Women are ‘foolish, wanton flibbergibs, in every way doltified with the dregs of the devil’s dunghill’. So a cleric reminded Queen Elizabeth I. His sermon reassured her that her personal qualities made her exceptional. But Elizabeth was not merely an ‘exceptional woman’, snorts Lisa Hilton. She was also ‘an exceptional ruler’ — one who refashioned her kingdom as ‘a modern monarch, a Renaissance prince’.
Elizabeth’s accession in 1558 coincided with the publication of John Knox’s notorious blast against the ‘monstrous regiment’ or ‘rule’ of women. Happily such views were ‘based more on hostility to Catholicism than to female rule per se’, we are told. Royalty ‘negated gender’, and Hilton believes Elizabeth would reign largely unrestricted by the issue. While the doltified Mary had wanted to drag ‘England back to Catholic conformity’, Elizabeth was destined to take her kingdom ‘from the darkened constrictions of medievalism towards a recognisable world’, imbued with the ‘new learning’.
For the next 40 years Elizabeth would work hand in glove with her secretary of state and ‘closest friend’, William Cecil. The clearest ‘indication of her private religious views’ was her compliance to his 1559 parliamentary bill for a Protestant ‘alteration of religion’. She was equally happy to accept her role in a ‘mixed monarchy’, with royal authority residing also in Parliament, a kind of political transubstantiation under which she retained her status as God’s anointed. Indeed, it is this refashioning of ‘her own right to govern within a new political order’ justified by ‘arrogation of divine power to herself’, that defines Elizabeth as a Renaissance prince.
Unlike other Renaissance princes, Elizabeth does not commission great works of art; but Hilton argues that a 17th-century coronation portrait of the queen, echoing a medieval painting of the enthroned Richard II, is a copy of one dating from 1559. This image supposedly signals Elizabeth’s intention to remain forever virgin, as well as her claims to divine right. That sacred status was also reflected in Elizabeth the living work of art. With her face powdered ‘with ground alabaster’, it had a ‘jewel-like quality’, a glow reminiscent of religious pictures, while her rooms were as scented as a Catholic church: ‘The ruler and the altar smelled the same.’
The divine mask slipped in the final decade of Elizabeth’s life, and Hilton describes how her last favourite, Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex, led a revolt against the ageing queen. A ‘jouster, not a soldier, a sonneteer, not a politician’, he hoped to play kingmaker, forcing Elizabeth to name James of Scots her heir. Yet, Hilton suggests, James’s seeming acquiescence was simply a means of giving Essex the rope with which to hang himself. Essex was executed and Elizabeth survived to die in her bed two years later.
Many of Hilton’s assertions are controversial, not to say startling, and there is plenty to take issue with. Mary I, far from being backward-looking, ruled at the cutting edge of the Counter-Reformation. It was Elizabeth who looked back, clinging to the Protestantism of her brother’s reign, rather than pushing reform forward — to the disappointment of Cecil and others. Her stubborn conservatism was encapsulated in her motto Semper Eadem (‘I never change’), and as a ruler she proved a master of inactivity. Essex (whom Hilton under-estimates) complained that Elizabeth could be ‘brought to nothing except by a kind of necessity’.
Her careful pragmatism was rooted in her acute awareness of the dangers she faced as a queen regnant. Protestants might accept rule by a godly queen as ‘divine providence’, but it was endured as God’s punishment for sin, not embraced. Elizabeth could not begin to impose her will as her father had — notably in the matter of marriage. But where she could not take positive action, she could stall. So she never married, or named a successor. Arguably this created the space where a ‘recognisable world’ was born. Her servants developed a concept of loyalty to a commonwealth beyond the reign of an individual monarch, and plotted to choose their future ruler for themselves.
Whether you agree with Hilton or not, she brings balance to the view that we must judge Elizabeth through the prism of her gender. It is refreshing to be confronted by challenging arguments instead of tired anecdotes. This biography is also full of unusual and interesting insights. I loved the observation that the three most important men in Elizabeth’s life were Cecil, Robert Dudley (whom she loved) and Philip II of Spain. Apparently she kept a painting of Philip in her bedroom. Hilton takes an admirably unsentimental view of Elizabeth’s necessary ruthlessness, while the chapters on Turkey and Russia help place her rule in its wider international context.
But what I am left with above all are haunting images of a scented room and a face dusted with alabaster — the living cameo of a most exceptional prince.
Available from the Spectator Bookshop, £20 Tel: 08430 600033. Leanda de Lisle is the author of After Elizabeth, The Sisters Who Would Be Queen and Tudor: The Family Story.