Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Question from Ben - Phrase about Elizabeth I and James VI/I

I would like to ask where did phrase that Elizabeth was King:now james is queen "Rex fuit Elizabeth:nunc est regina Jacobus"?


PhD Historian said...

The question is confusingly worded, but I assume Ben is wanting to know the origin of the phrase ... why Elizabeth is called King and James called Queen? The answer is relatively straightforward. Elizabeth made a conscious and active choice to remain unwed, thereby rejecting the roles of wife and mother that English and even European culture and society dictated that she, as a woman, should take. Elizabeth instead declared herself to have the "heart and stomach of a king." Though the declaration was largely rhetorical and did not reflect any desire to actually be viewed as a man, many observers of the day saw both it and her refusal to marry as decidedly "masculine" actions. In contrast, James VI&I was well known for surrounding himself with male "favorites," especially young and attractive males. It was often speculated, both then and now, that he had some level of sexual attraction to those men. Whether he actually engaged in sexual activity is unknown, but certainly he referred to some of his favorites in ways that did imply a physical sexual relationship. This was especially true regarding James's relationship with George Villiers, later Duke of Buckingham. Many of James's letters to George have wording and an overall tone similar to what one would expect from a wife writing to her husband. Thus James was sometimes accused of being a "queen," in the modern pejorative sense of that word (an overtly feminine man).

Foose said...

The phrase doesn't seem to be positively ascribed to any one individual. Secondary sources claim, variously, it was "current all during the reign," it was the work of "Cambridge and Oxford wits," etc.; French sources allege it was a "pasquinade" that James found in his "cabinet" (closet? privy chamber?); one source sees it as originating at James' funeral; the "Scotchman, Buchanan" (George Buchanan, the king's tutor?) is named as the author by a couple 19th-century sources, but with no specific citation.

It turns up in Leti's 17th-century History of the True Life of Elizabeth, Queen of England as a distich, a 2-line verse:

Rex fuit Elisabeth; nunc Regina Jacobus.
Error naturae; sic in utroque fuit.
(This latter line meaning, roughly, "an error of nature; thus it was in both."

Leti has a notorious reputation as an inventor of tales, but the epigram may indeed have been current under James. The Literary Relations of England and Germany by Gilbert Waterhouse (1914) cites a letter from Georgius Remus to Petrus Cornelius Brederodius in 1624, who records the slur (with a slight tense variation, "Rex erat," rather than "Rex fuit"), prefacing it with:

"Sane quod viriles animos gesserit Elisabeth femina, Jacobus vero vir muliebriter valde hactenus egerit, accidit, poeta festive notarit hoc versu ..." (Very roughly, "of course, because the woman Elizabeth behaved with manly spirits, [while] the man James acted in a very womanly way hitherto, it has happened that a poet has wittily noted it in this verse ..."

Waterhouse adds "This is possibly the epigram referred to by [Jan] Gruter in a letter to [Julius Wilhelm] Zincgref of May 23rd, 1623: 'Epigramma in Anglum nimis est mordax.'" ("The epigram in England is excessively cutting.")

These are all German and Dutch intellectuals disappointed at James' failure to openly support his son-in-law, Frederick of the Palatinate, in his conflict with the Habsburgs. (Gruter was librarian to Frederick, Brederodius may be Pieter Cornelisz van Brederode, Dutch ambassador to the German princes and Swiss states, Remus a poet and philologist from Nuremberg, Zincgref the author of a runaway bestselling "emblem book" that summarized the dicey German political situation and went through several editions.)

The dates of this evidence bring the epigram's currency closer to James' death (1625) as one source suggested above. Possibly it was not James' same-sex inclinations that triggered the learned insult (although they certainly enhanced the impact of it), but domestic fury at his perceived pusillanimity in ducking heroic Protestant involvement in the Thirty Years War - i.e., "acting like a woman" instead of a warlike man. Although Elizabeth herself was a champion ducker-of-foreign-entanglements in her time, but the originator of the epigram was perhaps nostalgically recalling her support for the Dutch in their fight against the Habsburgs.