“Dissing Elizabeth”: a review

Dissing Elizabeth: Negative Representations of Gloriana. Ed. Julia M. Walker.  Durham NC: Duke U Press, 1998.

Lately there has been a lot of discussion amongst academics about Queen Elizabeth, among them this effort to display some of the current thinking about her bad press.  Considering how dangerous it was to say anything negative about the Queen in public, the remarks that got documented and eventually published can only suggest the volume and nature of the opinions and rumors that were never reported.  And while it’s true that in general Elizabeth’s people loved her, and that at many difficult moments it was their love to which she turned instinctively for support, that doesn’t mean they didn’t give her a hard time.

Laws passed shortly after she took the throne and reaffirmed in 1571 and again in 1581, made it treason to say (or even think) that Elizabeth should not be queen (for whatever reason).  That plus the number of people who were arrested for this and pilloried, some even executed (Levin 89), shows how much of a problem this was to her and her ministers.  However much some of her people loved her, there were others that disdained her: because she was a woman, because she was a witch, because she was the product of a marriage that they detested, because she was the daughter of a king who stole from the Church to give to his friends and of a mother who was a witch and a whore, because she had no birthright to the throne, because they wanted to kill her, because she was the anti-christ and bound for hell, or, perhaps the most potent of all, though rarely stated, simply because they were Catholics and she ruled as founding head of the Protestant (Anglican) Church.

During her first decade as Queen, suspicious of what having a female ruler might portend, they watched her like hawks for signs of weakness or wickedness, traits many were afraid she could not avoid considering what her parents and siblings were like.  Thus when the proto-Presbyterian John Knox, for many the voice of the Reformation, whose First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regimen of Women was published the year Elizabeth came to the throne, thundered: “their sight in civil regimen [government] is but blindness, their strength, weakness, their counsel foolishness and judgment, frensy, if it be rightly considered,” he was only voicing fears felt by many.

The last of the Tudors, Elizabeth also suffered in the eyes of many from choices made by her Welsh grandfather, Henry Tudor, to take the crown away from the ancient family of English rulers, the Plantagenets; from her father, to marry six wives in search of an heir and in the process, divorce two and cause the deaths of three, including her mother; from her mother who was condemned to death for having sex with five men including her own brother; from her sister who married the hated Catholic King of Spain; and from her brother, who died of some terrible disease at fifteen, but not before ushering in the largely hated Protestant Reformation––not an easy heritage to overcome.

Elizabeth’s dilemma

Many, perhaps most, of the negative attitudes displayed towards the Queen and discussed in this book derived from prejudices based on factors like these that met her at the outset.  But as time went on her own choices brought others, most notably her refusal to marry and produce an heir.  The single statement that puts this best comes from contributor Carole Levin’s chapter: “We shall never have a merry world while the Queene liveth: Gender, Monarchy, and the Power of Seditious Words”;  77-95.

Elizabeth, though she played with courtship for over twenty years into her reign, was at best ambivalent about actually marrying.  She could lose power to a consort, and her council was always divided on whom she should actually marry.  Perhaps also the lessons of her father’s wives, their trouble having sons and their subsequent fates, made her wonder if she would have trouble conceiving a son or surviving childbirth if she did. (85-6)

Levin puts the Queen’s dilemma most succinctly, but she and the other authors here do little more than talk around the issues, asking leading questions about the Queen’s psychology and her reasons for not marrying, yet without offering much in the way of conclusions.  Levin at least notices the personal factor of her concern over repeating her mother’s, sister’s, and stepmother’s troubles with childbirth, though neither Levin nor any other writer here considers her very likely worry that her father may have infected her mother and his other wives and their children with syphilis, and what that might mean should she get pregnant.

Levin gives dozens of instances of nasty rumors and seditious statements, some significant, some silly, but with no effort that I could see to distinguish between the two.  Current profspeak requires that everyone quoted be named, not bothering to distinguish between persons of some repute and the drunks and lunatics whose names made it into the record books only because they got in trouble for dissing the Queen.  We’re told that one chap got arrested for claiming that if he had Henry VIII’s crown he would play football with it.  Are we supposed to take this seriously?  More interesting is her statement that there were a number of comments that Henry couldn’t sire an heir “because he did occupy with so many whores and harlots” (83).  Was this equally silly?  Abdicating her role as professor, Levin leaves evaluation to the reader.

On the lower social levels, Henry’s break with Rome tended to arouse less animosity than his determination to divorce Katherine of Aragon (in the eyes of many of his people, his only wife) so he could marry Elizabeth’s mother.  Whether the fault was the King’s lust or Anne Boleyn’s witchcraft, for the great majority of uneducated and simple souls who saw the unbreakable bonds of marriage and partnership as fundamental to social harmony, the whole thing was a bad business indeed.  This alarming divorce, not so much the King’s of his legitimate wife as the nation’s of sanctified tradition, must have frightened his people, for whom his illness later in life and his bad luck begetting an heir was easily seen as divine retribution.  It’s not hard to imagine that on dark days Elizabeth herself may also have thought so.

The succession

As time went on, the issue that caused the most anguish for the Queen’s ministers right from the start gradually overtook the entire nation.  As Levin puts it,

Elizabeth’s approach to the succession was completely different from her father’s.  She refused to name an heir at all, and stated that God would provide for the succession, perhaps with a much better ruler than any child of hers could be, “peradventure more beneficial to the realm than such offspring as may come of me.  For although I be never so careful of your well doings and mind ever so to be, yet may my issue grow out of kind and become perhaps ungracious. (85)

According to Levin,

in the court records of those arrested for seditious words, hostility towards Elizabeth provoked as much verbal violence and wishes for her demise as had been provoked by her father.  But in Elizabeth’s case, the hostility intertwined with attitudes about a woman in power.  Given society’s restrictive views about what was appropriate female behavior, Elizabeth was in some ways far more vulnerable than her father . . . .  In the hostile criticism of Henry and Anne’s daughter, we find the same labeling of her and those who criticized Elizabeth’s sexual behavior also denied that she was competent to rule” (87).

There we have the crux of the issue, of which Elizabeth was well aware, and which dictated her behavior from start to finish.  Although she enjoyed flirtation and had a profound woman’s understanding of how to use it, there’s no evidence that she ever went any further.  Had there been, surrounded as she was by enemies as well as friends, we would surely know of it.

Levin’s overview of Elizabeth is the most sensible:

Like her father, Elizabeth was strong-willed and determined.  Once she was queen, she intended to live her life as she wanted within the confines of rule.  And this meant promoting in rank and openly flirting with such favorites as Robert Dudley.  Though Elizabeth always claimed there was nothing dishonorable about her relationship with Dudley, she was also determined to decide for herself how to set the parameters of that relationsip, and to openly express her feelings for him.  These public displays of affection led many people to express the belief that Dudley was her lover, and that they even had children together.  Some even argued that this was the reason Elizabeth left court to go on progress––to hide her pregnancies. . . .  One said “she never goeth in progress but to be delivered.” (88)

We can only wonder how she might have managed to keep this a secret surrounded as she was at all times by upwards of 200 or more courtiers and servants not to mention the households of those she visited on progress.

Though from the very beginning of her reign there were rumors about Elizabth’s love affair with Dudley and that she was pregnant by him or had children, the rumors about Elizabeth’s illegitimate children became even more intense in the last two decades of [her] reign, as did attacks on her rule. (88)

As Levin makes clear, rumors that Elizabeth was sick, dying or dead were as prevalent as rumors that she was pregnant or had produced illegitimate children.  Since she was not, in fact, sick or dead or dying, reason suggests we regard the rumors of pregnancy in a similar light.

Hannah Betts: The Image of this Queene so Quaynt: The Pornographic Blazon 1588-1603. Pp 153-184.

Here Betts addresses the texts that disrespect the Queen and other leading figures by portraying them in imagined sexual activities.  The problem with Betts is not with her thesis, but with her language, the kind of dense profspeak that does little to promote understanding, except perhaps among her colleagues.  Here’s a sample:

Although there has been considerable attention to the eroticized language of Elizabethan panegyric, the negative potential of this rhetoric has remained largely unexamined.  In this essay it will be my contention that this sexualized language could be negatively adapted in terms that also offered opportunities for masculine self-invention. (153)

Say what?

Apart from porn’s eternal purpose as a means to sexually arouse male readers, where such writing involves images of respected celebrities, it can be seen a kind of imagined rape, not of the flesh but of the reputation.  And as rape is less about sex than power, porn involving celebrities is not all that different from burning them in effigy, particularly when the celebrity is a king or queen or other figure seen only from afar, or even more likely, never seen at all.  Imagining them naked or engaging in illicit sex is not about their sex lives, certainly nothing true, it’s simply another way of demeaning them, of cutting them down to size.

Betts dwells on the blazon, a herald’s term  by which she means the description of a woman’s body in which it’s compared to a map or herald’s shield, originally in a complimentary way (or as in Shakespeare, a comic way), though towards the end of Elizabeth’s reign often in a disrespectful or pornographic way.  She points to Spenser in the April Eclogue of the Calender and Belphoebe in Faerie Queene and to Lyly in Euphues England, though exactly what these might have to do with Elizabeth is hard to tell (perhaps I missed something while plowing through the professorial verbiage).  Though she admits that “the queen was never overtly associated with these scenarios, some connection with her was repeatedly implied” (156).  Implied?  Repeatedly?  She doesn’t say.

Betts suggests that such writing was indicative of a society where aspiring young intellectuals were frustrated; no doubt true, but so what?  If some of this was projected onto the Queen, it’s no more than the kind of projection that all prominent leaders suffer from followers, dissidents, and lunatics who see them as saints, villains, and everything in between.  That they would sexualize an unmarried female monarch, whether to admire her or disdain her, tells us nothing whatever about her beyond the fact of her status as a woman and a national leader.

Rather than anything specifically directed towards the Queen, I see the eruption of pornography toward the end of her reign as the beginning of the inevitable crumbling of the intensely romantic period of her early years.  We see the same thing in the early 19th century as the romantic era of Byron and Keats crumbled into the decadence of Bram Stoker and Rider Haggard, or how the “love generation” of the early 1960s decayed into drug addiction, panhandling, and the Manson murders, spelling the end of the idyll.  As with these the intensely romantic sonnets of Sidney and Shakespeare (both written at least a decade before being published), gradually declined until the Jacobeans were entertained with the murders and sexual  horrors of Ford and Webster.

What is admired and inspirational for one generation is almost inevitably denigrated and satirized by the next.  During her years of youthful marriagability, Elizabeth was seen as the magical golden-haired virgin of the unicorn tapestries who, through her purity and sexual restraint, was bringing an end to the tensions and horrors of the preceding reigns.  Understandably, as she and her ministry aged, the magic faded and a certain emotional pendulum, held for so long at the extreme of restraint, began to swing to the opposite position, replacing the atmosphere of admiration and respect for the feminine with cynicism and sexual excess.  The trend from restraint to license that began during the final decade of the Queen’s reign would continue under James until it reached its opposite highest point in 1614 with the sex scandals involving Frances Howard and the King’s favorite, followed by their trial for the murder of his secretary.

Betts notes the publication of Venus and Adonis in 1593 as an early move from the purely romantic towards the more explicitly sexual, revealing Oxford (to us) as, once again, in the lead with literary innovation.  We should note that Shakespeare did something similar with Sonnet 130, turning a classical Petrarchan trope around to mean the opposite of what would otherwise be expected: “My mistresses’ eyes are nothing like the sun . . . .”  It’s amusing that Betts sees that “the poem’s dedicatory material emphasizes that it is at once an inaugural and a transitional moment within his career . . . ”; transitional indeed––from Lyly, Greene and Watson to Shakespeare.

That Venus was a Queen (Queen of Love) has engendered numerous claims that Shakespeare had the Queen of England in mind.  First of all, let’s not confuse Elizabeth, whose conflations with goddesses were with Diana and Cynthia, the chaste and changeable goddesses of the Moon, while to most readers the Goddess of Love represents the natural view of a lover towards the object of his as yet unfulfilled desire, not some real Queen off somewhere in a palace.  Had the poem remained in manuscript it could be argued that it was written for the Court coterie.  Since it was published for the public at large, and no manuscript version has survived to suggest a previous life as a coterie production, and, if I’m correct, it was written in 1592 in Oxford’s new-found Shakespeare style on purpose to overwhelm the current enthusiasm for Sir Philip Sidney’s Astrophil and Stella, that he would base his Venus on the 60-year-old Queen is just plain absurd.

Betts puts these works by Shakespeare, Barnes and others in opposition to the works that worship Gloriana, but they may be less purposefully opposed than simply taking the theme of romantic love in the direction invariably taken by nature.  If there was opposition here it was aimed less at the aging, childless Queen than at the fear and loathing of sex that dominates the Reformation.

That the writers of the time would compare the physical condition of a monarch with such a long history as the head of state with the condition of the state itself is hardly surprising, but let’s not take the metaphor too far.  The handful of figures that remain real to us four centuries later are not the only figures that interested the urban readers of the 16th and early 17th centuries.  We may have a few names, but we can’t possibly know what bright and shining forms were attracting attention in the streets, drawing rooms and upper class bordellos at any given time.  Just as they do today, these came and went like butterflies every few years, while the Queen alone remains in view.  Certainly the center of the literary activity of her youth that was primarily centered at Court, by the late 90s such circles had expanded and drifted deep into other arena, where it’s most unlikely that the Queen was of any particular interest.  To show as Betts proclaims that an iconography of “militant virginity” still “dominated” national politics in 1599 is going to require a good deal more evidence than this essay provides.

Marcy L. North: Queen Elizabeth Compiled : Henry Stanford’s Private Anthology and the Question of Accountability; pp 185-208.  Assistant English professor at Florida State University.

After groping through some of the densest profspeak yet, it appears that North is chiefly concerned with an anonymous poem in a commonplace book from late in the Queen’s reign that accuses her of giving birth to three illegitimate daughters.  After pages of opaque commentary, North finally gets around to placing it and its author in time. Stephen May, based on the appearance of the initials H.S. twice in the anthology,  holds that the compiler of the commonplace book was one Henry Stanford, a tutor for awhile in a prominent recusant Catholic household.  His place later in households of the Carey family during the period when George Carey was Lord Chamberlain of the Royal Household and a Privy Councillor gave him access to coterie circles and also, no doubt, to a measure of protection where his papers were concerned.

The poem in question is surrounded by other poems, all of very different kinds and sorts, some anonymous and unique, others known and identified by their location in other collections.  Many of these praise the Queen, wishing for her long life, etc.

North ponders the probable process of compiling the contents of the book, which seems like what today we might find as a scrapbook or a folder in a filing cabinet, stuffed with copies of texts that have crossed the path of the compiler over a period of time, in this case, the final decade of the Queen’s reign and the first two decades under James.  There seems to be no particular order or meaning intended.

None of this takes us beyond the limits of what has already been defined: that among the litanies of praise for the Queen that remain, there are a few that villify her, and among these, accusations of the sort that she gave birth to illegitimate children (and that she murdered some of them with her own hands) should surely be dismissed as one of the easiest ways for a frustrated subject to vilify an unmarried Queen.

The best of these articles is Spenser’s Amazon Queen by Mary Villeponteaux, English professor at Georgia Southern University, in which she examines the different characters in The Faerie Queene that represent different sides of Elizabeth.  This deserves a fuller treatment in an examination of how Spenser (Bacon) saw the Queen.  Yet one statement deserves repeating: referring to comments made by Sidney and Leicester, she adds the final defining statement:

Although the representation of Elizabeth as a Petrarchan “cruel fair” whose courtiers played the roles of importuning lovers has received a great deal of critical attention, the dominant impression created by contemporary references to the queen is that her subjects thought and spoke of her as a mother. (215)


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