Woman of the Millennium

Notwithstanding the `Today' poll, Queen Elizabeth I outranks Churchill, says John Grigg
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The Independent Online
THERE WAS no woman on the short list for the BBC Today programme's British Personality of the Millennium award (which was rightly won by Shakespeare). Some women were nominated in the early stages, but it was inevitable that men would predominate, because through most of the period - indeed, through most of history - women have had little opportunity to emerge and shine. Until very recent times, their role has been essentially domestic and social, enabling them, often, to exercise considerable influence behind the scenes but not to become stars in the public arena.

All the same, there is one major female personality who should not only have been on the short list, but should have been regarded as a very serious contender for the title. Among our country's rulers, none has been more important or more successful than Queen Elizabeth I. Though she acquired her position by birth, she excelled in it by virtue of her own talents. In an age of monarchical rule she was outstanding, and her status as a determining historical figure is superior even to that of Cromwell or Churchill (who were finalists in the contest, the latter emerging as runner-up).

Her achievement was to consolidate the English state after a revolutionary period, to defend it against the threat of foreign conquest, to take steps towards unification of the British Isles, to build upon the sea power established by her father, Henry VIII, and above all to inaugurate the era of English (later British) expansion which was to transform the world and rank among the supreme events of the millennium. Sir Humphrey Gilbert (contemporary soldier, explorer and writer) hailed her as "mistress of the wide seas", a title that would increasingly be claimed by her country.

At the same time she presided over an extraordinary cultural flowering, and was well qualified to do so, as a Renaissance woman herself. When she was just 16, her tutor, Roger Ascham, wrote of her: "Her mind has no womanly weakness, her perseverance is equal to that of a man, and her memory long keeps what it quickly picks up. She talks French and Italian as well as she does English, and has often talked to me readily and well in Latin, moderately in Greek." Later she became fluent in Spanish, and later still told an antiquary that "she would be a scholar in her age and thought it no scorn to learn during her life".

Her reign witnessed a complementary adventurousness in art and action. As David Armitage writes (in the recently published first volume of The Oxford History of the British Empire): "Empire spurred the growth of literature as the planting of colonies went hand-in-hand with the building of a canon." The great writers of the age - including the greatest of all, Shakespeare - were adventurers, in their way, like Drake; they extended the bounds of eloquence and human self-awareness. And all the great Elizabethans, poets as well as pirates, looked to Elizabeth for inspiration.

She was an autocrat, but not a tyrant; extremely tough but capable of magnanimity and mercy. Having lived through a dangerous and traumatic childhood - in which her mother, Anne Boleyn, was in effect murdered by her father, and she herself narrowly escaped death during the reign of her half-sister, Mary - she had a natural distaste for unnecessary violence. But she did not shrink from killing people when, in her view, vital interests were threatened. She killed Mary Queen of Scots, another anointed sovereign, and she killed Essex, whom she loved. In upholding her Anglican church settlement, she bore down heavily on Roman Catholics and Presbyterians alike.

Though her power was absolute in the formal sense, she knew that there were practical limits to it and that the success of her rule depended ultimately upon the loyalty of her people. She was a superb politician, combining her father's intellect and willpower with her mother's flirtatious charm. Her political genius can be seen, not least, in her flair for what we now call image-making and public relations. Describing herself as "mere English" (actually she was a mixture of English and Welsh) she appealed to the growing national pride and xenophobia of her subjects. In her famous speech at Tilbury as the Spanish Armada approached, she said: "I know I have the body of a weak and feeble woman, but I have the heart and stomach of a king and of a king of England too; and think foul scorn that Parma or Spain, or any prince of Europe, should dare to invade the borders of my realm." (She had the cunning even to flatter the male chauvinism of her audience.)

Addressing members of her last parliament, less than two years before she died, she pulled out all the stops: "We perceive your coming is to present thanks to us. Know that I accept them with no less joy than your loves can have desire to offer such a present, and do esteem it more than any treasure or riches ... And though God hath raised me high, yet this I account the glory of my crown, that I have reigned with your loves ... I never was any greedy, scraping grasper ... my heart was never set upon any worldly goods, but only for my subjects' good. What you do bestow on me, I will not hoard up, but receive it to bestow on you again; yea, my own properties I account yours, to be expended for your good, and your eyes shall see the bestowing of it for your welfare."

Four centuries later, in the age of democracy and constitutional monarchy, it is hard to imagine any sovereign or government handling parliament more beguilingly. Charles I entirely lacked her touch, with consequences that we all know, but few politicians of any period have been more sensitive and adept than she was.

Like all political virtuosi, she was a consummate actress. At heart she was iron-hard, as rulers have to be. GM Trevelyan's verdict on her is just: "As a private person she would scarcely have been lovable, perhaps not even admirable. But lonely on the throne she knew all the arts to make herself adored by her court and her people. Without ceasing to be a woman, and while loving life in all its fullness, she made everything subservient to purposes of state."

Her historical significance can hardly be exaggerated. She was the prime mover in a process whereby Britain assumed, for a time, a position of insular and imperial detachment. Despite her profound European culture, Elizabeth was the prophet of "splendid isolation". The process was gradual, and even in its culminating phase, in the late 19th century, never involved anything like total separation from the Continent and its affairs. But for nearly 400 years British development largely diverged from that of continental Europe.

Assessing the value of her life's work must comprise weighing up the pros and cons of the British Empire, whose origins owe so much to her. Those who believe (as I do) that far more good than harm accrued from British expansion overseas, with the resultant dissemination of our language, law and ideas, must regard her as, on balance, a benefactress of humanity. Though many of the fruitful consequences of her reign could not remotely have been foreseen by her, she nevertheless deserves her share of credit for them. Without her, things might have turned out very differently, and less well.

Of course every empire has its dark sides, and there is much to deplore in the British colonial record, from the early period of acquisition under Elizabeth through to the period of disintegration in the present century. (Elizabeth's own treatment of Ireland is a case in point, though she has less to answer for there than Cromwell.)

But since it was likely that some European nation would achieve temporary paramountcy in the world, it was probably for the best that it should be the nation that Elizabeth set on a course of ordered freedom - far more order than freedom at the outset, but with a dynamic favouring constitutional change.

British paramountcy and apparent self-sufficiency were bound to be temporary, in any case. The European offshore island that became the world's first superpower has now reverted to size, and is no longer even the metropolis of the English-speaking world. A North American colossus, deriving from a group of former British colonies, has taken over both roles, while formerly divided and conflicting states of continental Europe have freely come together, with now (for most of them) a common currency. Britain has to choose between wholehearted membership of the European Union and the illusion of sovereign independence as a satellite of America.

The spirit of Elizabeth's Tilbury speech was still appropriate in 1940, when the country was faced with a tyrant who was enslaving continental Europe and menacing the whole world. But it is surely absurd to use the same language about a European union freely formed and based on democracy.

Elizabeth's words and actions were right for her own time, as were Churchill's. But circumstances have changed and new history has to be made. The great queen's pragmatic genius should, however, never cease to be admired and studied - and her command of languages could well be emulated by our politicians today.