elizabeth’s lack of a “lady of suitable rank about her, to retrain and enlighten her.”[17] Like Creighton, however, Victorians also believed that Elizabeth “had to bear the ultimate responsibility for her action, [since] her reputation was in her own keeping only.”[18]  Still, they also believed that Elizabeth emerged the better for what her imprudent actions gained her.  As stated before, Wilmot believed that the episode “develop[ed] the masculine side” of Elizabeth.[19]  Creighton viewed it as “the great crisis of Elizabeth’s life, [in that it] did more than anything else to form her characteristics.”[20]

Wiesener suggested that Victorians viewed Elizabeth’s self-restraint as a masculine quality.  Because of the Seymour scandal, “[t]he dormant energy at the bottom of her soul awoke and knew its powers…the statesman arose out of the infant.”[21]  Elizabeth was “[t]empered by the danger and struggle,” and she rose to face it with a masculine courage.[22]  When she was required to provide a defense of her actions to the king’s privy council, she wrote a letter that was “proud, manly, [and] impetuous.”[23]  Wiesener admired her fortitude, but he was clearly unsettled by her overly masculine response to Seymour’s eventual execution for treason.  He admonished her emotionless reaction,

This is a little too much self-command.  What, in that spontaneous and impulsive age, not a tear in the eye! Not a cry of pain! The lips only unclose to express a kind of ironical dismissal of the memory of the man, but lately the hero of her reams of marriage, the dreams possible at sixteen…And what was the motive? Not other it seems than to save her personal egotism, and to nullify evil reports, by deflecting them upon the victim.  Thus does a bronze statue repeal an arrow, which drops at the foot blunted and powerless.[24]

Elizabeth clearly had too much self- control for Wiesener’s liking.  The Victorian author could, however, take comfort in his assertion that Elizabeth “nearly died of an illness caused by depression” as a result of her loss.[25]

Such comments revealed another paradox in Victorian thought about Elizabeth.  Victorians wanted Elizabeth to demonstrate the self-control that befitted a monarch, but they disliked the extent of control that she sometimes demonstrated.  Her feminine weakness was what led her into her troubles with Seymour, but she did not produce enough feminine emotion at the time of his death.  However, this refusal to bow to her emotions made her the great leader that she was.  Victorians, it seemed, wanted their cake to have pink icing and be the biggest, most masculine cake at the party, too.

[1] Hume, vi.

[2] Creighton, 4.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid, 197.

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

[8] Wilmot, 63.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] David Starkey, Elizabeth: The Struggle for the Throne (New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 2001), 66-78.

[12] Creighton, 7.

[13] Wilmot, 69.

[14] Wiesener, 33.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid.,

[18] Creighton, 39.

[19] Wilmot, 63.

[20] Creighton, 10.

[21] Wiesener, 69.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Ibid., 75.

[25] Ibid., 76. This assertion, however, is far from historical truth.



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