New College of the Humanities

Elizabeth I: Gender, Religion and Politics

Did it matter that the fifth Tudor monarch was a woman rather than a man? Retha Warnicke investigates.

A Patriarchal Society

In 1558, when Elizabeth I became the third queen regnant of the British Isles, the prevailing models for her reign were not propitious. The first queen regnant, Mary Stewart, who succeeded to the Scottish throne in 1542, had faced three rebellions directed against her husbands, who were expected by her subjects to control her realm. Indeed in 1561 Elizabeth had to send an envoy to France to inform Mary, whose first husband, Francis II, had recently died, that her French marriage had led to the Lords of the Congregation’s successful revolution in Scotland. Mary Tudor, the second queen regnant, who reigned from 1553 to 1558, also offered a poor marital example. Choosing to wed Philip of Spain, Mary had to squash armed challenges to her authority by rebels concerned about Spanish influence. Addressing this issue in 1554, Parliament found it necessary to enact a statute establishing that queens regnant possessed sovereign powers.

In general females, whether married or single, were viewed as emotional and libidinous, incapable of autonomous political action and biologically inferior to males. Single women – without husbands to advise them and manage their affairs – were looked upon with suspicion and were expected to live under the supervision of male relatives or guardians. That Elizabeth’s Church of England joined the Protestant confession, which championed women’s vocation as marriage, caused the status of the already marginalised single woman to begin to decline even further.

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