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Elizabeth and Gender, Elizabeth Through the Ages, Historiography

Masculinity, Sex, and the Virgin Queen: Victorian Perceptions of Elizabeth I, Part 6

This blog post comes from a 2009 essay by Natalie Sweet

“Victoria: What Have I Done?”
“Elizabeth: Let Grief Prevail O’er Duty!”

The Resolute Virgin Queen

For all that Elizabeth’s self-control as a monarch earned her respect from Victorians, however, they were still troubled by her virgin state.  Richardson noted that the woman who was “without elementary instincts of wifehood; who is sufficient unto herself, and unconscious all of her life of any inclination to surrender, is a creature of whose existence the world is but beginning to be convinced.”[1]  Indeed, Elizabeth brought to mind images of the independent Victorian women who seemed to go against social norms.  Richardson went on to note that “[t]here are among them those who make use of their immunity from certain impulses for a bad end; and those who…devote their more specialized powers and intelligences to noble endeavours [sic].”[2]  Elizabeth, it seemed, belonged to the latter category.

Indeed, herein rested another paradox.  While Victorians often portrayed Elizabeth’s decision to remain single as a problematic, they also viewed it as being beneficial.  Hume noted that while it was easy to criticize Elizabeth for not marrying, she “triumphed as much by her weakness as by her strength.”[3]  Had she not kept Leicester around, “the endless negotiations for marriage with foreign princes would soon have become pointless and ineffectual, and the balance [of power between nations] would have been lost.”[4]  In fact, he further asserted that “the agile utilization of the Queen’s sex and feminine love of admiration to provoke competing offers for her hand, all exhibit statesmanship as keen as it was unscrupulous.”[5]  Creighton shared similar sentiments, and noted that [b]y cultivating personal loyalty, by demanding it in exaggerated forms [from suitors], she was not merely feeding her personal vanity; she was creating a habit which was necessary for the maintenance of government.”[6]  Elizabeth’s chosen state of virginity, therefore, clearly served a purpose.  She did not protect them with an English heir.  She could not, since providing one meant that England would either be attacked and overrun or a half-English, possibly Catholic monarch would one day sit on the throne.  In Victorian minds, Elizabeth did the next best thing and played an endless game of cat and mouse to secure England’s future.

All of these images of Elizabeth create something of a grand paradox.  Who was this Elizabeth to the Victorians, who on the stage proclaimed,

I’ll let no husband play the king o’er me.  I know their real designs, but will outwit them all. (A pause) And yet I would I were a wife.  With all its power and dignities, with all its pomp, and show, and splendour [sic], ‘tis but hollow mockery.  I feed on naught but husks.  I envy frequently the wives of artisans.  Though they are poorer and mean, they have their husbands’ and their children’s love.  I am no mother to my subjects, so they cannot love me with sweet children’s love.  I would I knew a deeper love.[7]

Who was she whose counselors reminded her “[o]f that great empire thou dost rule, whose name is known, whose power is felt, the wide world o’er,’ and “[w]ho kep’st intact the sandy atoms which compose it, and which could with ease be rent asunder by the death?”[8] Elizabeth, it seemed, was both a woman and a queen, but a queen whose monarchical state took precedence over her female body.  Victorian writers regularly referred to Elizabeth as “woman and queen,” as if they felt the need to separate the two positions.[9]  Indeed, Hale took care at the end of Lessons from Women’s Lives to note that “Elizabeth was rather noble as a queen than amiable as a woman.”[10]  As such, [s]he should…be judged as a ruler,” since “she voluntarily relinquished the enjoyment of domestic life, where woman’s nature is most truly and beautifully displayed, in order to devote herself to the care of state and the happiness of her people.”[11]

To Victorians, Elizabeth was a monarch first and a woman second.  Although they appreciated it when she behaved appropriately feminine, in the end, they wanted strength in their leader.  Such strength was regarded as masculine, and Elizabeth’s feminine image suffered in part because of it.  However, it was her “feminine fickleness” which Victorians deemed as one of her most annoying and as one of her most useful qualities.[12]  Although Victorians sometimes portrayed her as “[a] glamorous, but deadly double to the mother” as Dobson and Watson point out, Victorians clearly viewed Elizabeth as master of herself and other men by right of her masculine sovereignty as well.[13] These were paradoxes, but Victorians demonstrated through their depiction of Elizabeth that a show of strong imperial leadership was acceptable since the queen existed separately from the woman.  As a woman, Elizabeth could be passionate, reckless, fickle, and cunning.  She did not have to be a master over herself and others.  Instead, she could rely on the counsel and support of older women and wiser men.  These qualities were not desirable in a woman, but they were not unexpected, either.  They were certainly not qualities that one looked for in the self-controlled monarch who ushered in Britain’s modern, imperial age.  That Elizabeth was too self-controlled, too iron-willed to be regarded merely as a woman.  She might have “play[ed] too much the queen” and “too much the woman” in Victorian minds at times, but this was a paradox that helped them to navigate the tricky waters of feminine behavior and imperial leadership.  The woman could take the blame for feminine behavior that was deemed unacceptable.  The sovereign could receive the credit for the masculine behavior that led England to conquer the seas and half of the known world. Together, they made the queen and woman who, for Victorians, was Elizabeth.

[1] Richardson, 41.

[2] Ibid., 42.

[3] Hume, 2.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid., 3.

[6] Creighton, 197.

[7] Inglisfield, 7.

[8] Ibid., 13.

[9] See for example, Creighton, 199, “But this treatment does not exhibit the real woman, still less the real Queen;” Inglisfield, 10, “though I be a woman and a queen, I have a will that shall defeat their plans;” Wilmot, 79, “But a general view of the character of Elizabeth may be gathered from a brief record of her conduct, both as a woman and a Queen.”

[10] Hale, 36.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Hume, 3.

[13] Ibid., 194.



One thought on “Masculinity, Sex, and the Virgin Queen: Victorian Perceptions of Elizabeth I, Part 6

  1. Great post. I think her womanliness and her queenship were very different states in her own mind as well. In her language about herself, she used the personal as well as the ‘royal we’ as well as masculine terms. I do wonder what her own thoughts might have been on this. This is Anne Barnhill–I don’t know why my son’s name appears.

    Posted by mikesmithmultiverse | November 26, 2012, 3:22 pm

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