CRANKY LADIES OF HISTORY: Elizabeth Tudor, last Queen standing

Cranky Ladies logoWelcome to Women’s History Month 2015, which has the theme “Weaving the stories of women’s lives”, which fits perfectly with our Cranky Ladies of History anthology project! After 18 months of work, including our successful crowd-funding campaign in March last year, we are proudly releasing the anthology on March 8. To celebrate, our wonderful authors have supplied blog posts related to their Cranky Lady, and we are delighted to share them here during the month of March. 

To get your own copy of Cranky Ladies of History, you can buy from our website, order your favourite real world bookshop, or purchase at all the major online booksellers (in print and ebook). 

Elizabeth Tudor: Last Queen Standing by Faith Mudge (“Glorious”)

To understand how Elizabeth Tudor became the woman she was, you need to know a few things about her father.

At a huge diplomatic event known as the Field of the Cloth of Gold, King Henry VIII of England challenged the French king to a public wrestling match. (He lost.) When the Pope refused permission for him to divorce his first wife, he changed the whole religious structure of his country so that he could do what he wanted. When his second wife, Anne Boleyn, bore a girl instead of the son he expected, he refused to attend the christening. He divorced Anne of Cleves after six months because he decided she wasn’t pretty enough, ordered for Catherine Parr to be arrested when she argued with him and is reputed to have been playing tennis while Anne Boleyn was executed.

In short, he was a violent egomaniac whose word was law, and who placed little worth on the lives of women. Not an ideal father for two daughters.

Elizabeth was born on the seventh of September in 1533, during the volatile years of the Reformation, when the only safe belief you could have about anything was ‘whatever the king says’. She was not quite three years old when her mother was beheaded, and her father remarried in the same month. This marriage, to Jane Seymour, soon produced the son he craved so much. That left Elizabeth, his middle child, in an immensely precarious position – disinherited, declared illegitimate, essentially superfluous and a living reminder of the woman Henry had loved then hated.

You could say that’s when I met her. The first incarnation of Elizabeth I remember encountering was an article in an old magazine, and the sense of isolation it conjured has stuck with me: an image of a little girl surrounded by whispers and watchful eyes. The only person Elizabeth could count on to protect her was herself.

POTENTIAL SPOILERS FOR “GLORIOUS” AFTER THE CUT – check out the story in Cranky Ladies of History before you read!

I get my love of history from my mother; she celebrated our family’s English heritage with BBC history documentaries and let me watch them all with her from a very young age. She also encouraged me to devour my own body weight in fictional biographies about girl monarchs and bought me enough historical novels last Christmas to build a small fort. My sister has also been a strong influence – we celebrated my twenty first birthday by watching a joust and sighing over medieval weaponry.

All that immersion in history has had two lifelong effects: I am permanently cured of any desire to time travel (they didn’t have toothpaste) and the inside of my head resembles a disorganised museum, with half-forgotten facts scattered in odd corners. My favourite eras get labels. The Tudors, to carry this metaphor too far, get a display case.

As monarchs, they were a special brand of disastrous. Henry inflicted his personal religious crisis on the whole kingdom. His beloved son Edward was a passionate Protestant; Edward’s older sister Mary was a fervent Catholic. Both expressed their beliefs by persecuting the other side and where possible, setting them on fire.

Then along came Elizabeth. That she survived the political whiplash is extraordinary enough, and testament to her innate political instinct. Tudor monarchs would not tolerate anyone who stood in their way. Yet Elizabeth, repeatedly disinherited, dismissed by her father and brother because of her gender, ended up as the last one standing. History doesn’t footnote her as Henry’s daughter; she lives on as Gloriana, the Virgin Queen, a woman ‘with the heart and stomach of a king, and a King of England too!’

I found out when I started researching her life in depth that a lot of historians don’t like her as much as me.

A History of Great Britain, published by Longmans, Green and Co. in 1910, says she was “coarse and unscrupulous, and she never hesitated to tell lies… She was vain and selfish, and found it hard to make up her mind in little things” before reluctantly conceding that “in great matters she showed rare strength and firmness of purpose”. Considerably more recent biographies portray her as a careless flirt dallying with her stepmother Catherine Parr’s handsome husband Thomas Seymour–conveniently glossing over the fact Elizabeth was fourteen and Seymour was almost forty–also, that Catherine knew about the ‘horseplay’ and actively participated in it. In the 16th century, people might have blamed a teenage girl for attracting the attentions of a much older man, but we should be better than that by now. We need to be better than that.

And yes, Elizabeth was vain. She was touchy about her height and was known to threaten people who upset her that she would make them ‘shorter by a head’. She didn’t keep her looks, thanks to a sugar addiction and toxic Tudor make-up (her teeth went black and she ended up wearing a wig) but she would not allow unflattering portraits. Painters had to copy the one she liked instead.

Elizabeth was a brilliant scholar, fluent in a plethora of languages. She also liked blood sports, fabulous clothes and half-dressed men playing tennis. She demanded devotion from those who served her–she once smacked one of her courtiers on the back the head for turning his back on her during an argument–but rewarded those who stayed loyal. Though she inherited her father’s hot, resentful temper, she had her mother’s caution too. Exceptionally skilled at not agreeing to things, she was very hard to back into a corner. Men of the court who tried to coerce or bully her soon found out it was useless. In a time when princesses were betrothed in their infancy for maximum political advantage and a woman ruling in her own right was considered an aberration, she never married. The crown was hers alone.

She doesn’t have to be loveable to be remarkable.

Elizabeth died on the 24th of March, 1603, having reigned over England for nearly half a century. She was the fifth and last monarch of the Tudor line. If only Henry could have known that the daughter whose christening he refused to attend would one day eclipse his legacy altogether. Maybe time travel would be fun after all.

Team Gloriana forever.

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