Elizabeth I: Gender, Power & Politics: Susan Doran Looks at What It Meant to Be a Female Monarch in a Male World and How the Queen Responded to the Challenges

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JUDGING FROM THE RESULTS of last year's BBC television poll of Great Britons, Elizabeth I is the best known and most admired English monarch, at least among those members of the public who decided to vote. Given her high profile in films and biographies, the Queen's relative success in the poll is perhaps unsurprising, especially as her life was so full of incident and drama. The evidence suggests, however, that it was specifically Elizabeth's ability as a woman to exercise power successfully in a man's world that earned her the votes and commanded the respect of today's viewers; she scored highest on her bravery and leadership qualities, while the comments of her supporters, as reported on the BBC website, emphasised her difficulties as a female ruler and her role as `the ultimate British feminist icon'.

Recent academic opinion is usually less kind to Elizabeth. Christopher Haigh has described her as a bully and a show-off, while Susan Brigden seems to share the Elizabethan Council's irritation with their Queen's indecision, prevarications and sometimes faulty judgement. Nonetheless, whatever their views about the character of the Queen, many historians today share the preoccupation with Elizabeth's gender; they tend to stress the problems she faced as a female ruler in the patriarchal sixteenth century and the ways she attempted to circumvent them. I would suggest, however, that these difficulties have been overstated and that Elizabeth's methods of negotiating her gender have been partially misunderstood.

Of course, there is no question that early-modern society was deeply patriarchal in its structure and attitudes. Male primogeniture governed most property arrangements as well as the laws of succession to the crown. In theory, at least, women were not expected to assert any independent authority but were deemed subservient to male relatives whether fathers, brothers or husbands. The Scottish Calvinist preacher John Knox (c.1513-72) famously railed against female monarchy as an abomination in his The First Blast of the Trumpet against the Monstrous Regiment of Women, a work written in 1558 to contest Catholic Mary I's right to be queen. Yet, despite patriarchal attitudes, female rule was no great novelty in the sixteenth century; not only had women inherited the thrones of Castile, Scotland and England before Elizabeth's accession, but more importantly they had also been selected to act as regents in Spain, Scotland, the Netherlands and France during the absences of their monarchs. Furthermore, Knox's views were extreme and reiterated by only a handful of other Protestants.

In fact, at the time of Elizabeth's accession, barely a murmur was heard querying the legitimacy of female rule. Catholics at home and abroad presumably did not think to use Knoxian-style arguments to challenge Elizabeth's right to the throne, because their claimant, Mary, Queen of Scots, was also a woman. In general, the prevailing sentiment within England in mid-November 1558 was not concern at the accession of another queen of England, but rather relief that Mary Tudor's reign--marked by harvest failure, epidemics and military humiliation--was now over, and that Elizabeth's succession was smooth and for all practical purposes undisputed without military intervention from France, Scotland or Spain. Protestants were obviously delighted by the new regime: Thomas Becon, who in 1553 had bemoaned the accession of a female ruler as God's punishment towards a `people unworthy to have lawful, natural and meet governors', now accepted with joy Elizabeth as:

   ... a most worthy patroness of all true
   religion and of learning, a most noble
   defender of all godly-disposed people
   [and] a noble conqueror of
   antichrist.

With Elizabeth on the throne, Knox himself hurriedly backtracked, even though he never actually recanted his earlier opinions. Other Protestant theologians, though, explicitly endorsed Elizabeth's right to rule and openly rejected Knox's arguments. …