Friday, November 21, 2008

Question from djd - Accuracy of description of Elizabeth's personality, etc.

I came across a full text of something called Historical portraits of the Tudor Dynasty and Reformation Period. It is obviously a very old book. The writer seemed to have an obvious bias and dislike for Elizabeth, as seen in the pasted text below. My question to all of you, who know a lot more about QEI than me, is simply "Was she really like this?" I don't form opinions from one source, and most books I read paint Liz in much more positive light. Thanks

"The courtiers of Elizabeth," writes a French Ambassador, ''were vieing one with another as to who should use the most flattery." It has been stated that some of the "loyal and chivalrous gentlemen of the Court" assured the Queen that the " lustre of her beauty dazzled them like that of the sun, and they could not behold it with the fixed eye." Birch relates that in old age she permitted courtiers to speak to her of her "excellent beauty." Her conduct to the ladies of the Court redounded little to her credit as a woman. It was the Queen's custom to strike the maids of honour ; she gave Anne Scudamore a blow on the head which nearly proved fatal. Other ladies received similar treatment. In old age the Queen's temper became most violent, and she swore dreadful oaths for little provocation. During the latter years of Elizabeth's reign Lord Essex and Raleigh wore the cause of several Court scandals, for no young lady of propriety could safely remain at Court. The levity of Essex's conduct, and his freedom with the maids of honour, was often a source of trouble to those ladies. On one occasion he made an avowal of his passion to the beautiful Elizabeth Brydges, which excited the Queen's jealousy and passion beyond all bounds. She treated the unoffending lady in the harshest manner, and even inflicted blows upon her person.


Foose said...

I'm going to completely defer to kb on this one, but here are some thoughts:

Remember that Elizabeth had constructed the secular idea of her monarchy on the chivalric concept of gentlemen willingly serving their liege lady. Consequently, even though she (in her natural body) aged, the image did not age, nor the rite as it was performed at court. Think of Elizabeth as a Platonic idea -- immortal and imperishable, and her "excellent beauty" while in her 60s becomes more acceptable. There simply was no other script for courtiers to follow, or for her to model. Her sister Mary, whom some historians think Elizabeth may have modelled her earliest reign on (from a realistic assessment of precedents, the only English queen regnant she could have utilized), died before she was an old lady. Elizabeth had to make it up as she went along, and not unreasonably she went with the script that had served her well, even when outsiders were somewhat startled by young courtiers acclaiming her as a fabulous beauty. I think this may have been part of the meaning of her motto, Semper eadem, or Always the Same. (And while courtiers and ambassadors may have been cynical, there's evidence that Elizabeth's magnificent and regal appearance, even in age, was an overwhelming experience to ordinary people.)

She may have been touchy in insisting on her daily meed of exaltation, but be aware that once past the age of menopause, Elizabeth could no longer realistically play the "courtship game" that had sustained her earlier rule, and had to rely on people having been trained to treat her in a certain way, along with the loyalty she had built up. That training and loyalty had to be continually reinforced by repetition.

Regarding her alleged brutality to maids of honor -- well, it was an age in which physical correction was standard. Paul Johnson, a Catholic writer whose Elizabeth I offers a sympathetic view of the stresses she faced, says " of the unpleasant characteristics Elizabeth inherited from her father was her habit of striking those around her, although she rarely touched the men." Elizabeth had a reputation to protect, and a coterie of trollopy maids would not help her image as a Virgin Queen. She was notably loyal to those who served her long-term, as they were loyal to her, and she may have felt that certain members of the younger generation simply did not understand their responsibilities. She did stand in a kind of "loco parentis" to her maids, and it must have infuriated her when they insisted on getting into trouble. The chief charge against her is that she disliked her maids getting married; again, she liked people to serve her long-term, and marriage created disruptions. Johnson also points out: "Elizabeth's attitude was not wholly indefensible. English sovereigns had always exercised a justified supervision of marriages between tenants-in-chief, and other important persons in the state ... " Interestingly, he says: "What is more, her objection towards particular matches wer often proved abundantly justified by their later history. She was a good judge of compatibility; and, as a realist, felt that marriages should take normally take place between social equals, especially when large fortunes were involved."

Per the dreadful oaths -- well, she came of age in a salty era, and psychological studies have shown that people as they age lose their inhibitions. Much of the criticism from the later reign derives from the fact she was simply so old compared to most people at her court. She literally came from another age, and still represented and enforced those mores. Again, Paul Johnson: "...there was remarkably little scandal at court, as a multitide of foreigners testified."

djd said...

Thank you for your thoughtful answer. I guess I had idealized Elizabeth and reading some of the examples of her behavior - mostly towards the women around her - that was unkind - actually mean is a better word - threw me for a loop. Your answer puts things more in perspective for me.

kb said...

I would just add that Elizabeth's reputation regarding her ladies' marriages is distorted. She approved of marriage for everyone - even herself. However, she recognized that her marriage would always be problematic and she was a politician of significant skill.

She attended several weddings of her maids and ladies, presented gifts, etc. What she very much disliked was her ladies' marrying without permission. This was an affront to her authority as "loco parentis" and as queen. It was only those who circumvented her will that infuriated her.

As for swearing, it was definitely a family trait. Henry Carey, her closest male relative also had a reputation for swearing.

I agree with Foose that the era viewed physicality differently and what we would deem inappropriate may have been considered normal.

Anonymous said...

I believe Historical Portraits of the Tudor Dynasty and the Reformation Period
by S. Hubert Burke was written in 1879. This fact alone should give reason for the hostile attitude towards Elizabeth. Whereas today we can stop and think how very different the Elizabethan court was, this was just not a common in the Victorian era. This was the time of the "moral crusade" and thus they had even less of a grasp of the Elizabethan court than we do today. I think any references to immorality or "inappropriate behaviour" would have been greatly over-exaggerated by the strait-laced Victorians. At the time the Victorians would have been able to compare Elizabeth and her court with the aging Victoria and hers and have found sharp contrasts. Even Victoria herself declared she didn't like Elizabeth because of her behaviour.