Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
The Writer Christine de Pizan at Her Desk

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Mary Tudor, Queen of England

Mary Tudor (crowned 1 October 1553)

Mary Tudor was crowned queen of England on 1 October 1553.

Queen Mary of England, 1554,
portrait by Hans Eworth
The succession of a woman to the throne of England horrified many, including the Protestant reformer John Knox, who denounced “gynecocracy,” or rule by women, and whose astonishing First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women, published in 1558, has provided the title for this blog.* According to Knox,
To promote a woman to bear rule, superiority, dominion, or empire above any realm, nation, or city is repugnant to nature, contumely to God, a thing most contrarious to His revealed will and approved ordinance, and finally it is the subversion of good order, of all equity and justice. 
This uncompromising assessment of a woman’s right to govern serves as both thesis and refrain in Knox's condemnation of female sovereignty--and in 1558, both Scotland and England were ruled by women. 

In Scotland, the infant Mary Stuart had become queen regnant in 1542, when her father, King James V, died just a few days after she was born. James Hamilton, earl of Arran, was the first governor of Scotland during the queen’s minority, but in 1554 he had been replaced by Mary’s mother, Marie of Guise, who was confirmed as queen regent. 

In England, meanwhile, yet another Mary had also become queen; in 1553, following the death of her half-brother Edward VI, Mary Tudor, the eldest of Henry VIII’s three children, succeeded to the throne, becoming the first queen regnant in England.

Although there is no equivocation in the title of his work, Knox opens his “blast” with strategic indirection. Rather than attack female rulers at the outset, his preface opens with an expression of astonishment. “Wonder it is,” he begins, 
that amongst so many pregnant wits as the isle of Great Britain hath produced, so many godly and zealous preachers as England did sometime nourish, and amongst so many learned men and men of grave judgment as this day by Jezebel are exiled, none is found so stout of courage, so faithful to God, nor loving to their native country that they dare admonish the inhabitants of that isle how abominable before God is the empire or rule of a wicked woman, yea, of a traitoress and a bastard. . . . 
Of course Queen Mary is the “Jezebel,” the “wicked woman” whose birth and reign are both illegitimate, but, at least at the outset, Knox’s focus is on the failures of the “esteemed watchmen” of the nation rather than on the “cruel woman” who rules it. 

And without being explicit about it, he includes himself in his bitter indictment of the “universal negligence” and the “universal and ungodly silence” that have allowed her rule: “We see our country set forth [as] a prey to foreign nations,” we see the “blood of our brethren” shed “most cruelly,” we all know the “monstrous” rule of a woman to be “the only occasion of all those miseries,” and yet “with silence we pass the time, as though the matter did nothing appertain to us.” 

But Knox, having considered the “contrary examples of the ancient prophets”—Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel—has suddenly been awakened. In “this our miserable age,” he writes, we are “bound to admonish the world”; it is “our duty” to reveal the truth to the “ignorant and blind world” whether that ignorant and blind world wants to hear it or not. To “hide the talent committed to our charge” is to ignore duty and to incur condemnation. 

Inching carefully forward, Knox writes, “I am assured that God has revealed to some in this our age that it is more than a monster in nature that a woman shall reign and have empire above man. And yet with us all there is such silence as if God there with were nothing offended.” But the “empire of women” is an “impiety” and “abomination” of such importance that a man should stand ready to “hazard his life.” 

And so, recalling the faith, courage, and constancy not only of the Old Testament prophets but also of the New Testament apostles and identifying himself as one of “God’s messengers,” Knox takes up the heavy burden: 
. . . therefore I say that of necessity it is that this monstriferous empire of women—which amongst all enormities that this day do abound upon the face of the whole earth is most detestable and damnable—be openly revealed and plainly declared to the world to the end that some may repent and be saved. 
We have been misled by princes, Knox reminds his readers, but even “more than princes,” we have been misled by the “great multitude” of men who, mistaken or misguided, have helped “to establish women in their kingdoms and empires, not understanding how abominable, odious, and detestable is all such usurped authority in the presence of God.”

Although Knox admits that he cannot understand why God Himself has not removed such a female tyrant from her “unjust authority,” he predicts her end will come--and soon. "I fear not," he says, 
that the day of vengeance which shall apprehend that horrible monster, Jezebel of England, and such as maintain her monstrous cruelty is already appointed in the council of the eternal, and I verily believe that it is so nigh that she shall not reign so long in tyranny as hitherto she hath done, when God shall declare Himself to be her enemy, when He shall pour forth contempt upon her according to her cruelty and shall kindle the hearts of such as sometimes did favor her with deadly hatred against her that they may execute His judgments.
Knox’s prediction that Mary would not reign long was proven correct. Mary Tudor’s death was near at the very moment Knox proclaimed that “the trumpet hath once blown”: the English queen died on 17 November 1558, a matter of a few months after The First Blast of the Trumpet against the Monstrous Regiment of Women was published.

If Knox felt any triumph at the death of the woman who had presumed to rule England, it could not have lasted for long, for she was succeeded on the throne by another female ruler, her half-sister Elizabeth. And, shortly thereafter, yet another queen joined the ranks of “monstrous” women when Catherine de’ Medici became regent in France.

And as I hope this blog has illustrated over the last few months, despite Knox's outrage at the "monstrous" regiment of women, women had been governing--and governing well--for centuries. And would continue to do so, no matter how "monstriferous" he (and many men) thought it was . . .

*This post has been adapted from Debating Women, Politics, and Power in Early Modern Europe, where I give an extended analysis of Knox's arguments, of the debate about female sovereignty that was ignited by The First Blast of the Trumpet, and about women writer's responses to the question of women's political abilities.

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