On the 400th and 50th anniversaries of their deaths, we pit England's virgin queen against the USSR's father and find more than a shared love of dancing. Christopher Haigh shows how Elizabeth consolidated a revolution
Elizabeth Tudor and Joseph Stalin: is this a useful comparison? The daughter of a king, the son of a cobbler? One who had to be bullied into signing a death warrant, the other who had hundreds of thousands executed? One ruled little England, the other the sprawling union of Soviet republics. The first had justices of the peace and parish constables to keep order, the second a vast apparatus of secret police and informers.
They both died in March something-three: so what?
Well, there are some neat (and some near) coincidences. Each had a dysfunctional father - though Stalin had a dominating mother, and Elizabeth's was beheaded when the child was three. Each had a pious upbringing: Elizabeth later wrote highly personal prayers in several languages, but Stalin left the seminary and God behind. Each was excluded from the succession (by Edward VI, and by Lenin). Each was arrested and imprisoned (by Mary I, and by the tsarist police) and faced the risk of execution. Both were devious and manipulative - they were politicians, after all. Each was unlucky in love. They both liked dancing - though Elizabeth didn't have a swish American record player. Each became a paranoid recluse. Each died at about 70.
But there are more than chance similarities. They both defended and were sustained by an ideology - reformed Protestantism and Marxism-Leninism. As supreme governor of the Church of England or as general secretary of the Communist Party, each redefined the faith they had inherited - and their emendations were conditioned by political realities.
Elizabeth altered the communion service and tinkered with the Thirty-Nine Articles to keep traditionalists quiet. Each wanted ideological uniformity, stressed the need for unity and was inclined to regard opposition as treason. Both identified ideological enemies - papists, kulaks , bourgeois.
Elizabeth and Stalin saw external ideological threats, though it is doubtful if they were real - the Catholic "league of Antichrist" and "capitalist encirclement". Each had ideological allies abroad - but neither took them very seriously: Elizabeth would not sign up to a Protestant coalition, while Stalin proposed socialism in one country and was indifferent to the Comintern. Each of them could see internal dissidents as agents of international Catholicism or foreign capitalism, fifth-columnists out to destroy the church or the party.
But Elizabeth I was not ideologically driven, as Stalin was. Both had taken risks for their faith - Elizabeth in restoring Protestantism in 1559, Stalin as an underground agitator in his youth. Neither could fairly be accused of ideological indifference or mere cynicism. Elizabeth, however, did not define a precise line of orthodoxy and seek out unbelievers. There was no obsessive hunt for heretics and deviants. True, there were searches and there were executions for hardly more than having the wrong ideas, but Elizabeth did not drive the persecutory process, and for her outward conformity would suffice.
Orthodoxy mattered less to Elizabeth than it did to Stalin (or to many of her councillors). She derived her authority from monarchical legitimacy not from ideological purity: she reigned because she had the right blood, not because she had the right ideas. John Knox and John Foxe tried to tell Elizabeth that her right to rule depended on her adherence to true religion, but she would have none of that. Stalin, however, governed as the interpreter of the gospel and the guardian of truth. To dissent from his truth was to dissent from his rule. Unbelievers had to be purged.
In the reign of Elizabeth I, about 180 English Catholics were executed for alleged treason: about 120 of them were priests. Were these Elizabethan purges? Well, many of those who died were framed, and convicted in show trials of plots that did not happen. There were some actual plots, but for most of the "traitors" the real crime was a status: being a Catholic priest, or one who aided a Catholic priest - because priests and their supporters were classified as agents of the twin enemies, Rome and Spain.
With papists, like Trotskyists or Bukharinites, to be one was enough: there was no such thing as a loyal dissident. If the treason could not be found, it was because it was too cleverly concealed or had not happened yet.
There were two big differences between Elizabethan and Stalinist purges.
The obvious one is scale - a couple of hundred or a couple of million. The second is rank and relationship. The Elizabethan victims were almost all outsiders: Catholics outside the Church, outside the Court, excluded from government. There were no rolling purges of insiders, and few former confidants or allies were destroyed.
There were only three great political casualties in Elizabeth's reign - the duke of Norfolk, Mary Queen of Scots, and the earl of Essex - and they were all guilty as charged, not framed because they were not trusted. It was Elizabeth's father, Henry VIII, who was the Tudor Stalin in this respect, striking down those closest to him: the political bloodbaths were in the 1530s and the 1930s. By contrast, the ruling Elizabethan elite was remarkably stable, with the same men in power for decades, dying in office of illness, not the axe. If Elizabeth had a fault, it was political loyalty, holding on to a favoured few for as long as she could, and, when she had to, replacing them with their sons.
In some measure, Elizabeth and Stalin sustained themselves in power by striking down their enemies - but much more by a cult of personality. Both were represented as saviours of their people and custodians of the truth.
Both were projected in grandiose portraits and in personal medallions. Both made set-piece speeches that were widely distributed. Each was praised with the most grotesque hyperbole, Elizabeth in doggerel ballads, Stalin in dreadful poems. One was virgin mother of the nation, the other father, friend and teacher.
The anniversaries of Elizabeth's accession and Stalin's birth were both celebrated with public festivities - though Elizabeth's festival was an annual event from 1570, Stalin's only on his 50th, 60th and 70th birthdays.
Each of them received dramatic declarations of loyalty - Elizabeth the sign-in Bond of Association in 1584, Stalin a flood of pledges and greetings from factories, collective farms and minority nationalities. In each case, the cult was partly popular and partly managed, and the promotion of Stalin may have worked better. By the time Elizabeth died in March 1603, the English were tired of her and they cheered for King James; when Stalin died in March 1953, there was spontaneous popular grief.
Those reactions did not last. England soon got tired of Stuart kings, and Elizabeth's reputation revived as James and then Charles screwed up. And Khrushchev soon did for Stalin, publicising the purges at the party congress of 1956. Stalin became a problem, to be ignored or explained away: praising him would help no one, and he survived as a bogey-ruler.
Elizabeth, on the other hand, became a symbol of all that was good, invoked by all sides in almost every tussle. Stalin was rejected by everyone, Elizabeth was appropriated by everyone. The adjectives say it all:
"Elizabethan" and "Stalinist".
But do they really? How "Elizabethan" was Elizabeth's reign? How much was done by her, and how much by the councillors who didn't trust her judgement and kept on at her until she accepted their advice? What did the mythic "Elizabethan age" really owe to her? Shakespeare wrote the plays, Drake sailed around the world, the Armada was beaten by the weather, and the colonies came later. Well, yes, Elizabeth did wear the frocks - but she didn't wear the trousers. Stalin made his age. He was a hands-on ruler, and Elizabeth was not. He dominated the Politburo, he micro-managed the USSR, he ran the war: she couldn't get her generals to do as they were told.
Stalin worked hard for his adjective, Elizabeth did not.
But their historic roles were not so different. Each presided over the third phase of a revolution - after Henry VIII and Kerensky had overthrown the past, after Edward VI and Lenin had tried to build the new Jerusalem, a bit of order and regularity didn't go amiss. Both got their hands dirty in the world of politics and did deals with the devil: Elizabeth in 1572, with the French devil who murdered Protestants; Stalin in 1939, with the Nazi devil who murdered communists. Elizabeth and Stalin both had to be realistic - neither a godly nation nor a communist society could be made in one lifetime. Yes, they had much in common. But I think I'd rather play cards with the queen - even though she did cheat.
Christopher Haigh is lecturer in modern history, Christ Church, University of Oxford. The third edition of his book Elizabeth I is published by Pearson (£14.99).