How studying the Tudors turned me into a feminist

The Ermine Portrait of Queen Elizabeth I, which hangs at Hatfield House

I was really, really into Tudor history when I was young. Boy, did I love that upstart Welsh dynasty. I’m not entirely sure how my obsession developed, although it helped that I spent a lot of my childhood visiting three great houses intimately connected with the period — Penshurst Place, Knole House and Hever Castle. I read book upon book of popular history by authors such as Alison Weir and Antonia Fraser. It was the royal family and their court that gripped me: I can’t pretend that I cared much for ordinary people and their stories, to my shame. What I hadn’t realised until this week was just how much all that 16th-century history had shaped my political views today.

Surely everybody must be a little bit enchanted by the Tudors. No other era captures so exquisitely the peculiar and troubling blend of personal and political that defined the late medieval state as that of Henry VIII and his six wives, then his three heirs — including my favourite of all, Elizabeth I, who I idolised for her independent spirit and her ferocious intellect.

And therein lies the clue to how this childhood obsession with long-dead monarchs led me to being, well, a pretty ardent feminist. I only realised it last night. I was in the pub, and a friend of a friend asked me about the ring I had on the fourth finger of my left hand. It wasn’t, as they had wondered, an engagement ring. I explained that, since I don’t plan on getting engaged, if a particular ring from my extensive collection of cheap high street jewellery works best on that finger with that outfit, I’ll wear it there. I am not going to reserve a part of my body to signify the presence of a man in my life. My body — every bit of it — speaks of me and me alone (unless I happen to have children, and then it can speak of them too).

It can seem a bit strident, that, I know. And, with this in mind, on the slightly drunken way home, I found myself thinking of another stridently single woman - one who I had read so much about as a child, and who had normalised that stance entirely for me. Elizabeth I famously never married. She was wedded — as she also famously said — to her country. She had other priorities. She was a true career woman. She didn’t have time for that marriage crap.

I’m being facetious, of course. Marriage for a late medieval queen like Elizabeth Tudor meant something rather different from what it would mean for me. I would not leave my kingdom at risk of invasion by foreign powers at my death; I would not have to choose which of the many European dynastic factions to ally myself with through matrimony; I would not have to relinquish my exclusive sovereign power. And yet there are still equivalences which play out on my small, personal stage like miniature echoes of those great matters of state…

But underneath all these considerations, when you look at Elizabeth’s family, at the world she grew up in, at what we now call her ‘personal life’ — is it any wonder that she chose not to marry? If I did not know that the marriages of her father, King Henry VIII, were real and documented, I would dismiss them as too clumsily heavy-handed a metaphor for the ways that patriarchy enacts violence upon women. Let’s run through them.

First, Katharine of Aragon, dispatched to a lonely, neglected and probably premature death for the heinous crime of growing too old. Next, Anne Boleyn, accused of witchcraft and beheaded for her too powerful and deviant sexuality. Then came Jane Seymour, killed by the violence of childbirth as she gave life to Henry’s precious son, for whom he would sacrifice anything — not least a woman’s life. Fourth, Anne of Cleves, pensioned off in a land where she knew nobody and nothing, because she was too ugly. Fifth, young Katherine Howard, executed for her infidelity — real or imagined by Henry’s increasingly paranoid mind, we will never really know. And finally, Katharine Parr, who survived her royal husband — as indeed did Anne of Cleves, who came out of it really rather well in the end.

Too old, too alluring, sacrificed to give another man life, too ugly, too desirable to other men — it is a misogynist greatest hits, a roll call of the classics of patriarchal violence. And violence of the very purest kind it was, for two of these women were murdered by the state for their crimes, and in the 16th century, the state meant the king himself. This was what domestic violence looked like in a world where the body politic and the body of the monarch were one and the same thing.

It is unfair, of course, to depict Henry as a monster. He was simply the ultimate distillation and representative of his society — as indeed it was his duty to be. And Tudor society was one which sanctioned the killing of women for failing to comply with its idea of womanhood.

Underpinning this roll call of violence and cruelty — the common thread that connected all those acts of violence — lies the greatest and most fundamental privileging of men over women. Henry VIII was driven to marry again and again out of a desperate need to produce a male heir, without which he had failed as a king. Daughters were worth very little, unless they could be married off to a useful man. Sons were all that really counted.

This blatant, shameless, purest form of patriarchy always struck me as downright bizarre as a child, particularly in light of the fact that it was Henry’s daughter, Elizabeth — and not his longed-for son — that grew up to be one of the greatest rulers this country has ever known. How weird and preposterous and stupid, thought eight-year-old me… and that has pretty much been my take on patriarchy ever since.

What puzzles me right now is that we continue to accept lesser forms of the same irrational injustice in our own society even as we look back in wonder at the strange, foreign past of the Tudors. Have we really come as far as we like to think? (No.)

Is it any wonder that Elizabeth took a look back at all this, and thought — no husband for me, thanks all the same? — any wonder that she chose not to make herself vulnerable to the same violence that had befallen her mother and stepmothers? She was fortunate; she could make that choice: unlike most women, she had immense invested power and wealth of her own. But it cannot have been an easy choice to make or stick to, all the same. As a child, I admired her tenacity (even more than I admired her killer outfits). I was inspired by her rejection of the path that society thought it had laid down for her, and by the rewards that her courage reaped.

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