Elizabeth Tudor and Mary Stuart

Ideas of queenship in the sixteenth century

Chapter 3 : England

When I wrote Game of Queens I had already written about two royal Elizabeths of the Tudor Age – Elizabeth of York and Elizabeth I – and I wanted to join up the dots. When the first Tudor monarch Henry VII claimed the throne he did so by right of conquest in battle, by right of blood inherited from his mother, Margaret Beaufort, and by the rights of Elizabeth of York he had subsumed into his own by marriage. No-one (not even the women themselves) seems to have considered that they should take the throne. Yet in 1553 and 1558 not one but two of Henry VII’s granddaughters would do so.  

The notable irony of the Tudor age is that a man as obsessed as Henry VIII by desire for a male heir should throw up a succession of not only female rulers but female contenders for the throne. But what lessons had England learnt in the years between 1485 and 1553 to make a queen regnant now a possibility? In Game of Queens I suggested that the European influence may have been spreading northwards (thanks in part to the continental education Anne Boleyn received at courts controlled by Margaret of Austria and by the proteges of Anne de Beaujeu). Certainly the 1530s saw Sir Thomas Elyot writing the Defence of Good Women, arguing the right of Katherine of Aragon’s daughter to succeed to the throne.  

But, of course, in England as on the continent, hundreds of years’ worth of dissenting voices did not simply die away. When Henry VIII’s son Edward died, leaving only women on the scene, the messages were at the very least mixed, you might say.  

The accession of Catholic Mary Tudor, coupled with the sight of Marie de Guise holding Scotland for her baby daughter, gave impetus to a new wave of writing against female rule, much of it coming from Protestant writers of whom John Knox is only the best-known. Others such as Christopher Goodman, Anthony Gilby and Thomas Becon likewise linked their attacks on Mary’s Catholicism with her gender.  

1558, of course, brought a problem for these men. Knox's The First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women, originally written to take aim at the Catholics Mary Tudor and Marie de Guise, was now all too obviously also potentially a slur on the Protestant Elizabeth. John Calvin wrote a private letter to William Cecil in which he admitted he and Knox had discussed the problem. Calvin’s own feeling was still that a female sovereign was ‘a deviation from the original and proper order of nature . . . to be ranked no less than slavery.’  But there was, Calvin admitted, the Biblical Deborah, there was the prophet Isaiah’s statement that ‘Queens should be nursing mothers of the church’ . . . Indeed the idea Knox – and others – now employed was to figure Elizabeth I as a reincarnation of the Biblical Deborah, an ‘extraordinary’ woman, exempted from the ‘proper order of nature’ only by the ‘special providence’ of God.  

Helpful was the doctrine of the monarch’s two bodies. It had been implicit at her sister Mary’s funeral when the Bishop of Winchester described her thus: ‘a Queen, and by the same title a King also’. But the idea got its clearest expression in Elizabeth’s reign. Just three days after her sister’s death she told Parliament: ‘I am but one body naturally considered though by his permission a body politic to govern . . .’ A few years later (in relation to an obscure piece of property dealing) her lawyers spelled it out for her. A monarch, they said, was ‘utterly devoid of Infancy, old Age, and natural Deformities or Imbecilities, which the Body natural is subject to’ - including mortality. Or, presumably, femininity.

But John Aylmer in his 1559 refutation of John Knox (An harborowe for faithfull and trewe subiectes, against the late blowne blaste, concerning the government of women) still felt it necessary to write that ‘it is not in England so dangerous a matter, to have a woman ruler, as men take it to be.’ And what he meant was this: that Elizabeth’s sex mattered the less because England was not ‘a mere monarchy’, nor yet a mere oligarchy or democracy, but ‘a rule mixt of all three’. That Elizabeth’s gender did not matter, because she was not that powerful, anyway…

Aylmer harped on the popular theme of Elizabeth’s being an exceptional woman - unlike the majority of her sex, who were ‘fond, foolish, wanton flibbertigibbets, doltified with the dregs of the devil’s dunghill’.  With friends like that, who needs enemies?

But if Elizabeth’s gender was a perceived weakness, then it was one the ‘Virgin Queen’ would manage to make a strength. The long game she played, dangling the tantalising possibility of her hand in marriage, would prove to be one of the best tools of her diplomacy. In Scotland, matters would pan out very differently.