To tell the casual inquirer that you work on the writing of Queen Elizabeth
I is, usually, to meet with the reply "I didn't know she wrote at all!"
However, recent editions
of her work have gone some way to bring Elizabeth's writing to light once
more. Elizabeth did indeed write, and she also published during her reign
- not just speeches, but occasionally letters, and, most numerously, prayers.
The queen published her Precationes privatae in 1563, just after
recovering from a near-fatal attack of smallpox; and in 1569, a volume entitled
Christian Prayers and Meditations in English, French, Italian, Spanish,
Greeke, and Latine appeared. While this text is not marked with Elizabeth's
name as author, the foreign language prayers it includes have been reprinted
in the 2000 edition of Elizabeth's Collected Works, edited by Leah
S. Marcus, Janel Mueller, and Mary Beth Rose. In this article, I examine
Christian Prayers as a text that positions the queen as simultaneously
typical and unique, a humble sinner who is divinely chosen to rule England,
who bows before no other human, yet who abases herself in front of God.
While I agree with Elizabeth's recent editors that Christian Prayers
is indeed the queen's work, I also suggest that regardless of the question
of "true" authorship, this text contributed to the queen's public image
in both domestic and international contexts, as reflected by the juxtaposition
of English-language and foreign-language prayers within the volume. That
is, whether or not Elizabeth scratched out these prayers with by her own
hand is less important, ultimately, than the fact that they appeared
to be authored by her. Christian Prayers and Meditations produces
the effect of Elizabeth as author, the authorizing force behind the voice
that calls to God in these prayers. As such, this text can be studied as
an important contribution to the public image of the queen as both head
of state and as Supreme Governor of the Church of England, and as an indication
of Elizabeth's lost reputation as a published writer.
The theological problem the queen faced - that is, the problem of representing
herself as among the weak and humble of the world, as sufficiently imitative
of Christ's own meekness and humility, in accordance with the religious
reformers' imperative that suffering is a sign of God's favor - coexists
uneasily with the claims for strength and authority that reappear in Christian
Prayers over and over again. The need to appear submissive and meek
in a religious context could confirm early modern stereotypes of gendered
identity, the stereotypes that would severely limit Elizabeth's power and
authority in the first place; yet to appear too confident might run the
risk of appearing to defy biblical injunctions against women's speech. Christian
Prayers and Meditations negotiates this delicate balance, actively participating
in the religious debates of its time, and creating spaces within which the
weakness of the female body can be transformed into strength through the
mediation of divine authority. As I explore these issues, I begin by examining
one of the English language prayers for its use of Elizabeth's maternal
heritage as a guarantee of her Protestant bona fides, before turning
to the foreign language prayers and their even more explicit claims to divine
right and absolute rule. By doing so, I hope to show how Christian Prayers
uses the language of weakness, paradoxically, to establish the queen's authority
and her privileged relationship to God.
Within the devotional context, the conventional early modern admission
of abject humility in front of the divine can be seen not only as a constraint
or limitation upon the subject, but also as the means by which the subject
may resist constraint, or actively shape a powerful identity though a ritualistic
self-abasement to the divine Other. Weakness occupied a strangely ambiguous
place in Reformation constructions of gender, salvation, and authority.
Weakness signified an inferiority and vulnerability usually gendered feminine,
and yet it could also be understood as most characteristic of Christ on
the cross, suffering in obedience to the will of his father. Late medieval
and early modern texts call on the believer to imitate Christ - as far as
possible, that is - in this self-abasement, accepting "weaker, passive and
dependent characteristics" as the proper states for the human worshiping
the divine (Crawford 12). In one sermon, for example, John Donne reminds
The root of all Christian duties is Humility, meeknesse,
that's violated in an ambitious precedency, for that implyes an over-estimation
of our selves, and an undervalue of others; And it is violated in scandals,
and offences, for that implies an unsettledness and irresolution
in our selves, that we can bee so easily shaked, or a neglecting of weaker
persons, of whom Christ neglected none. (Sermons III 158)
For Donne, there is an obligation laid on the Christian
to behave as Christ did, with a corresponding humility and submission, and
an acute awareness of vulnerability and weakness. His description of ideal
Christian meekness fits the common description - in both the Protestant
and the Catholic traditions - of the Church as the bride of Christ, a metaphor
that cast all Christian souls in the feminine role, married to a loving
husband who forgives all her infidelities and faults.
We might ask, then, what happens to stereotypical constructions of gender
when the position most suitable to sinful humanity - both male and female
- is one of feminized weakness and submission? What might it mean for a
male to imitate a weakened, feminized, submissive Christ, in a society where,
as Patricia Crawford has written, "It was impossible for men and women to
talk of their beliefs about God without reference to a set of ideas about
female inferiority and weakness" (17)? And what might it mean for a powerful
woman, a queen, to endorse these ideas in her published writing?
Although, as I mentioned above, the question of the authorship of Christian
Prayers is uncertain, the text clearly connects Elizabeth's name with
the writing and publication of devotional texts, not least through its frontispiece,
which depicts the queen worshiping in private, kneeling before a prie-dieu,
her sword of state lying on the floor and her crown resting above the queen's
open prayer book. As the following prayers do, the portrait combines state
power and religious devotion, establishing the queen as the figure where
these issues intersect. A number of the prayers in the volume are not by
the queen, but instead are drawn from Henry Bull's 1568 version of John
Bradford's Private Prayers and Meditations, which in turn translates
Juan Luis Vives' Preces et Meditationes Diurnae (White 163, 183).
The book also includes the standard liturgy of the Church of England, with
its prayer for the queen that asks God "to replenish her with the grace
of the holy spirite, that she may always incline to thy will, & walke
in thy way" (sig. I.ij.). The inclusion of the litany, in particular, establishes
the book's endorsement of state religion and the status of the queen as
Governor of the Church.
There are three prayers in English, however, that are not from Bull,
and these are clearly in the Queen's voice, as are the prayers in foreign
languages. Oddly, the 2000 Elizabeth I: Collected Works includes
and translates the six prayers and one poem in French; the four prayers
in Italian; the three in Spanish; the three in Latin; and the three in Greek.
But the editors do not include the three prayers in English that are explicitly
in Elizabeth's first-person voice, and address issues specific to the Queen's
own life. This is an odd omission because, if we look closely at these English
prayers, we can see how these prayers shape the queen's relationship to
God in the language that would be most easily understood by her own subjects.
Most notable perhaps is "In time of sicknes," which, while one of five prayers
asking for God's mercy in illness, is the only one of these five clearly
in the queen's own voice. The prayer is typical of Elizabeth's writing in
that she refers to herself repeatedly as God's "handmaid," a term she also
uses in Precationes privatae. In Latin, "handmaid" translates as
"ancilla," the form used by Elizabeth in her Latin prayers and, significantly,
by the Virgin Mary in the Magnificat of the Vulgate Bible.
The repeated use of this word is not only characteristic of Elizabeth's
own rhetoric, but also strongly suggests a link between the Virgin and the
queen, not so much in their shared virginity - a state that, in 1569, it
was by no means clear that Elizabeth would permanently embrace - but rather
in their shared devotion to God and in the authority they wield through
Like several of the prayers in Precationes privatae, this one
is obviously related to Elizabeth's recovery from smallpox, but unlike the
others it is written as if the queen were still ill, suggesting that it
may have been written during her illness. It stresses the danger to the
country should the queen not recover: “...thou has stricken me with a greuous sicknes of my body, and very
daungerous unto my life, and also troubled & abashed my minde with terrours
and anguishes of my soule: and withall thou hast by my daunger sore flighted
and amased thy people of England, whose safetie & quietnes next after
thee, seemeth to stay uppon me aboue all other worldly creatures, and upon
my life and continuance amongst them. Wherefore as well I as thy people
committed unto me, bowing the knees of our hartes before thy maiestie, do
humbly besech thee most gratious Saviour, in thy iudgement to remember thy
mercy, and according to thy accustomed goodnes, to deliuer me thy handmaiden
from thys present perill of daungerous sicknes.” (sig. L.j.)
The prayer emphasizes Elizabeth's status
as the only bulwark against civil war and invasion, a status that is inextricably
bound up with her religion. Though many rulers of Britain have faced insurrection
for various reasons, Elizabeth faced even greater risks of both invasion
and civil war because she was a Protestant in a world where the most powerful
monarchs were Catholic. By presenting her illness in the present tense,
the prayer appears more spontaneous and therefore more sincere. But it also
makes her illness seem more immediate, as if it was still continuing, and
not incidentally reminds Elizabeth's subjects that she is their only safeguard
against a foreign - and Catholic - ruler.
"In time of sicknes" makes Elizabeth's
claim to be such a safeguard through her inheritance as the daughter of
her father and, rather unusually, of her mother. As most biographers of
Elizabeth note, she rarely referred directly to Anne Boleyn and preferred
to dwell on her father's accomplishments and traits.
Yet this prayer goes out of its way to mention her mother:
Beholde me thy handmaiden upon whom from my tender yeares unto
thys day, thou hast heaped so great & so many, and almost infinite
benefites of thy gratious goodnes, whom being borne of a king and Queene,
thou hast not onely endued with gifts of grace, meete for a kingdome,
but also hast deliuerred me from many & great daungers, out of the
handes of my enemies, & from ye snares of death which they had set
for my life, hast exalted me unto the dignitie of a Queene... (sig. K.iiij.)
This prayer not only refers to Elizabeth's mother,
it also accords Anne the status of a queen, a title that was stripped from
Anne when she was convicted of treason. It thus emphasizes Elizabeth's own
royal descent - along with her talents at ruling - and reminds readers of
the dangers she encountered because of this descent and because of her allegiance
to the Protestant faith during the reign of her sister Mary. Here, Elizabeth's
rule is explicitly described as a direct result of Henry VIII's "Great Matter"
- the divorce not only from Catherine of Aragon, but also from the Roman
Catholic Church. Moreover, the description hammers home the point that Elizabeth's
rank comes from God, as does her authority. By embracing servitude as God's
"handmaiden," the queen can, in accordance with Christian doctrine, claim
authority. And by stressing that it is only God who has "deliuerred me from
many & great daungers," the prayer emphasizes God's special regard for
Elizabeth, the daughter of Anne Boleyn, and thus for the Protestant settlement
that was the ultimate result of Anne's marriage to Henry, through Elizabeth.
I have spent some time examining this one prayer because I think it
speaks most clearly to the historical and religious context of Christian
Prayers and Meditations. But the foreign-language prayers are also key
to understanding what political and religious effects Christian Prayers
might have produced. While we seem to be reading Elizabeth's private communications
with God, these are prayers that were, after all, published, and so clearly
intended for public display. Furthermore, the fact that these prayers, except
the three English ones, are in several foreign languages, it seems extremely
likely that Christian Prayers was meant to be read abroad, especially
in those countries - primarily France and Spain - that still followed the
Roman Catholic church and threatened Protestant England. This grandly illustrated
explicitly engages with international politics, sending a message of resolute
Protestantism to those abroad who might challenge her throne or attempt
to set up Mary Queen of Scots in her place.
In spite of the prayers' atmosphere of
private discussions with God, these are presented very deliberately as part
of the larger effort to shape the public view of Elizabeth, just as much
as were, for example, her periodic progresses through the countryside. As
such, Christian Prayers operates as a performance, in which the queen's
addresses to God are intended to have certain effects and accomplish certain
goals. On one level, these prayers communicate with the divine, sharing
the queen's desires for herself and her people, and requesting wisdom and
mercy from God. On another level, these are prayers that are being shared
with Elizabeth's subjects and, presumably, an international audience, and
thus they also communicate with human beings to shape a public sense of
Elizabeth as a ruler. That being the case, it seems strange that so many
of the prayers emphasize Elizabeth's extreme unworthiness and sinfulness.
Of course, the trope of humility was a standard one at this time, often
employed by rulers or aristocrats who wished to seem properly humble in
the sight of God. For example, Elizabeth's stepmother Katherine Parr finds
this trope useful in her Lamentacion of a Sinner, first published
in 1547, where it helps her avoid the charges of presumption that a woman
might otherwise face for writing and publishing. While it makes sense that
Elizabeth, too, would find the convention of modesty similarly useful, such
a convention could also have adverse political effects, given that many
were already skeptical of Elizabeth's ability to be a strong enough ruler
to keep England safe. Mary Tudor's reign had not inspired any great enthusiasm
for female rule, while many considered a woman on the throne to be outright
blasphemy, a view expressed most notoriously in John Knox's 1559 The
First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women.
By playing up Elizabeth's weaknesses these prayers ran the risk of confirming
people like Knox in their worst fears: "Nature, I say, doth paint them [women]
forth to be weak, frail, impatient, feeble, and foolish, and experience
hath declared them to be unconstant, variable, cruel, and lacking the spirit
of counsel and regiment" (43).
So while these prayers explicitly stage the performance of Christian self-denigration
for certain advantages, they also take considerable risks as they does so.
One question this article asks, then, is why the game might have been worth
the candle. In the prayers written in the queen's voice, the metaphor of
servitude works, I suggest, as a way of forestalling those who might reject
Elizabeth's right to rule, not only as queen, but also as Supreme Governor
of the Church of England. In the process, Elizabeth's near-miraculous survival
in her sister's reign turns into a sign of her status as God's chosen vessel.
Furthermore, by invoking King David as a model for her own communication
with God, the prayers replace Henry VIII with Elizabeth as the "sweet psalmist"
of the Bible, the human conduit of divine speech to God's people. In other
words Elizabeth's description as God's "handmaid" is not simply part of
a more general discourse of humility, but forms part of a deliberate strategy
to ground her power more firmly than her father's will - in both senses
of the word - does. As the bastardized daughter of Anne Boleyn and as the
Protestant heir to her Catholic sister, Elizabeth faced direct challenges
to her authority from those who refused to accept her as the legitimate
queen to England's throne. In fact, Elizabeth's strongest claim to that
throne came only from Henry's will, in which he dictated the terms by which
the throne would descend: first to Edward, then to Mary, and finally to
Since he failed to re-legitimize Mary and Elizabeth, both women had to claim
their rights of inheritance solely through this legal document, a literal
representation of their father's "will."
As last in line for the throne, Elizabeth faced several life-threatening
crises over the course of Edward's and Mary's reigns, especially at the
time of Wyatt's rebellion, when she was implicated in the uprising against
Mary and her Catholic advisors - a time to which one of the Latin prayers
refers. This prayer, "The queen's prayer"
runs in part:
O most good and most great God, wonderful in the depth of Thy
judgements, Thou art King of kings and Lord of lords; Thou by whose command
it is seen Thou removest and transposest, rootest out and plantest, destroyest
and buildest up; Thou, for it is Thy singular kindness, hast freed Thy
handmaid who was almost the daughter of death - me, me once imprisoned
in my native land, Thou hast set on a royal throne. (CW 158)
This prayer foregrounds the speaker's gender through
its reference to the queen as God's "handmaid" ("ancilla") - a term that
refers to the Virgin Mary's address to God in the Magnificat, where she
describes herself, in the Vulgate Latin translation, also as "ancilla,"
a significant point given Elizabeth's purposeful appropriation of Mariological
tropes and images during her reign.
This prayer also makes it clear that the queen is speaking here, and makes
specific references to Elizabeth's brief incarceration in the Tower - "me,
me once imprisoned in my native land" - a well-known episode dramatically
related by John Foxe in the first and all successive editions of his massively
popular Acts and Monuments.
The repetition of the personal pronoun also makes the queen sound faintly
indignant that such things could have happened to her. Elizabeth's near-martyrdom
in Mary's reign is used here to establish her authority as a ruler who,
clearly, has God on her side.
Thus far, self-abasement hardly seems
a concern in these prayers. Rather, the queen's uniqueness has been the
focus, her status as God's specially chosen vessel for England's salvation.
However, even in this passage we can see how the term "handmaid" within
the context of imprisonment and possible death confesses, like many other
reformist texts, the subject's weakness and inability to help itself without
the aid of God.
As I noted earlier, the evangelical belief in the utter sinfulness of all
humans creates a definition of self as always already abject, in need of
the grace of God even to recognize its fallen state. In Lamentacion,
Parr also endorses this doctrine, for example in this passage: "It is ye
hand of the lorde that can and wyl bring me oute of this endeles mase of
death: for without I be preuented by ye grace of ye lord, I can not ask
forgeuenes nor be repentant or sory for them" (sig. B.ii). Again, when Parr
praises the efficacy of studying "the book of the crucifix," she writes
"I neuer knewe myn own wickednes, neither lamented for my sines truely,
untyll the tyme God inspired me with his grace..." (sig.D.v.).
For Parr, these statements give her authority
by virtue of her experience of conversion, and enhance her performative
use of weakness as a trait all must acknowledge, since only through faith
by grace can anyone be saved. By contrast, the emphasis on Elizabeth's imprisonment
stresses her role as the Protestant heroine celebrated by Foxe, as well
as a properly submissive sinner before God. Simply being Anne Boleyn's daughter,
born as it were into the reformed religion, can place Elizabeth in danger
and make her, potentially, the "daughter of death." But this emphasis on
Elizabeth's unique circumstances goes hand-in-hand with an emphasis on the
language of abasement and grace as an integral part of its message. In her
second Latin prayer, "Prayer to God for the Auspicious Administration of
the Kingdom and the Safety of the People," self-humiliation is the theme:
Great Framer and Preserver of things, God, before whom here
at the feet of Thy majesty I humbly lie prostrate, I consider seriously
with myself how unworthy I am, to whom Thou kindly offerest Thine ear.
Suffused all over with shame, I scarcely dare to lift up mine eyes to
Thee. For formerly when I was in my mother's womb, a fall into sin stained
me, on account of which, like the rest of the descendents of Adam, I was
most worthy of miscarriage; yet Thy fatherly hand led me out from thence
and allowed me to be born into the light - born to die with Christ and,
dead, be reborn to enjoy eternal life. (CW 158)
What I notice here in particular is the emphasis
on original sin as, precisely, stemming from the "mother's womb" that links
the speaker to the "descendents of Adam." The reference to
her mother might evoke the disappointment felt by both parents when Elizabeth
proved to be a girl, instead of the hoped-for boy; in this sense, Elizabeth
might indeed be considered "most worthy of miscarriage," not only by those
parents but also by religious conservatives. But by reaching for God's "fatherly
hand," Elizabeth rejects the defiling "stain" of her origins in the undifferentiated
mass of "the descendents of Adam," and achieves a sense of her own separate,
individual identity through her connection with God. If, as Anne Boleyn's
daughter, Elizabeth might be regarded as an illegitimate ruler by some,
this divine connection renders her birth less important than the fact that
her accession occurred by God's will.
However, just as Lamentacion portrays
a passive subject who must rely entirely on God for salvation, so too in
"Prayer to God" the subject is similarly passive. Though Elizabeth has access
to the truth of Christ's message, first God's grace is needed to push her
towards the awareness of her own sin:
And yet (unhappy me) my youth - indeed my cradle - breathed
forth nothing but the dung of that prior life, whence yet again I have
had to await your coming as a Judge angry with me. But Thou through Thy
infinite goodness hast called me, most unworthy, from courtly pleasures
to the delights of Thy kingdom, even by the communion of saints and the
voice of the Gospel. And when I have not given ear attentively or diligently
enough to Thy words, although Thou hast struck with Thy rod me along with
other ingrates of this kingdom, nevertheless Thy goodness here also has
conquered innate evil. (CW 158-9)
Just as Parr situates her "filthy sinne" (sig. A.iiii.)
in her earlier complacent Catholicism, Elizabeth's sin is framed here as
"the dung of that prior life," stressing her misfortunes not as the result
of her devotion to reform, but rather of the "innate evil" that needed
God's grace to be cured. While the reference to her own evil may possibly
invoke her politic acceptance of the laws of her sister's church, when
she attended Mass and accepted the pope's authority, we can read with more
certainty here the equation of Elizabeth's past self with the original sin
that God has eliminated.
So, while "The queen's prayer" presents Elizabeth's rule as a result
of God's special care and protection, "Prayer to God" stresses the sin that
stains every human being, and that cannot be eradicated, only forgiven by
the mercy of God. This vacillation between self-endorsement - via
the reminders of her past suffering - and self-abasement via the reminders
of her past sin is typical of Elizabeth's voice in Christian Prayers.
To take another set of examples, look at the self-endorsement of the Spanish
"Third Prayer," which reads in part:
O Lord, my God and my Father, I render undying thanks unto Thy
divine majesty with my mouth, with my heart, and with all that I am,
for the infinite mercies which Thou hast used toward me - that not only
hast made me Thy creature, made me by Thy hands to be formed in Thy image
and similitude.; more yet because Thou hast done me so special and rare
a mercy that, being a woman by my nature weak, timid, and delicate, as
are all women, Thou hast caused me to be vigorous, brave,
and strong in order to resist such a multitude of Idumeneans, Moabites,
Muhammadans, and other infinity of peoples and nations who have conjoined,
plotted, conspired, and made league against Thee, against Thy Son, and
against all those who confess Thy name and hold to Thy holy Word as the
only rule of salvation. (CW 157)
This passage makes a number of interesting rhetorical
moves. As a Spanish language prayer, it makes some pointed assertions about
those who have "conjoined, plotted, conspired, and made league against Thee"
- especially barbed, given Spain's encouragement of the plotters of the
Northern Rebellion of 1569, not to mention Elizabeth's own history of conflict
with Spain in the person of her sister's husband, King Philip II of Spain.
 As I mentioned above, the fact that so
many of the prayers in this volume are written in foreign and classical
languages strongly suggests that Christian Prayers was intended for
an international audience, and the aggressive terms used against Elizabeth's
and God's enemies here - a trait typical of the other Spanish prayers as
- supports the idea that the volume might potentially find Spanish readers.
Indeed, each set of foreign language prayers has its own characteristics:
the French ones tend to be concerned with the establishment of a reformed
community of believers - an apt concern, given the struggle the Huguenots
were undergoing to establish the reformed faith in France; the Italian prayers
deal with humility in the face of God, perhaps suggesting Elizabeth's true
faith and humbleness as opposed to the vanity and pride of the papal court;
and the Spanish prayers, like this one, aggressively portray the opponents
of reform as godless heathens who have maliciously endangered England's
security. Writing in these languages allows the prayers to communicate a
message to each nation in turn. Furthermore, a significant point in favor
of Elizabeth's authorship is the fact of her considerable linguistic mastery.
Writing in the vernaculars of four countries as well as Latin and Greek
- the languages, with Hebrew, of biblical scholarship - would allow the
queen to make a display of her skill, and also performatively enacts the
special gifts of God which have allowed her to become such an exceptional
woman, such that even as she humbles herself before God, she exhibits his
support of her in the form of her linguistic abilities.
But if Elizabeth can be regarded as uniquely
gifted, this prayer in Italian conveys quite a different message:
My God and my Lord, humbly and with a soul full of infinite displeasure
at having offended Thee and at offending Thee all day long, I, Thy humble
handmaid and sinner, present myself before Thy divine majesty to confess
my sins candidly and freely and to ask pardon of Thee. I was, as Thou
knowest, conceived and born in sin; I have come out of the same mass of
corruption from which the whole lineage of mankind is taken. (CW 152)
Appropriately, as a confession this prayer accentuates Elizabeth's sense
of sin; and once again, it uses the term "handmaid" to describe her own
subjugation to the service of God: "io humil serua tua." But as in the "Prayer
to God," this prayer also stresses the sinfulness she has in common with
all humans, the "mass of corruption" that everyone starts from. Nothing
special in herself, Elizabeth has been selected by God for a unique role
in the world, though this role places her in danger of temptations that
others need not face: "The occasions for offending Thee through the height
of the place where Thou hast set me - through riches, through actions, through
honors - are many; and the temptations are infinitely many, continual, and
most urgent" (CW 152).
Again, as in "Prayer to God" this prayer does not shrink from proclaiming
the queen's special destiny, but it also makes clear what she shares with
the people over whom she rules. Her temptations may not resemble the temptations
of many of her subjects, but they are, after all, temptations, and they
make Elizabeth in just as much need of God's help as her inferiors are.
These examples show that while Christian
Prayers maintains a consistent view of the demands and privileges of
ruling, the prayers shift back and forth between this image of the queen
as special and unique, and an almost egalitarian idea of Elizabeth as simply
one among a community of sinners in need of God. That more humble approach
becomes evident not only through the confessions of sin, as in the Italian
"Confession" or the Latin "Prayer to God," but also through the way in which
the royal prayers have been included with more general prayers that specify
no particular speaker, and with the litany that formed a central part of
the Church of England's liturgy and which begins, in fact, with "O God the
father of heauen, haue mercy vpon vs miserable sinners" (sig. G.j.). In
these prayers, Elizabeth's lineage is severely downplayed. Instead, the
prayer suggests Elizabeth's self-abasement by stressing her humble status
as one of many sinners in the world, unworthy through her female weakness
and her inherent sinfulness alike.
But, as I argued earlier, that potentially risky stress on humility
allows Elizabeth to alleviate the numerous problems attendant upon her accession
as the bastardized daughter of Henry VIII and of Anne Boleyn. If Elizabeth
could claim her birthright to the Protestant cause through her mother, that
same claim also rendered her liable to charges of illegitimacy and usurpation.
Here, rather than base her rule on the somewhat shaky grounds of her family
tree and her father's will, Elizabeth becomes one of a mass of undifferentiated
sinners in the sight of God, who owes her life and her crown to grace, and
not to hereditary position. As a queen, Elizabeth is first and foremost
the servant of God, his "handmaid," whose female sex only proves the infinite
power and wisdom of the divine father. In this Elizabeth draws on the arguments
in favor of female rule used by, for example, John Aylmer in his response
to Knox's First Blast of the Trumpet. Aylmer asserts that God's power
only becomes clearer when he sets a woman to rule: "Place he a woman weake
in nature, feeble in bodie, softe in courage, unskilfull in practice, not
terrible to the enemy. Virtua mea (saith he). My strength is most perfight
when you be moste weake, if he joyne to his strengthe: she can not be weake"
(sig. B.3). Aylmer made his case in favor of female rule at least in part
because, as he saw it, the kingdom had no choice - Elizabeth was the only
Protestant option available, and the only one endorsed by Henry VIII's will.
However, Aylmer also had the support of most evangelical theologians,
since it was a staple of both Lutheran and Calvinist theology that rebellion
against an anointed ruler was absolutely forbidden. If their prince were
evil, people should still accept his or her rule as the will of God and
the punishment of their sins; if his or her demands should be against God's
commandments, they could refuse to obey, but then must accept persecution
even to the point to death. Tyndale memorably phrased the point in his Obedience
of a Christian Man: "There is no power but of God (by power understand
the authority of kings and princes). The powers that be, are ordained of
God. Whosoever therefore resisteth power resisteth God: yea though he be
Pope, bishop, monk or friar" (41). Knox was unusual in his assertion that
rebellion against an ungodly ruler was not only justified, but obligatory;
however, his assertion of this principle did find adherents, and could have
posed a serious threat to Elizabeth. Even Aylmer cannot be considered a
wholehearted supporter of female rule; while he defended Elizabeth's right
to the throne, he also took comfort in the idea that a queen must rule by
law, which should make up for some of her "infirmity".
For Aylmer, there simply was no other option; only Elizabeth could be considered
the rightful heir by Protestants, and, most unusually, there were no other
male heirs. By contrast to Aylmer, as the handmaid of God, Elizabeth represents
her power in her kingdom as absolute, even though she also acknowledges
her need for wise councilors.
One of the French prayers, "Prayer for the Whole Kingdom
and Body of the Church According to Their Estates and Members," pleads:
O Lord, good Lord, Thou hast made me to reign in the midst of
Thy people; Thou wilt give to Thy maidservant and to Thy
menservants an understanding heart to judge Thy people and
to distinguish good from evil, so that we may not be unprofitable or,
worse, pernicious in a vocation so holy as this. Give us also prudent,
wise, and virtuous councilors, driving far from us all ambitious, malignant,
wily, and hypocritical ones. . Also, O Lord, make that all whose charge
Thou hast committed into my hand render unto me the duty of a just obedience,
so that there will be a good and holy union between the head and the members,
and that by this means all may know that on Thee alone depends the state
of kingdoms and the government of nations. (CW 147)
Though this prayer makes clear that the country is governed with a council
and Parliament as well as by the queen, the ending of the passage - drawing
upon the common political metaphor of the political body - emphasizes the
queen's role as head of that body and God's vicegerent on earth. Not into
"our hands" but into "my
hand" alone has God committed the kingdom
and the welfare of the people, a phrasing that again shapes the image of
the queen as the one person closest to God. And this principle is repeatedly
cited in Christian Prayers
, which notes again and again that Elizabeth
is queen by God's grace and not by any earthly power. The very last prayer,
the Greek "Prayer of the Queen to God," asks that:
Father most high, who hast laid out the universe with Thy Word
and adorned it with the Holy Spirit, and who hast appointed me as monarch
of the British kingdom, favor me by Thy goodness to implant piety and
root out impiety, to protect freely willed religion, to destroy superstitious
fear by working freely to promote divine service, and to spy out the worship
of idols; and, further, to gain release from the enemies of religion as
well as those who hate me - Antichrists, Pope lovers, atheists, and all
persons who fail to obey Thee and me. (163)
Clearly, here, to resist Elizabeth is to resist
God. This is one of many places in her prayers where the queen's power and
will are equated with God's, reinforcing her status as one of the "powers
that be," but simultaneously running the risk of seeming too confident
that God's will supports hers.
Such an equation could be all the more problematic given the religious
climate of the 1560's. Though the metaphor of the body politic was of course
widely known and used in the early modern period, it takes on a special
resonance in the light of the religious settlement of 1559, in which Elizabeth
was forced to alter the title of Supreme Head of the English Church - a
title her father and brother had both borne. As a female, Elizabeth faced
the opposition of those who pointed to Saint Paul's injunction against women
speaking in the church to support their contention that no woman could be
the head of the Church, and compromised by accepting the alternate version
of Supreme Governor of the Church.
Anne Somerset describes the change as one in which "With characteristic
pragmatism, the Queen had been willing to accept a less controversial alternative
which in no way undermined her jurisdictional powers" (79). While this episode
from the first year of her reign demonstrates Elizabeth's ability to compromise,
Christian Prayers makes it very plain that - although Elizabeth
is a sinful human being whose natural self is as inferior as anyone's -
through her God-given role as queen she comes second to no one besides God
himself. Though Elizabeth's settlement held, it came under strong attack,
particularly in the 1560s and 70s, from the more radical reformers, who
felt that the settlement did not go far enough and that the queen, who kept
a silver crucifix in her chapel and insisted that priests wear vestments,
held beliefs that could be considered far too similar to Roman Catholic
In this context, Christian Prayers looks like a deliberate performance
of authority in the face of those who would deny her right to determine
the religious future of the nation. It presents the queen's dedication to
the Protestant settlement and depicts a ruler whose power is solidly based
on her divine right to the throne.
To assert that her will was closely aligned to God's allows
these prayers to bolster Elizabeth's authority with God's power, but the
risks of doing so were great, and necessitated the repeated invocations
of humility and submission that balance the potentially blasphemous claims
to know God's intentions. By stressing her service as a handmaid of God,
the prayers humble the queen in order to make the claims to authority that
animate these prayers; and significantly, they do so in terms that build
upon her father's role as the great reformer king, the "David" of his nation.
The most poetic claim for Elizabeth's authority in this volume comes from
a French prayer of "Thanksgiving," which quotes King David from Psalm 116:16-17.
Paraphrasing David's text, the passage runs:
But O Lord, give me grace as formerly Thou didst to David, a
man according to Thy heart, who treating this same subject and reciting
the testimonies of Thy goodness, said "Thus it is, Lord, I am Thy manservant,
I am Thy manservant, the son of Thy chambermaid; Thou hast broken my bonds.Thus
I say, Lord, of myself, and say it by Thy grace: I am Thy maidservant,
I am Thy maidservant. Thou hast broken my bonds, and hast preserved me
in the midst of mortal dangers; Thou hast set me at large and in safety.
Christian Prayers refers
to Henry VIII only once, in a brief reference to Elizabeth's birth "of a
king and a Queene" (sig. K.iiij.). This reference to King David, however,
does evoke her father in one of his favorite roles. In his lifetime, Henry
VIII was frequently compared to David as a king beloved of God, the killer
of the giant Goliath in the person of the Roman Catholic church.
Significantly, David became king of Israel through God's grace, not through
birthright - exactly the sort of claim Christian Prayers presses
for Elizabeth. By invoking David, the prayer sets Elizabeth in her father's
place as the "sweet psalmist" of the Bible, and claims the authority David
wielded as the great defender of God's chosen people, translating that authority
into gender terms that fit the queen more closely; where David repeats "I
am Thy manservant, I am Thy manservant," his words are rephrased to read
"I am Thy maidservant, I am Thy maidservant ("seruante"). Significantly,
the prayer does not repeat David's assertion that he is "the son of Thy
chambermaid ("chambriere")." In spite of the earlier assertion of Anne Boleyn's
role as the queen's mother, this absence may demonstrate some anxiety at
drawing too much attention to the dubious heritage of illegitimacy bequeathed
Elizabeth by her parents.
The psalm referred to here forms a song of thanks for being delivered
from death, and just as God preserved David through many dangers, so too
Elizabeth has been preserved to serve God as the defender of the reformed
faith. As in her stepmother's Lamentacion, here the acknowledgment
of oneself as sinful and humble before God allows Elizabeth to invoke her
father in his role as God's anointed, the same role she claims for herself.
In this way the prayer skirts the Tudor family drama, and instead ground
the queen's rule more securely on the assurance that God is with her, as
he was with David, and that as he promised David, "I will make for you a
great name, like the name of the great ones of the earth" (2 Sam. 7.9).
David's legend also contributes to the sense of the queen as author in this
text; as the putative author of the Psalms, David is one of the great devotional
poets of the Bible. By association with David, then, Elizabeth appears not
only as powerful and godly ruler, but also as the accomplished writer whose
work testifies to her close relationship with God.
- The connection between Elizabeth and David is strengthened by the inclusion
of a French translation of Psalm 101 in the middle of a prayer I examined
earlier, "Prayer for the Whole Kingdom and Body of the Church According to
Their Estates and Members," which follows "Thanksgiving." The work of Clement
Marot, the Huguenot writer protected by Marguerite de Navarre, this psalm
declares the king's determination to tolerate no evil in his court:
My eyes will be most sharp to find
This is very much a psalm about being a just and godly ruler, one whose duty
is to know and obey God's will in all things; and it explicitly connects faithful
service to the prince with "true sight," a message perhaps to the Valois rulers
of France that they should heed the calls for reform from their Huguenot subjects.
While the French translation is Marot's work, not Elizabeth's own, it fits
very well in the middle of a prayer that, as I noted before, calls for "a
good and holy union between the head and the members." By casting Elizabeth
as David, the prayer can stress her role as God's chosen ruler, who speaks
directly to God on behalf of the people, and who - in spite of her female
body - draws upon God's masculine power in order to establish and perpetuate
a virtuous society on earth.
Dwellers on earth of faithful mind
To me; for he who has true sight
Will serve me right.
He who takes pains to use deceit
Within my house will find no seat;
Never from me will liar or babbler
Get gift or favor. (ll. 21-7)
- As a role model, David might seem to be as problematic
as Henry, given the Biblical ruler's history of sexual misbehavior and lack
of paternal care. John N. King, for example, points out that references to
David were used to criticize Henry's marital adventures during his reign (86).
But in fact David's masculine weaknesses offer a parallel for Elizabeth's
feminine ones in that both offer God the chance to show the extent of his
power and mercy. No matter what David's behavior may be, ranging from adultery
to murder to the inadequacy of his fatherly oversight of his children, God
never withdraws his favor from him. In the early modern reading that assumed
David's complete authorship of the psalms, each song reveals some aspect of
the chosen ruler's relationship to God.
The psalms articulate David's sense of gratitude and the juxtaposition of
self-abasement and self-aggrandizement so evident in Elizabeth's writing.
In this sense, Elizabeth's Christian Prayers take up the psalms' acknowledgement
of imperfection and sin, only to assert that through God, all things are possible.
See the Collected Works (2000), edited by Leah S. Marcus, Janel Mueller,
and Mary Beth Rose; also Steven W. May's Queen Elizabeth I: Selected
For more detailed examinations of the gendering of the Church's union with
Christ in the late medieval and early modern periods, see Carolyn Walker
Bynum, Fragmentation and Redemption (1991) and Jesus as Mother
(1982); Grace M. Jantzen, Power, Gender and Christian Mysticism (1995),
esp. pp. 290-304; Barbara Newman, From Virile Woman to WomanChrist
(1995); Susan Wabuda, "Sanctified by the Believing Spouse: Women, Men and
the Marital Yoke in the Early Reformation," in The Beginnings of English
Protestantism (2002), 111-128; and Erica Longfellow, Women and Religious
Writing in Early Modern England (2004).
I refer here to the Vulgate Bible (Sacrae bibliae) of 1535, in which
Mary declares "Quia resperit humilitatem ancille tue" (Londini: Excudebat
Thomas Betheletus, July 1535), 206. In his New Testament (1534),
Tyndale translated these words as "For he hath loked on the pvre degre of
his honde mayden" (ed. N. Hardy Wallis, reprint, Cambridge UP, 1938), 125.
On the other hand, the Geneva Bible has a slightly different version: "For
he hathe loked on the poore degre of his servant" (sig. GG.iii.); see The
Geneva Bible: A facsimile of the 1560 edition (Madison: University of
Wisconsin P, 1696).
J.E. Neale, for example, states that "It was enough for Elizabeth that she
was Henry VIII's daughter. He was a father of whom she could be, and she
was, justly proud and fond. Against her mother's shame there always stood
a large interrogation mark;...."(14). Anne Somerset provides a more balanced
analysis, noting that Elizabeth adopted her mother's motto and badge, but
that nevertheless "there are only two occasions on which she is recorded
as having mentioned her mother by name" (7).
Christian Prayers and Meditations begins and ends with the queen's
coat of arms, and in addition to its frontispiece illustration of Elizabeth
at prayer, the text is framed by marginal illustrations of Christ's life
and a Dance of Death. The copy created for Elizabeth herself, now in the
possession of the Lambeth Palace Library in London, is even more elaborate,
with each illustration carefully hand-colored and the initial letters of
each prayer beautifully decorated.
Knox rather grudgingly admits that, in theory, some women might be exempted
from such criticism, but seems doubtful that, in practice, this would ever
occur: "I except such as God, by singular privilege and for certain causes
known only to himself, hath exempted from the common rank of women, and
do speak of women as nature and experience do this day declare them" (43).
Although English kings had generally not claimed the right to explicitly
name their successors, an Act of Succession in 1536 gave Henry that right.
Thus, uniquely in British history, the later Tudors inherited the throne
only because of their father's will (Scarisbrick 350-51). So strong was
popular support for Henry's act that a mass uprising quashed Edward VI's
attempt to bypass his father's will and make Jane Grey queen after him to
ensure a Protestant succession, asserting Mary's right to the throne.
Melanie Hansen's article "The Word and the Throne: John Knox's The First
Blast of the Trumpet against the Monstrous Regiment of Women" examines
the specific legal and religious circumstances of Knox's pamphlet and its
argument against female rule, and notes that since Mary felt it necessary
to pass an Act of Parliament asserting her right to the throne, "genealogy
alone was not sufficient to assure the constitutional right of Mary's accession
as a woman" (16).
All translations are by the editors of Elizabeth I: Collected Works;
the foreign language transcriptions are taken from Elizabeth I: Autograph
Compositions and Foreign Language Originals (ACFLO).
"Admirabilis est, deus optime Maxime iudicorum tuorum abyssus. Tu rex
regum, Dominator dominatium. Tu imperia uibus visum est aufers et transfers,
euellis et plantas, destruis et aedificas. Tu, qua
tua est singularis benignitas, ancillam tuam mortis pene filiam liberasti:
me, me captiuam in patrio et regali solio collocasti." (ACFLO 144).
In 'The Heart and Stomach of a King': Elizabeth I and the Politics of
Sex and Power, Carole Levin writes "The use of these religious ceremonies
fit well with Elizabeth's self-presentation as the Virgin Queen, an image
she presented to her people as a means to replace the Virgin Mary and help
heal the rupture created by the break with the Catholic Church. Elizabeth
and her Councillors deliberately appropriated the symbolism and prestige
of the suppressed Marian cult in order to foster the cult of the Virgin
Queen" (26-7). Frances Yate's Astraea: The Imperial Theme in the Sixteenth
Century is the classic course for Elizabeth's use of Marian imagery.
See also Louis Montrose's 2006 book The Subject of Elizabeth: Authority,
Gender, and Representation, pp. 80-9, for a more recent examination
of Elizabeth and the Virgin Mary.
In the first, 1563 edition of Acts and Monuments, Knox relates Elizabeth's
trials at the hands of her sister Mary at some length, dwelling especially
upon her imprisonment in the Tower and the famous episode when, entering
the Tower, Elizabeth sat upon a wet stone and, on being asked to move, said
"'better syttinge here then in a worse place. For God knoweth, I knowe not
whether you will bringe me.' With that her gentleman Vsher wepte, shee demaunding
of hym what he mente so vncomfortably to vse her, seeinge shee tooke
hym to be her comfortour and not dismayor, especiallye for that she knewe
her truth to bee such, that no man should haue cause to wepe for her" (
John Foxe's Book of Martyrs, p. 1725, http://www.hrionline.ac.uk/foxe/print/12_1563_1725.html, 1 September 2006).
This is not to claim, however, that only reformers found this trope useful.
Saint Paul, of course, frequently emphasizes the need for humility in the
face of the divine, as in 1 Corinthians:
And I, brethren, when I came to you, came not with excellencie
of wordes, or of wisdome, shewing vnto you the testemonie of God. For
I esteemed not to knowe anie thing among you, saue Iesus Christ, and him
crucified. And I was among you in weaknes, and in feare, & in muche
trembling. Nether stode my worde, & my preaching in the enticing speache
of mans wisdome, but in plaine euidence of the Spirit and of power, that
your faith shulde not be in the wisdome of men, but in the power of God.
(Geneva Bible, 1 Cor. 2:1-5)
And in On the Trinity, Augustine writes:
For no holy person rejoices in his own power, but in the power
of Him from whom he has whatever power he can suitably have. He knows
that it is a proof of greater power to be united with the omnipotent One
by a pious will, rather than to be able to do things by his own power
and will, at which those tremble who cannot do such things.For humility
that is solidly established is more powerful and safer than the most inflated
However, the confession of weakness became especially
attractive for reformers who found themselves under attack from religious
conservatives. To take one example, as she faced torture and death, Anne
O lorde, I haue more enemyes now, than there be heeres on my
heade. Yet lorde lete them neuer ouercome me with vayne wordes. But fight
thu lorde, in my stede. For on the cast I my care. With all the spyght
they can ymagyne, they fall vpon me which am thy poore creature, Yet swete
lorde, lete me not set by them which are agaynst the. For in the is my
whole delyght." ("Lattre examynacyon" 61)
 "Svmme rerum opifex et seruator deus, quum hic ad maiestatis tuae
pedes humilis iaceo, mecumque serio reputo quam indigna sim sui aurem benignus
praebeas, vndique suffusa pudore vix audeo ad te oculos attollere. Cum enim
iam olim in ipso matris vtero peccati labes me infecisset, ob idque (vt
reliqui Adami nepotes) abortu dignissima essem, me tamen hinc tua paterna
manus eduxit atque in lucem edi permisit, edicam cum Christo mori, et mortuam
vt aeterna vita fruerer, renasci." (ACFLO 145)
 "Et tamen (miseram me) iuuentus mea, immo mea incunabula nihil nisi
prioris illius vitae fecem spirarunt. Vnde iterum iam me iudicem iratum
expectare te debui. At tu pro infinita tua bonitate
me indignissimam ab aulicis voluptatibus ad regni tui delitias, per Sanctorum
communionem et vocem euangelij tui etiam tum vocasti. Cumque verbis tuisnon
satis attente et diligenter auscultarem, etsi me vna cum alijs huius regni
ingratis virga tua percussisti, tamen vicit tua hic quoque bonitas genuinam
malitiam" (ACFLO 145).
 "O Senor Dios mio, immortals gracias hago a tu
adiuina Magestrad con mi boca, con mi coracon y con quanto yo soy, por las
infinitas misericordias de que has vsado con migo: que no solamente me has
hecho criatura tuya, hechura de tus manos formada a la imagen y semejanca
tuya. : mas aun porque me has hecho esta tan senalada y tan rara merced,
que siendo yo vna muger de mi naturaleza flaca, timitida y delicada, somo
lo son todas las demas, me has querido hazer robusta, animosa y fuerte para
resistir a tanta multitud de Idumeos, Ishmaelitas, Moabitas, Agarenos y
ostra infinidad de gentes y naciones que se auvian juntado, conjurado, conspirado
y hecho liga, contra ti, contra tu hijo y contra todos aquellos que confiessan
tu nombre y tienen por vnica regla de salud a tu sancta palabra" (ACFLO
Anne Somerset gives a concise account of Elizabeth's clashes with Spain
and Spanish involvement in various English plots in the late 1560's; see
Elizabeth I, pp. 214-41.
I especially like the wording of the Spanish "First Prayer," which includes
the line "Thou freest me from the cruel hands of my enemies - they who like
ravenous wolves attempt to suck my blood and eat me alive" (155).
 "Dio et Signor mio. Humilmente, et con animo
pieno d'infinito dispiacere d'hauerti offeso, e d'offenderti tutto di, io
humil serua tua, et peccatrice, mis presento dinanzi la tua diuina maesta
per confessare ingenuamente, e liberamente I miei peccati, et chiedertene
perdono. Sono, come sai, concetta, e natain peccato, dall'istessa massa
di corruttione uenuta, onde e tolto tutto l'human lignaggio." (ACFLO 139)
"Le occasioni d'offenderti per
l'altezza del luogo oue m'hai posto, per le richezze, per gli agi, et per
gli honori, sono molte, e molte, Infinite le tentationi, continue, e vrgentissime"
"But to what purpose is all this? To declare, that it is not in England so daungerous a matter, to haue
a woman ruler, as men take it to be. For first it is not she that ruleth
but the lawes, the executors whereof be her iudges, appoynted bi her, her
iustices of peace and such other officers: but she may erre in chusing such:
so may a King." (sig. H.).
 "O Seigneur bon Dieu tu m'as fait regner au milieu de ton peuple, tu
donneras a ta seruante et a tes seruiteurs vn coeur entendu pour juger ton
peuple, et pour discerner le bien d'entre le mal [1 Kings 3:9] a fin que
nous ne soyons point inutiles, ou mesme pernicieux en vne vocation si sainte.
Donne nous aussi des Conseillers prudens sages et vertueux, chasant loing
de nous, tous ambitieux, malins, cauteleux, et hypocrites... Fay aussi Seigneur
que tous ceux, desquelz tu m'as commis la charge en main, me rendent le
deuoir d'vne iuste obeissance, a fin qu'il y ait vne bonne et sainte vnion
entre le chef et les membres, et que par ce moyen tous cognoissent que de
toy seul depend l'Estat des Royaumes et le gouuernement des republiques."
See Patrick Collinson, Elizabethan Essays, pp. 108-18.
 "Mais Seigneur, fay moy la grace, comme iadis tu as faite a Dauid, homme
selon ton coeur. [1 Samuel 13:14] Lequel traitant de ce mesme Argument,
et recitant les tesmoignages de ta bonte, disoit, Ainsi est-il Seigneur,
Ie suis ton seruiteur, Ie suis ton seruiteur filz de ta chambriere, tu as
rompu mes liens, [Psalm 116:16, 17] ...Ainsi di-ie Seigneur de moymesme,
et ce par ta grace, Ie suis ta seruante, Ie suis ta seruante. Tu as rompu
mes liens, et m'as preseruee au milieu des dangers de mort, tu m'as mis
au large et en sauuete." (ACFLO 132)
See John N. King's article "Henry VIII as David: The King's Image and Reformation
Politics; see also Daniell for the representation of Henry as David in the
frontispiece of the Great Bible, 207-08; and Diarmaid MacCulloch's The
Boy King: Edward IV and the Protestant Reformation for an account of
Edward as the Solomon following his father's David (14-18).
Mes yeux seront fort diligens a querre
Les habitans fidele de la terre:
Pour estre a moy. Qui droite voye ira.
Qui s'estudie a vser de fallace,
En ma maison point ne trouuera place:
De moy n'aura mensonger ne baueur.
Bien ne faueur. (ACFLO 134)
Patrick D. Miller writes "While many of the psalms are associated in their
headings with David, who may have written some of them, the authorship of
the individual psalms is unknown" (797).
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2008-, Matthew Steggle (Editor, EMLS).