No one has ever been so fantasized about as Queen Elizabeth I. Endlessly portrayed in novels, films and onstage, vilified by enemies, romanticized by supporters––what’s the truth about the woman who gave her name to the English Renaissance? With more documentation to work with than exists for any other figure of her time, even historians continue to swing from positive to negative and back again. Some eras prefer to see her as a great potentate holding a handful of restive ministers in check, others as a hapless female controlled by some one of them, usually Leicester, Burghley or Walsingham.
Elizabeth’s shining qualities were her management skills and her loyalty. It took her a long time to trust somebody, but once she did the bond was permanent. Generally a good judge of character, it was only occasionally that she allowed her feelings to sway her in the wrong direction. If she made mistakes in her choice of ministers it was usually due more to circumstance than anything within her control. Her two worst choices were more or less forced upon her, Robert Devereux and Robert Cecil, both of whom she took on at almost the same time simply because she had (or thought she had) no other choices available.
That she kept at arm’s length for so long a man so obviously meant to serve as Francis Bacon requires an explanation (in a future essay). It’s interesting that it wasn’t until Burghley’s death and Essex’s fall that she finally brought Bacon inside the tent. Oxford was bitter that she never gave him a post of obvious authority, but had she done so, would we have Shakespeare today? Maybe once again she knew what she was doing.
Probably because her native leadership qualities were shaky, Elizabeth was intensely jealous of her authority, and so second-guessed her ministers at every turn, driving them crazy. She continually second-guessed herself as well. Her most typical behavior was to make a decision, then reverse it the following day, a process that could drag on for months as she seemingly waited for events to make the decision for her. Ironically, though this stalling could hardly be seen as policy, in hindsight it rather looks like wisdom, for while it kept both her allies and her enemies guessing, it helped give the English nation time to gain strength and security among the warring rival nations of the West.
If she inherited anything from her father, Henry VIII, it was his showmanship, which she used to create an image of leadership. She knew her people and knew what pleased them. She was capable of eloquence when necessary, and of putting on an impressive show for foreign visitors. But that it was mostly show is obvious from records that reveal her penny-pinching, a trait she shared with her grandfather, Henry VII, whom she most resembled, having lived an early life of penury and danger similar to his. Her famous wardrobe of 2000 dresses was actually an accumulation of bits and pieces, skirts, sleeves, bodices, etc., that her seamstresses continually reassembled into new outfits, adding a new collar here, a new flounce there. To maintain the most impressive image possible she relied largely on New Year’s gifts of clothing and jewelry from her courtiers.
The Elizabethan Literary Renaissance
Although her name is attached to the supernova of literature and drama that blazed so brightly in the latter years of her reign, her only obv ious influence is simply that she didn’t interfere with it to such an extent that she prevented it from happening. She certainly did nothing on her own to encourage it. This may have been at least partly because her own taste was formed by writers like her tutor Roger Ascham (pron. Ask’am), whose style places him firmly in the preceding “drab era.” Older writers like Ascham had no enthusiasm for the kinds of style that we attribute to Shakespeare, Lyly, Sidney, or Marlowe. There can be no doubt that Elizabeth knew something about who was creating these styles, though exactly what she knew and how much is debatable.
To create the kind of Court that would impress her people and the world, Elizabeth required almost constant music and frequent entertainment. She supplied the music through her one real luxury, a corps of upwards of 60 musicians that she kept on the Court payroll. That she relied on her ministers to provide all the rest is clear enough, though not from the historical record which simply ignores the question.
With sin and depravity issues of passionate concern for her reform-minded supporters, the cost and nature of entertainment at Europe’s leading Reformation Court was a delicate issue. Apart from payments made to identified actiing companies, the dates of performances and an occasional title, there is next to nothing on the subject in the records. Literary historians have done their best to piece together a picture from what bits there are, but inevitably much has been missed, including the true identities of “Shakespeare” and several other leading poets and playwrights––a whole herd of elephants in the literary living room.
Poetry a “childish toy”
What is clear, however, is that writing poetry and publishing works of imaginative literature were anything but paths to prosperity at Elizabeth’s Court. Despite their lavish dedications to her Majesty, none of the Court writers that we esteem today were advanced one iota in their Court careers by Queen Elizabeth. Oxford, Sidney, Bacon, and Harington all waited in vain as prestigious appointments went to other men.
Nor did she, as did most Renaissance monarchs, bring to Court talented writers not born into Court society. There is no record whatsoever that John Lyly, Christopher Marlowe, Edmund Spenser, Robert Greene (or, for that matter, William Shakespeare) were ever even introduced at Court, much less that they became central to the Court community like Molière at the Court of Louis the 14th or Voltaire at the Court of Frederick the Great. One potentially great poet who did have a successful Court career was Thomas Sackville, Lord Buckhurst, but not until after he had formally vowed to give up the childish sport of writing poetry.
Among the many myths about Elizabeth that get repeated from one generation to the next is that she was in any real way a patron of this literary glory. That it was largely in spite of her that there was an Elizabethan Literary Renaissance at all helps to explain why the authorship of the Shakespeare canon was kept a secret from the start.
For details on the causes of Elizabeth’s fears, read This Queen hates marriage.
For more on Elizabeth’s sexuality, read The Marriage Card.
For more on Elizabeth as the Great Goddess, read The Politics of Frustration.