The Two Tudor Queens Regnant

Judith Richards pinpoints the debts of Elizabeth I to her older half-sister.

The Tudor monarchs, who ruled England from 1485 to 1603, have always attracted a great deal of historical attention; the most studied of them all have been Henry VIII (1509-1549) and Elizabeth I (1558-1603). The latter is still widely regarded as England’s first iconic queen, reigning at a time when the prevailing view was that females needed to be under the control of either their fathers or husbands. In principle, sixteenth-century men were very suspicious of powerful and independent women and told many stories of how women, uncontrolled by a husband or father, became unruly, destructive and sexually promiscuous. Elizabeth is traditionally seen as the woman who triumphed as a successful female monarch in that male-dominated culture. 

That tradition, however, ignores completely how much Elizabeth owed to the queen who immediately preceded her, her Catholic half-sister Mary (1553-58). Mary has a strong claim to being the most reviled monarch in English history. Whether that is justified or not, the point remains that Elizabeth’s path to the throne was made much easier after Mary’s reign. Mary, being older at her accession, better prepared for rule, and always widely recognised as a virtuous woman, was a more acceptable character to her contemporaries to be first queen than her much younger sister. This has not been commonly understood by later historians, however, for ever since Mary I died in 1558, and her half-sister Elizabeth I succeeded her, historians have focused on the many differences between them, stressing the Catholicism and religious persecution of Mary’s regime, and the Protestantism and (comparative) religious tolerance of Elizabeth’s. As one of Elizabeth’s most influential biographers, J E Neale, summarised the differences between them, Mary represented the ‘old world’ (by which he meant one Catholic and medieval in outlook) while Elizabeth represented the ‘new’ England (Protestant and much more ‘modern’).

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