Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Did Elizabeth I Really Hate Other Women?

Elizabeth I
The Rainbow Portrait

by Sandra Byrd

There has long been an “urban rumor” that Elizabeth Tudor hated other women. It’s true that she was a female monarch in a time which greatly preferred sovereign men.  (Note the extent to which her father, Henry VIII, extended himself to get a male heir, as well as  the contents of John Knox’s much-circulated pamphlet, “The First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women,” which railed against sitting queens and regents of the era.) Elizabeth  didn’t forestall imprisoning women for long periods of time, such as her Grey cousins and Mary Queen of Scots, when she felt they threatened her throne, which admittedly may have seemed unfeminine and harsh.

Because of her ruling position, Queen Elizabeth was never really able to be an equal companion with anyone.  William Cecil,  1st Baron Burghley, who dedicated his life to her service, once said the queen was “more than a man and, in truth, something less than a woman.” And yet, perhaps that was a man's perspective, or one man's perspective of a woman with power.  

Elizabeth knew how to dress like a woman, flirt like a woman, fall in love like a woman, and there were certainly women who were in every sense her lifelong friends. Take for example, Katherine Carey Knollys, daughter of Mary Boleyn.  Shortly after Elizabeth became queen, she installed this cousin as Chief Lady of the Bedchamber and kept her close at hand, perhaps to the detriment of Knollys family, till the day Lady Knollys died. 
Thought to be Katherine Carey, Lady Knollys
Katherine “Kat” Ashley and Blanche Parry stayed with Elizabeth from her childhood  until each woman died.  Because Elizabeth was deprived of her own mother as a young girl, Ashley and Parry became surrogate mothers to her.  Ashley spoke bluntly to Elizabeth when no one else dared, and Parry continued on in Elizabeth’s household in positions of honor and affection long past her abilities warranted them.  

Anne Russell Dudley married Lord Ambrose Dudley, the brother of Elizabeth’s longtime love, Robert, and became the Countess of Warwick.  

But even before then, Anne served Elizabeth as a maid of honor. They became great friends, and Anne stayed by her mistress’ side until Elizabeth died in 1603. Catherine Carey, the Countess of Nottingham, was the eldest daughter of Henry Carey, 1st Baron Hunsdon, Mary Boleyn’s son and therefore a cousin to Elizabeth; she died shortly before Elizabeth did, and it was said that her death was the loss Elizabeth was unable to bear, eventually leading to the queen's lack of will to live.

And then in 1566, Elin von Snakenborg came from Sweden to England.  The queen intervened, unusually, with another monarch in order to allow Elin to remain in England. Elizabeth, as famous for counting her pennies as her grandfather Henry VII, atypically awarded rooms, a servant, and a horse to Elin (later Helena) within months of her arrival.

Throughout her service, Helena was known as someone who couldn’t be bribed. She became a great friend of the queen and the highest ranking woman in England after Elizabeth, though that friendship was tested perhaps more than many of the queen's confidantes.
Thought to be (Elin) Helena von Snakenborg
Marchioness of Northampton

But what about all those women Elizabeth is supposed to have precluded from getting married, insisting that they remain virgins like herself?  

There is no doubt that from time to time Elizabeth expressed, sometimes forcefully, her preference that her ladies not marry.  Anne Somerset, in her biography, Elizabeth  I, states, “The Queen's opposition to her ladies marrying stemmed from more than mere jealousy that they should attain contentment of a sort that she would never know. Although she occasionally lamented her spinsterhood, simultaneously she entertained an altogether contradictory conviction that matrimony was an undesirable condition for women, a view not altogether surprising when one recalls that her father had executed her mother and stepmother, and the marriage of her sister had been a fiasco. It may well have been her early experience that instilled in her that instinctive aversion to the married state.”

While the Queen clearly enjoyed her power, she perhaps also keenly felt the loss of the kind of social and emotional intimacy that all people, and especially women, desire in a family. And yet she had no mother or father, no siblings, no husband, no children and her (Tudor) cousins all had claim to her throne.  

Historian and author Antonia Fraser said, “Her [Elizabeth’s] household resembled a large family, often on the move between residences, and as a family it had its feuds when factions formed around strong personalities. It was not out of malice that Elizabeth opposed her maids of honors’ plans to marry, but because marriages broke up her own family circle.”

Thought to be Catherine Carey Howard
Countess of Nottingham
The queen did, sometimes, help them to marry and marry well. Somerset says, “She (Elizabeth) could point out in the course of her reign no less than 13 of her maids of honor contracted prestigious marriages within the peerage, and this might seem to justify her claim that it was only unsuitable matches of which she disapproved.”   

The trick, of course, is that one never knew if the queen would approve or not.  The consequences of the latter could be severe and long lasting.

On the whole, though, it certainly cannot be proved that Elizabeth Tudor hated women; in fact, the handful of long term, devoted friendships we know about prove otherwise.  She gifted those women with rents, properties, perquisites, trust, affection, gowns and jewels, and emotional intimacy.  Oxford University historian Susan Doran states in her book, Queen Elizabeth I, “It should also not be forgotten how loyal and gracious she could be to her intimates and that the turnover of her household was very low. The majority of women served until death or severe illness intervened.”


Please visit Sandra Byrd's website, here, to learn more about the Ladies in Waiting series, and her blog, here, for Elizabethan themed giveaways.


  1. Also, she acted in loco parentis for her younger ladies and held herself responsible for their well being.

  2. Very true, Sue. And many of them she married well, into the peerage, which wasn't very large then.

  3. Sandra,
    a very insightful post--thank you for it. Women leaders, especially those who lead men, are isolated of necessity. She can be gracious but she cannot mingle as one of them and the distance she must maintain creates a cold image. Elizabeth would have been very sensitive to her precarious position and careful in relationships. I am certain she was also lonely as there was almost no one who could understand her womanly needs and desires contrasted with her compulsion to be the leader her country needed. There would have been many who thought her harsh when she was just trying to be a wise leader. Interestingly, it is not much different today. That is why men call a capable woman leader "aggressive" (meaning a derogatory term) when she is likely only being assertive and able to command.

  4. I agree, Regan. I felt for her. She didn't have a comfortable place in either a man's world or a woman's world of the time; she chose her kingdom, wisely, I think. While we have a bit more latitude today, a strong man is referred to as a man's man, whereas a strong woman is not ever referred to as a woman's woman.

  5. Queen Elizabeth I has been my idol since I was a little girl. I've greatly enjoyed reading this post and the comments. To be honest, I had no idea that there were rumors of Elizabeth I disliking other women. Very enlightening and entertaining.

  6. Queen Elizabeth I has been my idol since I was a little girl. This article was enlightening and entertaining. I had no idea she was thought to dislike other women.

    I definitely agree with Sandra and others that being a woman in power, rather, the most powerful woman in the world, had to have been lonely. With the women in her family having claims to her throne, other women being intimidated by her...she had to have been lonely for female companionship. Hence, the care and, for lack of a better word, control, of her handmaidens and their length of service to the Queen.

  7. Thank you, K.L. I agree! I hope you'll enjoy the book as it seems was have similar perspectives!


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