Eventually, Elizabeth’s own carefully tended image was supplanted by a more romantic one: that of the pining virgin fated to rule alone. Popular tales like The History of Queen Elizabeth and Her Great Favorite, the Earl of Essex, in Two Parts—a Romance began appearing anonymously by the late 17th century. By the 20th, the pantomimes of courtly love in which Elizabeth and her courtiers had indulged had become dramas of passion and betrayal in which Leicester, Essex and Mary Queen of Scots were stock characters. For many today, the Earl of Essex is inseparable from Hollywood’s swashbuckling Errol Flynn, who brought Bette Davis to grief in the 1939 hit The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex.
In historical terms, Queen Elizabeth I was an unsurpassed model of a learned, intelligent woman. She proved that a queen could rule and rule triumphantly. Sarah Jinner, author of a 1658 “almanack,” asked, “When, or what Commonwealth was ever better governed than this by the virtuous Q. Elizabeth? I fear I shall never see the like again, most of your Princes now a dayes are like Dunces in comparison of her.” In a paean from the 1640s, American poet Ann Bradstreet used the memory of “That High and Mighty Princess Queen Elizabeth” to aim a zinger at 17th-century male chauvinists:
Let such as say our sex is void of reason,
Know ’tis a slander now, but once was treason.