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Elizabeth and Mary: Cousins, Rivals, Queens
Jane Dunn


Knox’s view of the natural and divine order of things, with woman subservient to man, was a commonly accepted one. His stance was uncompromising and his language colourful, but he was not saying anything new. The lower orders knew of woman’s inferiority through the traditions of their lives and the discrepancy between the sexes in simple brute force. The educated aristocracy was imbued with the necessity for this human hierarchy from their readings of classical authors, like Plato and Aristotle, and the thundering metaphors of the Bible. Did not God say to Eve, ‘I will greatly multiply thy sorrow and thy conception; in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children; and thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee’?

(#litres_trial_promo) In fact the mortality rate of women in childbirth made it clear that they were the more expendable half of the species, that God and nature put a lower value on womankind.

The male was the norm and the female a deviation, the mysterious, less adequate ‘other’. For Elizabeth Tudor and Mary Stuart these were accepted philosophical, theological, legal and medical truths that permeated the way the world was interpreted and relationships between people understood. Everything these young women read and were taught informed them of their intellectual and moral limitations and the narrowness of their vision. Classical and biblical texts were ever-present in the Renaissance mind; the myths a ready source of reference. The scientific humanism of Aristotle was highly influential. He had no doubt of the right order of things: ‘Man is active, full of movement, creative in politics, business and culture. The male shapes and moulds society and the world. Woman, on the other hand, is passive. She is matter waiting to be formed by the active male principle. Of course the active elements are always higher on any scale, and more divine.’ Not only endowed with more of the best qualities, man was also closer to God.

In classical Greece, women were seen as perpetual minors: worse off even than the disregarded Victorian child, they were exhorted to be neither seen nor heard. A woman’s name was not given in public unless she was dead or of ill repute. In Pericles’s famous funeral speech, Thucydides set out the aspirations of womankind: ‘Your great glory is not to be inferior to what God has made you, and the greatest glory of a woman is to be less talked about by men, whether they are praising you or criticising you.’

(#litres_trial_promo) Silence best became her.

This was the philosophical inheritance that informed both Elizabeth and Mary’s view of what it was to be a sixteenth-century woman. Mary’s often quoted saying was, ‘The best woman was only the best of women.’ Elizabeth, while cleverly using her perceived incapacity as a woman to dramatic effect in grand speeches and diplomatic letters, nevertheless in her irony reflected a profound and universally held truth when she spoke in these terms to her Commons: ‘The weight and greatness of this matter [their request that she should marry] 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.’

(#litres_trial_promo) These were the prejudices they had to overcome.

In the most commonly held myth of the birth of Athena, the goddess of war and wisdom springs from the head of her father, Zeus, fully formed, without any contribution from her mother. In this way, the necessarily male source of all that is active and intellectually pre-eminent is not diluted by the female. By stressing all her life her relation to her father, Elizabeth claimed not only some of the lustre of this Tudor Zeus but perhaps also tried to distance herself from the perceived weaknesses of her mother’s (and all women’s) femininity: duplicity, moral deficiency and treachery.

Both Elizabeth I and Mary Queen of Scots were of course regnant queens, monarchs in their own right, ordained by God. A female monarch was in a different relationship with the world: she had a public, political and spiritual contract as ruler of her people, while her personal and private relationship as a woman made her naturally dependent on the male. Elizabeth at least was able to counteract the perceived weaknesses of her sex with the certainty that as a queen she was divinely chosen above all men, ‘by His permission a body politic, to govern’.

(#litres_trial_promo) This confidence and certainty she could bolster with the knowledge that she had more intellectual and executive competence than almost anyone of her acquaintance.

Mary’s sense of herself as queen had been with her from the dawning of her consciousness. It was never disputed or tested, as was Elizabeth’s. This awareness of her pre-eminence was her companion through life, something taken for granted, the responsibilities to which she did not apply much profound thought nor, in the end, much value. However, philosophers as various as Knox and Aristotle considered even the God-ordained female ruler to be an aberration of the natural order, a phenomenon that could only bring inevitable disorder and strife to the realm. It was a measure perhaps of Elizabeth’s sensitivity to this pervasive point of view that made her react so uncompromisingly against the author of The First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women.

But she was assailed too by a potentially more serious discredit than merely being the wrong sex. Just as the death of her sister Mary I transformed Elizabeth’s destiny, so too it altered the course of the life and aspirations of the youthful Queen of Scots. Catholic Europe could not accept Henry VIII’s Act of Supremacy and considered his only legal wife to have been Catherine of Aragon. Given this fundamentalist approach, Elizabeth was undoubtedly a bastard born to a royal mistress not to a wife. Consequently much of Europe considered the more direct legitimate heir to be Mary Queen of Scotland and Dauphine of France.

This fact caused excitement and consternation abroad. Philip II of Spain, acting from pragmatic and political, rather than religious, principles feared his loss of influence in England especially since France seemed to be establishing an increasing presence in Scotland. Even before the death of his wife he had manoeuvred himself into position as a possible husband for her sister. While Mary I had lived, Spain had been an influential ally, but Elizabeth had not the slightest intention of continuing this relationship by accepting him as a husband for herself.

However, within the triangular tension that maintained a certain balance between England, Spain and France, an outright rejection of Philip would be impolitic. By evading his offer for as long as possible, therefore, Elizabeth could ingeniously sidestep an unequivocal rejection. Then she invoked precedence and the law by pointing out that for her to marry her widowed brother-in-law was no different in fundamentals from the marriage her father had made with his widowed sister-in-law, Catherine of Aragon. As had been so crucially argued at the time as the basis of her father’s split with Rome, this was a relationship contrary to biblical law. To accept Philip would in effect be to deny her own legitimacy.

But it was in the French court, within the grandiose schemes of King Henri II and the Guise family, that the death of the Queen of England raised the greatest ambitions. With Mary as their tool, her uncles and Henri decided to claim the title Queen of England and Ireland for the house of Valois, and quarter Mary’s arms with those of France, Scotland and England. At this time France was seen as distinctly the more powerful country, England as the weakened neighbour under threat. This was particularly marked with the recent loss of Calais and the accession of another woman to a throne already undermined by disastrous female rule. This act of acquisitiveness was not initiated by Mary, but her acceptance and over-riding pursuit of it altered her destiny for ever. It gave her a compelling idea of herself as rightful heir to the English crown, an aspiration she maintained throughout her life. In the end it was a presumption which cost her that life, and this aggressive early claim on Elizabeth’s throne flung down the gauntlet.

Traditionally English monarchs claimed nominal dominion over France. Mary, however, as Dauphine of France and Queen of Scotland, both England’s old enemies, was in dangerous territory. To claim England and Ireland as her realms too was considered an insult to Elizabeth, not least because it publicly rehearsed all the hurtful insecurities of her cousin’s anxious youth. All those whispered calumnies she had endured during the wilderness years were given a kind of legitimacy of their own. Mary’s claim implied that Elizabeth’s mother was a whore not a wife; that Elizabeth herself was a bastard child and not the legitimate daughter of the King of England; that she had no claim on a divine right to rule but instead had usurped another’s.

Little over a year later, in the proclamation of her peace treaty with France and Scotland, Elizabeth diplomatically accepted, ‘that the title to this kingdom injuriously pretended in so many ways by the Queen of Scotland has not proceeded otherwise than from the ambitious desire of the principal members of the House of Guise’. And she went on to patronize Mary and her husband François for their youthful folly: ‘the King, who by reason of his youth … the Queen of Scots, who is likewise very young … have [not] of themselves imagined and deliberated an enterprise so unjust, unreasonable and perilous’.

(#litres_trial_promo) But these judicious, diplomatic words masked a more troubling recognition that the tacit had been made explicit; the challenge once made could not now be undone.

The earliest authoritative history, written by Camden, recognized the train of events set off by such over-reaching ambition: ‘in very deed from this Title and Arms, which, through the perswasion of the Guises, Henry King of France had imposed upon the Queen of Scots being now in her tender age, flowed as from a Fountain all the Calamities wherein she was afterwards wrapped’. The protagonists were henceforth acutely aware of each other. There were such networks of vested interests surrounding both queens that gossip and intrigue and misrepresentation found their way into every discussion where direct dealing would have been less divisive: ‘For hereupon Queen Elizabeth bare both Enmity to the Guises, and secret Grudge against [Mary]; where the subtile Malice of men on both sides cherished …’

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The crowning of the new Queen of England needed to be quickly done, but at an auspicious time too. The country was impoverished by injudicious wars, humiliated by the loss of Calais, vulnerable on the Scottish border and confused and suspicious after the reversals of religious dogma during the previous two reigns. Elizabeth’s potential as a queen was unknown but her popularity among her people was certainly growing. Since her accession she had been the centre of intense activity at Hatfield with the selection of advisers and discussions of policy, but within the week, she began her progress to London. People travelled many miles out of the city to greet her. Her reign began as it so distinctively would continue, with a lively interest in and concern for her people exhibited in an exceptional common touch:

All her faculties were in motion, and every motion seemed a well guided action; her eye was set upon one, her ear listened to another, her judgement ran upon a third, to a fourth she addressed her speech; her spirit seemed to be everywhere, and yet so entire in herself, as it seemed to be nowhere else. Some she pitied, some she commended, some she thanked, at others she pleasantly and wittily jested, condemning no person, neglecting no office; and distributing her smiles, looks, and graces so [artfully], that thereupon the people again redoubled the testimonies of their joys.

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A few days later, on 28 November, Elizabeth took possession of the city in style. Alone in her carriage, surrounded by horsemen and the trappings of monarchy, she entered through Cripplegate, to be greeted by fluttering banners of the guilds and excited Londoners hanging from the windows and pushing through the narrow lanes. At the gate to the city she mounted her own horse, on this occasion a striking grey. Elizabeth, dressed in purple velvet, was skilled as a horsewoman and graceful in the saddle. This majestic spectacle of their new queen on horseback was glamorized further by the first sight of her Master of the Queen’s Horse, riding just behind her on a magnificent black charger.

An excellent judge of horseflesh, Lord Robert Dudley always made sure he had a mount that equalled his own physical splendour. Elizabeth’s friend from her youth, and a lifetime favourite, was a tall, powerful, handsome man, probably the best horseman in England and one of the most ambitious of an ambitious line. Elizabeth’s first biographer pointed out that her ‘rare and Royal Clemency’ meant she had ‘heaped Honours upon him, saving his life, whose Father would have Her destroyed’.

(#litres_trial_promo) In fact the consummate ability and ambition of the Dudleys was akin to that of the Guises but, unlike the French, the English peers were strong enough to chop them down. And when the hated Lord Robert was too well loved by the queen for them to harm him, Elizabeth was clever enough to keep him ultimately in check herself.

To all who hailed her from the crowd, Elizabeth exhibited the authority and gift of attention that had so distinguished her in her dealings with her subjects so far. A salty humour and an air of God-given majesty seemed to her eager people to be united in Elizabeth Tudor in irresistible combination. She indulged in the kind of direct dialogue and repartee which the French court never encouraged in their monarchs. The Tower was her final destination and as she entered the dark stone portal, she recalled the memories of the last time she had been there as a prisoner, frightened for her life. With genuine emotion and a natural appreciation for dramatic peripeteia she addressed the people around her: ‘Some have fallen from being Princes of this land, to be prisoners in this place; I am raised from being prisoner in this place, to be Prince of this land’, and she thanked God for her elevation.

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Even a devout Catholic observer, like the Italian Schifanoya,

(#ulink_a18ec3a0-c3f7-556c-b271-f6f62eef0366) with a natural bias against her, was in no doubt about Elizabeth’s appeal: ‘… the Queen, by frequently showing herself in public, giving audience to all who would wish for it, and using every mark of great graciousness towards every one, daily gains favour and affection from all her people’.

(#litres_trial_promo) Her ability to unite magisterial grandeur with informality was at the heart of her unique attraction to even her humblest subjects. It also discomfited her enemies. The Spanish ambassador related with disapproval how, on her return from the Tower, Elizabeth caught sight of Catherine Parr’s brother, the Marquis of Northampton, watching from a window. He was suffering from one of the periodic malarial fevers which afflicted most of the populace then. The queen pulled her horse out of the procession and rode up to his window and spent a good time commiserating with him about his health, ‘in the most cordial way in the world’.

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But there was still a general uneasiness as to what sort of monarch she would make. When she succeeded to the throne no one was certain even quite what form her religious policy would take. There was a national longing for a strong wholly English king. Despite her many good personal qualities and the great swell of popular support with which she began her rule, Mary I’s reign had been disastrous. Now people wondered if Knox and Calvin, the Classical philosophers and the Bible were all correct in deploring a woman raised beyond her natural estate to be a ruler over men. What if Elizabeth, with all her well-known virtues, was to fail as calamitously as her sister? There was a natural optimism at the prospect of this new reign after the miseries of the last, but everyone from her greatest ministers of state to her lowliest subjects agreed Queen Elizabeth had to marry, and marry quickly. A king was desperately needed, first as her consort, the steadying hand on the tiller of this vast ship of state, and then as the progenitor of a male heir to secure the succession.

Whom she would marry was one of the major topics of gossip and at times it seemed that any man of noble enough birth was mooted as the chosen one. Apart from Philip II of Spain and Crown Prince Eric of Sweden, there was the Earl of Arundel, although court chatter suggested also younger, more romantic possibilities: ‘a very handsome youth, 18 or 20 years of age

(#ulink_785f5fe7-5db9-52ef-bc6c-35f97d51ddcf) … because at dances and other public places she prefers him more than any one else’.

(#litres_trial_promo) But then, it was said, there was also that fine looking young nobleman, Sir William Pickering, still in exile in France because of his religion: the general speculation and excitement was palpable. No one seemed to take seriously Elizabeth’s own often expressed contentment with the spinster state. In fact, in her first speech before Parliament she could not have made it plainer. She was married to her kingdom with all the advantages that conferred on her people. ‘In the end this shall be for me sufficient: that a marble stone shall declare that a queen, having reigned such a time, lived and died a virgin.’

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Equally serious and compelling to Elizabeth-watchers during the first months of her reign was the subject of religion. She was known to have been brought up in the reformed religion alongside her brother Edward, but her exact beliefs and her intentions so far as the nation’s spiritual leadership were concerned were far from clear. Protestant exiles were beginning to stream back into the country, expecting a return to the pre-Marian state of radical reform. Her Catholic subjects and the Catholic states watched anxiously. When necessary Elizabeth was a master of equivocation. Never was this more evident than in her stance on religion. As Francis Bacon famously said of her, she did not choose to make windows into men’s souls and her soul was conveniently adaptable, and naturally more conservative than any of her closest advisers.

Court life had revived within the month. Having been secluded for so long, careful to be seen as modest, scholarly and not overly ambitious, Elizabeth now joined her courtiers, feasting and dancing into the early morning. Her physical vitality reminded the older ones present of her father when a young man; but unlike him, her energy and physical fitness lasted well into late middle age when she still could hunt and dance her noblemen to a standstill. Elizabeth began that Christmas to exhibit something of her capacity for epic enjoyment. In another dispatch, Schifanoya was rather disapproving: ‘The Court is held at Westminster, and they are intent on amusing themselves and on dancing till after midnight,’

(#litres_trial_promo) he sniffily reported to the Mantuan ambassador at the court of Philip II in Brussels. A month later he was deploring ‘the levities and unusual licentiousness’ at Elizabeth’s court, refusing to detail the profanities acted out on the feast of the Epiphany, traditionally Twelfth Night, when mummers dressed up as crows wearing the habits of cardinals, or as asses in bishops’ regalia and wolves in abbots’ clothing. While the court and the young queen greeted this ribaldry with wild laughter, our devout Italian observer was not amused at the wider implications as to Elizabeth’s intentions towards the true religion: ‘I will consign it to silence.’

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The timing of the coronation was of crucial moment. With the implicit threat from the French with Mary Queen of Scots’ claim to the English throne in their pocket, and the obdurate insistence of two popes that Elizabeth was illegitimate, it seemed politic to claim her crown as soon as possible. By then it was well-established law, ‘that the crown once worn quite taketh away all Defects whatsoever’.

(#litres_trial_promo) But these new Elizabethans had a complicated relationship with the supernatural. A teeming spirit world coexisted with the material, and divination, astrology, alchemy and other esoteric beliefs flourished as part of the natural sciences. Nostradamus was closely consulted for his prophecies (Catherine de Medici, the mother-in-law of Mary Queen of Scots, was a particularly fervent devotee). According to this seer, 1559 was an inauspicious year: to anyone who could read or was susceptible to tavern gossip there was not much better to be hoped for than ‘divers calamities, weepings and mournings’ and ‘civil sedition’

(#litres_trial_promo) which would sweep the land. It was not the best omen for the beginning of the reign of another woman and it added to the atmosphere of anxious uncertainty.

Lord Robert Dudley was entrusted with a mission to seek out Dr John Dee, a remarkable and learned man, who was to become Elizabeth’s own consultant philosopher and who numbered astrology amongst his many accomplishments. Unlike Nostradamus with his mysticism, Dr Dee was known for his more scientific approach to divination by mapping the positions of the planets. His task was to draw up a horoscope of the most auspicious day and time for Elizabeth’s coronation, the formal birth of her reign. Apparently the best astrological augury pointed to 15 January 1559, with Jupiter, the chief god of the planetary system, positioned satisfactorily in Aquarius, to signify a universality to this Jovian power and Mars, the planet of war and assertive action, placed in indomitable Scorpio. That date of greatest promise was what the queen accepted.

The Christmas of 1558 was even more busy than usual as everyone prepared for the coronation, working ‘day and night both on holidays and week days’.

(#litres_trial_promo) There was such a run on crimson silk and cloth of gold and of silver that any sale of it was embargoed until Elizabeth had made her choice for herself and her household. Her noblemen and women were determined to cut a dash and make their mark. With a new reign there was much insecurity and jostling for position and preferment. This was the greatest opportunity for dressing up and showing off, parading one’s wealth or influence, or the wealth and influence to which one aspired. It was a chance to catch the royal eye.

Across the English Channel cloth of gold was in similarly short supply. Mary was caught up in the flurry of preparations for another grand celebration at court. Only nine months after her own magnificent wedding, she was to be one of the leading guests at the wedding of the king’s second daughter Princess Claude, with whom she had grown up. This girl was not yet twelve years old and was marrying the nominal head of the Guise family, Charles, the young Duc de Lorraine. This was yet another triumph for his uncle the Duc de Guise, ‘le Balafré’, whose family consolidated further its position at the heart of the French royal family.

Again no expense was to be spared. In a country still struggling under the levies of war, the young duke spent nearly 200,000 crowns, raised in taxes from his people, on the wedding and the week-long jousting and masquerades which were traditional accompaniments to such regal nuptials. Part of his expenditure was on the livery of cloth of gold and silver for his team of twelve jousters and the matching eight or nine dresses of extravagant construction for the main female guests. Mary was presented with one of these creations, richly embroidered in gold and silver and lined with lynx fur against the January weather. There were countless other beautiful gowns offered as gifts to the ladies of the court.

This display of ostentatious wealth and munificence was commented on even by the worldly-wise Venetian ambassador. Mary herself could not have been oblivious to the grandeur and self-confidence of her family inheritance exhibited at every possible occasion. United in her youthful person was the pride and valour of the Guises with the God-given pre-eminence as both a Stuart queen and – she hoped – a queen of the house of Tudor. This powerful dynastic mix was further enhanced through marriage with the mighty Valois, royal family of France. Born to all this, it was understandable if such a young queen had a share of the hubris of those she had grown up amongst. It made it difficult for her to recognize that even such certainty as her right to be the Queen of Scotland, the kingdom she valued least of all, was not immutable.
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