Subject of Elizabeth: Authority, Gender and Representation

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As a woman wielding public authority, Elizabeth I embodied a paradox at the very center of sixteenth-century patriarchal English society. Louis Montrose’s long-awaited book, The Subject of Elizabeth, illuminates the ways in which the Queen and her subjects variously exploited or obfuscated this contradiction.

Montrose offers a masterful account of the texts, pictures, and performances in which the Queen was represented to her people, to her court, to foreign powers, and to Elizabeth herself. Retrieving this “Elizabethan imaginary” in all its richness and fascination, Montrose presents a sweeping new account of Elizabethan political culture.  Along the way, he explores the representation of Elizabeth within the traditions of Tudor dynastic portraiture; explains the symbolic manipulation of Elizabeth’s body by both supporters and enemies of her regime; and considers how Elizabeth’s advancing age provided new occasions for misogynistic subversions of her royal charisma.  

This book, the remarkable product of two decades of study by one of our most respected Renaissance scholars, will be welcomed by all historians, literary scholars, and art historians of the period.

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Editorial Reviews

Stephen Orgel
"Twenty-five years ago Louis Montrose's pioneering essay 'Eliza Queen of Shepherdes and the Pastoral of Power' cracked one of the crucial codes of Elizabethan celebratory rhetoric. His new book, addressing the complex and contradictory nature of Elizabeth as performer and spectacle, finally fulfills a very old promise. This is an important and fascinating book, and it is wonderful to have it at last."
Renaissance Quarterly - Retha M. Warnicke
"A fascinating acount of [Elizabeth's] representation as a woman ruler in a patriarchal society and of her councilor's attempts to take political advantage of her gender while simultaneously working to contain its perceived frailties. . . . This important interdisciplinary work offers valuable insights into her culture and will be of interest to all Elizabethan scholars."
H-Net Review - Tryntje Helfferich
"McKee has done an admirable job bringing this extraordinary woman to life. The selections are well chosen, and include samples from an entire lifetime of work. . . . I heartily recommend this book and applaud McKee's decision to issue these important texts."
Literature and History - Mary Hill Cole
"In this finely woven tapestry of a book, Louis Montrose draws on and reorients his substantial writings on the world of Elizabethan imagery as he explores the competing and diverse representations of the queen. . . . The Subject of Elizabeth offers easy and rewarding access into the challenging world of the Elizabethan court."
Renaissance Quarterly
A fascinating acount of [Elizabeth's] representation as a woman ruler in a patriarchal society and of her councilor's attempts to take political advantage of her gender while simultaneously working to contain its perceived frailties. . . . This important interdisciplinary work offers valuable insights into her culture and will be of interest to all Elizabethan scholars.

— Retha M. Warnicke

H-Net Review
McKee has done an admirable job bringing this extraordinary woman to life. The selections are well chosen, and include samples from an entire lifetime of work. . . . I heartily recommend this book and applaud McKee's decision to issue these important texts.

— Tryntje Helfferich

Literature and History
In this finely woven tapestry of a book, Louis Montrose draws on and reorients his substantial writings on the world of Elizabethan imagery as he explores the competing and diverse representations of the queen. . . . The Subject of Elizabeth offers easy and rewarding access into the challenging world of the Elizabethan court.

— Mary Hill Cole

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780226534756
  • Publisher: University of Chicago Press
  • Publication date: 6/1/2006
  • Pages: 336
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Louis Montrose is professor of literature at the University of California, San Diego, and author of The Purpose of Playing: Shakespeare and the Cultural Politics of the Elizabethan Theatre, also published by the University of Chicago Press.

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Read an Excerpt

The Subject of Elizabeth

Authority, Gender, and Representation

By LOUIS MONTROSE The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2006 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-53475-6

Chapter One

Contested Legitimacies

In order to situate the interplay of dynasty and difference in Tudor England, I begin not with a monumental Elizabethan state portrait but rather with an ephemeral Henrician text: a letter describing an event in which a crude picture of Elizabeth's royal father was appropriated and subjected to popular mockery. In 1533, the year in which Elizabeth Tudorwasborn, a secretary to the Company of Merchant Adventurers wrote to Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII's principal minister, with intelligence from the Low Countries. He reported the scandalous action of a market vendor from Antwerp, who had

Images and Pictures in cloth to sell: among the which clothes he had the Picture of our soveraigne Lord the Kyng.... And this day settyng up the same Picture upon the Burse to sell, he pynned upon the body of the said Picture a Wenche made in cloth, holdyng a paier of balance in her hands; in th'one balance was fygured too hands to geder, and in th'other balance a fether, with a scripture over her head, saiyng that Love was lighter then a fether, whereat the Spanyards and other of the Duche nacion had greate pleasure in deridyng, jestyng, and laughyngtherat, and spekyng sondry opprobrious words ayest his moost noble Grace and moost gracious Quene his bedfelowe.

Thomas Cromwell's scandalized informer provides us with a brief but intriguing glimpse into an impromptu act of popular satire against the high and mighty, one that is firmly placed within its religious, geopolitical, and commercial milieux. What the letter describes is not merely the hawking of King Henry's picture in the marketplace but a kind of political street theatre in which that picture is subjected to further appropriation of a more explicitly subversive sort. It seems that the King was being derided for his unseemly treatment of his wife of many years, the much admired Catherine of Aragon, and for his open cohabitation with Anne Boleyn. Henry had clandestinely married Anne on 25 January 1533, after the discovery of her pregnancy, and some four months before the date of the letter to Cromwell. On the day following the date of the letter, the King's marriage to Queen Catherine was declared null and void; and a week after that, the visibly pregnant Anne was honored with a lavish royal entry into London and was crowned as Queen in Catherine's stead.

The derision, jesting, and opprobrious words directed against the King of England in the streets of Antwerp had been catalyzed by the improvised addition to Henry's portrait. However, such responses were undoubtedly rooted in wider and deeper concerns: most obviously, in sectarian and national antipathies; but apparently also in abiding communal values regarding the sacrament of marriage and the lusts of the flesh, values that may have transcended differences between papists and reformers, Spaniards and Englishmen. There is substantial evidence that not only "Spanyards and other of the Duche nacion" but significant numbers of the King's own English subjects sympathized with their Spanish-born Queen Catherine, defamed Anne Boleyn, and disapproved of the King's actions. It was also in 1533 that a parson in Lancashire responded to the proclamation of Anne's accession by declaring, "I will have none for queen but Queen Catherine; who the devil made Nan Bullen, that whore, queen?" And in the same year, another was reported to have said that "the King is but a knave and liveth in avowtry [adultery], and is an heretic and liveth not after the laws of God.... I set not by the King's crown, and if I had it here, I would play at football with it." King Henry justified his divorce upon the scruples of his conscience. Nevertheless, at least some of his subjects saw his actions as an offense against the sacramental view of wedlock that was espoused in such popular works as De institutione feminae christianae, which praised marriage as "a bande and couplyng of love, benyvolence, frendshippe, and charite, comprehendynge with in hit all names of goodnes, swetenes, and amyte." Written by the Spanish Humanist Juan Luis Vives and dedicated to Queen Catherine, this influential work had appeared in print in English as early as 1529.

If foreign ambassadorial reports are to be believed, some Londoners walked out of church when called upon to pray for their new, English-born Queen Anne; and at an earlier point in the royal affair, some had actually rioted against her:

It is said that more than seven weeks ago a mob of from seven to eight thousand women of London went out of the town to seize Boleyn's daughter, the sweetheart of the king of England, who was supping at a villa ... on a river; the king not being with her; and having received notice of this she escaped by crossing the river in a boat. The women had intended to kill her, and amongst the mob were many men disguised as women; nor has any great demonstration been made about this, because it was a thing done by women.

Although the reported numbers are surely inflated, this account does suggest some sort of popular collective action that subjected the King's affairs to the moral standards of the local community. This performance was thus an assimilation of high politics to the rites of popular culture; at the same time, however, it was also an improvisation of such rites for the purposes of political protest: In other words, the genre of the reported event combined elements of charivari or "rough music" with those of popular riot; and the female community's traditional regulation of wayward women was appropriated by those subjects-including cross-dressed men-who dared, however indirectly, to vent their disapprobation of the personal conduct of their king. In the Antwerp market, "Spanyards and other of the Duche nacion" were unconstrained in their mockery of the English king, and their actions, too, partook of the spirit of charivari.

Simon Thurley has specified the historical conditions that transformed the official image of Henry VIII into that of an imperial ruler with supremacy over the church: "The momentous parliamentary acts of 1529-1539 radically altered the nature of Kingship in England. Not only was the traditional relationship between the king and the Pope rejected, but the nature of the king's civil powers was altered to accommodate and enforce his new spiritual position. The consolidation of this new position was achieved by a carefully orchestrated and skilfully executed image-making operation." It would be mistaken, however, to assume either that the Tudor regime consistently pursued coherent longterm policies or that it was consistently effective in translating its policies into visual-or verbal-imagery. As the foregoing discussion has illustrated, it was beyond the powers of the Henrician regime to control the foreign production, dissemination, and appropriation of crude pictures of the King; and, even within the realm, what Thurley calls the Henrician regime's "image-making operation" appears to have been limited in its scope and of uncertain efficacy among the King's own subjects.

Whatever their degree of technical skill or formal innovation, neither image makers nor the images that they fashioned were merely transparent instruments of an omniscient and omnipotent royal will. And, indeed, the history of royal representation in the early modern period is as much a history of appropriation and degradation as it is a history of regulation and celebration. In practices of picturing, as in practices of writing and performing, the power of the state to control the signifying process was both limited in its means and uncertain in its effects. And just as the ideological forces operative in the pictorial field were not monolithic, neither were they neatly polarized into an opposition of dominance and resistance, the monarch and the monarchomach. Tudor royal images were employed in a wide range of cultural work, which included enhancing and subverting the charisma of the monarch; legitimating and resisting the authority of his or her regime; seeking to influence royal sympathies and policies in matters religious, civic, and military; and pursuing personal advantage in the competition for courtly favor and reward. Various interests, including rivalrous and opposed ones, were at work in the production and apprehension of visual representations of the monarch. And the same holds true for the many written accounts of royal icons and spectacles, both printed and unprinted, which collectively constitute a distinctive early modern genre of political ekphrasis. The commissioning and shaping, the perception and promotion, of the royal image were components of a dynamic and unstable process. In its motives and in its impact, this process was just as likely to be hortatory or contestatory as it was to be panegyrical.

As will become evident in the course of my analyses, my caveats regarding the Henrician regime's "carefully orchestrated and skilfully executed image-making operation" apply perhaps even more clearly to the image-making activities promoted and policed by the Elizabethan regime. Indeed, the Flemish incident reported to have taken place in 1533 could be claimed to be the earliest instance of image appropriation involving Elizabeth herself. After all, although she was as yet unborn, Elizabeth was already visibly growing within the womb of "Nan Bullen, that whore." Thus, she was the manifest incarnation of the tainted royal union that had prompted the jesting, derision, and opprobrium-the rough music-performed in the streets of Antwerp. Throughout most of the lifetime of Elizabeth Tudor, the courtships, marital prospects, and sexual conduct of the monarch would continue to be both an urgent matter of state and an endless subject of gossip within and beyond the realm; and she would spend much of her reign dealing with the religious, legal, political, and diplomatic consequences of the sensational events that had occasioned her own birth.

Henry VIII's single-minded quest to secure a direct and legitimate masculine succession generated a tangled chain of momentous actions and unintended consequences. These included the King's assumption of royal supremacy over the church; his divorce from Queen Catherine, on the grounds that her prior espousal to his deceased brother made their own marriage incestuous; Henry's marriage to Anne Boleyn, the sister (and, according to some, also the daughter) of a former royal mistress; Anne's subsequent execution on grounds of adultery with several men, including her own brother; and Henry's formal bastardization of his daughter, Elizabeth. The reigns of Henry and his offspring were marked not only by the establishment of the royal supremacy in matters spiritual as well as temporal but also by wider upheavals in popular religious belief and practice; as a consequence, dynastic issues now converged with ideological ones. This peculiarly Tudor convergence of religious with family values received a comprehensively hostile formulation from the Catholic polemicist Nicholas Sander:

The hypocrisy of the king, pretending the fear of God when he put Catherine away; the incestuous marriage with Anne Boleyn, I say incestuous marriage of Henry, for if Anne was not his own child, she was the child of his mistress; the incest also of Anne Boleyn with her own brother; the ecclesiastical supremacy of the king, which Henry was the first to assume, are the foundations on which that religion is built and stands, which England held and professed under Henry, Edward, and Elizabeth.

As Sander later summarized it, "Now, all English Protestants ... honour the incestuous marriage of Henry and Anne Boleyn as the wellspring of their gospel, the mother of their Church, and the source of their belief." The progress of the Protestant Reformation-or, depending upon one's allegiances, the spread of the Protestant heresy-was understood to be intimately tied to the personal beliefs and policies of the reigning monarch, and thus to be conditional upon continuities and changes within the fragile Tudor succession.

* * *

Succession was an especially vexed issue in Tudor England. The first sentence of Francis Bacon's unfinished History of Great Britain tersely records the demise of the Tudor dynasty, framing it as the enabling condition for the birth of Great Britain in the accession of King James VI of Scotland to the English throne: "By the decease of Elizabeth, Queen of England, the issues of King Henry the Eight failed; being spent in one generation and three successions." In an earlier letter discussing his projected history, Bacon wrote of the offspring of Henry VIII as "these barren princes," and remarked upon the anomalous dynastic history of the later Tudors: "the strangest variety that in like number of successions of any hereditary monarchy hath ever been known. The reign of a child; the offer of an usurpation ... the reign of a lady married to a foreign Prince; and the reign of a lady solitary and unmarried." When Elizabeth came to the throne at the age of twenty-five-indeed, as a condition of her accession-she was without surviving close male kin. She was also without a husband; and despite both the persistent importunings of the men who served her and the marriage negotiations that she conducted almost continuously throughout the first two decades of her reign, Elizabeth remained unmarried until her death. In his shrewd appreciation of his late queen, Bacon observed that

the reigns of women are commonly obscured by marriage; their praises and actions passing to the credit of their husbands; whereas those that continue unmarried have their glory entire and proper to themselves. In her case this was more especially so; inasmuch as she had no helps to lean upon in her government, except such as she had herself provided; no own brother, no uncle, no kinsman of the royal family, to share her cares and support her authority. And even those whom she herself raised to honour she so kept in hand and mingled one with another, that while she infused into each the greatest solicitude to please her she was herself ever her own mistress.

In his second sentence, Bacon suggests that Elizabeth's deprivation of family was seriously disadvantageous to her rule; in his third sentence, however, he affirms it to have been a precondition for her autonomous authority. This paradox illuminates both the gender-specific expectations that handicapped Elizabeth at her accession and the unconventional strategies by which she sought to turn those liabilities to advantage during the course of her reign.

The liabilities of gynecocracy had been definitively anatomized in the illtimedblast"againstthemonstrousregimentofwomen"writtenbytheScottish reformer John Knox and published shortly before Elizabeth's accession. Knox's polemic opened with the declaration that "to promote a Woman to beare rule, superioritie, dominion, or empire above any Realme, Nation, or Citie, is repugnant to Nature; contumelie to God, a thing most contrarious to his reveled will and approved ordinance; and finallie, it is the subversion of good Order, of all equity and justice." Knox based his antigynecratic jeremiad upon the scriptural principle of female subjection:

God hath subjected Womankinde to man, by the ordre of his creation, and by the curse that he hath pronounced against her.... Besides these, he hath set before our eyes two other Mirrors and glasses, in whiche he will that we shulde behold the ordre which he hath appointed and established in nature: The one is the naturall bodie of man; the other is the politik or civile body of that common welth, in which God by his own Word hath apointed an ordre. (390)

And just as that body is "a monstre, where there was no head eminent above the rest ..., no lesse monstruous is the bodie of that Common welth where a Woman beareth empire" (391). Knox's intended targets were the Catholic queens regnant and female regents of mid-sixteenth-century Europe: Mary Stuart, Marie de Guise, and, in particular, Mary Tudor-"that horrible monstre Jesabel of England" (420)-who had resubjected Reformation England to the Church of Rome. And in pursuing his attack, Knox argued strenuously against the invocation of Debora as a legitimating biblical precedent for these demonic latter-day instances of female regiment: "In these of our ages, we finde crueltie, falshed, pride, covetousnes, deceit, and oppression.... the spirit of Jesabel and Athalia.... How unlike our mischevous Maryes be unto Debora"(404). Knox's misogynistic rhetoric served the radical religio-political argument that it was "the dutie of the Nobilitie, Judges, Rulers and People of England not only to have resisted and againstanded Marie,that Jesebel, whome they call their Queen, but also to have punished her to the death, with all the sort of her idolatrous Preestes, together with all such as should have assisted her" in furthering the apostasy of the English nation and the persecution of the godly.


Excerpted from The Subject of Elizabeth by LOUIS MONTROSE Copyright © 2006 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations
A Note on Quotations from Early Modern Texts
Introduction: Foundations and Trajectories 
Part 1 - Dynasty and Difference
1. Contested Legitimacies
2. Filial Emulation
3. The Tudor Sisterhood
4. The Protestant Succession 
Part 2 - Idolatries
5. Imagery, Policy, and Belief
6. Iconomachy
7. Instrumental Adoration
8. A Cult of Elizabeth? 
Part 3 - Queen and Country
9. The Geopolitical Imaginary
10. Policy in Pictures
11. Purity and Danger
Part 4 - Resistances
12. Vox Populi
13. Defacing the Queen
14. Secrets of the Heart
Part 5 - Time's Subject
15. A Queen of Shadows
16. Mysteries of State
17. Through the Looking Glass
Epilogue: The Jacobean Phoenix

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