The Cult of "Gloriana"

The power and prestige of the monarchy had always been a thing of propaganda, be it in the paintings of Holbein for Henry VIII or in literature. Elizabeth's reign saw this taken to a new level and mostly in the form of literature (although it was also reflected on a local level in the form of ballads, catches and "interludes"). Elizabeth was given the names of "Gloriana", "Astraea" and "Belpheobe" by contemporary writers to raise her above mere mortals and identify her with national feeling. She was cast as the virgin Queen of classical pedigree come to inaugurate a new golden age in England. At its most extreme the eulogizing of Elizabeth named her a Saint as Spenser did in The Faerie Queene, and even likened her to the Virgin Mary and God himself. This was done to bolster her rule, to encourage support and discourage sedition.

Ultimately this can be reduced to the worries over the succession (see section on the rising of the northern Earls). The very fact that she had no offspring to continue the line was turned into strength by making her the virgin Queen. It also made her more identifiable with male strength. Men, after all, do not give birth to children. Spenser, of all the contemporary writers did the most to develop the idea of the chaste Queen (see the characters of Belphoebe and Britomart in The Faerie Queene). Here Elizabeth's chaste holiness might be interpreted as a form of control. Spenser was especially concerned about her power over his own life (and who wouldn't be judging on Elizabeth's predilection for decapitation?). Spenser turns Elizabeth's chastity into a choice; she decided to refrain from sexual intercourse as a part of her overwhelming power (in truth it is quite likely that Elizabeth had lost her virginity.) Indeed, it was from Spenser that the name "Gloriana" derived.

Parallel to the worship of Elizabeth as Gloriana was the idea of her as Astraea. Astreaea was the ancient goddess of Justice, who, Virgil prophesied, would return to inaugurate a golden age on earth. Elizabeth appeared in this form in a wealth of literature: in Mary Sidney's Dialogue Between Thenot and Piers, George Peel's Pageant Descendus Astraeae, Sir John Davies's Hymns to Astraea and in the Masque included in John Marston's Histriomastix.

This cult was by no means universally popular, even in the literary world. Chapman's play Bussy D'Ambois has the Duke of Guise saying of the English that they are always:

"Making semi-gods
Of their great nobles; and of their old Queen
An ever-young and most immortal goddess."(I.ii)

Despite this rare criticism the propaganda of Elizabeth's court was extremely effective. Even today her reign is thought of as somewhat of a golden age for England; that this is so is mostly down to the literature and paintings of her day which have proved remarkably long lasting propaganda.

Previous chapter Back Home Email this Search Discuss Bookmark Next chapter
Copyright: All texts on Bibliomania are © Ltd, and may not be reproduced in any form without our written permission. See our FAQ for more details.