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Elizabeth and Gender, Elizabeth Through the Ages, Historiography

Masculinity, Sex, and the Virgin Queen: Victorian Perceptions of Elizabeth I, Part 5

This blog post comes from a 2009 essay by Natalie Sweet

Victorians, much like their descendants, were fascinated by the “did they, or didn’t they?” aspect of Elizabeth’s and Dudley’s relationship.

A Sexual Queen’s Feminine Qualities

Paradoxes were not restricted to Victorian depictions of Elizabeth’s youth.  Writers continued to speak of Elizabeth’s masculine strength, but they also took great delight in discussing those female characteristics that they deemed in her as dangerously inappropriate.  Nowhere were these qualities more evident than when Victorians wrote about the gendered qualities of Elizabeth and her suitors.

Elizabeth’s weaknesses, it seemed, were always feminine ones.  As Sarah Josepha Buell Hale pointed out in her lessons to young women, Elizabeth was often “judged as a woman rather than as a sovereign.”[1] She showed jealousy towards other women at court, and demonstrated an especially feminine resentment towards Mary, Queen of Scots, whose son James would one day inherit Elizabeth’s throne.  Likewise, her feminine vanity caused her to have “a propensity to adopt court favourites [sic], whom she selected rather on account of their external accomplishments than their merit.”[2]  Hale acknowledged that these vanities sometimes detrimentally affected affairs of state, although Elizabeth was usually wise enough to give “her ministers and counsellors [sic], who were chosen for their real merit, a due superiority in business affairs over her favorites.”[3]

As coverage of the Thomas Seymour affair suggested, however, Elizabeth’s relationship with other men was the topic of limitless fascination for many Victorian authors.  Certainly, there is something to Michele Foucault’s observation that even if the Victorians did not blatantly speak of sex, they clearly went about many avenues to hint at it.[4]  For example, while the episode where Queen Mary placed Elizabeth in the Tower for suspected treason could have been labeled as the defining moment of Elizabeth’s youth, Victorians chose to dramatize the event that depicted female sexual impropriety.  In fact, Martin Hume believed that understanding the backgrounds of Elizabeth’s many courtships was vital to understanding her approach to both domestic and foreign policy.  England’s survival was directly tied to “[t]he full advantage [that] was taken of the Queen’s maiden state, of her feminine fickleness, of her solitary sovereignty, of her assumed religious uncertainty, of her accepted beauty, and of the keen competition for her hand.”[5]

Policy issues aside, however, Victorians were primarily interested in whether or not there was a sexual relationship between the queen and her favorites.  Where Wiesener described her as a “flirting girl” in regards to Seymour, Hume reasoned that “how far their relations went will most likely never now be known” because Elizabeth’s servants “probably kept back far more than they told” of the affair.[6]  In other words, Elizabeth’s and Seymour’s friendly embraces probably extended into a sexual relationship at some point, too.  Victorians were even more interested in the relationship between Elizabeth and Robert Dudley, the Earl of Leicester.  Leicester was clearly someone the queen cared for, and perhaps even considered marrying.  His supposed character and proximity to the queen, however, unsettled many in the late nineteenth-century.

Victorians did not agree about how Leicester should be portrayed, but few had good words for him.  However, most all of Elizabeth’s suitors, and sometimes even her advisors, looked bad in the literature since Victorian writers portrayed them as emasculated.    Hume variously described Elizabeth’s suitors as “deceived” and “outwitted,” and took pleasure in calling one foreign suitor an “empty-headed, flighty old fop.”[7] Wiesener noted that in a crisis, Elizabeth “managed to present herself, conquering physical pain” in situations “where so many men, boasting of their courage, had blanched disgracefully.”[8]  Likewise, Victorian playwrights seemed to take particular enjoyment from providing their Elizabeth with lines to rain down on the men who surrounded her.  In Walter Inglisfield’s play, she railed against her council, “I’m placed above all men, and were a fool to share my power with any masculine thing called a man!”[9]  Such a line suggested that while masculinity was traditionally associated with men, not all men possessed a sufficiently masculine character.  Indeed, Elizabeth could possess it since she held the title of sovereign.

Yet, Elizabeth was still a woman for all of her masculine sovereignty, and her behavior unsettled Victorians to an extent.  The character of Sussex lamented being “ruled by a woman’s whims,” and moaned that all men were powerless beneath her.[10]  Likewise, when Elizabeth was told of Mary Stewart’s execution in W.G. Hole’s dramatization of the queen’s life, the character of Elizabeth was directed to take her anger out on her counselors by proclaiming, “You are all cowards: did you so fear a woman, you must needs creep up, close-sheltered by my petticoats, and stab from ambush.”[11]

What bothered Victorians about Leicester was that the queen held off of curbing him for so long, especially when all agreed that although he was “handsome and greatly and generally accomplished,” he also unfortunately “possessed the art of flattery in its utmost perfection; an art to which he owed his power of concealing from his mistress his ambition, rapacity, and intolerable haughtiness.”[12]  Leicester and other suitors also seemed to rob Elizabeth of her majesty, thus reverting her to the status of a common woman who possessed the worst feminine qualities.  Hale noted that it was in courtship that Elizabeth demonstrated “contention between…feminine weakness and…political prudence.”[13]  Upon their attentions, she became “coquettish,” “vain and greedy of admiration,” all undesirable traits in a woman.[14]  According to a character in Hole’s play, her love of Leicester’s “handsome face and graceful form” proved “she is a woman…of which so many are in grievous doubt.”[15]  Nonetheless, he still wished “she were less true a woman” so that “we might live in more security than on [the] deceitful whims” that were the product of her relationship with Leicester.[16] In these portrayals, the paradox was evident once again.  Elizabeth played the master over the emasculated men at court, but she was held captive by her feminine love of Leicester.

Despite such negative depictions, Leicester had his defender.  In her biography of Elizabeth’s favorite, Jerusha D. Richardson argued that “[i]t was to do honour [sic] to his native county, and to glorify the woman he sought to marry, as much as to gratify his own ambition, that he lived in state and practiced in all its details, the Prince’s art of deportment.[17] Leicester took the time to understand what his queen needed and then “sought to stir her imagination, to excite her pity, to propriate [sic] her temper, to abet her politics, and to aid her plans” in much the same way that a gentle Victorian husband should guide his wife through life.[18]  In the most noble of gestures, “Leicester deprived himself, in part, of his manhood.”[19]  Richardson asserted that by sacrificing his “independence of mind,” he established “a medium, in which the chief characteristics of Elizabeth should be preserved unaffected by the disillusions of an ordinary experience, or by the consciousness of a peculiar loneliness.”[20]  Indeed, in this, and in other instances when he had to strike out in defense of his honor, country, and queen, “Leicester rose time and again to the erect attitude of a man.”[21]  Such sexual imagery could not be accidental.  In denying himself masculine pleasure and stooping to pay dignity to Elizabeth, Leicester sacrificed his masculinity and sexual pleasure for his queen.   However, he was clearly still a potent masculine and sexual being in the eyes of Richardson, as the image of “erect” manhood is brought to mind with her description.[22]

But what of sex?  For all that they danced around the subject, hinting that Elizabeth did not behave appropriately when it came to her suitors, Victorians seemed to firmly believe in Elizabeth’s virgin status. Richardson stated that Elizabeth “did not attract Leicester by any purely womanly attributes of a higher kind.”[23]  Indeed, no evidence suggested to Richardson  “that the lower allurements of sex to him in her.”[24]  Elizabeth and Leicester were too much in control of themselves to fall victim to such weak, feminine passion.  Likewise, Wilmot also believed that the sexual relationship between Elizabeth and Leicester was innocent enough, although “her affectionate nature and inordinate vanity [concerning Leicester] led her to such extravagant and reprehensible conduct as made her personal behavior the laughing-stock of Europe and of posterity.”[25]  Here, a paradox is evident once again.  While Elizabeth allowed her feminine nature to make a fool of herself, her masculine self-restraint kept her from going too far in her sexual relationship with Leicester.

For all that she was made “the laughing-stock of Europe,” however, Victorians always allowed Elizabeth to come away with the upper hand in her relationship with Leicester.[26] This was because, in the end, she was still their Virgin Queen.  If she refused all of her suitors, even Leicester, it was because she retained image and the sanity of a masculine monarch, and acted not as a fickle woman.  If, as Inglisfield portrayed her in his drama based on the queen’s life, she put him in his place in a howl of rage it was all the better.  After his Elizabeth admitted that she had not sacrificed herself to a virgin state “for love of them and of [her] country,” but for the love of Leicester, he revealed that Leicester had married another for lack of patience and want of wealth.[27]  Upon hearing the news, Hole’s Elizabeth locked Leicester’s wife, the Lady Essex, in the Tower, and “the curtain falls on Leicester’s discomfiture and prostration.”[28]  This scene, while greatly embellished and historically inaccurate, allowed the infuriated Elizabeth to regain all of her monarchical strength.

W. G. Hole also portrayed Elizabeth as regaining her queenly bearing after a confrontation with Leicester.  With Leicester kneeling before her, Elizabeth asserted that “[t]he thing is done, and I resume the queen; the woman I was must stop at home and pray,” suggesting that being a woman and being a monarch was two separate things.[29]  Laughing, she declared, “Now you’ll have heart to face the council, Rob!” and exited.[30]  Although she mourned his death at the end of the play, she cried out to God not for strength to bear his loss, but swore that she “will see in this great people, husband, children, living for Thee alone, O God! and them whom thou hast set apart to rule the seas, and given into their hands the sovereignty of nations far beyond the ocean’s rim.”[31] No longer the weak woman, she was the strong monarch once again, ready to lead England to its destiny.


[1] Hale, 36.

[2] Ibid., 30.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Michele Foucault, The History of Sexuality: Volume II (New York: Vintage Books, 1990), 17-35.

[5] Hume, 3.

[6] Hume, 11, 10.

[7] Ibid, 26, 333.

[8] Wiesener, 300-301.

[9] Inglisfield, 7.

[10] Sussex, 4.

[11] Hole, 62.

[12] Wilmot, 80.

[13] Hale, 31.

[14] Hume, 26, 28.

[15] Hole, 6.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Richardson, 6.

[18] Ibid, 118.

[19] Ibid, 202.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid., 390.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Ibid., 118.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Wilmot, 80.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Inglisfield, 158.

[28] Ibid., 196.

[29] Hole, 88.

[30] Ibid.

[31] Ibid., 112.

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