Categories: History of PR / Political spin / PR issues / Reviews

12 March 2013

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Queen Elizabeth I: PR Icon (part 2)

This second installment of a two-parter on Queen Elizabeth I describes how PR acts in support of leadership and authority using rhetoric’s persuasive powers. It tells the story of the emergence of modern PR practice and the modern world it shaped. (It is work in progress for my book: On Message: Propaganda, persuasion and the PR game.)

Historians have always revelled in Elizabeth as perhaps the first monarch who set out to be loved by her people and who saw how such affection was politic. The nearer we come to our own time, the more admiring analysis we find of the skills she brought to this game. We find ourselves recognising them as tricks and techniques we have made into an important trade. And we also find that Elizabeth, as a Renaissance figure, was – in her very modernity – reaching back to classical skills from the inauguration of her reign to its end.

In 1558, as Queen Mary I lay dying in her bed, Philip II of Spain, Mary’s husband, sent his ambassador to consult with Elizabeth. Count de Feria reminded the queen-in-waiting that she would owe her throne to the king of Spain. His case was strong. Since Philip’s marriage to Mary in 1554 he had protected Elizabeth from the Queen’s wrath. It was Philip who finally persuaded his wife to recognise Elizabeth as her rightful successor.

Elizabeth replied that neither the king of Spain nor the nobility of England had paved the way for her reign. That honour, she said, went to her popularity among the English people. Feria wrote to his master, “She is much attached to the people… and is very confident that they are all on her side; which is indeed true”. [Queen Elizabeth, J E Neale, page 54, The Reprint Society, 1942]

The rebuke Elizabeth gave Feria took guts. As Elizabeth waited for Mary I to die, her future was far from assured. She faced a sea of existentially threatening reputational issues that threatened to delegitimise her reign.

Elizabeth I was the daughter of Henry VIII’s second wife Anne Boleyn who was executed for treason, adultery and incest. Officially her mother was decreed never to have married Henry VIII; though that made an absurdity of the adultery allegation. In the reign of Edward VI, Henry VIII’s son and successor, Elizabeth was accused of having sexual relations with Thomas Seymour, husband of her stepmother who was also the old king’s sixth wife (this familial dalliance was taboo in both of England’s major religions). Seymour was executed in 1549 for treasonable activities that seemingly had Elizabeth’s assent and perhaps even her active participation. After Edward VI died young in 1553, Mary I reintroduced Catholicism to England and, on good evidence, suspected Elizabeth of being complicit in a Protestant rebellion bent on deposing her. In response Mary I had Elizabeth sent to the Tower of London. She was made to enter via Traitors’ Gate, which traditionally meant that an execution was imminent. Even though Mary I, daughter of Henry VIII’s first wife Catherine of Aragon, was persuaded to release Elizabeth, she still regarded her half-sister as a bastard child of an infamous woman. As Elizabeth waited to become Queen, neither the Catholic nor Protestant church recognized the legitimacy of her birth. Mary Queen of Scots’ claim to the throne was also arguably more credible than Elizabeth’s (see part 1).

Meanwhile, England was a relatively poor and weak European power. Its economy was struggling; its army and navy were in a pitiful state and no match for the might of Spain or France.

Princess Elizabeth circa. 1546

So, when Elizabeth became Queen of England at the age of 25, her authority and legitimacy were questionable. Her realm was in danger of being overwhelmed by foreign foes.

Elizabeth I and her Privy Council advisers, not least the great Sir William Cecil and formidable Lord Walsingham, were well prepared to meet the challenges they inherited. They had all spent years reading Renaissance literature that revealed the anatomy of the rhetorical arts and the secrets of persuasion. In particular, they had been taught to wrap compelling narratives in symbolic metaphors-in-motion, otherwise known as allegories, which appealed to diverse audiences for conflicting reasons. They now had the opportunity to use that knowledge to add world-changing spark, spice and substance to religious and political expression.

Their Elizabethan Renaissance was obsessed with emblems, symbols and celebrity. The fashion in England was to weave iconographical and allegorical representations of perceived truths and morals into the fabric of sermons, paintings, proclamations, pamphlets, poetry, pageants and other spectacles promoted and funded by the rich, famous and powerful elite.

As Roy Strong explains in The Spirit of Britain, some of the images were kept obscure on purpose. The fashion being to produce coats of arms with pompous Latin mottos, fancy wax seals and abstract patterns in paintings and on clothes that carried hidden meanings, which looked and sounded medieval but were in fact of modern origin. Only the most educated members of elite society understood such messages. This obliqueness was a form of self-expression. It was the pursuit of the wealthy, which had a nostalgic and romantic attachment to the old feudal etiquette and styles. For instance, men loved to dress up as knights even though that position in society had been abolished.

In whatever form ideas were spread, the aim was to paint images in people’s imaginations. Though what concerns us most here is not narrowly-targeted elitist-codes but communication that reached out to and connected with the mass public.

Over the course of Elizabeth I’s reign she developed a compelling narrative theme that was updated regularly. Carefully managed public events were written up in pamphlets which were distributed nationwide. The narrative was then spread to a much larger audience by word of mouth. Above all, the retelling was staged managed literally at the theatre, which, with audiences often as large as 3000, was the major mass medium of the era:

Rather than use the Church as a communications channel to effect public persuasion, a path that might possibly have brought about open rebellion, Elizabeth turned to the Stage. Although this was by no means an open policy, that she did so has been attested to repeatedly by diplomats, intelligence agents, and educated contemporary observers. [Gary B. Goldstein’s Did Queen Elizabeth use the theater for social and political propaganda?, 2004]

Traders in business and aristocrats on estates and people on the street then discussed what they had heard and seen. It was also mulled over by members of all classes sharing a drink in England’s taverns.

Elizabeth I and the Three Goddesses, 1569

The objective of Elizabethan image-makers was to compose allegories that got people talking about what was being communicated. The dilemma was that allegories and other communication vehicles designed for mass consumption first required that people were able to interpret accurately what was being represented:

…the mentality which now turns to the comparative triviality of the crossword puzzle, then pondered on the sophisticated riddles of the emblems and impress.  [Shakespeare in His Own Age, Allardyce Nicoll, page 181, Cambridge University Press, 1976]

Deciphering and pondering these abstractions on a mass scale necessitated the development of a more literate and politically engaged public. This was something Elizabethan England positively encouraged. However, as Roy Strong hints, this social advancement had unintended consequences:

In this manner the visual arts were verbalised, turned into a form of book, a ‘text’ which called for reading by the onlooker. There are no better examples of this than the quite extraordinary portraits of the queen herself, which increasingly, as the reign progressed, took on the form of collections of abstract pattern and symbols disposed in an unnaturalistic manner for the viewer to unravel, and by doing so enter into an inner vision of the idea of monarchy. [The Spirit of Britain, Roy Strong, page 177, Pimlico, 2000]

Ironically, then, allegories that could be easily understood risked being maliciously and humorously misrepresented by the general public (a factor that was novel and yet of growing significance). For example, J E Neale tells us in his biography of Queen Elizabeth how “drunken Burley of Totnes” regaled his neighbours with stories about how Lord Robert “did swive” the virgin Queen [page 80]. Shakespeare had the queen of the fairies, which was an allusion to Elizabeth, sleep with an ass in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. In 1601, on the eve of his armed rebellion, the Earl of Essex sponsored a public performance of Richard II in the forlorn hope that its storyline would incite London’s masses to join him. Essex and his followers were seduced by the play’s account of Henry Bolingbroke (Essex saw himself) overthrowing Richard II (he saw Elizabeth I) who had abdicated too many of his powers to court advisors (he saw Cecil and Raleigh).

Elizabeth’s successor James I, the first of the Stuarts, continued to communicate through allegories and to encourage the arts. But there was a feeling that the education of the masses had gone too far under the old regime. The Lord Chancellor Francis Bacon told James that he should reduce the number of schools teaching grammar because there was no point producing more scholars than the state could employ. He added that by educating farmers and artisans the realm had become full with “indigent, idle and wanton people, which are but materia rerum novarum [substance of new things]”.

Sadly, toward the end of James I’s mostly peaceful, tolerant and prosperous reign he articulated the old maxim of the divine right of kings. His successor Charles I lost his head defending that right and became an iconic victim of a 16th-17th-century power struggle that encompassed most of Europe .

Sections of Europe’s public, particularly the merchant classes, developed an increasingly distinct identity that was expressed assertively in political and religious matters. New printing presses and better communication links also ensured that new and dissident ideas spread over great distances at great speed. The ruling elites soon discovered, too late in Charles I’s case, that they could not, as they had in times past, easily ignore or silence their opponents.

The Reformation was a public inquisition on the meaning and value of familiar symbols, beliefs and practices that challenged the old elite’s privileges and prejudices. The new ways that dissidents advocated were for many ideas worth dying for, let alone arguing for. At the heart of it was a fundamental dispute about the relationship between religion and politics; it was a test of power between competing factions within society.

People on one side questioned the validity of the old order. They saw God’s word in a new light. On the other, the forces of the counter-Reformation for the salvation of souls defended the old ways. Somewhere in the middle were the humanists who became the catalyst for the creation of a new secular world order. The three tendencies intertwined, but they were really at constant loggerheads in terms of argument, doctrine and the future of society.

Throughout Europe these differences were debated in print and in the pulpits. However the divisions expressed ran much deeper than just a Catholic versus Protestant schism. They also pitted Catholic against Catholic and different Protestant tendencies against each other and monarchists against republicans and vice versa.

For instance, Cervantes pokes fun at the Spanish Inquisition, the church and monks in Don Quixote (1605 – 1615), revealing how the old order in Spain was being undermined from within. The Dutch Catholic humanist Desiderius Erasmus was one of many who delivered a radical, and at times hilarious, critique of his own church’s ecclesiastical abuses: “Luther was guilty of two great crimes – he struck the Pope in his crown, and the monks in their belly”.

Whichever side people took, the ancient world’s rediscovered wisdom and the contemporary humanists who promulgated it influenced how they expressed their own ideas.

To its credit, since the early-15th-Century the Catholic hierarchy in Rome had been funding humanist writers to develop Ciceronianism, the literary movement of the Renaissance. It first encouraged the translation of Greek and Roman classics and the construction of a library in Rome devoted to humanist thought. It then hired humanists to overhaul the church’s Latin communications and to give its sermons more verve. Amazingly, in 1458 it elected the humanist Pius II Pope. He had a reputation as a Casanova (he had two illegitimate children), diplomat and belletrist. He courageously wrote about his life in the style of Cicero in his tell-all Commentaries, the only autobiography ever written by a wearer of the Papal tiara. Among many salacious revelations, the book describes how he was invited to an orgy in Britain, and how his election as Pope was rigged by a group of cardinals conspiring in the urinals. Subsequent popes may not have been inclined toward humanism in quite the same manner as Pius II, but they continued to make full use of its insights and practitioners. For instance, in the 1520s the Church used Cicero-style polemics to combat Martin Luther’s doctrines; one of which, A Dialogue Concerning Heresies, was written by the English Catholic humanist Thomas More.

So by the time Elizabeth became Queen in 1558, the Catholic Church had already spent more than 100 years acquiring a modern voice. It was fully capable of using humanist writers to produce eloquent contemporary-style rhetoric in robust pamphlets, proclamations, speeches, broadsides, treatises and invectives designed to rouse people’s spirits and influence their opinions.

Indeed, as early as 1568 the Catholic Church was training secular youth in the Netherlands to oppose English Protestantism. In 1580 a year-old school in Rome sent the first Jesuit missionaries to England to reclaim the land for Catholicism.

Almost twenty years after Elizabeth’s death in 1603, Pope Gregory XV consolidated these efforts in his Congregation of Propaganda Fide.

Elizabethan England was, however, more than a match for the Pope’s PR machine. The Queen herself was a great communicator. While her closest advisers Sir William Cecil and Lord Walsingham were the world’s first modern spindoctors and arguably the best to have ever practiced the art. She also had the support of William Shakespeare. He is thought to have worked for a company of actors and playwrights known as Queen’s Men and later The Lord Chamberlain’s Men, which produced patriotic propaganda for the masses. In her 1947 book, Shakespeare’s Histories: Mirrors of Elizabethan Policy, the American intellectual Lily Campbell states that:

Each of the Shakespeare histories serves a special purpose in elucidating a political problem of Elizabeth’s day and in bringing to bear upon this problem the accepted political philosophy of the Tudors. [Quoted in Gary B. Goldstein’s Did Queen Elizabeth use the theater for social and political propaganda?, 2004]

Moreover, there was Edmund Spenser, who wrote the allegorical poem Faerie Queene in Elizabeth’s honour. It proved to be a potent piece of nationalistic propaganda:

Mirrour of grace and Maiestie diuine,
Great Lady of the greatest Isle, whose light
Like Phoebus lampe throughout the world doth shine,
Shed thy faire beames into my feeble eyne,
And raise my thoughts too humble and too vile,
To thinke of that true glorious type of thine (full text here)

Elizabeth I: The Pelican Portrait – an allegory of her selfless love

Elizabeth and her inner-circle were visionaries. Their advantage over both their contemporaries and near successors was their understanding that feudal society’s mores and morals and all forms of immutable religious faith no longer provided sufficient glue to maintain stability. Tyranny was also of limited appeal to them, though not without its uses, given the rise of powerful new social forces capable of asserting their will. Instead, they accepted that the monarchy’s long-term survival meant letting go of some aspects of their control over society. They saw the need to relax somewhat their hold on people’s religious beliefs and practices. They conceded, perhaps reluctantly, that they no longer had a proper monopoly over debate and the dissemination of ideas within their realm. Though censorship remained a frontline weapon wielded with zeal.

Rising to the challenge of recasting her reputation, Elizabeth’s communication strategy was brilliantly formulated to redefine her ambiguities as strengths. Her intention was to make cognitive dissonance work for her.

Elizabeth I took the facts of her position and decisions and made sure that their merit was made glamorous and comprehensible. She made sure that her behaviour was seen (accurately, actually) to be the epitome of statecraft for her people. Everything was tweaked and honed to unite a wide range of audiences who might otherwise threaten her rule.

The first narrative salvo was fired during Elizabeth’s pre-coronation pageants before she’d had a chance to achieve anything. It was a bold and inspired example of Renaissance creativity in practice. Her confidence in her narrative reflected the ancient world’s humanist mantra that people could establish themselves in the esteem of an audience through eloquent words and telling images.

Elizabeth I’s pre-coronation pageants were a mixture of pomp, ceremony and unceremoniousness. It was very much a charm offensive that showcased her trademark touchy feely PR style. But there was more.

As Elizabeth was wheeled through London’s streets she insisted on stopping to talk to passersby. She also replied to the scriptwriters’ themes and interacted with the performances of the actors at the various pageants. As Professor Dale Hoak maintains, this effectively turned the procession into a conversation between the queen and her people:

…something Richard Mulcaster, the ‘reporter’ [he wrote the defining account of the event within a week of it] who helped script the pageants realized was unprecedented. [The Coronations of Edward VI, Mary I, and Elizabeth I, The Transformation of the Tudor Monarchy, Dale Hoak, which can found in Westminster Abbey Reformed: 1540 – 1640, by C S Knighton and Richard Mortimer, page 135, Ashgate, 2003]

Elizabeth encouraged what Mulcaster described as “baser personages” to converse with her in private. They would handover flowers or express their goodwill, while she “staid her chariot, and heard theyr requestes”. According to J E Neale’s biography of Queen Elizabeth I this seemingly unbecoming behaviour from a monarch shocked the envoy from the Italian city of Mantua, who recorded that, “she exceeded the bounds of gravity and decorum” [Queen Elizabeth, J E Neale, page 63, The Reprint Society, 1942].

Ditchley Portrait highlighting her divine powers

Hoak says that Elizabeth I was the first English monarch to exploit the psychological possibilities of a coronation’s spectacle. Her proactive approach demonstrated that she valued her subjects’ opinions and their support. Her behaviour at the pageants communicated that she was their servant as well as their Queen. The seeming unity on the streets of aristocratic courtiers, London magistrates, merchants and artisans signified that the bonds linking the monarch to her people were reciprocal. It conveyed the impression that the bond she had with her people transcended social and official status and that she considered other classes to be level with the nobles in importance. Back then no other kingdom in Europe would have positioned their monarch’s relationship to their people at their coronation in such a populist manner.

Much of Hoak’s information comes from Richard Mulcaster’s account of the pageants in The Passage Of Our Most Drad Soveraigne Lady Quene Elyzabeth Through The Citie Of London To Westminster The Daye Before Her Coronacion. His pamphlet like the pageants he partly drafted was paid for by London’s commercial elite; the narrative and allegories of the pre-coronation pageants were most likely the co-creation of wealthy aldermen, Elizabeth and her advisers.

Mulcaster’s text provides some insights into the anxieties surrounding Elizabeth’s coronation. Describing the scene of London’s aldermen handing her one thousand marks in gold, Mulcaster records the exchange of words between Randolph Cholmley, London’s Recorder, and Elizabeth. Cholmley reportedly tells her to “mynd” [the purpose] of the gift. When Elizabeth accepts the money, from the people upon whose tax contribution her state depended, she replies, “no wille in me can lacke.” She adds, “neither doe I trust shall ther lacke any power”. And to drive home her message, she says, “for the safetie and quietness of you all, I will not spare, if nede be to spend my blood”. As Susan Frye assesses:

For just a moment, Elizabeth’s response breaks out of the mould of gracious obedience to make sure of the bargain: I will perform my part, but you must support my sovereignty. [Elizabeth I The Competition for Representation, page 42, Oxford University Press, 1993]

Frye is being astute. Elizabeth I was not yet secure. At the same moment as she celebrated her accession she was negotiating, if only symbolically, with her people about the terms of her rule. The pageants were helping the Queen to gauge public opinion as much as to influence it.

Our concern here is her PR messaging, rather than the events themselves. So let’s review in some more detail the narrative that emerged from her five pre-coronation pageants and from her first post-coronation speech.

Elizabeth I was painted in the mind’s eye as a “queen with the heart of a king”. She was presented as being very much her father’s daughter. This was an image that served her well thirty years later when she rallied her troops to resist the Spanish Armada:

I know I have the body but of a weak and feeble woman; but I have the heart and stomach of a king, and of a king of England too, and think foul scorn that Parma or Spain, or any prince of Europe, should dare to invade the borders of my realm; to which rather than any dishonour shall grow by me, I myself will take up arms, I myself will be your general, judge, and rewarder of every one of your virtues in the field. [1588: Speech to the Troops at Tilbury]

Indeed, Elizabeth’s rhetoric in 1588 was consistent with how she presented herself in 1558. J E Neale writes in his biography of Queen Elizabeth how Spain’s ambassador Count Feria noted at the beginning of her reign that she longed “to do some act that would make her fame spread abroad in her lifetime, and, after occasion memorial for ever” [page 67]. Her messaging always reflected this aspiration.

Elizabeth I: The sieve is a symbol of chastity and purity

At the pre-coronation pageants Elizabeth made a virtue of being the product of Henry VIII’s marriage to Anne Boleyn, the woman blamed for the social turmoil after the break with Rome. She glossed over how her father had denied the legitimacy of her own birth in his will and Second Act of Succession. She instead blamed the problems of her society under the Tudors, not on the Tudors, but on the consequences of the War of Roses, which ended in 1485. The positive messages here were that she was a Tudor and a bringer of unity and concord, the unifier of the two warring houses of Lancaster and York. She was committed to maintaining the peace and that above all was what people wanted to hear.

The pageants’ allegories drew extensively on familiar themes from the Old Testament. Elizabeth explained her escape from the Tower of London, where they kept lions, as if she had had the same God-given help as Daniel when he miraculously escaped Nebuchadnezzar’s lions. The message was communicated by her in a prayer (women didn’t normally lead prayers in public so this was significant). She implied that God had saved her from the Tower so she could become Queen.

Elizabeth also portrayed herself as the new Deborah; a Hebrew goddess, female judge and military leader who rid the land of Canannite idolatry (a clear allusion to Catholicism) and restored good governance to Israel (a dig at Mary I). The allegory made great play of how she would consult the estates of England for the good of her citizens, the same way that the Old Testament in chapters 4 and 5 of Book of Judges said Deborah had.

For the consumption of the educated classes Elizabeth’s character was endowed with mythological qualities associated with the three Roman vestal virgins: Minerva, Vesta and Diana. She was compared most favourably to the goddess Diana, acclaimed for her light, inaccessibility, virginity, sovereignty, supremacy and impassibility.

At the pageant at Temple Bar she was proclaimed as the modern embodiment of two mythological giants, Gogmagot the Albion and Corineus the Britain. This allusion to English folkloric tales linked her spirit and lineage with the mystical founding fathers of England. It also had the benefit of invoking the images of well-known Old Testament characters of almost the same names – see here & here. Such allusions were designed to touch and provoke potent nationalistic and Biblical sentiments that reached out to everybody.

At the pageant Truth, the Daughter of Time, Elizabeth was heard to say “and Time hath brought me hither.” The pageant was:

…set in the form of two hills. One was green and beautiful, and on the summit was a handsome youth, gay in dress and spirits, standing under a green laurel tree: this represented a flourishing commonwealth [Respublica bene instituta]. The other all withered and dead, and a youth in rude apparel sat mournfully under an arid tree: this was the decayed commonwealth [Ruinosa Respublica]. Between was a cave from which Time emerged, leading her daughter Truth who carried and English Bible in hand. [Queen Elizabeth by J E Neale, pages 61/62, The Reprint Society, 1942]

The message had a double edge. The City was expressing what it wanted from her, which was Protestantism. She responded by implying with her actions and words that she was on their side. Elizabeth seemingly confirmed her role as the personification of the Truth by kissing the English Bible and then theatrically holding it aloft before hugging it to her bosom. Afterward she thanked the City for giving her the book. She said with God’s help she would oversee the renewed glory of the commonwealth after Mary’s rule had allowed it to wane. She was going to stamp out vices, which the audience took to be Catholicism, and uphold virtues, which they took to be Protestantism. The crowd cheered; though at the time it was unclear just what plans Elizabeth had in mind for the future of her realm.

The second salvo was fired several weeks after her coronation. Elizabeth I’s maiden speech to Parliament and her Privy council, read for her by Sir John Mason, declared that from now on she stood free from any reputation that had dogged her in times past or present (one assumes she meant before the pre-coronation pageants). Then, addressing the male audience on the sensitive topic of her gender and her marriage intentions, she said:

…albeit it might please almighty God to continue me still in this mind to live out of the state of marriage, yet it is not to be feared but He will so work in my heart and in your wisdom as good provision by his help may be made in convenient time, whereby the realm shall not remain destitute of an heir. That may be a fit governor, and peradventure more beneficial to the realm than such offspring as may come of me. For although I be never so careful of your well doings and mind ever so to be, yet may my issue grow out of kind and become perhaps ungracious. And in the end this shall be for me sufficient, that a marble stone shall declare that a Queen, having reigned such a time, lived and died a virgin.

Elizabeth Coronation portrait

Elizabeth Coronation portrait

It was a bold position to take. She had declared openly that she was minded not to marry; previously that option had been regarded as unthinkable. But marriage was not out of the question either. Creating this elbowroom was important. It was used as tool of her diplomacy. Beginning with proffering a maybe to marry Philip II, she went on to feign her intention to marry numerous suitors from states whose neutrality she required for a while.

The allegory of the Virgin Queen and Mother of England contained the overarching narrative of Elizabeth’s reign. God had preserved her so she could be wedded to her people. This way she took the judgement of her reputation out of the hands of man and placed it in the higher authority of God. This positioned her almost on the same level as the most elevated female from the New Testament: the Virgin Mary. Of course Catholics worshiped the Virgin Mary’s icon, but that was a practice now frowned upon in Protestant England. Instead, Elizabeth was portrayed as the sacred one, the deliverer of England’s people to a better world. This nationalist sentiment resonated with both England’s Protestants and Catholics.

The appropriation of this familiar theme for a new purpose and person was a stroke of brilliance.

It took the heat out of the thorny problem of finding an heir to throne that had bedevilled the reigns of Henry VIII and Mary I. It allowed her to escape the constraints of traditional female virtue that positioned good women as passive creatures. As Susan Frye says in Elizabeth I, The Competition for Representation, the image of the Virgin Queen portrayed her instead as being free from the confines of marriage and male dominance; she had no husband, father, brother or other male relatives to obey. This was, therefore, a power play.

This clever use of the art of rhetoric persuaded the public, and not least elite society, to alter their perception of what to expect from Elizabeth as a woman and monarch. It provided Elizabeth with the necessary consent to play the man’s role in society as England’s legitimate Queen. Yet Elizabeth’s greatest PR masterstroke was not this, but it was the way in which she was able to unite and motivate her people.

One of the major issues she confronted was filling the vacuum at the heart of English communal life in the wake of the demise of overt Catholicism. Austere Puritans and pious parsons positively discouraged much of the seasonal fun and frolics the old religion had once encouraged in village life. In response, Elizabeth once again revealed her conservative instincts by getting her branding gurus to redefine past practices to serve contemporary purposes.

In 1586 William Warner published his popular poem Albion’s England, which set out a romantic vision of English traditions. It even eulogised the legend of Robin Hood and his merry band of outlaws living in Sherwood Forest:

As Paske [Easter] began our Morrisse, and ere Penticost our May, Tho Robin Hood, Liell John, Frier Tuck, and Marian deftly play, And Lord and ladie gang till Kirke with Lads and Lasses gay. [Quoted in Shakespeare’s Festive World: Elizabethan Seasonal Entertainment, François Laroque, page 336, Cambridge University Press, 1991]

Warner implied with wit that Catholic and older pagan irreverent festivities were part of a patriotic culture that celebrated England’s glorious past, which supposedly began with Noah’s flood. Albion’s England met with some ecclesiastical resistance. However because the poem was passed by the censors it gave courage and support to those wanting to restore May Day, Whitsun and summer fun to the parishes and greens of England’s towns and villages.

As I outlined in part 1, Elizabeth I had a great understanding of contemporary realities. There was substance, policies, inspired leadership and a great grasp of ambiguity behind everything Elizabeth did. Above all, we should note that Elizabeth I was her own agency for change (she was not at the mercy of fate). She redefined Renaissance England according to her will and what was possible.

While Elizabeth clearly admired Cicero for his eloquence and insight into how to communicate effectively, she was just as influenced by his views on the principles governing the relationship between rulers and the ruled. Throughout her reign she showed a commitment to the Ciceronian maxim: Salus Populi Est Suprema Lex; the welfare of the people is the ultimate law. She even, for example, created the basis for the world’s first welfare state by introducing the Poor Law, which took a compassionate view of the state’s responsibility to alleviate poverty, in 1601.

English Renaissance communication techniques might appear primitive to us, perhaps. But let’s not forget what Daniel Boorstin says in The ImageA Guide to Pseudo-Events in America. He maintains that today’s PR, marketing and advertising executives are “simply the acolytes of the image”. He suggests that modern image-makers obscure the origin of content so that form takes on new meaning, in much the same way that Elizabeth I did. (I shall review the views of Boorstin in the second half of On Message: Propaganda, persuasion and the PR game).

Overall, Elizabeth’s positioning, messaging and policies were ahead of their time. From her cautious beginning she wrapped romance, war, progress and a new national identity in an evolving and compelling meta-narrative. Roy Strong summarizes the uniqueness of her PR achievement well:

Never before had so many lay people been drawn into the creation of a new national identity, one in which the arts were seen to play a crucial role. Even then nothing could have quite prepared anyone for the explosive energy of creation which followed the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588. [The Spirit of Britain, by Roy Strong, page 174]

By the time of Elizabeth’s death in 1603, she had inspired and united a kingdom previously murderously divided by two major religions of almost equal weight.

Out of the Elizabethan era came English nationalism, a new mercantile spirit, English colonialism and a cultural revolution. But from a PR perspective there was something even more significant and lasting to celebrate.

Elizabeth I’s near-separation of politics from religion defined a new space outside of public life, which was its modern counterpart: the private sphere.

What more should it take to become a PR icon than that?

One response to “Queen Elizabeth I: PR Icon (part 2)”

  1. You’re right: the Virgin Queen became a secular idol to replace the recently removed religious ones.

    There’s something very English about Elizabeth and her era – and let’s remember that English identity was still young and very fragile. The Church of England, established at the start of her reign, is a textbook example of the English preference for pragmatism over ideology.

    Then there’s the English language, immortalised in the Book of Common Prayer, Spencer, Shakespeare and others.