Here is the second in my series profiling important figures in PR. It is the first of a two-parter looking at Queen Elizabeth I of England (1558 – 1603). (I am working my back to the Romans and Greeks who got this whole game going.)
Elizabeth I was a wonderful ruler, of course. She is worth a close look as a communicator because she became a world leader not least by canny manipulation of the media available to her. Using persuasion in preference to coercion, she took a weak position and made herself strong; she made sure people understood that she served a wide interest, not herself; she deployed glamour and argument to keep her people in line. She also had a perfect command of ambiguity. What modern PR and leader wouldn’t like that record?
Her father Henry VIII knew a thing or two about image making, but Elizabeth I was the first European monarch really to rely on rhetoric rather than brute force. From the outset she acknowledged that public opinion mattered most of all to the success of her reign. She also understood what few other leaders did. That was how to exploit Greek and Roman classical thinking and practice to shape the contemporary world. She was the monarch the humanist northern Renaissance created and had been waiting for.
Elizabeth I’s classical education provided her with an intellectual’s familiarity with philosophy, a ruler’s insight into political intrigue, and a poet’s way with words. She had the confidence to negotiate with world leaders and their ambassadors in person in English, French, Latin, Spanish and Italian. There was something more: to put it bluntly, her advisers, and foreign ambassadors, found it hard to bullshit this master of bullshitting.
She grasped that while messages mattered more than muscle, they had to be transmitted by innovative means if they were to connect with her subjects.
Elizabeth I knew how to use compelling public spectacles in London and in the provinces for PR purposes. She introduced the English to celebrity culture. She cultivated glamour at her court. It was her means of controlling squabbling courtiers who jostled to become and stay one of her favourites. The relatively new-fangled printing presses reproduced her speeches and proclamations for distribution by preachers and mayors, which went on sale in pamphlet form within weeks of major events.
Under Elizabeth I there was an expansion of literacy. Famously, her reign produced the genius of William Shakespeare, Christopher Marlowe and Edmund Spenser, who wrote The Faerie Queene in her honour. The period’s explosion of professional playwrights, actors and theatre companies is described by Roy Strong in his delightful The Spirit of Britain, A Narrative History of The Arts:
The Elizabethan drama was an astonishing and unique phenomenon equal in every way, and indeed exceeding in artistic achievement, all other aspects of that great cultural renaissance which occurred during the last twenty years of the sixteenth century, and which was to stretch over into the first decade of the reign of James I who succeeded Elizabeth in 1603. That it happened at all was due to a quite exceptional set of circumstances, the foundation stone of which was the Renaissance recasting of the role of man as a being who had the ability to choose and fashion his own destiny. [The Spirit of Britain, A Narrative History of The Arts, Roy Strong, pages 203/204, Pimlico, 2000]
Roy Strong adds that Elizabeth I led a cultural revolution. She defined the majesty of her reign in drama and imagery which even today is instantly recognisable as Elizabethan. Her taste in painting favoured distinctive styles, particularly in portraits and miniatures by the likes of Nicholas Hilliard. When it came to fashion she loved to see flamboyant clothes at court, and she encouraged symmetrical but ornate architecture that transformed the look and feel of England.
Elizabeth’s cultural revolution encompassed political and spiritual matters. In a departure from past practice, she put ambiguity at the heart of her policymaking on the most contentious and divisive issue of the day: religion. In the process, she founded new traditions, new rituals and a new identity for England.
But at the start of her reign Elizabeth I’s grip on power was far from assured. She could not even count unconditionally on Protestants. The example of Mary I’s reign seemed to prove Henry VIII’s warning that a queen would either have to marry at home or abroad. If she married abroad she opened the realm to foreign control, and if she married at home the result would most likely be civil war between rival factions.
Mary I did indeed subject England to foreign influence through her unpopular marriage to Philip II of Spain. She also created social instability at home by burning at the stake 300 Protestants and by restoring Catholicism. Not least she alienated London’s wealthy aldermen, Guilds and merchant adventurers who were largely Protestant (Catholics lived mostly in the north of England).
Moreover both of England’s major religions shared a fear of the “monstrous regiment of women” (regiment here means regime). This phrase was conjured in a tract published anonymously in Geneva by John Knox, the Scottish leader of the Reformation and a former religious adviser to Edward VI. It was released just a few months before the death of Mary I. In it he ranted:
To promote a woman to bear rule, superiority, dominion, or empire above any realm, nation, or city, is repugnant to nature; contumely [an insult] to God, a thing most contrary to his revealed will and approved ordinance; and finally, it is the subversion of good order, of all equity and justice. [The First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women, by John Knox, 1558]
After Mary I died the Catholics had the same woman trouble. Their champion to displace Elizabeth I was Mary Queen of Scots. She was also perceived as being an impatient, innately weak and foolish woman who in common with her entire sex was capable, in John Knox’s words, of acting as “neither speaker nor advocate for others”.
Today’s female PRs can thank Elizabeth I for driving a coach and horses through that misogynistic myth.
Elizabeth I not only worried about the powerful pro-Catholic lobby at home. She also knew that if she provoked the Pope he would back Mary Queen of Scots, Catholic great granddaughter of Henry VII, who arguably had a stronger claim to the throne of England than she did:
If the succession to the throne had gone by mere heredity, then strictly speaking Mary was the nearest heir, for not only was Elizabeth illegitimate by Catholic Canon Law, but, until Parliament could meet, she was also illegitimate by English law. The danger was no airy, merely speculative one. Mary’s father-in-law, the King of France, might quite well induce the Pope to declare against Elizabeth in favour of Mary, or even depose her and commit the fulfilment of his sentence to French arms. Provided, however, that Elizabeth made no open move against Catholicism, then she could count on Philip II [king of Spain] exerting his powerful influence in her favour at Rome. Good Catholic though he was, the last thing that Philip could tolerate was a French conquest of England. [Queen Elizabeth, J E Neale, pages 56/57, The Reprint Society London, 1942]
The PR challenge for Elizabeth I, then, was to convince the world – Protestant and Catholic – that they should accept her as a legitimate ruler. J. E. Neale in his authoritative biography Queen Elizabeth describes how she negotiated her first major challenge:
In the first public document of the reign ‘and &c’, was put at the end of the Queen’s titles, where in her father’s and brother’s reigns the title of Supreme Head of the Church had been. It was both a bold and a cautious step; bold because implicitly it maintained the theory of the English Reformation that the supremacy of the Papacy was usurpation of the Crown’s ancient authority, and that no parliamentary statute was needed to confer headship of the Church on the monarch; cautious because after all, no more appeared than the words ‘et cetera’, which left the Catholic world guessing and hoping about the future – hopes which Elizabeth in her talks with Feria [Count de Feria envoy of King Philip II of Spain] did her brilliant but shameless best to sustain. [Queen Elizabeth, J E Neale, page 56, The Reprint Society London, 1942].
By appointing herself Governor of the Church of England as opposed to Supreme Head, Elizabeth I avoided being condemned by Pope Paul IV as a heretic for breaking Mary I’s reunification of England with Rome. Instead, she allowed the Pope to hope that in the future the position of Supreme Head could be his once again. Yet Elizabeth I was being disingenuous. Her opaque policies, as we shall explore below, were designed to lower tensions between the two great religions and to prevent wars with foreign powers she was unlikely to win.
In 1559 she introduced another radical change with the Act of Uniformity, which defined the Church of England until the late 20th century. The Act reversed many of the Lutheran-influenced reforms of Edward VI. It brought back to churches the use of ornaments and vestments. It kept the ring on the finger in the marriage service and the sign of the cross at baptisms. It also blurred the difference between the Catholic and Protestant Communion services by merging their prayer books. Though Catholic parliamentarians opposed the Act, the reforms were popular with the faithful of both religions.
To appease the Pope, she retained her half-sister’s Mary I’s Catholic ambassador at Rome as her agent. She feigned a maybe to an offer of marriage from Mary I’s former husband King Philip II of Spain. She also offered her hand in marriage to other Catholic princes. At home she punished Puritan radicals for acts of dissidence by imposing fines and other penalties on them. She made it known that Mass was still said in her private chapel; John Knox responded that one Mass was more fearful to him than 10 000 armed enemies. Meanwhile, proposals from Protestants to reform the clergy’s hierarchical titles such as Archbishop, which were clearly Catholic leftovers, were vetoed. In short, Elizabeth I kept her own religious views – which are best described as conservatively Protestant – hidden behind a veil of confusion.
Elizabeth I’s “misleading” signals (we’ll assume Philip II was willingly duped, because she rejected his marriage proposal on the grounds that she was a heretic) meant that she avoided being excommunicated until 1570. So for the first twelve years of her reign, with the Pope’s seeming blessing, she corresponded, negotiated and flirted with her Spanish and French equivalents on equal terms.
However as Elizabeth I’s reign progressed, the threat from a number of home-grown plots began to change her attitude toward Catholics. This was particularly so after 1570 when Pope Pius V issued his Papal Bull, Regnans in Excelsis (ruling from on high, meaning God), in support of a Catholic rebellion in the north of England. The Pope declared her a pretended queen and wicked heretic, who should be overthrown by English Catholics.
That year’s Ridolfi plot to assassinate Elizabeth I came as another major shock to her regime. Led by a renowned Florentine Catholic banker with links to Spain and Rome, it provided yet more evidence of support for a Catholic restoration. The plot’s English leader was the Duke of Norfolk, the realm’s most senior nobleman. He had just been partially forgiven for his involvement in the northern rebellion. Yet Elizabeth I was once more reluctant to take his life. This time, however, Parliament’s outrage proved too strong to resist. In 1572 he was executed for treason. Though Mary Queen of Scots was spared despite the authorities possessing proof that she played a leading role in the conspiracy. It is worth noting that it was often Elizabeth I’s preference to spare the lives of rebels and to rely on public opinion for her reward and protection.
In 1580 Pope Gregory XIII deactivated the Papal Bull. He advised English Catholics to obey their queen until a suitable opportunity was found to overthrow her. His major motivation for the suspension was to allow Jesuit priests the right to wander England in pursuit of their missionary, propaganda and subversive agenda. Elizabeth I, with no illusions, allowed them in to England until she got wind of Spain’s military preparations in 1585.
Three years later Pope Sixtus V reactivated the Papal Bull, adding regicide to Elizabeth I’s list of sins after she executed Mary Queen of Scots for being an incorrigible plotter. However, Elizabeth had once more been a reluctant executioner. “What”, she asked, “will my enemies not say, when it shall be spread, that for the safety of herself a maiden could be content to spill the blood, even of her own kinswoman?” [Queen Elizabeth, J E Neale, page 259, The Reprint Society London, 1942]
The chopping off of Mary Queen of Scot’s head in 1587 exposed finally the futility of Philip II of Spain’s self-delusions about Elizabeth’s faith. The next year he sent the Spanish Armada to dethrone her, which was the first of four ill-fated Armadas Spain rallied to restore Catholicism in England.
Regardless, most English Catholics opposed the plotters and stayed loyal to their queen because they had come to see themselves as being English first and Catholics second. That acceptance of Elizabeth I’s legitimacy was the consequence and triumph of her PR strategy. It was a classic case of opinion forming: she had developed a new identity for her people, and sold it to them. It was in important degree a secular identity to do with pride in a sovereign nation – and its sovereign – rather than in religion and its foreign (never mind heavenly) sources of authority.
Nevertheless as Elizabeth I became increasingly threatened by foreign Catholic powers, people were executed for upholding their religious beliefs. Yet under her regime Protestant bigots who persecuted Catholics in the name of the state could not also claim to be acting in the name of God, because the Queen was not the Supreme Head of the Church. Instead, they had to cite temporal law as their shield.
In his masterpiece History of Civilisation in England VI Henry Thomas Buckle notes the historical significance of this shift. He says Elizabeth I’s reign was the first modern government without the central participation of spiritual authority. He adds:
Although many persons were most unquestionably executed merely for their religion, no one ventured to state their religion as the cause of their execution. The most barbarous punishments were inflicted upon them; but they were told that they might escape punishment by renouncing certain principles which were said to be injurious to the safety of the state. It is true, that many of these principles were such as no Catholic could abandon without at the same time abandoning his religion, of which they formed an essential part. But the mere fact that the spirit of prosecution was driven by subterfuge, showed that a great progress had been made by the age. [History of Civilization in England VI, Henry Thomas Buckle, page 339, Longmans Green and Co, 1873]
As Buckle and Neale so deliciously depict in their books, Elizabeth I’s strategy did more than seduce popes, Catholic kings and ambassadors into entertaining her fictions. It also turned England’s religious leaders into hypocrites. They denied what they really believed, which was rooted in feudalism, and which actually mirrored Catholic doctrine: that heresy was treason; God’s law was supreme. They, who had once claimed to act in the name of God, whose authority was embodied in their monarch or Pope, now acted in the name of man, whose power was embodied in the Queen. It was socially progressive, but not entirely honest.
Buckle says that Elizabeth I’s rule set the tone for our current epoch, which according to him, is defined by scepticism and the spirit of secular inquiry. Roy Strong makes a similar point in The Spirit of Britain. He says that her reforms had as much to do with the cultural direction of England as they did with beliefs. I concur with them that Elizabeth I’s regime was undoubtedly socially progressive and humanist in essence.
How the new age measured reputation differently
To understand Elizabeth I’s reign we need to consider the period in which Elizabeth I ruled. We also need to be clear about the difference between the two Rs: the Renaissance and the Reformation.
The birthplace of the Renaissance was Italy. There, it was neither a political nor a religious outburst. It was instead inspired by the rediscovery of classical literature in monastery libraries. This set off a massive revival of arts and learning. It sparked an individualistic outlook that prized self-expression and having fun.
In contrast, the Reformation’s heartland was in the more austere North of Europe. It was a politicized reform movement that focused on the nature of the link between church and state, and which questioned matters of doctrine and ritual. It led to political turmoil and radical change. Not least it sparked Protestantism and the counter-Reformation, which led to many wars and the creation of new states.
The combined impact of the Renaissance and Reformation introduced new sets of socially-derived values against which the reputations of leaders of states and religions were measured. As result, the changes that were unleashed led to a division of Europe between largely Catholic states in the south and Protestant ones in the north; though the two Rs transformed the cultures, religions and states in both regions.
Elizabeth I ruled at a time when the link between church and state was becoming increasingly strained. Throughout Europe monarchs were resisting papal influence. Princes were overthrowing republics and vice versa. Aristocrats were corrupting both republics and monarchies, while pretenders to Europe’s thrones opposed one another in the name of competing religions.
Increasingly, the so-called “divine rights of kings” was no longer accepted as providing sufficient grounds to confer legitimacy on a sovereign. Modern leaders were being asked to fulfill new expectations or face the consequences. In 1581, for instance, the Estates General in the Netherlands effectively fired Philip II of Spain, on the grounds that he was an unfaithful servant who had broken his contract:
God did not create the people slaves to their prince, to obey his commands, whether right or wrong, but rather the prince for the sake of the subjects (without which he could be no prince), to govern them according to equity, to love and support them as a father his children or a shepherd his flock, and even at the hazard of life to defend and preserve them. And when he does not behave thus, but, on the contrary, oppresses them, seeking opportunities to infringe their ancient customs and privileges, exacting from them slavish compliance, then he is no longer a prince, but a tyrant, and the subjects are to consider him in no other view. [The Dutch Declaration of Independence, 1581]
Elizabeth I was among the first to comprehend how to establish legitimacy with the support of a positive reputation in the post-feudal age. In the midst of social turmoil, she grasped that both monarchies and republics were being held to similar criteria to sustain their right to retain power. These were acceptance by their public, call it the power of public opinion; the delivery of stability, in the form of social cohesion; and maintenance of security in the face of external threats (most of her reign was spent at peace, which helped make England rich).
It was the success leaders had in managing such challenges which made or destroyed their reputation and cemented or axed their right to rule legitimately (arguably that’s where Mary I, Mary Queen of Scots and Charles I went tragically astray).
In contrast, under feudalism rulers had to proclaim (though, as the Reformation exposed, it was largely hypocritical) to be the epitome of virtue. Church leaders and princes relied for their good reputations, as defenders of the public good, on their adherence to eternal virtues of rank, birth, fealty, chivalry, courage, self-sacrifice, honour and loyalty, particularly to their religions. Failing that, as they often did, they relied on tyranny.
Under the feudal system there was no separation of spiritual authority from church and state; heresy was treason. Popes saw themselves as “Vice Regents of Christ upon Earth.” Though of course, the leaders of Protestant states, such as Henry VIII in England, claimed to be on a similar mission, except that theirs was confined to a particular state (that is, they took the Pope’s role).
Meanwhile, the commercial classes of merchants and manufacturers were increasing their social and political weight. This was a new age of joint stock companies, global trading, banking and lending. There were new commodities and gold flooding in from the New World, and there was more trade between Europe’s nations than ever. In the case of the Netherlands, their merchants’ wealth was such that they could afford their own navy and army to see off their king.
As things became more complex and conflicted, a professional layer of civil servants dedicated to public service arose out of the middle classes to administer their rapidly centralizing states. For example, when Henry VIII destroyed the Catholic church he took its wealth and power for himself and he relied on his civil servants to administer his realm. Elizabeth I continued that process – though she was far less autocratic – and went on to forge what became in embryo a modern parliamentary state administered by civil servants from the centre.
In this maelstrom of change wisdom plucked from rediscovered classical literature became tremendously influential. The ideas it ignited seemingly provided the solution to the turmoil. The most important of these were drawn from the legacy of Cicero’s Roman Republic. Two of his concepts were particularly appealing; not least, in practical rather than republican terms, to Elizabeth I.
They were Cicero’s notions of “concordia ordinum,” which relates to agreement between the classes, and “Virtus and Fortuna,” that refers to how people could overcome their God-given fate or fortune. This was revolutionary thinking in feudal times. These radical lines of thought were popularised in contemporary books, for example by Petrarch in The Remedies of Both Kinds of Fortune (1366) and later by Giannozzo Manetti in The Dignity and Excellence of Man (1532).
Petrarch in particular is famed for being the founder of modern humanism. He wrote about the beauty and gifts of the body, the joy of love, the glories of nature, colour, and the wonders of the sun. He celebrated the virtues of courage, prudence and intelligence. He urged people to focus on the public good and not to be afraid to take risks. In short, he inspired people to set out to create paradise while they were still alive.
These humanist principles resonated with the educated elite among the emerging social classes. The humanist outlook of these and other Renaissance writers helped define the identity and value systems of the new forces in society. It helped set a new concept of the public interest based on forging a consensus between social classes. It helped society determine what was wanted from their leaders in the nascent world.
Susan Frye opines in her excellent book Elizabeth I, The Competition for Representation that the genius of Elizabeth was her preparedness to engage conflicting social forces constructively. Frye also says that Elizabeth I’s abiding PR strength rested on how she dressed her image in those of others and how she allowed them to dress their interests in her image (this is a theme we shall explore more in Part 2).
As conditions changed leaders had to accept that they were no longer in absolute control of either their own states or of their own image. Instead, they had to negotiate and share. Though we shouldn’t see this through the eyes of modern democracy, their power and decision-making involved persuasion in a quite new degree.
I maintain that Elizabeth I ruled England in progressive manner. However she – emulating Shakespeare’s conflicted view of man – was not a utopian or dreamy idealist. She brought to bear the full taxonomy of Machiavellian techniques: Teasing, Pretending, Concealing and Distracting. Her rule, abetted by advisers hired for their talent rather than parentage, expressed a sentiment rooted in humanism’s modern moral outlook.
The great success of Elizabeth I’s regime was maintaining and building public support, and in the process increasing her authority and power. Her success as a monarch – perhaps Europe’s most esteemed ever – was the result of her innovative approach to policy and image making. In the words of Roy Strong in The Spirit of Britain:
By 1603, when Elizabeth I died, ritual had found a new expression in court spectacle and festivals of state which apotheosised the success of her rule and images and portraits. The cult of the Virgin Queen had successfully replaced that of the Queen of Heaven. [The Spirit of Britain, A Narrative History of The Arts, by Roy Strong, Pimlico, 2000, page 149]
She was an infuriating and often ambiguous Queen. Paradoxically, that was what made her a great one. She deserves to be revered as, among many other things, a PR icon.