Elizabeth Tudor, Gloriana or Pretender?

From the outset of Elizabeth’s reign in 1558 questions arose concerning the stability of the realm of England and whether Elizabeth as a young twenty-five year old would be able to contribute to the stability of England. Many contemporaries were still wary of such events as the War of the Roses and wished to avoid a return to such chaos. Even today passionate arguments still rage as to whether Elizabeth was completely in control of England’s destiny or whether in fact there were other forces at play such as Elizabeth’s ministers. Was Elizabeth the greatest Gloriana, or a fortunate monarch saved by the conviction of her environment?

Historians today often spar over the nature of Elizabeth’s reign, to quote Tudor historian David Starkey, “Elizabeth is extraordinary. She looks extraordinary. She behaves in an extraordinary way. And as a woman moving effortlessly in a man’s world, she is doubly extraordinary”. To make things easier lets place Starkey in the pro-Elizabeth faction. Without further ado it should be noted that Starkey has often been criticised as a revisionist and third-rate historian, something which detracts from the impact of his professional opinion. In addition to the pro-Elizabeth faction we see a neutral and in my opinion more objective faction appearing that is less impressed by Elizabeth, often referring to her as a fortunate monarch but definitely not a pitiable monarch. A number of woefully unfair interpretations of Elizabeth still exist.

Alan Axelrod in source A2 is right on the mark when he states that Elizabeth had formidable intellect. Roger Ascham, Elizabeth’s tutor commented on her linguistic abilities: “French and Italian she speaks like English, Latin, with fluency, propriety and judgement; she spoke Greek with me, frequently, willingly and moderately well…”  Historian David Starkey’s high opinion of Elizabeth certainly wins through in this category. Throughout Elizabeth’s reign we see this intellect put to efficient use in several matters ranging from religious, domestic and foreign policy, notably her instances of seemingly well planned indecision.

From the beginning Elizabeth needed a strong right arm and she found that in William Cecil (later Lord Burleigh). Burleigh was an efficient, loyal and Machiavelli character who carried out his duties with the best interests of Elizabeth’s government in mind. In one instance he starved English sailors to death after the defeat of the Spanish Armada; his intention was to save money by not having to pay as many sailors. It may be argued that it was men such as Cecil that made Elizabeth’s reign so great; Norman Jones in source D alludes to this idea but maintains that Elizabeth was definitely not bossed around, merely advised. In fact Elizabeth often rejected advice much to the dismay of her advisers who sometimes commented that they could not do their jobs effectively. If not making for a contentious court atmosphere it certainly did a lot for a Queen trying to affirm her independence from men who thought of Elizabeth as a weak woman who required a guiding male hand.

‘Always the same’, was Elizabeth’s motto translated into English. This provides us some insight into her personality, someone who would always persevere for the Status Quo, for stability in the realm of England. Source E details the Act of Uniformity 1559, this act laid down the foundations of the Elizabethan church, of which she was supreme governor. In keeping the Elizabeth’s motto she combined elements of the 1552 Mary Prayer Book with that of the Edwardian 1549 Prayer Book. This was tactful on Elizabeth’s part as it ensured stability within her realm by creating a broad tolerant church that was difficult to fault save for the most devout Catholics and Puritans. This is yet another demonstration of Elizabeth’s intelligence but not of any sort of heroism or grandeur.

Sir Robert Naunton in source B presents a unique insight into Elizabeth’s court as a contemporary with experience of Stuart courts. He comments that Robert Dudley, referred to as Lord Leicester, was not in Elizabeth’s graces all the time. As we know, Dudley fell in and out of favour many times, Naunton makes a good point. I also want to comment on the reliability of the source itself. The source is useful in that it is a contemporary source, written only a short time after Elizabeth’s reign (1634). Additionally the source is reliable as it has no considerable bias; Naunton comes from an objective viewpoint. Just to top it off he displays a modesty becoming of a fine historian, “and though I come short of knowledge of those times, yet (that I might not rove and shoot at random)”. This admission however, despite being honourable, tells us that he had incomplete knowledge which may devalue his judgements somewhat.

Much of Elizabeth’s reign is indifferent to how she is perceived by outside forces, notably I, but there are still many defining moments of leadership that typify Elizabeth’s person. Perhaps her greatest moment which gained her the title of the ‘Greatest Gloriana’ was the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588. Even though it was Drake and Howard that ultimately defeated the Spanish Fleet, it was Elizabeth that sowed the seeds of the Armada’s destruction in the hearts of her English subjects. The Tilbury speech of 1588 was perhaps one of Elizabeth’s greatest. In it she said that she had the “heart of a King, and of a King of England too”. Additionally she spoke while adorned in magnificent body armour portraying herself as a soldier, ready to defend England on the battlefield. Gloriana for a day?

The way Elizabeth connected with the nation is best represented in source M, the ‘Ditchley Portrait’. The portrait represents Elizabeth standing on top of the earth, specifically above Oxfordshire. This is because Elizabeth had recently visited Sir Henry Lee’s manor in Oxfordshire on one of her progresses. She had obviously made an impression on Lee who otherwise wouldn’t have commissioned such a grand painting. This trait certainly separates Elizabeth from the Stuart monarchs James and Charles I who kept themselves rather guarded from their subjects with the exception of Charles II who often took long walks through common London unaccompanied.

Whether all of this is justification enough to call Elizabeth a great monarch is still unresolved. One of Elizabeth’s courtiers maintained that Elizabeth was greatest for what she didn’t do rather than what she did do. Sir Walter Raleigh, another one of Elizabeth’s courtiers held an opposing view stating that “her majesty does all by halves”. I’m beginning to see a pattern appearing regarding Elizabeth’s status among both contemporaries and the modern historical community. A division of opinion exists as to whether Elizabeth should be regarded as Gloriana, or a monarch supported by a unique set of ministers and courtiers that took advantage of coincidental foreign and domestic situations. The Spanish Armada is a good example, a mere change in wind direction might have meant a Spanish victory, and how would we view Elizabeth then? England may have been occupied by Spain or at least ceased to be the same England we know and love today.

The progenitor to the Spanish Armada can be found in another section of Elizabeth’s foreign policy, the Dutch wars. The lowlands had been in Spanish hands for some time and even Elizabeth recognised them as Philip of Spain’s legitimate territory. The issue for Elizabeth was that if she lent a hand to the Dutch rebels she would in essence be supporting rebels against someone of royal blood. Source F vividly portrays Elizabeth’s decision to ‘feed the Dutch cow’ as it were. The source depicts Elizabeth feeding a cow (the Dutch) that is being ridden by Philip of Spain. William of Orange (or William the ‘Silent’) is depicted holding the cow’s horns and the Duke of Anjou who was working with Elizabeth to evict the Spanish from the lowlands is seen tugging at the cow’s tail. Elizabeth’s involvement in the lowlands was pivotal for Dutch independence but can we really call this heroic when Elizabeth invaded for her own ends. The lowlands were a steppingstone for a Spanish army into England and also a vital trading port, an invasion of the lowlands was nothing less than a necessity.

Prominent Tudor historian J. E Neale who appears in source G presents an argument concerning the ability of Elizabeth to hold her own against fervent opposition, both from her Privy Council, and Parliament. Neale cites several examples including an instance in 1572 where Elizabeth essentially saved the life of Mary, Queen of Scots when her councillors and Parliament were pleading for her death. This doesn’t necessarily justify Elizabeth as a great monarch, what may be perceived as altruistic behaviour (Elizabeth sacrificing her own image for the life of Mary) may have actually been Elizabeth fearing divine consequences of a Queen killing another Queen, causing damage to the celestial hierarchy itself.

Throughout the entirety of her reign Elizabeth spent £4,500,000 on military operations, that is an innumerable sum of money by today’s standards, most of which was spent on operations trying to subdue Ireland. Even though she succeeded in the short term, Elizabeth contributed to the long term degradation of relations between Ireland and England, relations that are still strained to the present day. In this respect Elizabeth seems weak, a mere girl trying to fulfil the dreams of her long dead father (source H). In general Elizabeth’s foreign policy is unremarkable; save the war with the Spanish stability is the word of the day concerning all facets of Elizabethan policy. There were some pronounced poor decisions such as choosing to subdue Ireland by force which detracts from the overall morality of Elizabethan foreign policy.

I have deduced that Elizabeth’s rule was not one of upheaval, religious unrest, total war, or anything overtly negative, on the contrary there is nothing that makes Elizabeth exceptional. Her greatest achievement may have been the preservation of stability in the realm of England. I conclude that gloriana did not exist; perhaps only in the minds of a people longing for some sort of idolatry. Elizabeth was that idolatry, and she contributed to it, wooing the people of England with jewellery and fanfare. Perhaps this is why we have for so long been compelled to admire the greatest gloriana, Elizabeth Tudor. I however see nothing but a person, handed a most favourable political atmosphere and a license to rule. It would be difficult for even the most inept monarch to stray far from the path of success.

M Spake


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One response to “Elizabeth Tudor, Gloriana or Pretender?

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