Elizabeth and the politics of frustration

Queen Elizabeth would not have wished to reveal herself as weak in any way.  If she chose not to marry it would have to be for reasons that had nothing to do with any weakness or fear of her own.  So in contradiction to her frequent complaints about marriage, she would pretend to be excited about each new suitor, putting the Court once again into courtship mode.  Perhaps she herself didn’t see her behavior as a cynical game meant to keep the marriage card in play, but surely by the time she was in her forties her closest confidantes did.

What Elizabeth wished the world to see was a woman of great moral strength and virtue who chose celibacy over marriage due to her deep personal convictions of honor and her love for her people.  That this didn’t square with her promises to her councillors that she would marry when she found the right man, or her promises to her suitors that she was taking seriously their offers of marriage, was just one of those conflicts of interest that politicians must live with and can sometimes use to their advantage.   In her case it so happened that her portrayal as “Virgin Queen” was supported by deeply-rooted cultural factors in her English people that had nothing to do with politics or her personal needs.

The immortal goddess

The earliest form of deity worship was the vision of the earth as a great mother. The Great Goddess, called by as many names as there were languages and peoples on the planet, represented the womb within which all life was generated in “the Spring” and the tomb into which it returned in “the Fall.”  Religions were matriarchal and held women, the source of new life, in high regard as her communicants.  Men saw themselves as her servants and protectors.  With sex as the cause of increase in both the human population and the animals that nourished it, sexual intercourse was seen as sacred, thus the highest religious rites were sexual in nature and were devoted to Her worship.

Once there was enough population and food sources that it was clear the human race wasn’t in any danger of extinction, sex became a force less to be worshipped than controlled.  Militant religions, enforced by the invention of bronze weaponry, raised the status of the immortal earth goddess’s mortal son-lover to that of the thundering immortal, the sky god Jupiter-Zeus, while she was weakened by being divided into two lesser goddesses under his control, his jealous wife Juno-Hera, and the love goddess, Venus-Aphrodite (forrunners of the two Marys).  His sex drive, formerly subservient to the Goddess, was now subservient to nothing but his own impulses, a dangerous development for humanity and certainly dangerous for women.

The ultimate move to completely eliminate the feminine from the sacred hierarchy came with the “discovery” by Moses (or Ankhanaten) of monotheism, which not only removed the various lesser gods, but all forms of the Goddess.  The Trinity that began as all female: prepubescent nymph, sexually-mature goddess, and wise old crone, was now deprived of any feminine component: father, son, and holy ghost.  The monotheists portrayed the Goddess religion as Devil worship, and women began their long descent to a status that in many places was (and still is) little better than slavery.

None of this happened in a linear fashion.  For centuries these views coexisted, overlapped, and influenced each other in ancillary ways as they still do to some extent.  For tens of centuries temples to the Egyptian goddess Isis and hundreds of local variations on the Goddess dwelt alongside those to the Greek and Roman Zeus-Jupiter, and both continued to flourish alongside the monotheistic temples of Judaism and Christianity, until the 4th century when the Emperor Constantine gave Christianity the boost it needed to take the top spot in the Mediterranean arena.

During the period when the Middle East was rising to its peak of intellectual and technological development, the Goddess made a comeback, thanks to the poets (who, as Graves reminds us, never forgot her), via the civilizing force known as Courtly Love, which was then exported to western Europe through Spain along with chemistry, higher mathematics, roses, oranges, stringed instruments, perfume, silk, and love poetry.  We find its traces today in the romance tales of Tristram, Galahad, and Parsifal.

Although the Catholic Church has always been a patriarchal institution, dividing the feminine principle (Mary) to the subsidiary roles of Good Mary (the Mother, modestly swathed in fabric from head to toe) and Bad Mary (the naked Prostitute), it showed its political craft by absorbing what remained in northern Europe of the prehistoric goddess worship into the feast days of various female saints, trimmed of any too obviously sexual rites.

The demonization of sex

When the Church, having risen to mighty political power, forgot its early values, it left the door open to the social revolution known as the Reformation.  The Reformation had many good aspects, but one of the less appealing was how it ramped up the anti-feminism of Catholicism to a previously unseen extreme.  The most energetic reformers were also the most negative towards women, hence John Knox and the “Monstrous Regiment of Women,” the rash of witch-burnings in France, strong females like Joan of Arc demonized as witch and/or whore, and the disproportionate torture and burning of thousands of women as heretics by the Spanish Inquisition.

These are the extremes, but that they are symptomatic of a shift in the entire culture can be seen in the continual reference to sex as “filth” or “filthiness.”  No doubt this was meant to refer to homosexuality and prostitution, but without any clear distinction.  Elizabeth’s tutor, Roger Ascham, was one such Reformation scholar, as is evident from even a quick look through his 1563 book, The Scholemaster.  Since Elizabeth owed her present high position to the Reformation, it was her duty to follow its precepts, thus supporting her debilitating private fears with its blatant anti-sex rhetoric.  The result, as her biography attests, was the emotionally-stunted, sexually-repressed virago we see in her more fact-based biographies.

The Age of Queens

The 16th century in Europe is often refered to as the Age of Queens.  With Mary Queen of Scots and her mother in Scotland, Elizabeth and her sister in England, and Marie de Medici in France, women ruled much of Europe.  As suggested by the opening scene in Henry V, this was as much a worry to both the Reformation and the Catholic bishops as it had been to the war lords of the Middle Ages.  But on a deeply emotional level, a much older if generally silent attitude towards a female in power deafened her rural constitutents to the denunciations of men like John Knox and Pope Gregory.

It was ages since the patriarchal kingdoms and religions had supplanted the worship of  the Great Mother, but behind the threats of an angry Reformation God, of Jehovah or Zeus or Mithras, behind her portrayals by the patriarchs as jealous Juno, the furious Eumenides, or the Medusa whose face turned men to stone, the memory of a magical life-loving mother of men lingered deep in the hearts of Elizabeth’s people, particularly in those areas where they were still directly dependent on the earth or the sea for survival.

The immortal goddess reborn

In the British Isles the Goddess had been known by many names, most recently the Virgin Mary and St. Brigid, but ages before by assorted Celtic and Frankish names, most long since lost.  She dwells at the silent heart of the ancient mysteries, and of the legends of the Grail sought by Parsifal and Galihad.  Then, with the Renaissance, she was reborn in art and poetry as Venus, Aphrodite, Diana, Cynthia, and Astraea.  No longer wrapped to the teeth, her gloriously nude form began to appear on the walls of courtiers’ bed chambers, diplomats’ libraries, merchants’ dining halls, and the back rooms of pubs, taverns and upscale bordellos.

The modern English poet and mythologist, Robert Graves, based his great study of the role of British mythology in English literature, on a being he describes as

a lovely, slender woman with a hooked nose, deathly pale face, lips as red as rowan berries, startlingly blue eyes and long fair hair; she will suddenly transform herself into sow, mare, bitch, vixen, she-ass, weasel, serpent, owl, she-wolf, tigress, mermaid or loathsome hag.  Her names and titles are innumerable.  In ghost stories she often figures as “the White Lady, “ and in ancient religions, from the British Isles to the Caucasus, as “the White Goddess.”  I cannot think of any true poet from Homer onwards who has not independlently recorded his experience of her.  The test of a poet’s vision, one might say, is the accuracy of his portrayal of the White Goddess and of the island over which she rules. (24)

Now who does that sound like?  (All but the blue eyes––Elizabeth’s were gray.)  And no, Graves was not thinking of Elizabeth when he wrote it, but that it sounds so much like her helps to explain why she meant so much to her people, who, tapping into a common attavistic memory must have felt that they had known Her forever, and that, unlike King Arthur, who remained in Avalon, She had returned to protect them.  Elizabeth was all too human, but for a nation shaking with the tremors of great change, it was easy for the superstitious country folk who knew nothing of her personally to see in her a reincarnation of Boadicea, St. Brigid, and the Great Goddess of yore.

The Virgin Queen

Wherever the Goddess was worshipped she took on attributes of the local people and resources, but one feature was almost always the same, her virginity.   It’s important to understand that originally the word virgin had nothing to do with a woman’s sexual status, it meant a woman who was capable of living without the support of men, essentially one who remained unmarried, so that, on one level at least, Virgin Queen simply meant unmarried Queen.  Thus Elizabeth, with the survival instincts that kept her reign intact for four decades, understood that by remaining unmarried she roused in the hearts of the country folk who were her most dedicated supporters, their subconscious devotion to the Ideal Feminine, the Great Goddess, mother and lover of mortal men, though not bound by them or to them.

With the help of her poets, songwriters, and artists, Queen Elizabeth simply did an end run around Knox and Calvin, cheerfully allowing the artists who painted her and the poets who made her era one of the most famous in literary history to portray her as an incarnation of the ageless goddess.  Surrounded by her maids-of-honor and ladies-in-waiting, many of them unmarried (or seeming so), for poets and artists it was easy to portray her as Diana, virgin goddess of the hunt, with her corps of nymphs.  The myth of Actaeon, who made the mistake of coming upon Diana in the altogether, for which he was turned into a stag and hunted to death by his own dogs, sent the subtle message: “look but don’t touch.”  Any reference to the Moon, Diana, or Astraea, beautiful but distant and changeable, was taken as a reference to the Queen.

Queen Elizabeth, 1592 (click to enlarge)
Queen Elizabeth, 1592 (click to enlarge)

As she entered the 1590s and left her marriagable years behind, portraits of her, loaded with combined goddess and imperial symbolism, were made available to those who wished to have copies made for themselves, thus spreading the goddess image throughout the kingdom.  To keep the marriage card in play, to continue with the charade of being wooed by the great princes of Europe, was part and parcel of the goddess mythology.  However, to allow one of these suits to end with a marriage would have meant a quick finish to the myth and all that went with it.

The Faerie Queen

Famed for its entertainment, for us today the image of Elizabeth’s Court comes closest to that of musical theater, with the queen as a regally attired diva surrounded by a corps of interchangeable male dancers and musicians, her chorus of maids dressed all in white in the back row.  Classical ballet has preserved the styles of this era for all time, the males in tights and little jeweled jackets, their bodies totally revealed from the waist down, the females all in white with great full skirts.

This was the show, but what about backstage?  Most Renaissance courts were less than moral, some virtual cesspools of sexual license, the almost inevitable result of an environment wherein scores of well-fed, attractive individuals have little to do but get dressed in the latest styles, drink to excess, gamble, gossip, plot and plan suits to benefit themselves and their clients.  Elizabeth’s Court was no different––in everything, that is, but drunkeness and sexual license.  In this it could not have been more different.

Disgust over the philandering of high Church officials was one of England’s chief reasons for breaking with Rome and the Empire, one they used with effect in discussions with the other nations of Europe.  The most loyal members of her household were drawn from the strictest members of the Protestant establishment.  With these and the puritanical City fathers keeping watch, sobriety and morality at her Court were an absolute necessity.  Elizabeth insisted upon it and her clergy preached it.  Of course there were exceptions––we’re aware of some and no doubt there were others that escaped report––but when compared with the usual behavior of court societies, Elizabeth’s was marvelously well-behaved.

“We live amongst the lynx’s eyes”

What an interesting dichotomy.  Here was a Court where sexuality was forbidden, where the Queen saw to it that sex was as difficult as possible even for married couples, yet unlike the kind of gloomy environment that Philip II created at the Escorial in Spain, his piety forbidding any show of pleasure, Elizabeth’s Court was filled with music, dancing, and laughter.  Flirtation as an art-form was encouraged, just so long, that is, as it didn’t lead to anything too serious.

The result was that the energy that at most courts was absorbed by sexual assignations was totally devoted to flirtation.  Since nothing else was permitted to happen, the glances, sighs, love songs and poems that document the sensations of lovemaking, expanded these rituals of attraction to fill the time that, under less repressed conditions, would have been spent in bed.  Such a climate also fosters efforts to discover romantic secrets, to intercept meaningful glances, to grasp through hints who was in love with whom, an atmosphere perfectly described in the poem Ann Vavasor wrote to Oxford when forced to part with him in 1581:

Thou seest we live amongst the lynx’s eyes,
That pries and spies each privy thought of mind;
Thou know’st right well what sorrows may arise
If once they chance my settled looks to find.

Content thyself that once I made an oath
To shield myself in shroud of honest shame;
And when thou list, make trial of my troth,
So that thou save the honor of my name.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

We silly dames, that false suspect do fear,
And live within the mouth of envy’s lake,
Must in our hearts a secret meaning bear,
Far from the show that outwardly we make.

So where I like, I list not vaunt my love;
Where I desire, there must I feign debate.
One hath my hand, another hath my glove,
But he my heart whom most I seem to hate. . . .

As all romance novelists are aware, desire feeds on adversity; there is no greater stimulus than anticipation, no more effective damper than satiety.  Where a community of  close to 100 souls spend their days in an atmosphere of permanently unsatisfied romantic excitement, like work to the workaholic, desire becomes an end in itself.  Frustrated from any physical expression, poets filled the time writing about what, in other circumstances, they would have spent doing.  Emanating from Elizabeth and forced on her courtiers, this atmosphere of stimulation plus repression had a great deal to do with the poetry that made the Elizabethan era famous, that produced such fleurs du mal of sexual frustration as Sidney’s Astrophil and Stella, Shakespeare’s Venus and Adonis, and Raleigh’s Ode to Cynthia.

With the advent of King James the pendulum swung to the opposite pole.  Playwrights vied to outdo each other in sexual excess, horror, and sardonic humor.  Works like Bartholomew Fair, Volpone, The White Devil, The Duchess of Malfi, and Tis Pity She’s a Whore reflect a mood of decadence, self-loathing, even despair.  Disgusted, Donne turned to sermons and even Shakespeare to cynicism in Measure for Measure.  Gradually the bright light that had blazed for a decade under Elizabeth’s watchful eye flickered and darkened, so that by 1623, Ben Jonson, that great glutton, cynic, and anti-romantic, would call out to the greatest romantic poet of all time:

Shine forth, thou Star of Poets, and with rage
Or influence, chide or cheer the drooping stage,
Which, since thy flight from hence, hath mourned like night,
And despairs day, but for thy volume’s light.


For a profile of Elizabeth, read Queen Elizabeth.
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 recent insights into the Queen: “Dissing Elizabeth”: A Review

2 thoughts on “Elizabeth and the politics of frustration

  1. This was very well written! Bravo. Do you have or know of anything I can find on Elizabeth I during the last years of her life. Specifically, I seek the relationship of an old monarch that outlived her council and continued her reign in the generation of a new court.

  2. Having touched on the first two periods in Oxford’s (Shakespeare’s) career, the 70’s and 80s, right now I’m digging into the final (Shakespeare) period, the 1590s. Since this was dominated by the rise and fall of the Earl of Essex, I’ve been close reading the most recent biography of Essex, that of Paul Hammer: The Polarization of Elizabethan Politics: The politcal career of Robert Devereux, Second Earl of Essex. This doesn’t give a close look at Elizabeth, but by knowing Essex better, and the results of his activities, it’s easier to understand the Queen. She loved him, apparently everyone (but his rivals) did, but he challenged her in a way she simply couldn’t allow. By detailing the ways in which he challenged her, Hammer gives the best view possible of what her life was like during these final years. She outlived his execution by two weary years.

Leave a Reply to hopkinshughes Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s