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

Synopsis

Chosen as one of the ten best academic books of the 1990s by

Excerpt

"I may have the body of a weak and feeble woman, but I have the heart and stomach of a king," Elizabeth I is said to have proclaimed in a moment of national crisis in 1588, as she faced the possibility of a Spanish invasion. Whether or not this is an accurate transcription of what she said at Tilbury, it is hardly surprising that it has passed into tradition as one of the most famous of her speeches, since it so neatly encapsulates the struggles and contradictions for a woman in a position of power. Elizabeth had from her earliest memories known the difficulties and dangers for women when their lives were caught in the intersection of sexuality and politics, of gender and power. Not only must she have early learned her mother's fate, she also saw the progression of stepmothers at her father's court. At fifteen she had to listen to rumors that she had become pregnant by Thomas Seymour, widower of her last stepmother Katherine Parr, as he awaited his execution in the Tower. Only her quick wits and self-possession saved her own reputation and allowed her to protect her servants Katherine Ashley and Thomas Parry. During her sister Mary's reign she herself was in the Tower, afraid she would follow her cousin Jane Grey to the block. Few would have believed in November 1558 that her reign would last for forty-five years. To rule successfully Elizabeth may well have believed she must have "the heart and stomach of a king."

Traditionally, western society has viewed women as weak and incapable of a public role; to be successful a woman must move away from the expectations of her gender and "act like a man." But to do so makes her unwomanly, possibly even monstrous. Moreover, the way a society views a woman in a position of power not only impinges on her use of that power, but may reflect wider societal expectations about women's roles. Elizabeth I was very skillful in how she represented herself and her authority as monarch. She was able to capitalize on the expectations of her behavior as a woman and use them to her advantage; she also at times placed herself beyond traditional gender expectations by calling herself king. Elizabeth was able to overcome the powerful resistance to her . . .

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