Queen Elizabeth I was a charismatic leader who inspired a cult around her virgin status and continues to fascinate historians and history buffs to the the present day. She was often associated with the virginal Roman goddess of the moon and hunting, Diana, and was often called Cynthia in prose and poetry because it was another way of saying Diana. However, in spite of her constant associations with a goddess, Elizabeth was a mere mortal, which she proved when she died on 24 March 1603.
Do you know what really burns my butt about Elizabeth? What sincerely chars my ass? When her accomplishments are dismissed as “luck”. God Almighty, but it has become hella popular for historians to sneer at Elizabeth, point out all her errors with 20/20 hindsight, and write off her achievements as fortunate coincidences or the result of her wiser MALE ministers.
Well, bugger that for a game of soldiers.
There were indeed some lucky incidents for Elizabeth. The storm that helped wreck the Spanish Armada and the fact her best ministers, William Cecil, 1st Baron Burghley and Sir Francis Walsingham, were more loyal to the queen and England than they were to their own ambitions. Neither was she perfect, in either statecraft or in personality, and certainly she made mistakes and did some bad, even reprehensible, things.
However, to write her off as a mediocre queen who just got lucky is such a flaming bag of misogynistic bullshit that it is much more egregious than any hagiography of Gloriana ever could be.
For one thing, Elizabeth was a survivor in a time when surviving required more than the usual amounts of intelligence and canniness. She grew up trying to win the love of a terrifying father who had murdered her mother, and striving to keep in the good graces of two siblings who might have seen her as a threat and chopped her head off at any time. Worse, she had to rely on the nearly non-existent tender mercies of the courtiers that swarmed around Edward VI and Mary I or outsmart them, and if she had not played her cards EXACTLY right at EXACTLY the right time more than once she would have been publically executed or have just ‘disappeared’ like the Princes in the Tower.
Think of all she went through as girl barely into her teens living with her former stepmother, Kateryn Parr.
You can see from the portrait just have fragile she was, physically. It is at this age that her stepmother’s husband, Thomas Seymour, liked to “tickle” her in bed … to the point where she was sent away (either for her protection or to punish her for her own molestation). Then she was plagued with the rumors she had given birth to Seymour’s child (or children) for years afterward, and slut shamed because of it.
Then she was used as a figurehead for every attempted rebellion against Mary I, and boy wasn’t THAT fun. She had seen first hand what happened to girls born too close to the throne. Elizabeth had been friends with Lady Jane Grey. They were both at Kateryn Parr’s home together, and cousins. For years after Jane Grey was judicially murdered by Mary I, Elizabeth had to wonder if Mary was going to do the same to her in order to remove any threat that Elizabeth would be used as an alternative queen. She had to placate Mary in spite of the fact she was younger, prettier, and the daughter of the person Mary hated more than any human being that had ever walked the planet – Anne Boleyn. That was luck, was it?
As for Elizabeth’s reign … she managed to rule men who didn’t listen to her half the time. Think that was easy to do? She didn’t dare wield the same despotic power as her father and grandfather had. She had to put up with crap and coax rather than demand. Look at the example of what happened in “the 1594 affair of Dr. Lopez, her trusted physician. When he was wrongly accused by the Earl of Essex of treason out of personal pique, she could not prevent his execution, although she had been angry about his arrest and seems not to have believed in his guilt.” So getting her way any time and at all required a great deal of maneuvering and political juggling, rather than arbitrary orders. Yet she is held accountable for everything, as though she ruled by absolute fiat.
She’s been critiqued for being “hesitant” on the military front, but almost every time she let a commander out into the field, he would NOT obey the instructions she sent him (even as a queen, she was still merely a woman!) and he botched it up. For instance, there is the flusterduck of the French campaign. When Henry IV, a fellow-protestant, came to the French throne in 1589, Elizabeth sent him military support. It was a nightmare:
Lord Willoughby largely ignoring Elizabeth’s orders, roamed northern France to little effect, with an army of 4,000 men. He withdrew in disarray in December 1589, having lost half his troops. In 1591, the campaign of John Norreys, who led 3,000 men to Brittany, was even more of a disaster. As for all such expeditions, Elizabeth was unwilling to invest in the supplies and reinforcements requested by the commanders [I wonder why?]. Norreys left for London to plead in person for more support. In his absence, a Catholic League army almost destroyed the remains of his army at Craon, north-west France, in May 1591. In July, Elizabeth sent out another force under Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex, to help Henry IV in besieging Rouen. The result was just as dismal. Essex accomplished nothing and returned home in January 1592. Henry abandoned the siege in April. As usual, Elizabeth lacked control over her commanders once they were abroad. “Where he is, or what he doth, or what he is to do,” she wrote of Essex, “we are ignorant.”
Part of the problem was that Burleigh had died in 1590, and Walsingham was nearing the end. Without a male face to put to her orders, and with the new ministers more interested in fighting with each other for power than helping her effectively rule, she might as well been a ‘lame duck’ President with a hostile congress. Nonetheless, any errors in policy have been laid solely on HER doorstep, while all successes have been mostly credited to her councilors rather than the queen.
Furthermore, why is the fact she listened to and worked with Burleigh and Walsingham, and relied on them to be the men to tell other men what to do in her name, for so many decades considered “lucky” rather than brilliant decision making or smart tactics? When a king listens to an able minister, it is “wise”, but when a queen does it is “lucky” the guy was there. You know, because chicks cannot recognize a excellent politician and make use of him. Only kings do THAT!
While I don’t advocate going back to a Victorian misconstruction of Elizabeth as a paragon – which is just as sexist in it’s own faultless-as-an-angel way of upholding SOME women – I am repulsed by the later-day historians’ smug dismissal of her virtues. You try ruling an early modern kingdom while in possession of a vagina, and see how well YOU do! It would behoove those who would slight her to remember what Pope Sixtus V said of her: “She is only a woman, only mistress of half an island, and yet she makes herself feared by Spain, by France, by the Empire, by all”. That took some doing.