Queen Elizabeth As the Protestant Idol


During her rule, and in posthumous praise, Elizabeth I
acted as the symbolic Protestant replacement of the Virgin
Mary in the newly converted England. This image of the
Christian female deity was only one of the many comparisons
made between the Virgin Queen and the many mythological or
pagan female deities that symbolized different forms of
virginity. Linking of the Queen of England and the Queen of
Heaven had a wider range of effect than her association
with any other feminine symbols, however. Literary
allusions to such figures as Diana, Cynthia, and Belphoebe
tended to only affect royal ceremonies by their usefulness
in aiding the rich imagery of the pageantry of the time.
The veneration of the queen as the sacred virgin and God's
handmaiden effectively boosted her image in the hearts and
minds of the court, church, and people of England. In the
rush to idolize her triumphant reign, hagiographical
accounts of her life created false impressions of how this
role was conceived, popularized and maintained.
One of the first important critical works on the idolatry
of Elizabeth is England's Eliza, by E.C. Wilson. This book,
published in 1939, was "a study of the idealization of
Queen Elizabeth in the poetry of her age". Eliza is now one
of the most cited works in scholarly discussions of
Elizabeth's image, which was of high importance during her
forty-five years of rule. Wilson saw the idealization of
the Queen as the inevitable result of her extraordinary
qualities and the spirit of the age.
Wilson found some of the greatest written use of the
idolizing of Elizabeth in the prayers that grant her the
status of not only the head of the church, but also of the
second maid in heaven He partially excuses the extreme
glorification by believing that "patriotic Englishmen
unconsciously half shifted their affection for a sacred
Virgin to profane." The picture of Elizabeth as God's
handmaiden on earth, who was venerated as such during her
reign is aided by Wilson's mention of her use of the royal
healing touch, a miracle which also aided the public to
view her in the light of extreme holiness.
The worship of Elizabeth constituted poetry as well as
praise, however. This aided the queen to justify her
unmarried state, and when "this scriptural figure was
turned to glorify Elizabeth; it fused prettily with her
conceit that she was the virgin mother of her people,
joined in holy wedlock to the state." Her virginity was
highly prized and highly praised by the people of England,
and "Elizabeth missed no chance to catch the veneration due
"sacred virginity."
 This literary idolatry is excused by Wilson by arguing
that the historical context justified the use of the symbol
of the Virgin Mary for the Virgin Queen. Ecclesiastical
forms notoriously did service along with profane, feudal,
and classical ones in armorous verse addressed to a
mistress. It still remains that such idolatry was being
created in a time when the new Protestantism was
specifically destroying idols of Mary, due to the " way in
which attention was so often focused on Mary's exaltation
rather than on God's condescension in the Incarnation."
Instead of unleashing any negative comments on the
hypocrisy present, Wilson finds it "interesting and ironic"
that "English iconoclasts while wrecking the image of the
Queen of Heaven turn to adoring that which they model after
the queen of England" Again, other than a subtle chastising
of the queen for enjoying the praise too much, he thought
no more evil of the people than that they had
"unconsciously transferred some of the ad
oration which by right
 Continuing in the work on examining the idolatry of
Elizabeth I is Roy Strong's The Cult of Elizabeth,
Elizabethan Portraiture and Pageantry. This work is
complimentary to Wilson's, as it utilizes the art of
Elizabeth, rather than the writing, as its primary source.
This book, along with a few other texts by strong, is
another major landmark in the study of the idealization of
 Strong views the symbols in the art of the time as a code
that requires deciphering. He sees the Virgin Mary in
symbols used to surround or imply the presence of
Elizabeth, especially elegantine. "As a virgin rose, used
in medieval religious art to celebrate the virgin Mary, the
cult of Elizabeth as the elegantine would be a logical
extension of her rose imagery." The portrait of a young man
standing among such flowers then becomes a story of a man
enraptured by the beautiful and chaste queen, untouchable,
and worthy of the highest praise and devotion.
 While the majority of Strong's work focuses on art, it is
in his pure history that he sees the most serious usage of
the symbol of the Virgin Mary - in Accession day. This day,
November 17th had previously been a holy day of celebration
in honor of the nativity of Mary. During Elizabeth's reign,
the day instead became a celebration of the anniversary of
the day that the queen ascended to the throne. Although the
origin of this change is unclear, it showed an obvious move
from the old church, to the worship of the new head of the
Protestant church, the virgin queen. In addition, though
the origin of the celebration may have been unknown, Strong
points out the eventual distribution of prayer books and
the like to be used for the day, extolling Elizabeth, that
came from government-controlled presses This was one of the
largest of the many ways that the queen managed to replace
Mary in the hearts of the people. The churches that day
sang their praises to Elizabeth, defending the idol
atry with patriotism. 

 Unlike Wilson's defense for the replacement of Mary with
Elizabeth, Strong makes no attempt to cover the obvious
blasphemy of the worship of a non-divine figure. Instead,
he merely finds that "the Anglican position was thus a
somewhat peculiar one, for on the one hand the use of
religious images was denounced as popish superstition,
while on the other, the sacred nature of the royal portrait
was to be maintained." Strong also differs from Wilson by
beginning to implicate the monarchy in the shaping of
Elizabeth's image, because rather than only examining the
church usage of the glorification of the queen, he widens
his context from not only viewing the text, but also
looking at the event which created them. This way, he sees
the Accession day first, and then the prayers.
 The next step to fully understanding the idolatry of
Elizabeth was taken by John N. King, who begins to remove
the uniqueness of the religious iconography. He gives
credit to Wilson and Strong for having created the 'modern'
view of the suibject, however, he qualifies these views
with 'the fundamental importance in Elizabethan iconography
of scriptural and medieval formulas" as it "had been
employed in literary and artistic praise of both the
Protestant Tudors, and their Catholic successor" (31) In
addition, he wishes to show that the creation of the
queen's images was a dialectic, and especially stress the
evolution of the image.
 King views the Virgin Queen's image as progressing through
three stages - martyrdom in youth, marraigeability, and
only then becoming the perpetual virgin. "It was not until
after the failure of the last effort at marriage, one third
of the way through Elizabeth's reign, that the patriotic
cult of an unmarried virgin queen who would remain ever
wedded to her nation took hold in officially-sponsored
propaganda" It is of special notice that until now, the
assumption made in previous works was that Elizabeth had
always been compared to and used in place of the Virgin
Mary. He is sure to point out, however, that "this
iconographical shift is clearly evident in royal
portraiture, which begins to incorporate esoteric virginity
symbols into arcane allegories that may be impenetrable to
casual observers" He notes that until this time, the people
of England still hoped Elizabeth would marry and produce an
heir, but after reaching the age when childbirth would be
dangerous or impossible, t
he 'cult of the virgin
 King's examination of the idolatry is greatly improved by
the wider historical context that he uses, and his
chronological, rather than hidsighted view. He only serves
to expand the work done previously, however, rather than
attempting to create a new picture of the subject. He
borrows much from his predeccessors, as is evident in such
things as his heavy use of Strong's term 'cult of
 Carole Levin steers well through this subject in The Heart
and Stomach of a King. She makes short work of the loyalty
inspired in the queen through the use of the sacred. A
short listing is made of the "number of symbols were used
to represent Elizabeth as Virgin Queen - the Rose, the
Star, the Moon, the Phoenix, the Ermine, and the Pearl -
were also symbols used to represent the Virgin Mary." She
recalls the church festivals in Elizabeth's honor and the
contemporary critics of those festivals, and the posthumous
praise that was even greater. In addition, she also
continues the theory of how "denying [the Virgin Mary]
power and prestige, as the protestant reformers did, did
not lessen the tremendous appeal the Virgin had for the
popular imagination; it simply left a void" which was
quickly filled by Elizabeth. Here, the scholarship seemed
to have reached stasis.
 There is,however, another voice to challenge those 'final'
words on the subject. In Rediscovering Shock; Elizabeth and
the cult of the Virgin Mary, Helen Hackett writes on the
blasphemy of replacing the Virgin Mary with Queen
Elizabeth, placing the most importance, as the title
suggests, on its shock value that has been avoided in past
works. She does not limit her critisism there, however, and
goes on to attack the lack of examination and analysis that
other historians have shown where they did not choose to
challenge past works.
 Hackett first tears at the lack of notice paid to the
chronology and development of the Marian symbols, although
she does compliment John King for his work in that area.
Then, the overimportance placed on symbols, as instituted
by Strong is brought out for attention, where there is a
"tendency to identify just about any symbol in Elizebethian
pangyric, such as 'the Rose ... the Star, the Moon [etc. ]'
as Marian, playing down their wider and alternative
associations with femininity and virginity in general, or
with the Tudor dynasty" Complains of chronology,
overworking of symbols, but especially gap theory
acceptance by other historians
 Uses incident to show the theatrics of the move, how we
must understand that this was a major thing back then, so
we can't disregard it now. Insisting it was idolatry, not
 In Hackett, we have the most comprehensive view of the
subject, but the least elaboration of any of the works
studied. What she takes into consideration. the time views
were formulated, and how the whole replacement could be
viewed in full context of the time without current bias. 

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