Ruler of England for 45 years, Elizabeth had a profound effect on literature produced while she was queen. A writer herself, her personal literary production is primarily letters and speeches written for various political purposes such as addressing Parliament or negotiating with foreign powers. She also wrote at least 15 poems. The stability of her long reign and her emphasis on courtly behavior that included the ability to write creatively contributed to the immense literary production of this period, some of which focused on her.
Elizabeth was born to Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, his second wife. At birth, Elizabeth disappointed her parents because she was not male, so she was not considered able to succeed Henry as sovereign and lived in the shadow of her older half sister, Mary Tudor, later Mary I, daughter of Henry and his first wife, Catherine of Aragon. Henry demanded an act of succession from Parliament that allowed his older and then his younger daughter to inherit the throne if he
should fail to provide a legitimate son. Approximately two years after Elizabeth's birth, Anne Boleyn was tried on charges of adulterous treason and beheaded. Henry then married Jane Seymour, by whom he had a son, Edward, who displaced Mary and Elizabeth as Henry's heir. However, all accounts indicate that Elizabeth and Edward enjoyed a cordial relationship, particularly under the Protestant influence of Henry's sixth wife, Catherine Parr.
With Edward, Elizabeth studied under Roger Ascham and William Grindal. She learned to read, write, and speak Latin, English, French, Italian, Spanish, and some Greek. Although Elizabeth's relationships with her siblings were cordial, they changed significantly when Edward, and then Mary, became England's rulers. King Edward VI was only 10 years old at his ascension, so his two uncles—first Edward Seymour, duke of Somerset, then John Dudley, duke of Northumberland—became regents. While Edward lived, Elizabeth continued her education and practiced her Protestant religion, while Somerset and Northumberland strove to make a politically advantageous marriage for her.
Edward died of tuberculosis at 16, leaving no clear successor. Northumberland attempted to place his daughter-in-law, Lady Jane Grey, on the throne. Henry Vlll's act of succession was still in place, however, so, Jane Grey was deposed after nine days. In 1553, Mary Tudor ascended the throne and had Parliament declare her birth legitimate.
Under Mary, Elizabeth's life was increasingly jeopardized because the queen's sister represented both personal and political threats. Henry Vlll's affection for Elizabeth's mother had caused Henry's divorce from Catherine of Aragon and had made England into a Protestant nation. Mary, however, was a devout Roman Catholic. As Mary's reign continued and she was unable to eradicate Protestantism or to produce an heir (she married Philip II of Spain in July 1554), Elizabeth became an increasing political threat. Elizabeth had the same claim to the succession as Mary, so resentful Protestants wanted her crowned queen. To counter any such plots, Mary demanded that Elizabeth publicly attend mass. Although Elizabeth refused initially, she eventually appeared to comply. Mary, however, eventually suspected Elizabeth of joining Protestant plots to depose her and had her sister imprisoned in the Tower of London and examined for treason, then moved and guarded at Woodstock, and then at Hat-field in an effort to keep Elizabeth and others from conspiring against her. While imprisoned, Elizabeth continued to study and to write, scratching a poem on the window at Woodstock ("Written with a Diamond"). Regardless of Mary's suspicions, Elizabeth was never proven to have engaged in any plots to replace the queen. In 1558, Mary died without issue, and Elizabeth became queen at age 24.
As queen, Elizabeth faced several great challenges. She had to determine national religious practice; to decide which, if any, of her suitors to marry; to negotiate a foreign policy that kept England from the threat of war, especially with Catholic nations that might support Mary, Queen of Scots in her effort to claim the English crown; and to maintain order within her own borders. Because each of these courses had national ramifications, these decisions provided material for writers of various texts, from peers to playwrights.
A Protestant, Elizabeth returned England to Protestant religious practice. This move, while popular at home, made England a target for Catholic nations abroad. To keep English Catholics from joining with these powers, Elizabeth imposed restrictions on them. She made hearing or saying mass a punishable offense and banned Catholic pamphlets written to discredit her and to foment rebellion. To prevent Catholic nations from declaring war, Elizabeth also used her position as the greatest marriage prize in Europe to keep suitors (including Philip II of Spain) dangling. As long as they believed that they might marry Elizabeth and thereby gain control of England, they hesitated to invade outright. The tensions between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism influenced many writers, including William Shakespeare and Edmund Spenser.
Elizabeth's persistent unmarried status became a focus of both national concern and international relations. Many of her letters and speeches, and the literary output of those who sought her patronage, focused on her position as an unwed queen, although she often used kingly language when speaking of herself. Elizabeth repeatedly characterized herself as a prince, as espoused to her country, or as a benevolent queen/mother to her subjects/children. Her authority allowed her to demand continued use of the language and behavior of courtly love with very real political consequences. of her hopeful courtiers, she had two English favorites: Robert Dudley, master of the horse and later earl of Leicester; and Robert Devereux, earl of Essex. But she did not marry either.
Until her early 40s, Elizabeth was able to keep everyone guessing whether she would marry or remain single. Her suitors' literary output—primarily letters—reflects their uncertainty. Some believed that she would never marry; others hoped that she would marry and bear children. She thus remained a central female figure of poetry written in her court. In her own poetry, notably "On Monsieur's Departure," she herself plays with elements of the courtly love tradition, particularly the images of burning ice and freezing fire. In this poem, she is the one who must allow others to suspect that she hates, while internally she feels differently. of the poetry written to her, the best-developed example of the courtly love theme is Edmund Spenser's The Faerie Queene, a poem that features Elizabeth in many guises: She appears as the Fairie Queen, Belphoebe, Diana, and Cynthia, among others. Each character maintains her virginity, and each one is an object of desire. Elizabeth also played this role in dramatic entertainments that occurred during the travels that she took through the country. Writers often cast her as herself or as the goddess Diana. In each case, she remained the "virgin queen."
Elizabeth also encouraged a sense of nationalistic pride that was closely associated with Protestantism. She faced two Roman Catholic threats: Mary, Queen of Scots, and Philip II, king of Spain. As Elizabeth's northern neighbor and cousin, Mary presented a problem: She was not only Catholic, she was closely connected to France, a Roman Catholic force. Mary's geographical and genealogical proximity also made her the focus of Catholic subjects who hoped to replace Elizabeth with a monarch legitimized by the pope. Because of her foolish political-personal decisions, however, Mary eventually found herself letting her heart rule her head, and she fled Scotland for England. Although she hoped Elizabeth would be hospitable, Mary was captured and held until her repeated plots against the English queen forced her execution in 1587.
Like Mary, Philip II also constituted a Catholic threat. As the war between the Protestant Netherlands and Philip intensified, the Protestants begged for Elizabeth's support, which she reluctantly gave. Frustrated by Elizabeth's refusal to return to Roman Catholicism, Philip planned a naval assault, which ended with the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588. A Catholic nation had attempted invasion, thereby escalating the religious animosity. Pamphleteers used this episode as God-given material, and writers at and for the court and other audiences made stronger references to the conflict between the two religious systems.
Within her own borders, Elizabeth also had to maintain order. She successfully negotiated periods of famine and starvation and several outbreaks of the plague, and she variously expressed dissatisfaction with the carefully regulated social order. She used censorship to ensure that any work printed for public consumption presented her and England in a positive light and did not express views that contradicted those of the state. The master of the revels rigorously scrutinized any text for public consumption, and the stationers' register listed printers and the texts they printed. For this reason, writers could only obliquely refer to contemporary events. Those writers who dared to defy the censors were imprisoned and branded. Despite such controls, a wide variety of events merited glancing references—for example, the war in Ireland, English support of Protestants in the Netherlands, and continued exploration of the New World. Although the identity of her successor became a more pressing issue, Elizabeth refused to give any name. When she died, she whispered James Stuart's name to her attendants, indicating that she had chosen him to succeed her (see James VI/I).
As a long-lived queen, Elizabeth provided the stability writers needed to produce a wide variety of literary works. Her court promoted English nationalism and built on the tradition of courtly love. While much of this literature centered on Elizabeth's virginity, she also possessed political and monetary power. Thus, a nobleman who wanted to advance at court wrote and offered poems to Elizabeth. Even those poets who were not peers wrote her poetry. These poems touched on issues important to the writer, and in them, Elizabeth often appeared as a major character. However the poet
described her, he hoped that she found his depiction of her pleasant enough that she might give him money or a court appointment from which the writer and his family might enjoy additional income. Most of this literary output did not achieve the hoped-for results. Instead, many writers found that Elizabeth accepted these poems and made grateful noises, but money or preferment did not follow. Noblemen and women in her court, however, offered patronage to writers, including William Shakespeare, Ben Jonson, and others. Many texts, directly or indirectly, address social concerns, although some works simply show the writer's various talents. Writers who dared to depict Elizabeth in less positive language were treated as traitors, and their work was destroyed. Despite strict controls of printed or performed texts, Elizabethan writers produced a large body of work, much of which revolves around Elizabeth and her court.
See also court culture; "Doubt of Future Foes, The"; "When I Was Fair and Young"; "Written on a Window Frame [or Wall] at Woodstock" and "Written with a Diamond."
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