Elizabeth I: Exception to the Rule

The idea of a female monarch was met with hostility in medieval England; in the 12th century Matilda’s claim to the throne had led to a long and bitter civil war. But the death of Edward VI in 1553 offered new opportunities for queenship, as Helen Castor explains.

Elizabeth I of England, the Armada Portrait

It is easy in the 21st century to conjure up the image of a powerful Tudor queen. For subjects of the second Queen Elizabeth, her namesake and predecessor is an iconic cultural presence who looms even larger in the English historical consciousness than her extraordinary father, Henry VIII. Herein lies a problem.

We know that England was ruled by kings until the second half of the 16th century, when the crown passed to two queens, one of whom was among the most successful and significant monarchs that England has ever had. But in the first half of the 16th century no one – not Henry VIII, not his children, not his ministers, not his people – had any inkling of what was to come. There was no twinkle in Elizabeth’s eye to alert her contemporaries to the unimaginable prospect that Gloriana was waiting in the wings. To understand the enormity of the challenges that confronted Henry VIII’s daughters, therefore, we have to work hard to free ourselves from the coiling embrace of hindsight.

For Henry VIII, as for his medieval forebears (not that the artificial boundary between ‘medieval’ and ‘early modern’ would have made any sense to contemporaries), the power of the crown was male. A king was required to preserve order within his kingdom by giving justice to his people and to ride into battle to defend its borders against external threat. Neither role was a job for a woman. A queen – a word derived from the Anglo-Saxon cwén, meaning the wife of a king, not his female counterpart – was called upon to represent a different facet of monarchy: bringing feminine prayers for mercy and peace to the masculine business of making law and war.

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