From Heads of Household to Heads of State: The Preaccession Households of Mary and Elizabeth Tudor, 1516-1558

September 24, 2009

In the political ordering and governance of early modern England, J.L. McIntosh argues that power was distributed and exercised through the households of the nobility. While national policy may have been formulated in London by the state, the implementation of such policy was conducted throughout the country at the level of the estate: "England was governed by households." Moreover, each estate was a microcosm of the state with its own hierarchies, chains of command, fealties, loyalties and affinities.

Paradoxically, while it functioned ideologically and even politically on behalf of an overwhelmingly patriarchal social structure, the household - most often headed and run by noble women - often allowed such women to exercise their authority without subverting patriarchy. While the household is commonly imagined to be a place in which wives and daughters were contained in order to guarantee their modesty (literally, their virginity), McIntosh argues that the formulation and running of the household permitted the development of strategies of female power. Furthermore, she claims, in the case of the daughters of Henry VIII, "their elite (preaccession) households allowed Mary and Elizabeth to succeed to the throne".

From Heads of Household to Heads of State is an exciting and original study that succeeds in connecting the workings of central government, Henry, the court and the Privy Council, to the day-to-day activities of domestic micro-government. McIntosh identifies and describes three key features of household polity that particularly promoted the development of authority: display, corporate identity and property. In her discussion of "the politics of ostentation", she demonstrates how the material wealth of the household could be read as an index of its head's political clout. Elizabeth's household was well endowed in comparison with Mary's during Henry's marriage to Anne Boleyn, but later subjected to depredation after the second Act of Succession which declared the marriage void (and Elizabeth, consequently, illegitimate). In this way, argues McIntosh, Henry exploited "the household's ability to display status in order to publicise his own views of the succession".

Corporate identity is illustrated by the sometimes stubborn obedience of servants, many of whom risked their lives serving a mistress who had been branded politically oppositional - as was the case with Mary under King Edward's reign and Elizabeth under Queen Mary's. Following her reprimand for her continued observance of the Catholic mass, Mary's domestic personnel supported her in her dissidence: "Much to the astonished dismay of the Privy Council, Mary's household staff placed their obligations to the princess above those to the government." During Mary's reign, unsurprisingly, Elizabeth's estates were diminished: "Elizabeth's junior status to Mary was directly expressed in the inferior quality of her manors and dispersal of her lands." The issue of land ownership was something with which both princesses were acquainted since, as McIntosh points out, exceptionally for women of such status, they could both read Latin, which facilitated their understanding of legal documents, deeds and accounts.

But perhaps most interesting is the difference in styles of the two households, both alike in dignity: "An artistic and practical courtly culture of reverence existed in Mary's household (whereas) Elizabeth's staff treated their underaged mistress with parental affection." While Mary's authoritarian household observed the Catholic Mass, Elizabeth's retained the services of a number of reformist intellectuals, such as Roger Ascham. This is a fascinating volume, which forcefully demonstrates the degree of overlap between private and public spheres among the ruling elite in the Tudor period.

From Heads of Household to Heads of State: The Preaccession Households of Mary and Elizabeth Tudor, 1516-1558

By J.L. McIntosh. Columbia University Press. 400pp, £41.50. ISBN 9780231135504. Published 24 February 2009

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