Sunday, October 2, 2011

The heart and stomach of a king

Because of the new book I'm working on, I'm doing a lot of research into various sixteenth century people and places. One of these people is Elizabeth I of England.

Elizabeth, you may recall from her sobriquet, "The Virgin Queen," famously remained unmarried throughout her life and her reign. This was remarkable for a couple of reasons. The smaller reason is, after the dissolution of the monasteries as part of the Henrician reforms, marriage was the only option for women. There was no other career path, even for a woman born to royalty. The second was that, for a woman born to royalty, participation in the marriage game was expected. Weddings were how treaties were sealed, the promise of a betrothal was an expected part of political negotiations (and those promised betrothals were often undone as negotiations fell apart). Women were pawns in a very real game of thrones.

Not only that, even though Elizabeth had literally been given the education of a prince and was a staggeringly intelligent woman, no one, including her advisors, thought she was capable of ruling a country. At the beginning of her reign, her ambassadors and staff would bring messages to her privy council, rather than to her, when the information was "too great a burden for a woman." Parliament petitioned her multiple times to take a husband, who could better deal with the great tasks, and then to show her greatest love for her country by producing heirs and shoring up the succession.

At eight years old, the woman later called "the greatest catch in all her parish" told a childhood friend she had no wish ever to marry. Considering her father's marital disasters - which included the judicial murder of Elizabeth's mother - it is not hard to see why. But for twenty years after taking the throne, Elizabeth played the marriage game. She agreed to be courted by most of the crowned heads of Europe, and used her potential marriage as a negotiating tool. It was a game she played with consummate skill.

Yet so far, every single book I have read at one point or another, dismisses the intelligence and cunning Elizabeth used throughout those twenty years of almost-promises and says she was simply "acting like a woman." You know, changing her mind, being fickle, and enjoying watching the boys fight over her.

Oh, sure. Some of the books sometimes go back and say, "hey, that was pretty strategic of her, she really was her father's daughter" but no one - and mind you, these are modern biographies - seems to be able to sustain the notion that maybe, just maybe, Elizabeth was thinking with her head and not her loins. It's a puzzle to me, and it's especially a puzzle when the book presents Elizabeth as an otherwise intelligent and politically savvy person.

I don't know if it's that we're so conditioned to believe a princess must have a prince that people are trying to rewrite political maneuvering as romance (no matter that the prince is her dead sister's husband or a boy half her age with known sadistic tendencies and a weeping ulcer on his face), or if people are still underestimating Elizabeth and refusing to believe that she knew what she would be giving up by marrying - that she would go from being the most powerful person in the country to being a broodmare - and so they cannot imagine that she spent twenty years outsmarting the crowned (male) heads of Europe, and then another 400 outsmarting historians.

She said once that though she had "the body but of a weak and feeble woman, I have the heart and stomach of a king." I think she had the heart and brain of a queen, as well.

1 comment:

  1. I've always been amazed by her wisdom and strength. She ruled and did it well. And that quote is one of my favorites. :-) Great post. Thanks for sharing it! ~Ali