Gender was a constant obstacle for Queen Elizabeth I throughout her reign. She lived during an intensely patriarchal time, and she learned as a child that she was not entirely exempted from the rigid expectations of womanhood. For example, the execution of her mother, Anne Boleyn, would have been Elizabeth’s first traumatizing experience of the perils of femininity. Following this tragedy, Elizabeth must have felt unessential in the world of her father, King Henry VIII, especially after she was declared a bastard. (Henry only agreed to legitimize his daughter at the request of his last wife, Katherine Parr.) Hence, throughout the harrowing years of her girlhood, the future ruler of England would have witnessed her father treat women as dispensable objects tasked with the sole purpose of producing a male heir to the throne. To this extent, Elizabeth would have realized early in life that maleness, not femaleness, was what mattered if she wanted to survive.
Elizabeth’s success as the Queen depended on her ability to navigate the issue of gender tactfully. She strategically promoted ideologies that favored her legitimacy to the throne, despite her status as a biological woman. Indeed, Elizabeth was subject to “pervasive cultural perceptions of female weakness and disability” as a natural woman, which required her to represent herself in a manner that would convince a deeply patriarchal society of her competence and effectiveness (Montrose 1). Through her written and spoken language, for example, she conveyed representations of herself as being both an exceptional woman and figurative man. To this end, historical critics like Louis Montrose argue that Elizabeth employed “a range of strategies” to prompt a widespread cognitive dissonance in regards to her gender (1).
Montrose explains that, because men typically occupied positions of public authority, Elizabeth was a “spectacular exception” to the prevailing attitude surrounding the body politic of kingship (1). Certainly, emphasizing the stark difference between her and ordinary women, Elizabeth excelled as a ruler “due to her ability to function comfortably on a masculine level” (Taylor-Smither 71). Similarly, Mary Beth Rose asserts that Elizabeth appropriated “the prestige of male kinship” by tracing her claim to the throne back to a “divinely sanctioned, symbolically male dynasty,” thus catering to her society’s belief in the inferiority of women (1079). According to Rose, this process is always “in explicitly gendered terms” for Elizabeth, granted the social and legal constraints that Renaissance society forced upon women (1077).
In public situations, Elizabeth often combated the negative connotations of womanhood by aligning herself the positive notions of kingship attached to her male ancestors, so as to substantiate her own power. For example, this gendered conception of authority is explicit in Elizabeth’s speech to the troops at Tilbury in 1588, in which Elizabeth spoke of the female sex in a pointedly deprecating manner:
I know I have the body but of a weak and feeble woman, but I have the heart and stomach of a king and of a king of England too—and take foul scorn that Parma or any prince of Europe should dare to invade the borders of my realm. To the which rather than dishonor shall grow by me, I myself will venter my royal blood; I myself will be your general, judge, and rewarder of your virtue in the field. I know that already for your forwardness you have deserved rewards and crowns, and I assure you in the word of a prince you shall not fail of them. (qtd. in Marcus 326)
Elizabeth’s speech to the troops at Tilbury is considered “one of the most stirring and memorable speeches of her reign” (Stump & Felch 374). There is a palpable feeling of urgency, as Elizabeth is employing pathos to motivate the Tilbury troops to adopt as individuals the cause of England’s national defense. Therefore, although she suggests the feminine fragility of her natural body, her rhetorical strategy of empowerment invokes the uniquely masculine power of her political body—a strength that she emphatically derives “from the love of her people” (Montrose 149). To this end, Elizabeth seeks to connect with the English soldiers on a personal level—“to live or die amongst you all”—implying that her life as a monarch and a mortal is in as much jeopardy as theirs.
Furthermore, the military camp is an exclusively male environment, prompting Elizabeth to signify herself with strikingly masculine language—“king,” “general,” and “prince”—as Elizabeth would have felt compelled to present a version of herself that was relatable to the soldiers in this context (qtd. in Marcus 326). Placing herself “in the midst and heat of the battle” alongside the soldiers, Elizabeth speaks in heroic terms of action, attributing her authority to her courage and willingness to sacrifice herself for the benefit of God and England (qtd. in Marcus 326). Certainly, this masculine rhetoric of military heroism would have appealed to Elizabeth’s exclusively male audience at Tilbury (Rose 1080). As suggested in this speech, the men of Elizabethan England saw their sovereign ruler not only as an exceptional woman, but also as an “honorary male,” precisely because she ruled like a king (Taylor-Smither 72).
Indeed, as Larissa J. Taylor-Smither explains, “Elizabeth ruled in the only way she knew how—as a man”; indeed, a strong identification with her father, King Henry VIII, defined Elizabeth’s efficiency as a leader and inspired her calculated rejection of “feminine” qualities (62). Elizabeth faithfully adhered to her father’s understanding of religion, sovereignty, and negotiating power with Parliament. She even went as far to announce her intention to “restore religion as her father left it” to a Spanish ambassador (qtd. in Taylor-Smither 62). Additionally, according to Montrose, “A number of recent writers on Queen Elizabeth have claimed that, when she received visitors in the Privy Chamber of Whitehall, she liked to stage herself before the imposing image of her father that dominated Holbein’s great wall painting of the Tudor dynasty” (20). Although this biographical detail is mostly unfounded, its popularity among recent writers remains telling. Granted her strategic attempts to identify with her father, Elizabeth truly possessed “the heart and stomach of a king,” as she stated at Tilbury (qtd. in Marcus 326). To this end, a personal kind of nuance linked to Elizabeth’s lasting impressions of her father likely contributed to her preferred representation of authority: masculine prowess.
Moreover, Elizabeth’s “philosophy of sovereignty was entirely personal,” especially in regards to the marriage policy spearheaded by her Privy Council and Parliament; not unlike her father, it is evident that she viewed marriage demands “as a clear abridgment of her royal powers” (Taylor-Smither 66). For instance, Henry declared himself Supreme Head of the Church of England largely for the purpose of divorcing Queen Katherine of Aragon and subsequently marrying Anne Boleyn when the Pope refused to annul his marriage to his first wife (Stump & Felch 4). Although to a different extreme, Elizabeth would also disregard the social and political expectations associated with marriage to safeguard and centralize her authority as a female monarch, thus mimicking her father’s intensely personal approach toward sovereignty. As if illustrating this point, in response to an outspoken Parliament pressuring her to marry, Elizabeth asserted on November 5, 1566:
As for my own part, I care not for death, for all men are mortal; and though I be a woman, yet I have as good a courage answerable to my place as ever my father had. I am your anointed queen. I will never be by violence constrained to do anything. I thank God I am indeed endued with such qualities that if I were turned out of the realm in my petticoat, I were able to live in any place of Christendom. (qtd. in Marcus 97)
In the course of her angry response to the Joint Delegation of Lords and Commons, Elizabeth utilizes a double-edged strategy to identify with her father, Henry. She uses a conditional clause—“though I be a woman”—to neutralize “the assumed innate inferiority of Elizabeth’s gender,” the most obvious difference between the Queen and her father; while Elizabeth’s careful diction risked drawing attention to her “deficient female body,” her use of provisional language at least temporarily dispelled “the attitudes, practices, and policies” flowing from this radical difference in gender (Montrose 20). Once aligned with Henry, Elizabeth could adopt gender-specific virtues of kingship that were famously projected by the hallmark image of her father—potent, virile, and intimidating, “the image of God upon earth,” as a Henrician Bishop supposedly described him (qtd. in Montrose 24). Indeed, if Henry could prevent political interlopers from infringing upon matters as personal as marriage, then surely his like-minded daughter could resist being “constrained to do anything” that would concede her autonomy as a monarch, as well (qtd. in Marcus 97).
To further support this ancestral alignment with her father, Elizabeth repeatedly seized the opportunity to self-inscribe the legitimacy of her existence within a historically male dynasty through the unquestionable philosophy of divine sanction. During an address to the House of Commons on the subject of marriage on January 28, 1563, Elizabeth disarmed Parliament’s insecurities about the potential incompetency of a female ruler by introducing the conventionally masculine discourse of divine right (Rose 1079):
The weight and greatness of this matter might cause in me, being a woman wanting both wit and memory, some fear to speak and bashfulness besides, a thing appropriate to my sex. But yet the princely seat and kingly throne wherein God (though unworthy) hath constituted me, maketh these two causes to seem little in mine eyes, though grievous perhaps to your ears, and boldeneth me to say somewhat in this matter, which I mean only to touch but not presently to answer. (qtd. in Marcus 70)
According to Taylor-Smither, Elizabeth’s “political understanding of her role as God’s agent was a central tenant of her faith” (64). Appropriating the prestige of kingship through the appearance of God’s will, Elizabeth metaphysically grounds her authority as a legitimate heir to “the princely seat and kingly throne” (qtd. in Marcus 70, Rose 1079). This appeal to divine right was a defense of Elizabeth’s sovereignty as much as a defense to Elizabeth’s legitimacy in itself; because the circumstances of Elizabeth’s birth involved lurid charges of incest, adultery, and bastardy, Elizabeth would have wanted to posture herself as “a divine anomaly” to confirm her untainted descent from Henry in addition to her sovereign constitution (Montrose 19).
Rose asserts that, through statements of divine sanction, Elizabeth “creates herself as sui generis,” metaphorically erasing the tumultuous history of her mother’s conviction and execution as well as the precarious consequences of the female gender (1079). Given the misogynistic constructions of gender and sexuality during the English Renaissance, it follows unsurprisingly that Elizabeth would publically qualify and deny allusions to femininity, as when she subtly demurred to “being a woman wanting both wit and memory” before Parliament (qtd. in Marcus 70). Indeed, as seen in Elizabeth’s addresses to Parliament (1563, 1566) and speech at Tilbury (1588), Elizabeth overwhelmingly distanced herself from ideological representations that her society associated with the female gender, instead choosing to underscore her exceptional status as a uniquely capable human being (Rose 1079).
While it is contested that Elizabeth employed “the traditional female roles of the virgin and mother” in her speeches to represent the female gender positively, thus perpetuating a “loving and virginal” image of herself that appealed to her subjects, “these sweeping arguments are assumed rather than demonstrated” (Rose 1077-8). In actuality, there are only limited mentions of Elizabeth’s virginity in the full body of her speeches, including an early rejoinder to Parliament (1559), a speech on the execution of Mary, Queen of Scots (1586), and her final speech (1601). Protestants came to view celibacy as something inferior to faithful, wedded love after the Reformation in the 1530s, making the portrayal of Elizabeth’s virginity less compelling (Rose 1079). Likewise, Elizabeth’s references to her own motherly qualities are largely “veiled allusions”; by contrast, Elizabeth generally refrained from discussing motherhood in speeches after 1563, instead preferring to depict herself as a more ambiguous “nurturer and caretaker” (Rose 1078). Ideologically speaking, overtly maternal qualities would have restricted Elizabeth’s political relations inside the public domain.
However, despite Elizabeth’s evident privileging of masculine representations of kingship, the female gender paradoxically enabled her to conceptualize authority in unusual ways. Indeed, Elizabeth’s “rhetoric of self-legitimation” still represents a clearly “female mode of defining authority” (Rose 1079). For instance, Elizabeth frequently refers to her lived experiences in defining her authority, a rhetorical strategy that Rose argues is seen as “explicitly female” in the Renaissance. Citing the research of Constance Jordan, Rose writes, “Female empirical experience opposes itself to male symbolic (usually textual) systems that exclude women in feminist polemics throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries” (Rose 1081). Appropriately, Elizabeth justified a number of her actions through her own biographical anecdotes. This self-reflective rhetoric is clear in her speech to Parliament concerning the execution of Mary, Queen of Scots, on November 12, 1586:
If by my death, other nations and kingdoms might truly say that this realm had attained an ever prosperous and flourishing estate, I would (I assure you) not desire to live, but gladly give my life to the end my death might procure you a better prince.
And for your sakes it is that I desire to live, to keep you from a worse. For as for me, I assure you I find no great cause I should be fond to live. I take no such pleasure in it that I should much wish it, nor conceive such terror in death that I should greatly fear it. And yet I say not but if the stroke were coming, perchance flesh and blood would be moved with it and seek to shun it.
I have had good experience and trial of this world: I know what it is to be a subject, what to be a sovereign; what to have good neighbors, and sometimes meet evil willers. I have found treason in trust, seen great benefits little regarded, and instead of gratefulness, courses of purpose to cross.
These former remembrances, present feeling, and future expectations of evils, I say, have made me think an evil is much the better less while it endureth, and so, them happiest that are soonest hence. (qtd. in Marcus 192-3)
In this speech, Elizabeth uses the miraculous fact of her survival to transform the meaning of courage by rejecting the traditionally masculine value of being willing to die to become a hero; rather, for the Queen, “survival, not death, constitutes the meaningful self-sacrifice” (Rose 1080). Drawing from the anxiety attached to Elizabeth’s perilous upbringing, this rhetoric of survival stands in stark contrast to Elizabeth’s speech at Tilbury two years later, in which she openly appealed to military heroism. Such a distinction in rhetoric suggests that gender was not a fixed construct for Elizabeth, as she promoted different representations of her authority to best suit a given context. Certainly, Elizabeth’s life-affirming attitude was an appropriate rhetorical vehicle for articulating the problem of Mary Stuart, as threats to Elizabeth’s safety must have provoked her most basic survival instincts (Taylor-Smither 69).
In such cases, Elizabeth used feminine rhetoric to align herself with past kings and legitimize herself as ruler; yet, it is important to stress that Elizabeth never failed to accommodate the cultural belief in male superiority, even when she employed female empirical experience as a rhetorical mode. Hence, while the subtext of a particular speech is steeped in a categorically feminine value of Elizabeth’s time, such as the resolve to survive adversity, Elizabeth still engages these values in a way that privileges maleness. She is not perpetuating a traditionally feminine representation of herself, like the virgin or mother, because she wants her subjects to recognize her as a monarch—and to the people of Renaissance England, monarchs were profoundly and necessarily male. Therefore, it suffices to say that Elizabeth uses feminine rhetoric, albeit ironically, to downplay her own femaleness and prove her legitimacy as a sovereign ruler.
Although Elizabeth’s accomplishments were considered incredible for a woman of her period, Elizabeth never enthusiastically promoted the social or political advancement of other women living in her society. Possibly because Elizabeth’s primary focus was aligning herself with a powerful male dynasty in order to be taken seriously as a monarch, the plight of women did not improve during Elizabeth’s reign. Rather, the social prevalence of misogyny actually escalated in the Jacobian period, which followed Elizabeth’s time on the throne. For these reasons, contemporary labels such as “feminist” or even “proto-feminist” cannot accurately be applied to Elizabeth; regardless, she remains a fascinating case study for the role of gender in political settings.
Marcus, Leah S. et al. Elizabeth I: Collected Works. Chicago, University of Chicago Press,
Montrose, Louis Adrian. The Subject of Elizabeth: Authority, Gender, and Representation. Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 2006.
Rose, Mary Beth. “The Gendering of Authority in the Public Speeches of Elizabeth I.” PMLA, vol. 115, no. 5, 2000, pp. 1077–1082. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/463274.
Stump, Donald, and Susan M. Felch. Elizabeth I and Her Age Authoritative Texts, Commentary and Criticism. New York, W.W. Norton, 2009.
Taylor-Smither, Larissa J. “Elizabeth I: A Psychological Profile.” The Sixteenth Century Journal, vol. 15, no. 1, 1984, pp. 47–72. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/2540839.