Reign On!

Four centuries after her death, Good Queen Bess still draws crowds. A regal rash of exhibitions and books examines her life anew.

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She made her chastity—real or not—a political asset, a badge of independence and incorruptibility. Then too, Elizabeth may have preferred being single. In an audience with the queen in 1564, the Scottish ambassador boldly suggested as much: “Ye think that if ye were married, ye would be but queen of England, and now ye are king and queen both. Ye may not suffer a commander.” By the 1570s, says Clark Hulse, “Elizabeth had made being unmarried one of her strengths. The very people who had pushed her to get married in the 1560s were now pushing her not to marry. The nation didn’t want a male who even thought he could order Elizabeth around—not that anyone could have.”


Elizabeth played the role of Virgin Queen with theatricality and pomp, and England was dazzled. “As she grew older and the chances of her marrying became unrealistic,” says Flynn, “she turned herself into ‘Gloriana,’ which is the Elizabeth that most people know, with the white-powdered face. She became the personification of state.” In surveyor Christopher Saxton’s grand atlas of Britain, published in 1579, an engraving of Elizabeth enthroned fills the title page. ElizabethwasEngland.


As she aged, her clothing grew more elaborate, and she took to concealing her thinning hair with red wigs topped with constructions shaped like leaves, globes or pyramids. Her clothes were an exhibition of power, says Cynthia Abel, costume director of the Shakespeare Theatre in Washington, D.C. “She dressed to look strong and be impressive.”


By the time she entered her 50s, her face was gaunt and pockmarked (from a near-fatal case of smallpox at age 29), her joints stiff, her teeth rotting. Coveting her throne was a younger, more hot-blooded woman: Mary Queen of Scots. A Catholic educated at the French court and a grandniece of Henry VIII, Mary Stuart was a vivacious but arrogant woman with a knack for attracting unsavory men and no knack whatsoever for governing.


“Mary is usually portrayed as sexier-looking than Elizabeth,” says Ziegler. “She had quite a cult following.” Her followers, however, were mostly in France. At 25, she’d been toppled from the Scottish throne by a rebellion after she married the unpopular Earl of Bothwell in 1567. The earl was widely suspected of murdering her previous husband, Lord Darnley, an ambitious schemer and drunkard whom Mary had named king of Scotland. After her ouster, she fled south to England, where Elizabeth kept her under house arrest for the next 19 years. Mary passed her time doing embroidery and sending coded messages to one plotter or another. In 1586, England’s spymaster, Sir Francis Walsingham, intercepted and decoded letters smuggled out in beer kegs in which Mary discussed plans for Elizabeth’s murder and Mary’s own rescue by a Spanish invasion. It was one plot too many. Elizabeth dithered for a year before reluctantly approving her cousin’s execution. (For more than a century, playwrights and filmmakers have staged dramatic confrontations between the two willful queens; in fact, the women never met.) After Mary was beheaded in 1587, the Continent mourned her as a martyr to her religion.


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