The Heart and Stomach of a King: Elizabeth I and the Politics of Sex and Power

The Heart and Stomach of a King: Elizabeth I and the Politics of Sex and Power

The Heart and Stomach of a King: Elizabeth I and the Politics of Sex and Power

The Heart and Stomach of a King: Elizabeth I and the Politics of Sex and Power


In her famous speech to rouse the English troops staking out Tilbury at the mouth of the Thames during the Spanish Armada's campaign, Queen Elizabeth I is said to have proclaimed, "I may have the body of a weak and feeble woman, but I have the heart and stomach of a king." Whether or not the transcription is accurate, the persistent attribution of this provocative statement to England's most studied and celebrated queen illustrates some of the contradictions and cultural anxieties that dominated the collective consciousness of England during a reign that lasted from 1558 until 1603.

In The Heart and Stomach of a King, Carole Levin explores the myriad ways the unmarried, childless Elizabeth represented herself and the ways members of her court, foreign ambassadors, and subjects represented and responded to her as a public figure. In particular, Levin interrogates the gender constructions, role expectations, and beliefs about sexuality that influenced her public persona and the way she was perceived as a female Protestant ruler. With a new introduction that situates the book within the emerging genre of cultural biography, the second edition of The Heart and Stomach of a King offers insight into the continued fascination with Elizabeth I and her reign.


Elizabeth Tudor—better known as Elizabeth I, queen of England from 1558 to 1603—is one of the most studied and mesmerizing historical personages. Her allure has many sources, just as she herself seemed to have many identities: she was an unwanted daughter born to a father who needed a son, she was an innocent political prisoner during her half-sister Mary’s bloody and dramatic reign, she was the Western world’s most eligible and elusive bride. Elizabeth reigned over great cultural flourishing and worked to maintain peace during a time of religious and political unrest in the rest of Europe, but she also served as a staunch protector of her country, defending England from the invading Spanish with, as she stated herself, “the heart and stomach of a king.”

Perhaps most impressively for a woman on a man’s throne, Elizabeth ruled for almost forty-five years alone. She has often been described as one of the greatest of all English monarchs, and from her age until our own we have wanted to know more about her and her success. The first history of Elizabeth’s life and reign was published by William Camden in Latin in 1615, translated into English in 1625. At the end of the seventeenth century, Edmund Bohun in The Character of Queen Elizabeth claimed that Elizabeth “had been celebrated not only in her times, but in all that have since followed,” concluding that this celebration will continue “to the end of the world.” While this is certainly hyperbole, during the twentieth century more than a thousand nonfiction books in English were published about Elizabeth, with more than twenty released just in the last year. She has also been the subject of novels, plays, and movies, and there are books about her not only for adults but also aimed at a much younger audience, ranging from alphabet books to young adult novels and biographies. People are so fascinated by Elizabeth that her story has been used in a wide range of media, including full-color comic books depicting her defending England from the Spanish Armada and how-to texts suggesting that emulating her actions is a way to be successful in today’s business world.

Why is Elizabeth so endlessly intriguing? Might it be the irony of her success as queen when her father so intensely wanted a son to rule after . . .

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