Friday, March 02, 2012

Question from Sam - Elizabeth fencing and shooting as a child

Is it true that queen Elizabeth I as a child taught to fence and shoot? Thanks for any response.


Mary R said...

Elizabeth would almost certainly have been taught to shoot with a bow and arrow, as archery was a popular sport for both men and women; but I don't think fire-arms were that common yet during Elizabeth's childhood. I am also reasonably certain that fencing would have been considered unwomanly (and much too dangerous). I would guess that a sixteenth century parent would have been just about as likely to hand a female child a sword as they would have been to present a male child with an embroidery hoop:)

kb said...

It might help if you could tell us where you saw this bit of information.

Foose said...

Yes, the origin of the story would help track down an answer.

Elizabeth's rival Mary Queen of Scots is reported as having pistols during various confrontations, but the usual phrasing is "carried pistols," "sporting pistols," "pistols at her saddlebow," which are all somewhat ambiguous; there's no report of her actually firing them. Perhaps she did know how to use firearms (her French education?), or perhaps she found them symbolically powerful, conveying masculinity and high-tech menace.

Per fencing, the only woman I can positively identify as having the reputation of a practiced fencer in the Renaissance is the Princess of Eboli, who allegedly had an eye knocked out during a match with her page (a fall is also cited as the reason). She's often presented as a masculinized, transgressive figure whose refusal to conform to gender and social norms inevitably led to treason.

There are also suggestions on the Internet that the 16th-century French poetess Louise Labe had training as a fencer - her father giving her an education equal to his sons'. Louise Labe is a somewhat controversial topic, so I'm not absolutely sure this is accurate.

Anonymous said...

It was in Alison Weir book "Lady Elizabeth".

Foose said...

Well, Weir's book The Lady Elizabeth is a novel, which as a form tends to require the author to use a lot more imagination than a historical study. As a novelist, the author has to develop a character and this can lead to scenes and dialogue that don't actually reflect the historical record but rather create a certain image in the reader's mind.

Note that Weir's own biography of Queen Elizabeth does not say that her subject learned fencing or firearms (not that she would have included a helpful footnote if sh had, hahaha).

However, in The Lady Elizabeth, Weir's recounting of how Elizabeth was encouraged to take up "shooting" refers to archery, not gunnery. This has basis in fact. The queen was reported by contemporary observers to be a fine shot with the crossbow at the hunt. This accomplishment was in keeping with the type of training given to upper-class women.

The fencing scene, where Elizabeth boldly demands to participate in her brother Edward's training (with an admiring young Robert Dudley on hand) is very likely made up. Weir probably manufactured Elizabeth's fencing credentials to establish the character as independent, iconoclastic, confident and proto-feminist - and that particular character is created in order to establish a rapport with a modern female audience, which is (generally) not disposed to admire the planning and execution of meticulous needlework or the intricacies of Latin theological translation, which were more likely occupations for Young Bess. Weir understands that active young women are the role models today, and indeed Elizabeth was an active young woman by the standards of her time - but those activities were heavily circumscribed by gender, rank, age and what her guardians thought appropriate and necessary. Also, some of the accomplishments she strove to acquire have lost their status, glamour and practicability in the intervening centuries, so the novelist is tempted to introduce those that still have appeal. Waving a sword around in front of awed men while wearing tights is seen as sexy and fierce and unique; squinting at an embroidery seam amid a clutch of gossiping women, not so much.

Since Maureen O'Hara brandished a foil in Old Hollywood, dashing young historical women who are dab hands at swordplay have become a standard expectation in pop culture. In reality, it would have been difficult for Elizabeth to practice fencing. Women's clothes would have limited her agility in the sport and dressing up in boy's clothes, although we're comfortable enough with it and it's a beloved trope of books and movies, would have been very problematic in the culture of the time.

Weir's book reflects the society the author lives in, not especially the society Elizabeth Tudor lived in. A 19th-century author would have come up with an entirely different literary portrait of the young princess, one perhaps heavily emphasizing "good works" and ladylike conduct (no fencing at all!).

kb said...

Foose - Very diplomatically put.

Scarlet said...

A little Elizabeth & archery tidbit....& I recall where this came from, that novelty book called The Frozen Thames (I think it was by Helen Humphreys) where the author had a story of something that happpened to go with each yr the Thames froze solid.

When the Thames froze in (I think) 1564-65, not only did enterprising lower-class folk run a "Frost Fair" (winter carnival) out on the ice to make some money, Elizabeth had her flunkeys drag archery butts out onto the ice. Then she would make her courtiers get up really early & compete against her. I bet she won.

The book also mentioned the Thames froze in the winter of 1535-36, the last winter of Anne Boleyn's life. The ice was so hard, she & Henry were able to go sleigh-riding on the river. It's kind of sad that AB had such a miserably cold winter to endure & then didn't get to enjoy spring when it came :-(