I’m working away on my Renaissance Literature, Virtues and Vices, class, having decided to write about how pride served Queen Elizabeth I as a virtue. This may not seem all that astonishing in today’s culture. We are indoctrinated with the notion that pride is a good thing, but this wasn’t always the case. There’s a reason pride heads up the list as the most deadly of the Seven Deadly Sins (I happen to disagree with Dante and the Catholic church on this one, but there you have it). I will definitely acknowledge that too much pride can be a bad thing, can blind someone to a personal moral code and a sense of wrong and right. Consider for a moment the overreaching pride and arrogance of political figures in history such as Hitler or the atrocities committed by the Khmer Rouge who killed an estimated 1.7 million people in a four year period, all because they felt they guided by the hand of righteousness.

Contrast that, however, with the instability of the political environment when Queen Elizabeth ascended to the throne, and her need to hang onto a sense of pride. Her very life had been threatened because of her religious beliefs and because many considered her to be a “bastard queen,” having been born of Henry VIII and his second wife Anne Boleyn after the Catholic church refused to grant him an annulment. Anne Boleyn was later beheaded, accused of treason, possibly because she conducted an illicit affair, some thinking the affair might have been with her own brother. Queen Elizabeth’s legitimacy as a successor to the throne was questioned from the very start.

Though her claim to the throne was in dispute, her pride allowed her to endure the humiliations thrust upon her. She was imprisoned in the Tower of London, accused of plotting against the reigning monarch, Queen Mary. Without denouncing her Protestant beliefs, Queen Elizabeth I navigated tricky waters while the Catholic Church plotted against her, believing that only a Catholic could be the true king or queen of England. After she was finally named queen, Queen Elizabeth relied upon advisors, especially William Cecil and Lord Burghley, who successfully foiled assassination attempts and other plots and dangers to the newly named monarch. Even those within her own religion questioned her right to rule, believing that a woman couldn’t be head of the church since the monarch was automatically believed to rule not only her subjects, but to act as the ultimate religious authority, and religious leaders hesitated to bow to the will of a woman. Elizabeth resolved this issue by naming herself Supreme Governor of the Church of England, not Head of the Church of England, a subtle difference, but one designed to appease the pride and arrogance of male religious leaders.

Another consideration was the question of succession. Queen Elizabeth refused to take a husband, a man who would surely end up ruling in her place, and partly for this reason she was known as the Virgin Queen. If she had married, she would have effectively subjugated herself to the will of a man, and Elizabeth was not one to bow to any man. She had been through too much: nearly beheaded, plotted against, questioned about her authority as head even of the Protestant Church. She famously noted, “I will have but one mistress and no master.” Many whispered that she was actually barren and that theory still exists today, but I believe she simply didn’t want to weaken her position as the ultimate authority in England in a time of great uncertainty, when England was still threatened by foreign powers, most especially Spain. Queen Elizabeth I needed to remain firmly in charge. She let her subjects know, “I may not be a lion, but I am a lion’s cub, and I have a lion’s heart.”

Her pride, her sense of divine righteousness, that is, her belief that she had survived not by accident but because of God’s will, served her well. One of my instructor’s at St. John’s University, the school where I got a BA in English, said that pride was accurate self-appraisal, and in this regard, Queen Elizabeth I could rightly be accused of pride in knowing that she was destined to alter history.

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