Elizabeth I: Gender, Religion and Politics: Did It Matter the Fifth Tudor Monarch Was a Woman Rather Than a Man? Retha Warnicke Investigates

By Warnicke, Retha | History Review, September 2007 | Go to article overview

Elizabeth I: Gender, Religion and Politics: Did It Matter the Fifth Tudor Monarch Was a Woman Rather Than a Man? Retha Warnicke Investigates


Warnicke, Retha, History Review


A Patriarchal Society

In 1558, when Elizabeth I became the third queen regnant of the British Isles, the prevailing models for her reign were not propitious. The first queen regnant, Mary Stewart, who succeeded to the Scottish throne in 1542, had faced three rebellions directed against her husbands, who were expected by her subjects to control her realm. Indeed in 1561 Elizabeth had to send an envoy to France to inform Mary, whose first husband, Francis II, had recently died, that her French marriage had led to the Lords of the Congregation's successful revolution in Scotland. Mary Tudor, the second queen regnant, who reigned from 1553 to 1558, also offered a poor marital example. Choosing to wed Philip of Spain, Mary had to squash armed challenges to her authority by rebels concerned about Spanish influence. Addressing this issue in 1554, Parliament found it necessary to enact a statute establishing that queens regnant possessed sovereign powers.

In general females, whether married or single, were viewed as emotional and libidinous, incapable of autonomous political action and biologically inferior to males. Single women-without husbands to advise them and manage their affairs-were looked upon with suspicion and were expected to live under the supervision of male relatives or guardians. That Elizabeth's Church of England joined the Protestant confession, which championed women's vocation as marriage, caused the status of the already marginalised single woman to begin to decline even further.

It was in this patriarchal atmosphere that Elizabeth succeeded to the throne. Clearly, her royal status exempted her from many female handicaps, but she had to govern a realm in which crown and church office-holders were mostly male and to negotiate the prevailing view that monarchs ought to be kings. In 1565 Sir Thomas Smith, equating the reign of a female ruler to that of a king in his minority, stated it was understood that the counsel of wise men would 'supply' her 'defaults'. Some writers argued that because a woman was incapable of controlling her appetites, she was more likely, as queen, to become a tyrant than was a king.

Two recent books have raised questions about whether it mattered that Elizabeth was a female rather than a male ruler. In 1999 Anne McLaren identified Protestants in both England and Scotland, who, seeing that they were to be governed by queens regnant, expected the women not only to listen to their Protestant male councillors' advice but also to heed it. By contrast, in 2005, Natalie Mears denied the existence of any overwhelming evidence proving Elizabeth's councillors treated her differently from a male ruler. Although admitting that she found some gendered criticisms of Elizabeth, Mears dismissed them as infrequent or occasional. Gender was not the major issue; religion was.

The Church

It seems appropriate to look at a few of Elizabeth's problems to determine whether her gender figured in her relationship with her councillors. In 1559, when she summoned Parliament, the most pressing issue was the religious settlement. The Church had gone through several changes since Henry VIII had become the Supreme Head of the Church. In his son Edward Vl's reign, the royal headship continued and parliaments authorised English prayer books and denied Christ's bodily presence in the Eucharist. Following Mary Tudor's accession, her parliaments revoked these statutes, restoring papal allegiance and the Catholic mass. These various statutes reflected the monarchs' personal beliefs.

From the passage of the Acts of Uniformity and Supremacy in 1559, writers have questioned the nature of Elizabeth's faith. Although recognising that her denial of papal power meant she adhered to some kind of Protestantism, they believed the compromises leading to those statutes' enactment made it unlikely they wholly mirrored her beliefs. That the statutes authorised an English prayer book displeased not only the Catholics, who preferred the Latin mass, but also some Protestants, who thought the reformed service contained too much ritual, such as the sign of the cross in christenings. …

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