Virgin Mother, Maiden Queen: Elizabeth I and the Cult of the Virgin Mary

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Virgin Mother, Maiden Queen: Elizabeth I and the Cult of the Virgin Mary. By Helen Hackett. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1995, xii + 303 pp. $39.95 (cloth).

Helen Hackett's Virgin Mother, Maiden Queen is an extended investigation of a specific claim now routinely advanced by scholars of the English Reformation-that a cult of the Virgin Queen Elizabeth replaced the discredited cult of the Virgin Mary. The claim, as Hackett explains in the book's introduction and epilogue, was first made in embryonic form in the 1930s and 1940s by E.C. Wilson and Frances Yates, whose investigation of the Virgin Queen revealed evidence of a "sixteenth-century idolisation of Elizabeth [that] seems to have disturbed them as sacrilegious," (p. 235). Wilson posed a question. Was it possible, he asked, that English men and women "unconsciously transferred [to Elizabeth] some of the adoration which by rights of strict inheritance was due a far holier virgin?" (Wilson, quoted on p. 8). Wilson noted the difficulty of proof in such a matter, yet concluded, "the evidence justifies the belief that so it was," (p. 8).

More recent historians have repeated and expanded Wilson's claim. Roy Strong's The Cult of Elizabeth: Elizabethan Portraiture and Pageantry (1977) suggested that the substitution of queen for virgin was the result, at least in part, of intentional government policy. This affirmation fits well into the agenda of recent revisionist historians, such as Christopher Haigh, J.J. Scarisbrick, and Eamon Duffy . In contrast to the earlier historical tradition represented by A. G. Dickens's The English Reformation (1964), their works portray the Reformation as imposed from above by a royal authority upon a laity largely satisfied with late medieval Roman Catholicism.

A closer examination is long overdue for this sixty-year-old claim about the substitution of one cult for another. Hackett carefully examines plays, poems, portraits, letters, and public celebrations and reaches a conclusion of her own, which neither entirely supports nor overturns the substitution claim. The keys to her examination are a careful attention to chronology and an awareness of traditions about royalty that predate Elizabeth. Earlier authors, she suggests, have often used evidence from Elizabeth's later vears as typical of her entire reign or have concluded that long-standing royal iconographic traditions were Elizabethan innovations.

Hackett finds little grounds for the substitution claim from the first two decades of Elizabeth's reign. While courtiers often used images of both Christian and pagan religious devotion to Elizabeth, they did so as "a metaphor for erotic desire for her," (p. 79). There was nothing remarkable in this; it was a fairly routine literary convention that continues to the current day. During this early period, moreover, courtiers were careful to weave injunctions against idolatry within their works, so as not to offend Protestant sensitivities. There was, of course, a political element to the devotion as well. …