Many faces of old Bess

England's Elizabeth
April 4, 2003

What was it that made the virgin queen irresistible, asks Christopher Haigh

There's something about Elizabeth. Her subjects saw it in her own time, and successive generations have seen it in the 400 years since her death.

Projected in her reign as the virgin mother of the nation, after her death she was refashioned in plays and poetry as a Protestant warrior princess - a role model of what the Stuarts should have been but weren't.

A Tudor, a Tudor! We've had Stuarts enough/ None ever reign'd like old Bess in the ruff , was a slogan of the Exclusion Crisis in 1678 - and, on the anniversary of her accession in 1679, an effigy of the pope was burnt before her statue at Temple Bar, a sacrifice to her memory. But the breast-plated honorary man of the 17th century was sentimentalised as a weak little woman in the 18th, with Elizabeth as victim of Mary Tudor or of the clash between love and duty (but sometimes she was upstaged by Jane Grey or Mary Queen of Scots, who had suffered rather more).

With the Napoleonic wars, valour was back in fashion: Elizabeth drubbed the Spanish as John Bull would drub the Frenchies - and they both ate good roast beef. In the religious turmoil after 1829 she was the populist and eirenical leader of a tolerant people, briefly she was the model of girlhood, but in Victoria's widowhood she was a menopausal irrelevance. Her reputation was rescued in the heyday of empire, when the fashion was for sea-dogs and action and boys' own tales. After 1945, when women were supposed to go back to the kitchen, Elizabeth was the woman in love, in lots of historical novels about the queen and Robin. Then there was Elizabeth as Glenda Jackson, and Elizabeth as Margaret Thatcher - first as hard-working professional and then as bossy bitch. And, just as when it seemed that devolution, the European Union and multiculturalism might mean the end of Elizabeth as a national treasure, along came new Elizabeths - Cate Blanchett whiting up as a virgin, Judi Dench as the nanny state and David Starkey's TV version of molested child turned candle-lit icon.

Michael Dobson and Nicola Watson trot jauntily through the centuries, relating the ebbs and flows of Elizabethanism to political and cultural contexts. Perhaps their patterns are a little too neat, with insufficient emphasis on Elizabeth as a contested symbol. Was she the defender of true Protestantism against Spain, or the persecutor of true Protestants? That depended on what sort of Protestant you were. Was she the murderess of 1587 or the heroine of 1588? Scots and Catholics usually went for the former. What sort of a woman could send Essex to the block because, some have said, he wouldn't apologise? Was she a woman at all, or just a man in drag? And the longest-running controversy of all: was she a virgin? - particularly vigorous rounds were fought out in 1853 in Fraser's Magazine , and in 1998 over Shekhar Kapur's film.

What Dobson and Watson never explain is why Elizabeth matters so much. They ask what "needs" she met, and tell us "we want" to use her in the founding myth of modern England. It is a quaint piece of functionalism. But why her? Why does she get all the credit? We have made her the patroness and protectress of Shakespeare, which she wasn't - and patroness and protectress of explorers and adventurers, which she hardly was. We have, so often, made her reign a golden age - forgetting that her later years saw poverty, misery, persecution, political division and badly conducted wars.

But the mud did not stick to old Bess in the ruff. Clearly, there's something about Elizabeth. But what was it?

Christopher Haigh is lecturer in modern history, Christ Church, Oxford.

England's Elizabeth: An Afterlife in Fame and Fantasy

Author - Michael Dobson and Nicola J. Watson
ISBN - 0 19 818377 1
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Price - £19.99
Pages - 348

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