When Women Ruled the World:
The Glorious Sixteenth Century

Maureen Quilligan


From left: Mary, Queen of Scots; Elizabeth I; and Catherine de Médicis


     1. From approximately the middle of the 16th century to close to its end, France and England were ruled by two very powerful queens, Catherine de Médicis and Elizabeth I. During this time, Catherine's daughter-in-law Mary Stuart, who had been briefly Queen of France, ruled as Queen of Scotland until deposed and then imprisoned for eighteen years by Elizabeth. She was beheaded by Elizabeth's government in 1587, two years before the death of Catherine de Médicis.

     2. We know a great deal about the relations between Elizabeth and Mary, first cousins once removed, and their long contestation for control over an island that they shared as legitimate anointed queens. We know far less about Elizabeth's relations with Catherine, who was not only Mary's powerful first mother-in-law, but also the potential mother-in-law of Elizabeth on two separate occasions. The story of Elizabeth and Mary is traditionally narrated as a personal rivalry between two very different women rather than a drama the two shared in which the political difficulties inherent in female rule are manifested, a drama in which these two contestants may have had more sympathy and understanding for each other than we have supposed.1  Elizabeth's notorious reluctance to accede to pressure to execute Mary clearly owed much to the former's sense of her shared female governorship with a "sister" queen.2

     3. Despite their national and theological divide, Elizabeth also continued freely to negotiate with another sister queen, Catherine, about marrying first one, then another, of her sons. It was Elizabeth's plan to marry the younger, the Duc d'Anjou, in 1579, that provoked Sidney's famous letter of rebuke and John Stubbs' pamphlet on the Discoverie of a gaping gvlf, vvhereinto England is like to be swallovved by an other French marriage, if the Lord forbid not the banes, by letting Her Maiestie see the sin and punishment thereof (London, 1579, tp). In his letter Sidney notoriously chastised Elizabeth for her willingness to deal with Catherine de Médicis, that "jezebel of our age," for whom Sidney clearly felt great personal animosity because of her presumed part in the St. Bartholomew Day's massacre in 1572 (which he witnessed while visiting Paris).3  It was a negative opinion Elizabeth clearly did not share. She wrote a notable letter of condolence to Catherine when the Duc d'Anjou died, reassuring the Queen Mother that "you will find me the most faithful daughter and sister that ever princess had."4 While we can view these compliments and filial claims as more a political reassurance that peace will continue between the two realms and less an expression of overwhelming grief for a lost lover, that impression may be precisely the point. For Elizabeth the connection with Catherine, not her sons, was the important one to maintain.

     4. Did these queens ever think about the problems they shared as women governing within a structure of patriarchal domination? Is it possible to think of them not merely as women who happened, by dynastic accidents, to reign, but as women rulers who in the midst of those reigns carved out active political programs, knowing their shared royal female prerogatives depended, to some degree, on the achievements of each other?

     5. Because the relations between Mary and Elizabeth have been so often rehearsed, it is not only more useful to focus now on the far less studied relations between Elizabeth and Catherine, but also true that by so doing, we are in a position to see Elizabeth's relationship with Mary from a different and illuminating perspective. As Catherine's daughter-in-law, Mary's familial and marital relations posed problems for the French regent. The moment Mary left France after the death of Francis II in 1561, and began her rule as Queen of Scotland, she ceased to be a problem for Catherine and became a very active one for Elizabeth.5

     6. An important piece of testimony as to Catherine de Médicis' attitude toward Elizabeth, her fellow female ruler -- a piece that also includes the important figure of the relative they shared, Mary Stuart -- is a volume of poetry that Pierre Ronsard sent to Elizabeth I in 1565. Ronsard makes clear that the contents of this volume -- specifically, its centerpiece, a masque he wrote for Catherine's children to perform in 1563-in fact represent Catherine's messages to Elizabeth. Catherine is Ronsard's "maitresse" and he could perform, he explains, no service more agreeable to his patron, than to send Elizabeth a book that contains all the fetes, masques and tournaments commanded by the queen in her effort to bring together the warring factions among the princes of France "par tel artifice de plaisir."6
Unlike Elizabeth, who delegated support of the arts to her courtiers, Catherine was (as befits a Medici) a great patroness in her own right. Her support of courtly performance, however, was always political (as a recipient of her largesse, Ronsard, makes this quite clear). Of course, Catherine was not the only Renaissance prince who spoke politics in the language of "artifice de plaisir." Throughout the period, the arts -- music, poetry, dance, masques -- were the media of often quite specific political articulations.7

     7. The opening two poems in the 1565 Mascarades et Bergeries are dedicatory pieces; the first praises Elizabeth, to whom the entire volume is addressed; the second honors Robert Dudley, the Earl of Leicester, whom, as I shall suggest, Catherine may have expected Elizabeth to marry. After these poems comes the centerpiece of the volume, the masque titled "Bergerie," in which the royal Valois children, at the time aged nine to thirteen, plus a few additional key players (the Duc de Guise and Henri Navarre, the future Henri IV) all had parts to play (although it is not clear that the masque was actually ever presented). "Bergerie" is dedicated to Mary, Queen of Scots. Immediately following the masque in this text are two poems complimenting first, the young king, and then Catherine de Médicis, the Queen Mother, who was, as Ronsard explicitly tells us, the patron of the volume. Thus the 1565 volume specifically stands as testimony to the celebratory aspects of the rule of two queens who had just contracted the Treaty of Troyes in 1564, creating a peace between England and France. In his text Ronsard also anticipates Mary Stuart's reign as an occurrence that will add further luster to the island of Britain.

     8. Especially given this explicit reference to Mary Stuart, Ronsard's book is a virtually direct response to John Knox's far better known harangue against the "monstrous regiment of women," the ill-timed publication of which in 1558, just before Elizabeth came to the English throne, earned him Elizabeth's long-lasting disapproval. (Knox was never granted free passage through England during her reign.) In his tract Knox had objected to the unnaturalness of rule by women, naming specifically two catholic queens: Mary Tudor, then Queen of England, and Marie de Guise, who ruled as regent of Scotland for her daughter Mary Stuart, then queen of France.

     9. Published only six years after Knox's First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women (1558) and in a fundamental sense a message from one queen to another, Ronsard's volume specifically addresses the immense positive possibilities for what the poet dubs a "prudente Gynococratie." Ronsard tells Elizabeth that rule by women is prudent in a way that masculine domination has never been:

Car à la verité ce que tant de Rois de France & d'Angleterre, puissans en armes, rompuz aux affaires, avisez au conseil, n'auroyent sceu faire par longe guerre, surprise, faction & menée, deux Roynes tressages & tresvertueuses, comme par miracle, ne l'ont seulement entrepris, mais parfaict: monstrant par tel acte magnanime, combien le sexe féminin, au paravant esloigné des scepters, est de sa nature tresgenereux & tresdigne de commander.

For truly, that which the kings of France and England, powerful in arms, wearied by business, advised in council, did not know how to do by long war, surprise, faction and siege, two queens, most wise and virtuous, as if by a miracle, not only undertook but perfected: showing by such a magnanimous act, how the female sex, although denied rule, is by its generous nature completely worthy of command.8

While not directly referring to Knox, Ronsard goes on to say: "Donque pour telles & autres raisons bien considérées, la plus grande & meillure part de la Chrestienté aurait grand tort de se plainde, se voyant au jourd'huy gouvernée par Princesses" ("Thus for these and other well-considered reasons, the greater and better part of Christianity was entirely wrong to complain of them, seeing itself today so well governed by princesses.") The complaint voiced by Knox was then, in Ronsard's appraisal, quite wrong.

     10. But the book is far more than a rebuttal of a Knox-like complaint; in making clear that the idea of the book is Catherine's, Ronsard aims to further her program and perhaps to attempt to enlist her sister queen in a program of cultural exercise as a substitute for war. However naive Catherine's hopes to mollify the warring religious factions in France by offering the pleasures of art may seem in the face of the brutal history of the country's subsequent wars of religion, her attempt, by means of Ronsard's book, to enlist Elizabeth in support of her program of peace would not have been frivolous. It was known that Elizabeth disliked war and avoided military action. Thus Ronsard addresses her explicitly as a female sovereign sharing a "gynococratie" with Catherine, both queens dedicated to a program of peace. The poem spells out this like-mindedness. Elizabeth had waged war in France, until, meeting with a queen regent, "sage d'esprit & mere de conseil," she stopped the aggression.

Puis sans avoir de Mars trop de soucy,
Elle estant Royne, & l'autre Royne aussy,
Estimeront les Martialles flames
Duire plustost aux gendarmes qu'aux femmes
Qui de nature ont le sexe plus doux,
Inclin à paix, ennemy de courroux.
Pource on verra bien tost fleurir entre elles
Des amitiés pour jamais eternelles,
Qui les feront plus craindre que les Rois
Quis sur le dos ont toujours le harnois. (p. 60)

Since, caring less for Mars she is a queen
The other also queen, both knowing martial flames
Please men of arms far more than dames,
Who, by their sweeter nature incline to peace,
Enemy to wrath; one sees the early flourish
Of friendship forever eternal between them,
Which will make them more feared than kings
Who always wear on their backs war's harness.

If the peaceful queens work together, they can be more feared than warring kings; indeed, they may, if they wish, work quite specifically against a masculinist bias toward war.

     11. Ronsard may have miscalculated when he chose to compliment Elizabeth (and England) by comparing her personal beauty to the younger Mary Stuart. Praising the British Isles for having two queens who are like two suns, "deuz Soleilz," the poet doubtless thought to compliment Elizabeth by saying she equals Mary in beauty: "ceste Royne Angloise/ Est en beauté pareille à l'Escossoise" (113-14). Knox had, of course attacked Mary's mother Marie de Guise when she acted as queen regent for her daughter, and so praise of Mary may well be a part of Ronsard's riposte to Knox. While she was not a party to the treaty of Troyes and so does not deserve the praise he gives to
Elizabeth and Catherine, she is a regnant queen on the island of Great Britain and therefore adds to its luster as a home to royal women.

     12. Ronsard offers Elizabeth a full blazon -- replete with blonde hair, pearl-like teeth, twin round lips; by calling attention to her sexual desirability Ronsard hints at the parallel marital destinies to which he and Catherine assume both queens are called: the thirty-two-year-old Elizabeth was just as marriageable as Mary who been widowed at the age 25. So their presence together on the same island offers the same sexual as well as royal possibilities.

     13. The dedicatory verse which follows immediately after the poem to Elizabeth is thus quite appropriately addressed to "Mylord Robert Du-Dlé." In it Ronsard praises Elizabeth's favorite as the "ornament of England," to whom all the Greek gods have given exemplary gifts: Venus his good coloring; Mars his prowess; Pallas Athena his prudence; Juno, riches; Promethus good counsel; Mercury his spirit, and so on. Dudley is one who "faire vivre en paiy le populaire/Desous ta Royne, à qui rien de peut plaire/ Que la vertu" (p. 72) -- who lives a popular man, subject to your queen, whom nothing pleases more than virtue.

     14. In 1564 Dudley had been seeking support from asssorted Catholic powers for his possible wedding with Elizabeth. He had been promising that, in return for Catholic support of his marriage with the queen, he would forward a plan to send an English representative to a proposed pan-European council aimed at reforming the Church and bringing an end to conflicts between Protestants and Catholics.9 It is not unreasonable to suppose that the French government knew of Leicester's secret plans and that Ronsard's elaborate complements to him aim to enlist the aid of Elizabeth's favorite and potential king consort in overcoming the schismatic forces behind religious war, both within France and between France and England.

     15. Elizabeth did not, of course, marry Dudley. It may have been that rumors surrounding the death of his wife Amy Robsart under very suspicious circumstances (she fell down the stairs and broke her neck while all the servants were out of the house), meant that the queen simply could not risk union with so disreputable a suitor. (It was, of course, a similar scandal that later destroyed Mary Stuart's reputation when she married Bothwell, the man who was probably guilty of murdering her previous husband Lord Darnley).

     16. Ronsard's poem speaks to the problems dogging Dudley's reputation and prophesies that in the end his heroic virtues will be stronger than envy's bite, "car ta vertu surmonte la mensonge" (for your virtue conquers lies). The assumption that Elizabeth will marry Dudley is not obvious, although Dudley's share in the honors of precedence in the sequence of texts suggests that such an expectation of marriage subtends the whole volume. Ronsard compliments Elizabeth in comparison to the Goddess of marriage: she thus shines arrayed in jewels, "Comme Junon entre les grands deesses" (p. 61 -- like Juno among the great goddesses). In contrast, there is in the verses no mention of Diana, who is ubiquitous in the later English poetry addressed to the queen. At 32, Elizabeth was when she received the poem easily young enough to marry and have children; Parliament continued to pressure her to produce an heir to the throne throughout this period of her life.10

     17. In the context of Elizabeth's assumed marriage to Dudley, the centerpiece of the volume, the masque, appears especially appropriate. "Bergerie" celebrates the Valois children, all of whom play parts; it thus underscores the importance of dynasty to 16th century personal rule, whether by male or female. The masque also underscores the divine right of kings to be obeyed not only by their subjects but also by their near relations. The plot of the play is that all the shepherds of a kingdom bring gifts to a young king "Carlin." Following the custom of the day, "Carlin" does not appear in a role but watches the masque as the first member of the audience. Charles IX's two brothers -- the future Henry III and Duc d'Anjou (Elizabeth's "Frog") -- are shepherds; they give the king a stag and a goat respectively; two other young courtiers, the Duc de Guise and the young king of Navarre (the future Henri IV), give a battle standard in the shape of a caduceus and a richly decorated vessel carved out of a single tree root respectively. Charles' sister "Margot" gives him a blackbird. The charming child's' play serves to demonstrate the obedience that all these potentially very powerful children (and their current kin) must show the thirteen-year-old king.

     18. The verse of the masque also laments the disastrous calamities that befell France on the occasion of the first war of religion -- happily ended by the Queen Regent ("Un prince bien né qui prend son origine/ Des Pasteurs de Burbon & Catherine/ Ont rompu le discord" p. 95 -- A well born prince descended from Burbon shepherds and Catherine have cut off discord). Two adult shepherds, standing in a large cave, one representing Catherine and the other the king's aunt, the Duchesse de Savoie, end the play by giving elaborate epigrammatic advice to Charles: "Be partial to virtue, not royal pomp"; "Carry on your forehead shame to do evil"; and so on.

     19. Ronsard also addresses a poem to the young king-containing the hope that he will heed the message when he is 20, a far better age for a ruler. Ronsard's main point here underscores the message of the masque -- "qui resiste au Roy resiste à Dieu" (p. 132 -- he who defies a king defies God). In the poem Ronsard works to erase the differences between Christians by calling Charles to a different religious war, not against other Christians, but in defiance of the Muslim world that currently menaces the border territories of Europe.

     20. A following poem addresses Catherine herself, and praises her most of all by listing the kinds of entertainments she has used to tame the powers of discord and war: "masquerades . . . aubades . . . lutz mariés a voix . . . cornets . . . fifres . . . haut boys . . . tabourins . . . espinettes . . . fluttes . . . trompettes . . . par atifice un grand feu dedans l'air" (p. 147). Ronsard summarizes:

De votre grace un chacun vit en paix:
Pour le Laurier l'Olivier est espaix
Par toute France, & d'une estroitte corde
Avez serré les deux mains de Discorde.
Morts sont cest motz Papaux & Huguenotz (p. 149)

By means of your grace each lives in peace,
For the Laurel by the Olive has been replaced
In all of France, and with a straight band
You have tightly bound Discord's hands.
Those words Papist and Huguenot are dead.

     21. We can dismiss this Pax Catherine as wishful thinking on a poet's part, or we can see it as a ruler's very "politique" sense of the usefulness of bread and circuses, as well as an invitation to Elizabeth to use a similar tactic in her own realm. This is not to claim that Catherine de Médicis consciously provided the context in which the glories of Elizabethan literature and Shakespeare's stage were born, but rather to point out that women who ruled at this time needed to use the full panoply of the ideological apparati available to them to secure their power. If making war was not a viable agenda for a female ruler, then making a lot of music, love, masquing and drama provided another route to successful governmental control.

     22. Ronsard's volume explicitly addresses the realities of statecraft; there are poems to William Cecil, Elizabeth's most trusted secretary, as well as to the French Ambassador who had represented France at the treaty of Troyes. Other poems address specific French courtiers. The volume closes with a section devoted to texts actually performed at Fontainebleau -- sonnets to be sung, combats, masques (the four elements address the king and four planets respond; sirens sing in Fontainebleau's canal). We are to imagine, I think the kind of fetes that were later so famously represented on the Valois tapestries. They were the first of many attempts by Catherine to distract France's warring nobles into peace.

     23. D. F. McKenzie argued for a "sociology of the text" by which bibliography has "an unrivaled power to resurrect . . . readers at any time. One of its greatest strengths is the access it gives to social motives."11
In paying attention to the entire contents of Ronsard's presentational volume to Elizabeth, we become aware not merely of his great masquing and lyric art, but also the relations desired between at least two of his addressee-readers. Elizabeth I did not, of course, need to be taught by Catherine de Médicis the usefulness of the language of ideological display through poetry and drama. But Ronsard's volume does associate quite specifically the instrumentality of this sort of display to gynocratic rule. That the volume also assumes Elizabeth would marry and might well beget royal children like the Valois dynasty celebrated in the "Bergerie" shows that Catherine's program was mistaken in more ways than one. The virgin queen of England was ultimately more secure in her power than the Queen Mother of France. But at the outset, it was possible to believe, as Ronsard did, that in these two queens one sees the "early flourish/ Of friendship forever eternal" between them (p. 60), based on all they had in common, including a preference for peace.



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1 Jennifer Summit, Lost Property: The Woman Writer and English Literary History, 1380-1589 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), pp. 190-191 discusses the communication between the two queens, part of a larger social conversation about their own contestation for rule of the island.

2 So famous was Elizabeth's reluctance to execute Mary that Spenser makes it a central episode in Book V of The Faerie Queene. Mercilla's reluctance to execute a clearly evil Duessa is an act of sheer mercy, not political calculation, although the actual act of execution, occurring between cantos and therefore offstage as it were, demonstrates how problematic the event was. That Spenser also makes Britomart's beheading of Radigund a climactic moment of Book V suggests his profound interest in the political significance of the event for the theory of gynococracy. Britomart reimposes the rule of men in Radigund's Amazon kingdom, for in Spenser's narrator's view, women "usurp" governance unless they are specifically raised by God to rule.

3 Philip Sidney, The Prose Works of Sir Philip Sidney, ed. Albert Feullerat, 4 vols. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, l969), 3: 52.

4 Elizabeth I: collected Works, ed. Leah Marcus, Jane Mueller and Mary Beth Rose (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), p. 261. For a discussion of the odd reduplication of familial relationships in Elizabeth's address to other crowned monarchs, see my Incest and Agency in Elizabeth's England (Philadelphia: Penn Press, 2005), pp. 74-75.

5 Elizabeth objected to Mary's bearing of Elizabeth's arms, thereby claiming the title of Queen of England as well as Scotland. Elizabeth's letter to the Scottish ambassador to England, Maitland, makes clear her concern for the blood rights by which both queens ruled:

You put me in remembrance that she is of the blood of England, my cousin and next kinswoman, so that nature must bind me to love her duly, all which I must confess to be true. And as my proceedings have made sufficient declaration to the world that I never meant evil toward her person nor her realm, so can they that knew most of my mind bear me accord that in time of most offense, and when she by bearing my arms and acclaiming the title of my crown had given me just cause to be most angry with her; yet could I never find in my heart to hate her, imputing rather the fault to others than to herself. As for the title of my crown, for my time I think she will not attain it, nor make impediment to my issue if any shall come of my body. For so long as I live there shall be no other queen in England but I, and failing thereof she cannot allege that ever I did anything which may hurt the right she may pretend. (Works, p. 62)

6 Oeuvres Complètes, xiii, ed. Paul Laumonier (Paris: 1948), pp. 35-36. All translations from the French are my own.

7 See Susan Frye, Elizabeth I: The Competition for Representation (Oxford: Oxford University Press, l993) for a brilliant discussion of the fascinating "competition" among contending forces in Elizabethan culture for control over the queen as staged by various poetic entertainments throughout her reign.

8 Laumonier, p. 34.

9 Susan Doran gives a detailed account of Dudley's matrimonial maneuverings, Monarchy and Matrimony: The Courtships of Elizabeth I (London: Routledge, l996), 47-66.

10 For a discussion of the context in which her early translation of Le miroir de l'ame pécheresse was reprinted in 1568 by the same printer who published an elaborate book complimenting Dudley in 1564, and which may thus be part of the same program to support a Dudley-Elizabeth marriage, see my Incest and Agency in Elizabeth's England (Philadephia: Penn Press, 2005), pp. 56-62.

11 D. F. McKenzie, Bibliography and the Sociology of the Text (London: British Library, 1986), p. 19.



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Content copyright © 2006 Maureen Quilligan.