Early Modern European history is overflowing with examples of parallel histories because of the profoundly divisive nature of the Reformation. As such, with two clearly distinct sides, it is an area of history that lends itself well to a parallel narratives approach. In particular, such a lens is especially helpful when studying the reigns of Mary I and Elizabeth I. This is not just because the two have been set up in undeniable contrast with each other so often in history, but because understanding how each came to occupy a space as a defender of her respective faith can help challenge an oversimplified view of the history of these queens.
The dichotomy between the Catholic Mary and Protestant Elizabeth is one that has of course an exceptionally strong hold on the popular imagination, and however much we might teach students that reality really was much more complex, it is difficult to shake off the hold that the images of ‘Bloody Mary’ and ‘Good Queen Bess’ have on our collective understanding of Tudor history. This one-dimensional view of the queens is arguably the remnant of a triumphalist view of history that sees the rise of Protestant England as inevitable, and the reign of Mary as a mere unfortunate blip in the march of Protestant progress, no matter how far away we might claim to have moved on from such a teleological understanding of the past.
Investigating the reigns of these monarchs through a parallel lens helps show that what ended up happening was anything but inevitable. If we look at how authorities at the time, and the queens themselves, constructed their narratives of power, we can see the ways in which both monarchs consolidated and navigated their power when there were plenty to challenge them on their legitimacy. A parallel narratives approach to Mary and Elizabeth helps highlight not just that two competing narratives – Catholic and Protestant – existed, but that different narratives were being constructed for each queen as a means of helping legitimise their power, especially by establishing them as defenders of their faiths. Understanding how these contrasting narratives were created gives us an insight into how power and identity were constructed in the midst of religious turmoil, as well as amid the uncertainty created by female rule.
Turning to primary sources is especially helpful in showing how Mary and Elizabeth became emblems of their respective faiths during their reigns. These sources give us an insight not just into the similarities and differences between the ways in which they navigated their power as queens, but also into the very process of creating parallel narratives.
Robert Wingfield wrote in his account of Mary I’s coup over Lady Jane Grey, the Vita Mariae Reginae Angliae (for which he received a lifetime annuity), ‘Once Mary was indeed proclaimed undoubted queen of England, one would not believe how rapidly and in what large numbers both gentlemen and ordinary folk gathered from the shires.’ As a supporter of Mary, it is unsurprising that Wingfield’s account is utterly positive, but what is interesting here is the way in which he uses popular support for Mary I to argue for her legitimacy. In an era that faced great unease caused by popular rebellions, Wingfield instead uses the image of popular support as evidence of Mary’s rightful position as queen. Despite its obvious purpose in supporting Mary, and the fact that of course there was not universal support of the return to Catholicism, this account speaks into the idea that for many, Mary’s power lay in her position as a defender of the faith and the true heir of Henry VIII.
This is a useful starting point for discussing the power that Mary wielded when she came to the throne, one which has been eclipsed by her reputation for burning Protestants. That she came to power as a defender of the Catholic faith is a fact that in itself spoke to a legacy that many across the country held to; Protestantism was new, after all, with Henry VIII never having entirely abandoned Catholicism, and Edward VI’s reign cut short by his early death. Although it is always difficult to establish what the state of ‘popular’ religion was, it is important to note both the weight of tradition that Mary had behind her, and the vitality of Counter-Reformation Catholicism. Further, she saw the Church return to Rome, and her marriage to Philip II of Spain helped create a key alliance in Europe. Both events also helped alleviate the potential unease created by the unprecedented situation of sole female queen, as the return to Rome saw ultimate religious authority return to the Pope, and her marriage to Philip meant that she did not rule alone.
Understanding the way in which Mary’s image as a defender of the Catholic faith and true heir to the throne shows the wealth of legitimising sources that she had to draw on, and highlights just how precarious Elizabeth’s position was in contrast. This is something that can easily become lost in the debates over how ‘bloody’ Bloody Mary really was, but which needs to be emphasised when studying the ways in which her power was understood.
The uncertainty surrounding Elizabeth at the start of her reign is easily forgotten given the long rule that she would go on to enjoy, and the reputation that she would come to acquire in history. Yet, in 1558, the trajectory of Elizabeth’s reign and religion was profoundly unclear. Coming to power without the weight of Rome or longstanding religious tradition behind her, we see in contemporary accounts the scramble to give her reign the same sort of legitimacy that Mary had had, and of creating a version of history in which Elizabeth was a true heir of Henry VIII. Interestingly, in the construction of a narrative that would contrast with Mary’s, we do not actually see attempts to delegitimise Mary; in fact, many of Elizabeth’s propagandists used Marian iconography, highlighting just how much legitimacy Mary was understood to have had. Elizabeth even wore Mary’s clothes to her own coronation. Yet, Elizabeth would need to occupy a likewise powerful position, and if she were to do so as a Protestant, an alternative narrative was needed.
One contemporary source that shows how the image of Elizabeth as a defender of the Protestant faith was created is Richard Mulcaster’s The Queen Majesty’s Passage, an account of Elizabeth’s procession through London following her accession to the throne. Published within 9 days of the procession, this account is an insight into the public image that was being curated for Elizabeth, as seen in 5 different public pageants that she took part in during this procession. Interestingly, this account was published before the Elizabethan Settlement while England was still legally Catholic, highlighting how keen her advisors were to paint her as a Protestant monarch. We see that Elizabeth is in one pageant shown to be uniting the houses of York and Lancaster, which emphasises her Englishness and her legitimacy as heir to the throne (being the daughter of Anne Boleyn was a bit of a PR nightmare, after all). In another, she is depicted as the biblical ‘ “Debora, with her estates, consulting for the good Government of Israel” ’. The image of Deborah, the Old Testament female judge, surrounded by men giving her counsel, was both a way of providing biblical legitimacy to Elizabeth, and acted as a reminder to Elizabeth herself of the expectations held of her. Drawing on biblical imagery was, of course, a way of evoking Providence, and therefore proving religious authority to her reign.
The need to publicly display Elizabeth’s legitimacy in the form of pageants is a reminder that her own history had to be reconstructed for the purpose of her rule. While her sister had reigned, Elizabeth had attended mass, and to this day, historians disagree over the nature of her own faith. To be a Protestant queen then, required some significant publicity work.
It is clear that history – or different versions of history – formed an important part of the public images of both Mary I and Elizabeth I, even as they stood for opposing sides of the religious divide. Viewing the Tudors through a parallel lens helps us not only better understand how people on either side of the religious/ideological divide understood their history and their leaders, but also to see how the public images of monarchs were negotiated and created within this divide. Mary and Elizabeth provide a key insight into how parallel narratives are constructed as a way of consolidating power, and they are especially fascinating for the insight they provide into female rule in male-dominated domains. In studying the way in which these narratives were created, we gain a far better understanding of the creation and maintenance of power and the formation of a ruler’s identity in the midst of severe religious and political divisions.
Miriam Tomusk, Parallel Histories