The Gender Roles of Elizabeth Tudor and Mary Stuart

The famous rivalry between two queens of the British Isles

Posted Dec 15, 2018

The new film "Mary Queen of Scots" highlights anew the famous rivalry between Elizabeth Tudor of England and Mary Stuart of Scotland, two queens from the British Isles who were cousins and contemporaries. Their rivalry and differing fates reflect the perilous tightrope both danced upon as  female leaders during a strongly patriarchal historical period. The ways both struggled with and adapted to their gender roles show the tricky balance played by women in power. 

Both queens came to power during a volatile period in British history. In the case of England, somehow in the wrangling for its religious future, the idea of a female leader, while borne of desperation, may have seemed oddly rejuvenating, and also tempting as a scene for preying political advisors to rule puppet leaders. But Elizabeth I turned out to be no puppet.

Henry the VIII's fury over a lack of male heirs led to such cataclysmic historical changes as the split with Rome and rise of Protestantism, the outlandish and oft-mocked record 6 marriages for its day, and much bloodshed and threatened civil wars for the rest of the Tudor period and beyond. The irony of course is that his daughter Elizabeth became one of the most venerated monarchs in history and steered England through rough religious waters into a period of pride and wealth in the context of the Renaissance.

Elizabeth's resilience was formed in a crucible of dire power struggles and decapitations. Her mother Anne Boleyn famously caused the founding of the Church of England but also was executed for her rise to power. Her half-sister Mary tried to wrest England back to Catholicism with disastrous results, and she died from her own womb which also failed to produce any progeny. Her cousin Lady Jane Grey also befell a swift and ill-fated end as a pawn of other Protestant machinations. Witnessing her mother's and relatives' fates and emboldened by her royal tutelage and natural intelligence and a bit of luck, Elizabeth must have learned from an early age what it meant to be politically savvy versus unsavvy. Something in her decided she would learn to survive, even thrive in the midst of this volatile power conglomerate. And she would rely on an uncanny blend of the feminine and masculine to become England's most famous Queen.

Some of this cunning seemed to form early on in her dealings with her older half-sister; despite being raised a Protestant and thus being a blatant threat to her sister, she managed to placate her even after being thrown into the Tower of London and dodged plots of conspiracy against her. She easily could have been another victim of the block but as fortune would have it, her sister became pregnant which temporarily deflected attention from Elizabeth. Mary thought security was hers from her heir. Tragically, it was instead a molar pregnancy, a cancerous tumor that likely killed her. 

Elizabeth's next best bet for her survival was to shun the feminine role that had ended up killing her sister. Despite her well-documented romantic feelings for Lord Robert Dudley, she also knew marriage to him would lead to scandal and political disaster since he was married, and then widowed under shady circumstances. She also used her hand in marriage as a ploy, a mousetrap to lure various European seats of power to England and then played them against one another. But as she famously announced at last, she would be married to England, and remain a Virgin Queen. She would not anger Catholics by a Protestant union or Protestants by a Catholic union. She would remain Queen to all.

Nonetheless, she would still anger her Catholic rivals, which led to other skirmishes that ended in her favor but not without cost. She spurned her brother-in-law King Philip of Spain which triggered the threat of invasion and war. Somehow her smaller but swifter navy famously defeated the heavy Spanish Armada. Once again symbolically, it seemed the feminine wiles of Elizabeth had played David to Philip's Goliath.

When feminine wiles had to play against each other, as when Elizabeth faced the threat of Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots, her neighboring Catholic rival and cousin, a more problematic scenario emerged. Mary in contrast to Elizabeth had committed all the errors that Elizabeth had avoided. Raised most of her childhood in France and as a Catholic, she became Queen there at a young age by marriage, but was also quickly widowed. Discarded by the rest of the French succession, she was shipped back to Scotland where she became Queen after the death of her father. Already thus somewhat of an outsider, she had trouble working with the largely Protestant nobles who continuously machinated against her for their own power. She ended up marrying a seemingly appropriate peer Lord Darnley. Alas, the union was a disaster that ended in his murder by some faction of her government, and the stain of it tainted her in the eyes of her countrymen. She married the main suspect in her husband's murder, the Earl of Bothwell, which also made her appear less than queenly in the eyes of her subjects. Various rebellions occurred against her, and after she escaped imprisonment, she asked for refuge with her cousin Elizabeth in England. Her son and heir James was left to be raised by the Scottish nobility.

Elizabeth, by now seasoned and well-established, but always wary of her position, used her political cunning to lure her cousin to England and then quickly imprisoned her. She was threatened by Mary's Catholic roots and legitimate line of heritage from Henry VII and Henry VIII's sister, and perhaps even by reports of Mary's physical beauty and height. It is ironic that Elizabeth treated her cousin the same way her sister Mary had towards herself by imprisonment. But she also must have found it politically necessary to take things a cutthroat step further. In Elizabeth's most tainted and Orwellian maneuver, she allowed a conspiracy to be blamed on Mary after years of imprisonment and sentenced Mary to death. Whether out of some bitter aftertaste of regret or nonchalance in her later years, Elizabeth also later agreed to bequeath the throne of England to Mary's son James.

Mary's fate seemed sealed by being a passive victim, a pawn of plots around her, falling for the wrong men and letting them have their way with her, but in truth she may have just fallen victim to a wilder and more corrupt patriarchal and parochial Scottish government, and all the various political machinery surrounding her including that of her more aggressive, survivalist cousin. Ironically it was her role as mother in the end that gave her a posthumous victory: through her son James, she became the direct ancestor of the future Kings and Queens of the United Kingdom. 

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