"As Liuing Now, Equald Theyr Vertues Then": Early Modern Allusions, Boudicca, and the Failure of Monologic Historiographies

By Schechter, Laura | English Studies in Canada, June-September 2013 | Go to article overview

"As Liuing Now, Equald Theyr Vertues Then": Early Modern Allusions, Boudicca, and the Failure of Monologic Historiographies


Schechter, Laura, English Studies in Canada


Introduction

While Elizabeth I rarely encouraged explicit comparisons between herself and martial women of the literary or historical past, (1) brief allusions to and more extended treatments of leaders such as Boudicca are relatively common in popular early modern historiographical texts with encomiastic and nationalist passions. Indeed, as Julia M. Walker notes, "To represent Elizabeth as a woman warrior while she was alive was a delicate proposition" (Elizabeth 40). Certainly, Elizabeth's own self-presentation did not regularly suggest martial impulsivity or ferocity so much as divine protection and favour in times of turmoil. As early as her letters to Queen Mary I in the 1550s, Princess Elizabeth presented herself as accountable to God first and foremost ("Princess Elizabeth" 41). A sense of closeness to and favour from God was strengthened in a speech given the day before her coronation, as she compared herself to Daniel, spared by God because of loyalty and faith ("Richard Mulcaster's Account" 55).

Elizabeth also was obviously comfortable presenting herself as both virginal and as a mother to her nation. Court advancement was often predicated on young men maintaining courtly love relationships that followed the patterns of Petrarchan romances--hopeless suitors promising service to Elizabeth, the beautiful, but untouchable and prevaricating mistress. Official visual representations of the queen include George Gower's series of Siena "sieve" portraits (circa 1579), which portray Elizabeth as Tuccia, the Vestal virgin who, as a testament to her virginity, carried water in a sieve without spilling a drop. In her first speech to Parliament, as she addressed petitions that she marry, the queen stressed that, while she would find it acceptable to live and die a virgin, she was also already married to the nation ("Parliament" 58-59), and she returned to this familial relationship in a 1563 speech, claiming that her subjects would never enjoy a more devoted mother than her ("Queen Elizabeth's Answer" 72). Thomas Bentley similarly praises Elizabeth in the opening Epistle for Monument of Matrones (1582), describing her as the "naturall mother and noble nurse" who watches over the Church of England, and James Aske continues this presentation of the queen as mother to England in his 1588 poem Elizabetha Triumphans, as he describes the queen's laws as both breast milk and a crib (12).

When Elizabeth was connected to martial women during her lifetime, other associative values were usually stressed: Diana, goddess of the hunt, was often used in court literature, but authors would link Elizabeth to her chastity and beauty rather than any explicitly violent tendencies--The Faerie Queene's virginal huntress Belphoebe, for example (Spenser 1590 and 1596). (2) Instead, Elizabeth's self-presentations and sanctioned courtly representations stressed Petrarchan beauty, chastity, personal faith, divine favour, princely virtues, and, occasionally, maternal devotion to the nation (see also Berry; Walker, Elizabeth). Despite the queen's apparent distaste for monarchical representations that might suggest violence in her kingdom or unnatural female qualities in her person, early modern authors did regularly connect Elizabeth to martial figures from mythology, history, and the Bible, particularly after her death as the queen's leadership during the Spanish Armada became mythologized in and of itself. Martial valour was, of course, only one of several monarchical traits that were taken up by writers producing nationalist texts that placed Elizabeth's reign within larger Brittonic histories.

Indeed, when given the chance to praise the queen, early modern authors frequently relied on a well-established set of allusions aimed at lauding various combinations of the queen's chastity, beauty, intelligence, militancy, fortitude, peaceful disposition, and generosity. The allusions are perhaps only intended to serve as brief references, as signals for whichever of Elizabeth's qualities the author will praise in more detail in the larger work. …

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