Chapter 3 : 'Weak and Feeble' Women
Propaganda shaped the reigns of Henry’s children and successors. As his son and ‘precious jewel’, Edward VI, lay dying in 1553, chief minister John Dudley paved the way for Lady Jane Grey’s accession by whipping up fears that if Edward’s half-sister Mary seized the throne, she would subject England to popery and bring swathes of foreigners into the country. This fear was real enough, but it did not obscure the fact that she was Henry VIII’s daughter, a princess of the blood, whereas Lady Jane Grey was a usurper (albeit an unwilling one). Mary made sure to emphasise this point in a propaganda campaign of her own and soon won the day.
Once she was safely installed on the throne, Mary set about returning England to the Roman Catholic fold. Together with her archbishop of Canterbury, Reginald Pole, she made full use of the printing press as a religious propaganda tool, distributing scores of Catholic treatises, sermons and catechisms across the kingdom. But the burning of Protestant heretics that she ordered overshadowed all of this and ensured that she would go down in history as ‘Bloody Mary’.
None of the Tudors was more skilful at PR than Elizabeth I. Her half-sister Mary might have laid the foundations for female sovereignty, but she had not made it any more appealing to the population at large. Published in the same year that Elizabeth came to the throne, John Knox’s Monstrous Regiment of Women, which took Mary as an example, declared: ‘To promote a woman to bear rule…is repugnant to nature’ because their ‘imbecility’ rendered them utterly incapable of wielding power effectively. In confronting such prejudice, the new queen’s first step was to make sure that her subjects appreciated how different she was to her predecessor. According to Elizabethan propaganda, she was the ‘clear and lovely sunshine’ that dispersed the ‘stormy, tempestuous and blustering windy weather of Queen Mary’. At times of crisis, the queen would remind her subjects that no matter what they faced, it was as nothing to the sufferings inflicted upon them by her dogmatic predecessor.
As her reign progressed, Elizabeth made a virtue of her unmarried state by crafting an image as a Virgin Mary figure here on earth, whom both her court and her country should worship and adore. The 1570s saw the beginning of a golden age of court culture, with Elizabeth as the uncontested queen bee in the hive. All of the entertainments, ceremonies and intrigues centred around her as the Virgin Queen, at once both aloof and alluring. As one of her most ardent admirers, Sir Christopher Hatton, observed: ‘The Queen did fish for men’s souls, and had so sweet a bait that no-one could escape her network.’
But the finest hour of Elizabethan propaganda came with the vanquishing of the Armada in 1588. This was the greatest threat that Elizabeth had faced in her reign and that England had faced since the Norman invasion more than 500 years before. When messengers brought news that the Spanish fleet had been spied in the Channel, Elizabeth was spurred into action. On 8 August, she travelled to Tilbury, where her land forces had gathered to repel the expected invasion. Ever conscious of the power of image, she instructed her ladies to dress her in a military-inspired outfit with a plumed helmet and steel breastplate over a white velvet gown. The speech that she gave to her assembled troops has gone down in history as the most brilliant of all her public addresses. She famously assured them that although she had ‘the body of a weak and feeble woman’, she had ‘the heart and stomach of a King, and a King of England too’ and vowed to fight alongside them if Parma’s troops reached her shores.
In fact, by the time Elizabeth delivered this famous speech, the Spanish had been all but vanquished. The Armada had failed to rendezvous with Parma’s forces, which had given the English fleet the chance to seize the initiative. With the use of eight fireships, and greatly assisted by the weather, they won a small but decisive victory. The Spanish fleet was driven northwards and a number of ships were lost in the Atlantic and on Irish coasts. Less than half of the original fleet made it home to Spain, and only 3,000 men.
Elizabeth was quick to make the most of the victory. ‘God breathed and they were scattered’, declared the medal which she struck soon afterwards. The famous Armada portrait shows the queen triumphant, her hand resting on a globe while in the background her navy destroys the Spanish fleet. Even her most implacable adversaries were forced to acknowledge the greatness that she had attained. ‘She is only a woman, only the mistress of half an island, and yet she makes herself feared by Spain, by France, by Empire, by all!’ exclaimed a dumbfounded Pope Sixtus V. Elizabeth had apparently conquered not just Philip II’s Armada, but the widely-held prejudices against female sovereignty.
The Armada was a pivotal moment in Elizabeth’s monarchy, transforming her image into one of invincible majesty that became ever more idealised as her long reign progressed. She had attained mythical status, but in her own lifetime. Her confidence was matched by that of her kingdom: England had faced down the might of Spain and had begun to establish itself as a world power.