As part of the required head-games involved in being interviewed for a job, a number of years ago, I was once asked which historical figure that I identified most with, and the person who of course popped into my mind was the great Queen Eliza, Elizabeth I, of England, Wales and Ireland. There is probably some wish-fulfillment there, what with identifying with a tall, willowy and commanding red-head, an accomplished scholar and incomparable statesman, especially since I physically rather more resemble Victoria—short, plump, prim and domestic, with light-brown hair.
But the two of them, Elizabeth and Victoria are an interesting contrast, in the feminine exercise of power and authority, even allowing for how mores and politics changed over the three centuries separating their glorious reigns. Both came to power and the throne as young women, both died of old age, in their beds (or in Elizabeth’s case, in her bed-chamber) after decades of political and diplomatic success, wielding power in their various ways, earning glory and honor both personally and for the nation, so much that each of their reigns was in turn looked back upon as a golden age.
Elizabeth took a poor, fractious and schism-ridden nation, on the fringe of Europe in every sense, and saw it emerge as a major political power, a naval power, and a Protestant counter-balance to the land-power of Spain and militant Catholicism. Victoria ruled at the high-water mark of an empire that covered a quarter of the globe, saw her grandchildren married into the royal families of Europe, and technology move from that powered by horses, to that powered by great steam-powered engines, on land and sea, and even begin flirting with the idea of powered flight. Both of them distrusted their presumed successor: Elizabeth, childless, held off officially designating her heir, and jealously held power to herself and herself alone, and Victoria thought her son, Edward was an irresponsible wastrel and only allowed his participation in matters of state in the last years of her reign, when he was himself in late middle age.
Both of them, in their prime, displayed immense self-assurance, what an old Scots friend of my mothers’ called “a guid conceit of themselves”. That is, they appeared perfectly at ease with who and what they were, confident in the respect they were due as monarch of a unique people, and cognizant of the duties and responsibilities expected of them. They moved confidently among the trappings and obligations of their respective ages, although the circumstances of their lives differed in as many ways as they were similar.
Victoria, although she lived an almost suffocatingly sheltered life as a child, was clearly marked early on as the heir to her uncle and her succession was uncontested, a straight paved road to the pinnacle of the monarchy.
Elizabeth, the younger daughter of that much married Henry VIII, survived the reign of her Protestant little brother, (and the short-lived interregnum of her cousin, Lady Jane Grey) the almost equally disastrous reign of her older sister, the rigidly Catholic Mary, a couple of insurrections, a really nasty sexual scandal centered around a supposed affair between herself and the husband of her last stepmother, Catherine Parr, a stint in the Tower of London, and the abiding and deadly suspicions of a whole range of political enemies. The fashions of the age played in Elizabeth’s favor, though: she had the education worthy of a Renaissance prince, supple and subtle, whereas Victoria had only that which was thought suitable to a lady of good family in the early 19th century. But what education they were given, served them well: Elizabeth survived, and ruled. Victoria inherited and ruled. Both were respected, worshipped by some, and feared by others.
Victoria, I surmise, was much more immediately trusting of others; the penalties for political miscalculation during her reign being immediately much less unpleasant; a matter of being “Not Received At Court and By Respectable People”, rather than “A Short Stint In the Tower Followed by An Appointment With A Man With a Really Sharp Ax”. Victoria was also fortunate in her marriage, to a competent and politically astute man whom she (to judge by her deep and demonstrated grief on his death, and the fact that she produced nine children with him) deeply loved and trusted unswervingly. But Elizabeth was known as “The Virgin Queen”, and I think it altogether likely that was more than just a politic bit of court flattery. One can hardly think otherwise, considering how many women close to her as a child and teenager came to grief and an untimely grave through unwise affairs, ill-considered marriages, and perilous childbirth. Her own mother, a stepmother and a cousin died on the block, another two stepmothers died agonizingly in childbirth, the marriages of both her sister Mary and cousin Mary diluted the political authority of both those Maries, and allowed factions to form around a royal spouse or court favorite. No, it would have been absolutely clear to Elizabeth that sex=death, actually and politically. But flirtation, and a rotating stable of political suitors, all played off against each other for England’s gain— Her personal inclination was perfectly matched to political expediency, and allowed her to keep the reins of power firmly in her own capable hands. She survived, by keeping it that way, and becoming an icon.
Victoria also became an icon, a bourgeois icon, surrounded by her children, very much in contrast to Elizabeth, solitary in jeweled and glittering splendor, but there was one more likeness; their imperishable sense of duty. Both of them had a job to do, a lifelong job, and they did it appropriately and suitably to their time, but in two vastly different and interesting ways. It amuses me, sometimes, to wonder if the two of them could have a conversation together, what would they have said?
Possibly something about seeing to good marriages for their ladies-in-waiting. And then they would have talked about politics and management.