Hollywood, just like Schiller and Donizetti, could not resist having Elizabeth I and Mary, Queen of Scots confront each other, although they never met. Hilaire Belloc, in his Characters of the Reformation, resists that temptation, but may have fallen into other ones. Anna Mitchell and I will start the New Year tomorrow morning with our continuing series of discussing his portraits of Reformation era figures on the Son Rise Morning Show. Listen live here a little after 6:45 a.m. Central/7:45 a.m. Eastern.
Belloc highlights the changes in Elizabeth I's reputation and presents his own view, which is that she was more ruled than ruling:
The truth about Elizabeth is this. She was the puppet or figurehead of the group of new millionaires established upon the loot of religion begun in her father's time. They had at their head the unique genius of William Cecil, who, in spite of dangerous opposition, accomplished what might have seemed the impossible task of digging up the Catholic Faith by the roots from English soil, stamping out the Mass, and shepherding the younger generation of a reluctant people into a new religious mood.
Throughout her life Elizabeth was thwarted in each political effort she made; she felt the check of her masters and especially Cecil as a horse feels the bridle. She never had her will in matters of State.
Belloc believes that Elizabeth suffered from great physical weakness and that she could not have become pregnant or delivered a child; therefore she remained unmarried.
He offers support for his view that she was unable to exert her political will:
1. She had personally given her Royal assurance to the Spanish Minister that the Spanish treasure ships bearing the pay for Alva's soldiers in the Netherlands, the ships which had taken refuge from pirates in English harbours, should be released and the money taken under safeguards to its proper destination. Cecil simply over-ruled her. He ordered the money to be kept and confiscated in spite of her, and his orders, not hers, were obeyed.
2. Again, she desired to save Norfolk. Three separate times she interfered to prevent the execution. She was over- ruled. That unfortunate cousin of hers was put to death, but his blood is not upon her head; it is upon Cecil's.
3. She tried to recall Drake just before the open declaration of war with Spain; no one thought of obeying her orders in the matter.
4. The supreme example is the case of Mary, Queen of Scots. The murder — for it was a murder' — was accomplished against her will. Our official historians have perpetually repeated that her agony at hearing of Mary's death was feigned: that is, false. It was genuine. The signing of the warrant had indeed been wrung out of her, but that did not mean that the warrant would be put into execution. It was put into execution in spite of her, in order that she should be made responsible, willing or unwilling.
I think that Belloc ignores one of the main achievements that Father Marvin O'Connell noted about Elizabeth, and that was that she balanced her budget and did not have to depend upon Parliament for taxes or other stipends--at least, until she thought it was time to enter into war against Philip II in the Spanish Netherlands. Belloc also forgets that Elizabeth did have her way in at least one political sphere: the Church of England. She controlled the doctrine, the worship, and the vestments and order of the Church; she removed bishops at will; Belloc seems to think she harbored sympathy for Catholic doctrine and that's not likely. Furthermore, Elizabeth I did exert her will in the matter of her not marrying or naming a successor: "her masters" and/or Parliament were never able to change her mind on that matter and she had enough power to prevent them from forcing her.
When Belloc discusses Mary, Queen of Scots, he almost proves Elizabeth's point by highlighting how unfortunate Mary's marriages were:
Into this anarchy Mary was plunged. For seven years her invincible courage still maintained her as Queen; but her temperament ruined what small chances she had of maintaining her position. We must remember in her favour that she was a woman of especial fascination which in a sense she exercises to this day; and that yet it was her misfortune to be married first to a sickly boy even younger than herself who died before she was eighteen and next by her own judgment and error to her cousin Darnley, a debauched and worthless character. She was accused, falsely, of having taken part in the murder of Darnley. The act was really that of the rebel Scotch nobles, but it was widely believed that she was guilty of it and still more widely believed (it is still a problem) that she was at any rate cognizant of what was in the wind.
It was her temperament again that made her fall a victim to Bothwell, one of her own great nobles in Scotland, a masterly man to whom she succumbed. Though she was the representative of Catholicism she married him with Calvinistic rites, and as he was universally regarded as at least one of the murderers of her first husband the scandal was enormous. She was imprisoned, she escaped, she was defeated; and in 1568, her twenty-sixth year, she escaped, unarmed and without resources, over the border into England — trusting to the promised protection of Elizabeth. From that moment of course she was in Cecil's power.
That's why Chesterton highlights Don John of Austria's plan to marry the Queen of Scotland--with him, Chesterton says, she would at last have had a man more her equal in endurance, culture, spirit, and courage: "If ever there was a woman who was manifestly meant, destined, created, and as it were crying aloud to be carried off by Don John of Austria, or some such person, it was Mary Queen of Scots. If ever there was a woman who went to seed for want of meeting any sort of man who was anything like her equal, it was she."
Of both women, Belloc concludes, the legend has been so powerful that we had not--in his time--gotten to the truth. He feared that Elizabeth I would go from exaltation as the greatest queen ever to being deemed insignificant; he believed that Mary, Queen of Scots' life would always remain a mystery: "The whole story of this unfortunate woman remains and will remain full of unsolved problems. Mary Stuart will always be for some a martyr, for others a criminal, so long as the religious passions which centre round her name survive."
If you watched the 1971 movie I alluded to above, you might remember the theme song for Mary composed by John Barry: elegiac, melancholy, and romantic! Tune in tomorrow for more!