Following my review of the media guru Marshall McLuhan, here’s the second in my series profiling important figures in the PR realm. This one comes in two parts, the first of which reviews Elizabeth I’s journey to the throne.1. Introduction 2. Naughty goings on in Elizabeth’s bedchamber 3. Renaissance Elizabeth: a woman of substance 4. Henry VIII and the Reformation 5. From princess to bastard 6. Bloody Mary 7. Accused of conspiracy 8. Conclusion
Elizabeth I was the first European monarch to rely on the techniques of modern image-making. She made full use of her insights into the Greek and Roman classical traditions, the rediscovery of which sparked the Renaissance. In the process, she turned her initially weak position on the national and international stage into an unassailable one that defined an era.
However her relevance reaches beyond the eponymous Elizabethan age. Her reign marked the beginning of our epoch. She exploited the the narrative of ballads, the pamphlets produced by printing presses, and the enchantment of spectacle to promulgate her agenda. She introduced the English to celebrity culture, which she cultivated at her court. And, besides being the modern mistress of propaganda, Elizabeth also had something original to communicate.
Elizabeth I founded a religiously tolerant society in which secular power overshadowed ecclesiastical influence of all persuasions. In his masterpiece History of Civilisation in England VI, Henry Thomas Buckle claims that her regime was the first instance of government without the central participation of spiritual authority. Elizabeth’s successor James I remarked that she never executed anybody for being a papist.
Her rule marked the beginning of what Buckle coined the age of scepticism:
The more we examine this great principle of scepticism, the more distinctly we shall see the immense part it played in the progress of European civilization. To state in general terms, what in this Introduction [this refers to his book History of Civilization in England VI] will be fully proved, it may be said that to scepticism we owe that spirit of inquiry, which during the last two centuries, has gradually encroached on every department of practical and speculative knowledge; has weakened the authority of the privileged classes, and thus placed liberty on a surer foundation; has chastised the despotism of princes; has restrained the arrogance of nobles; and has even diminished the arrogance of the clergy. In a word, it is this which has remedied the three fundamental errors of the olden time: errors which made the people, in politics too confiding; in science too credulous; in religion too intolerant. [History of Civilization in England VI, page 335, by Henry Thomas Buckle, Longmans Green and Co, 1873]
It is my argument that Elizabeth I’s reign embodied the most progressive sentiments of her age, which were rooted in humanism. She ruled England in the public interest by bringing to bear the full taxonomy of Macheavelian techniques: Teasing, Pretending, Concealing and Distracting. Her regime was abetted by a new class of advisers, hired for their talent rather than their parentage. The state they constructed had modern, moral underpinnings and big ambitions. Their work and legacy reshaped and redefined not just England, but also the future of the world, for the better.
What’s remarkable was how the Renaissance empowered a new class of elite woman in public affairs. In the late 16th century, there was a burst of feminine leaders on the world stage who took control of their societies. The likes of Mary I; Elizabeth I; Mary Queen of Scots; and France’s Catherine de Médicis, emerged, with varying degrees of success, as powerful international stateswomen bent on remoulding Europe and its colonial possessions on their terms.
I think it fair to say that Elizabeth I was the greatest of them all. Her success as a monarch – perhaps Europe’s most esteemed ever – was the result, I shall argue, of her innovative approach to policy making and to the management of her reputation.
As Susan Frey argues in her excellent book Elizabeth I, The Competition for Representation, the genius of Elizabeth was her preparedness to engage conflicting social forces constructively. Elizabeth’s PR strength – and I think PR is the right term – rested on how she dressed her image in those of others, and on how she allowed them to dress their interests in her image. That, as we shall explore in part-2, made her an infuriating and often ambiguous Queen, and it was also what made her a great one.
But before considering how she achieved this feat using rhetoric, narrative, persuasion and evasion, it is necessary to review the times she was born into. We must consider her educational influences, and assess the reputation she’d acquired when she took the throne in 1558.
Hence in part-1, I introduce my main themes. In part-2, I shall substantiate what I argue in part-1 to show how Elizabeth as Queen of England used PR to master her realm and the world.
Let’s begin with a public relations disaster.
2. Naughty goings on in Elizabeth’s bedchamber
Just months after Henry VIII died in 1547, Thomas Seymour married in secret Henry’s widow Catherine Parr. Meanwhile he lobbied the council advising Edward VI, the nine-year-old son of Henry VIII, for permission to wed Catherine.
Historians agree that because Elizabeth lived with Catherine, Seymour’s marriage was most likely a duplicitous move to gain access to the princess. Though it seems that on Catherine Parr’s side she really did love the handsome Seymour. Indeed, she had planned to marry him before Henry VIII proposed to her.
Rumours about Seymour’s lust for Elizabeth soon started to circulate. They were both scandalous and credible. It seems that a partly clothed Seymour would enter fourteen-year-old Elizabeth’s bedcamber, open her curtains and advance on her. He did so before she was dressed and sometimes before she was awake. It is said that he struck her “familiarly” on the back, sometimes on the buttocks. Mostly he indulged in tickling her between the bedsheets. Moreover, Seymour, who was around forty years of age, brazenly made it public that he would have been happier had he married the pubescent Elizabeth, rather than the aging Catherine.
Catherine caught her husband embracing Elizabeth in the girl’s bedchamber. In response, Elizabeth was embarrassingly sent to another home to be educated. Soon after, Catherine died in chid-birth and Thomas Seymour continued wooing Elizabeth shamelessly.
The supposed relationship between Elizabeth and a married man was taboo in the eyes of both the Protestant and Catholic religions (it might have been innocent on her part, but it is doubtful that it was on his). The gossip this provoked was enormously damaging to her reputation.
Moreover, Seymour was eventually executed for treason. The investigation into his plotting, which was real and extensive, pointed toward Elizabeth’s knowledge. While her particpation was never proven, her association with Seymour was implied when it became known that the success of his conspiracy depended upon him marrying her. It was another major blow to her emerging reputation.
3. Renaissance Elizabeth: a woman of substance
While Elizabeth was not a proper princess in her youth (see chapter, From princess to bastard to legitimate heir), she was very much a king’s daughter. She benefitted from the spirit of Thomas More who believed that women were as capable as men of academic achievement. She was educated in an age that saw Europe’s elite women receive an education in Greek, Latin, physics, philosophy, mathematics, astronomy, and not least logic and rhetoric.
Indeed, I maintain that it was Elizabeth’s knowledge of the works Isocrates, Aristotle, Cicero and Saint Cyprian, to name but a few classical influences, that gave her the insights that guided her thoroughly modern style of rule. One example of this was her life-long attachment to Isocrates’ advice (which she recommended to James I) to the prince in To Nicoles, which set out his duties:
You will be a good popular leader if you neither permit the multitude to commit outrages nor allow them to suffer them, but contrive that, while the best men take the honours, the rest shall suffer no wrong; for these are the first and chief elements of a good constitution….
“Show that you reverence truth so deeply that your word is more to be trusted than other men’s oaths [We'll examine in part-2 the extent to which Elizabeth used deception, fudge and outright lies during her reign].”
Elizabeth’s education helped her lead from the front. It gave her the strength and depth to craft her own propaganda and to think strategically, independently of her advisers. Her book-learning meant that she was never bamboozled or belittled in discussion with Europe’s elite. For instance, because she spoke English, French, Latin, Spanish and some Italian, she could negotiate with world leaders or their ambassadors in person.
Through Elizabeth’s education at the hands of Oxford and Cambridge humanists, she absorbed a new post-feudal notion of virtue. It was one popularized by Petrarch. It prized achieving Cicero’s “concordia ordinum” (agreement of or between the classes) and advocated “Virtus and Fortuna”, which promoted Cicero’s mantra, then novel, that people could master their own fate. She would have been taught, and went on to demonstrate, that at the heart of human culture, lies virtue, which consists of the union of eloquence and wisdom in the cultivated man of affairs.
She was most likely influenced by thinkers such as Machavelli, who was a practical thinker and a republican by inclination. He lived in a world in which princes were usurping republics, or in which aristocrats were corrupting them, and then killing each other to keep or retain their grip on the state. He saw for himself in Florence the consequences of this in human blood and turmoil. He longed for, and wrote about how to obtain, stability.
In his controversial work The Prince he says bluntly that being moral is no way to achieve one’s ends in an immoral world:
“One must be a fox in order to recognise traps, and a lion to frighten off wolves. Those who simply act like lions are stupid. So it follows that a prudent ruler cannot, and must not, honour his word when it places him at a disadvantage.”
He says princes should pursue honour and glory and through that bring happiness to the people. He wrote about how elites must obtain and retain authority and gain legitimacy in the eyes of the people. But first they must consolidate their power or face annihilation.
In the world Machiavelli wrote about it was no longer enough for rulers to be paragons of virtue or for church leaders and princes to rely on feudal virtues of birth-right, fealty, chivalry, courage, self-sacrifice, honour and loyalty. He made plain that in the new world, rulers had no God-given legitimacy, right to rule or right to be loved, respected and obeyed.
In place of feudal virtues, Machiavelli said modern prince required a good reputation and positive public opinion to maintain their legitimacy and power. Machavelli believed that the first duty of leaders was to protect their people from external threats. His main concern focused on how to forge bonds between citizens and how to achieve social cohesion. For him the spirit of community and service started with family, friends and neighbours, because if you couldn’t mobilize them you could never compete with other contenders for power.
Machiavelli was an early advocate of social equality. For him the old feudal system was not capable of satisfying the different aspirations of the classes of the commonwealths that he saw developing in Europe. Inspired by Cicero and the legacy of the Roman republic, he believed that the key to successful government was the ability to keep the various classes in a state of equilibrium.
In short, the modern prince had to represent constituencies of influence and power in a consensual manner in order to justify wielding their authority over others.
According to him, it is the mobilisation of power (one major part of which is public opinion) that settles disputes about what ought to be done in society. But his advice was as cynical as it was pragmatic:
“One can say this in general of men: they are ungrateful, disloyal, insincere and deceitful, timid of danger and avid of profit…. Love is a bond of obligation which these miserable creatures break whenever it suits them to do so; but fear holds them fast by a dread of punishment that never passes” Ibid
But Machiavelli also put his faith in the public and popularized the term publica voce. He wrote:
“A people is more prudent, more stable, and of better judgment than a prince.”
He maintained that an uncontrolled mob led astray could be more easily persuaded by a good man and more easily led back into a good way than a could a stubborn prince:
“No one can speak to a wicked prince, and the only remedy is steel…. To cure the malady of the people words are enough” (Quoted from translations of Discorsi sopra la prima deca di Tito Livio; 3 vols. published between 1512-1517 (Discourses on the First Ten Books of Titus Livius)
However, he believed that neither words nor force were enough to determine an outcome:
“… [the] prince who bases his power entirely on…words, finding himself completely without other preparations, comes to ruin;” (Source: The Prince).
Such humanistic and conflicted insights formed a very important part of Elizabeth’s rigorous education. It was an education that she could relate to as she managed her own affairs and saw how others mismanaged theirs.
4. Henry VIII and the Reformation
As we know, Henry VIII married six times in his quest to breed a male line of succession. He feared that a female heir would either have to marry at home or abroad. The former risked provoking civil war as faction fought faction. The latter risked making England a mere province of a foreign realm.
When Henry VIII defied the Pope and divorced his first wife Catherine of Aragon in 1533 he broke with Rome. However this break was motivated by practical considerations rather than by a religious schism. The dispute revolved around his right to divorce Catherine, mother of princess Mary, so that he could acquire a younger wife capable of producing a male heir. The Act of Supremacy of 1534 made the King “supreme head on earth” and united civil and religious law under his command. Yet after the Pope’s authority was rejected, religious worship and belief remained essentially Catholic. What changed dramatically was England’s identity in Europe and its unique sense of being in control of its own destiny.
Henry VIII’s break with Rome was opportunistic. But it was also the logical consequence of already existing nationalistic and religious senitiment. As early as the 14th century John Wycliffe’s English Lollards, known as hedge- (or lay) priests, began their campaign against the doctrine of purgatory, papal corruption, pilgrimage and the worship of relics. They campaigned for the introduction of the English vernacular in church worship. They maintained that loyalty to their king came before loyalty to a foreign Pope. Their movement sparked the European Reformation, more than one hundred years before Luther published his revolutionary Ninety-five Theses in 1517.
Wycliffe’s Lollards represented a radical tendency in England. It was one that influenced the Peasants Revolt of 1381, though Wyatt himself opposed it. They set in train a tradition of critical thinking which interrogated previously fixed values, mores and beliefs about the relationship between church and state, power and wealth. But the transformation of English and European society took many hundreds of years to take full root. It was still in flux when Elizabeth I came to power.
As a consequence of Henry VIII’s battle with Rome, he centralized power over the English state. In the process he dismantled the feudal order, which had in large part revolved around the old religion, including its monasteries, and the regional influence of barons. The power of the Catholic church was smashed in a series of increasingly dramatic moves, culminating in the eventual dismantling of England’s monasteries. Henry VIII reforms also involved redefining the role of England’s barons, who came to rely on parliament and their position in the Royal court for their power and income.
As Rome’s influence waned, England’s parliament – particularly its chamber of commons – grew in significance. Parliament expressed a distinctly Protestant and humanist outlook. Though in reality, the humanist movement’s leading figures and thinkers were papists such as Petrarch, More, Erasmus and Machiavelli, with their essentially modern liberal, individualistic and tolerant outlook.
5. From princess to bastard
Born in 1533, princess Elizabeth was declared illegitimate three years later when Henry VIII’s second wife Anne Boleyn was convicted of treason and beheaded. Anne Boleyn’s crime supposedly involved committing adultery with five men, including her own brother. In declaring Henry VIII’s separation from Anne Boleyn legal, it was adjudged that they had never been officially married; it is then moot how she could also be convicted of adultery. While Tudor law is beyond this essay’s scope, and beyond my comprehension, it appears that Henry VIII’s pre-marriage affair with Anne’s sister had something to do with the ruling.
Henry VIII’s next wife was Jane Seymour. She publicly, perhaps under pressure from the King, promised to marry him within 24 hours of Anne Boleyn’s execution. She gave him an heir the next year with the birth of Edward (Edward VI 12 October 1537 – 6 July 1553) but she died within weeks of his birth.
Nine years later, Edward Tudor inherited the throne of England. Of course, others, notably John Dudley, 1st Duke of Northumberland, known historically, and perhaps unfairly, as the “wicked Duke”, ruled in Edward’s name. However his reign was short. Tuberculosis killed Edward VI at the tender age of 15.
What is worth noting about Edward VI’s rule was the pace of the Reformation and the mess made of organizing his succession.
Edward tried to hand the crown’s power to his cousin Lady Jane Grey, an educated Renaissance Protestant, and a fan of Plato, and daughter-in-law of the Duke of Northumberland. Edward VI clearly favoured this great-granddaughter of Henry VII over his half-sisters because he considered Mary and Elizabeth to be his father’s illegitimate children.
Edward VI’s intention was probably to ensure religious continuity. Certainly, under Edward’s and his advisers’ rule, significant steps were taken to Anglicise the Church of England. Forms of worship in English churches became definably Protestant. In particular, Edward VI ended the Chantries, introduced the Book of Common Prayer, and reformed the communion service, under the guidance of Thomas Crammer, the then Archbishop of Canterbury. Yet Edward’s and Northumberland’s plan for a Protestant succession was doomed.
Lady Jane Grey’s fate – as a Protestant martyr of the Reformation - was quickly sealed when the Privy Council, an elite inner circle of royal advisers, which had initially endorsed Edward VI’s will, changed sides. Their point of view was perhaps influenced by the troops lining up behind Mary claim to the throne. They were threatening to march on London, while Northumberland had set off to arrest her. Their decision to betray Northumberland was also perhaps a genuine concern for constitutional law, which did indeed make Edward VI’s will legally suspect, and Mary’s claim overwhelming. Whatever their motivation, their subsequent support for Mary ended Lady Jane Grey’s nine days’ rule (some historians count her reign as being of 12-days’ duration) as Queen of England in 1553.
It was never Mary’s stated intention to execute Lady Jane Grey. But a failed Protestant uprising in 1554 in protest at Mary’s proposed marriage to Catholic Philip, the prince of Spain, son of Spain’s King Charles V, made chopping off her head appear justifiable. She was executed to supposedly put an end to Protestant pretensions of her restoration.
However, paradoxically, the Protestant revolt led by Sir Thomas Wyatt, was not in support of Grey, but actually motivated by a call to put Mary’s sister Elizabeth on the throne. It may even, we suspect, have had her complicit support (we’ll review that later). What these episodes tell us, however, is that Catholicism was far from dead and that Protestantism did not yet reign unassailably supreme either.
6. Bloody Mary
Queen Mary came to power as a Catholic monarch the country was evenly divided between worshippers the two competing faiths. But, as the historian J. E. Neale points out in his 1933 classic biography Queen Elizabeth, Mary 1st ruled a country in which the Reformation was already twenty years old. The young generation had never known a time in which papal authority held-sway over English affairs. London and the other major towns, the hubs of wealth and power, were mostly of Protestant persuasion; while the North of England remained largely Catholic. Many of clergy of the church of England had taken wives; they therefore had no interest in becoming apostates again. Moreover, Protestants had an overwhelming vested motivation for opposing any return to Catholicism:
“The sale of monastic and chantry lands had converted the Reformation into a colossal business interest in which everyone, yeoman, merchant, gentleman, and nobleman, with any free capital, had invested. Lands had changed hands like shares in a modern company, involving a range of speculators far greater than the number of actual holders, many as they were.” [J E Neale Queen Elizabeth, page 33]
England was, as Neale states, a country which rejoiced in its insularity and hatred of foreigners and foreign jurisdiction. Nevertheless there was no lack of support for Mary. In addition, Mary had on her side the countervailing force of respect for her feudal rights as Queen. There was a deference and acceptance in society for the privileges of birth and position. These were ideas rooted in Medieval morality.
Cynicism, of course, was rife. Mary I’s weakness was her inflated view of the monarch’s position. Despite having a first-class Renaissance education, she failed to appreciate that her modern role was to serve the interests of others first and foremost. In contrast, Mary I took her role as being “God-given” and serving God (of course Elizabeth used the same language, but Mary I took it to heart). While all was not as it was in the past, Mary I tried to rule as if she had the power of Henry VIII.
First she married a foreign Catholic prince, who was destined to be king of Spain. Then she reimposed Catholicism on England by bringing back papal authority and the heresy laws. She was a determined and devout Queen swimming against the stream:
“She preferred death, she said, to any other husband. Her marriage was the most personal act of her reign, and it was fatal. It struck harshly upon insular prejudice and aroused the Englishry of everyone. In fear it bred of secular foreign dominance, it emphasized the alien character of papal supremacy; and two oppositions – Politique and Protestant – were wedded. To be mere English and to be Protestant began to seem one and the same thing” [J E Neale, Queen Elizabeth, page 35]
Mary 1st was on a crusade of sorts. But to get her way and to keep her grip on power Mary I increasingly had to resort to force. Heresy was treason and in 1555 she had around 300 Protestants burned at the stake. This earned her the title “Bloody Mary”. The atmosphere at some of the executions was often decidedly hostile toward the executioners and supportive of the condemned.
Her marriage to Prince Philip of Spain (later King Philip II) was a farce. Parliament would not grant him the title of King, which was a snub to Mary. Meanwhile, he preferred being home in Spain to living with his much older wife in England. She had two phantom pregnancies, which only served to undermine her reputation and credibility. Her failure to produce an hier also made Elizabeth’s postion as heir apparent stronger.
Moreover, her husband Philip became an ally of Elizabeth. He reasoned that Mary Queen of Scots, a friend Spain’s enemy France, was not an acceptable alternative to Mary I if the latter were to die first. He instinctively understood that he might require Elizabeth’s goodwill in the future.
Moreover, Mary I lost Calais to the French in an unnecessary war with France, which was her husband and Spain’s cause, not England’s. The loss of Calais was considered a major national humiliation.
While legally she re-cemented church and state with Catholicism, in practice she failed to undermine Protestantism. The gentry mostly sabotaged her attempt to regain the land they had seized from the monasteries. Catholicism never underwent a popular revival beyond the already converted.
Meanwhile, she made her own court of chosen courtiers Catholic. She appointed Catholic bishops. She also manipulated Parliament, but only up to a point. More than once Parliament defied her and many of its members plotted against her.
Mary’s five-year rule of England rule was a disaster. Though we shouldn’t underestimate that she had every chance of success in her quest to restore Catholicism. Pointing to what might have been, Roy Strong remarks in The Spirit of Britain:
“The grass roots resurgence for the old ways provides abundant evidence that had she lived longer or produced a child things would have taken a very different course. But the accession of her sister Elizabeth in 1558 was to decree otherwise” [page147}
Yet to most observers of the day, including Catholics, her rule seemingly demonstrated what Henry VIII thought; women were unfit to rule a kingdom.
Just months before Elizabeth took the throne, John Knox, leader of the Protestant Reformation, published his First Blast against the Monstrous Regiment of Women. He ranted about how women were weak, frail, impatient, feeble, and foolish:
"...they were the port and gate of the Devil; their covetousness, like the gulf of Hell, was insatiable. For the weak to nourish the strong, the foolish to govern the discreet, in brief, for women to rule men, was contumely to God and the subversion of good order and justice. The Bible, the Fathers, Aristotle, the Classical world, were at one on the subject; men, Knox thought, were less than the beasts to permit such an inversion of God's order." [Queen Elizabeth by J E Neale, page 63]
Elizabeth’s problems with “bloody Mary”
Relations between the two sisters were not good. Mary I considered Elizabeth to be the child of an infamous woman. She blamed Elizabeth for outraging her mother Catherine of Aragon. Mary, with good reason, never trusted Elizabeth.
Twice Mary I came close to having Elizabeth’s head chopped off. The first time was during Wyatt’s rebellion. Under interrogation, Wyatt admitted writing twice to Elizabeth. But the answers he received were verbal and did not provide sufficient proof of complicity to convict Elizabeth of treason; not least because the messages may have been from servants taking the princes’s name in vain. And not least because public opinion made it unacceptable to execute her without good evidence (the court eventually acquitted Elizabeth); Lady Jane Grey was different because there was already an act of attainder in her name.
However the suspicion of complicity was enough for Mary to lock Elizabeth in the Tower of London, where she entered at Traitors’ Gate and stayed for two months in 1554. Afterward, Elizabeth was confined to a country house under close guard.
Elizabeth’s faith was a matter of contention. She begged Mary I to believe that she was a Catholic. She even attended Mass. But Mary I grew disillusioned and doubted the sincerity of her conversion. While Mary’s husband the King Spain took it as a hopeful sign that it was possible in the future for Elizabeth to marry a Catholic.
The second time Mary had cause to convict Elizabeth of treason was in 1555, there was much more evidence. Her London residence Somerset House was searched and a hoard of seditious, anti-Catholic books and papers, ballads and caricatures was discovered. Many of Elizabeth’s servants were arrested and sent to the Tower of London. But this time things were different. The balance of public opinion was increasingly hostile to Mary. As J E Neale remarks, officially, Elizabeth had to be regarded as the victim of irresponsible knaves.
Ironically, it was Mary I Catholic husband who finally convinced her to recognize her sister’s right to succession. Which she did on the condition that Elizabeth maintain the Catholic faith. Mary I died in 1558.
When Elizabeth took power aged 25 years of age, her legitimacy as Queen was very much in doubt. Her reputation was marred. Her weaknesses had immense power to hurt her. Even her religious leanings were not transparent. Moreover, she inherited a kingdom that was weak militarily and economically. As J E Neale summed up Elizabeth’s position, quoting a commentator from her time saying:
“The French king bestriding the realm, having one foot in Calais and the other in Scotland. Steadfast enmity, but no steadfast friendship abroad.” [Queen Elizabeth by J E Neale, page 82]
At home her kingdom was divided between two great religions, with Mary Queen of Scots a contender to replace her on behalf of Catholicism, Scotland and France.
Yet her reputation as a monarch arguably ranks highest of all the royals who ever sat on the British throne. She saw off the Spanish Armada, defined a whole era in her name, and was called “Gloriana” by Edmund Spenser in “The Faerie Queene”. How she achieved this will be the subject of part-2.