During her rule, and in posthumous praise, Elizabeth I acted as the symbolic Protestant replacement of the Virgin Mary in the newly converted England. This image of the Christian female deity was only one of the many comparisons made between the Virgin Queen and the many mythological or pagan female deities that symbolized different forms of virginity. Linking of the Queen of England and the Queen of Heaven had a wider range of effect than her association with any other feminine symbols, however. Literary allusions to such figures as Diana, Cynthia, and Belphoebe tended to only affect royal ceremonies by their usefulness in aiding the rich imagery of the pageantry of the time. The veneration of the queen as the sacred virgin and God's handmaiden effectively boosted her image in the hearts and minds of the court, church, and people of England. In the rush to idolize her triumphant reign, hagiographical accounts of her life created false impressions of how this role was conceived, popularized and maintained.
One of the first important critical works on the idolatry of Elizabeth is England's Eliza, by E.C. Wilson. This book, published in 1939, was "a study of the idealization of Queen Elizabeth in the poetry of her age". Eliza is now one of the most cited works in scholarly discussions of Elizabeth's image, which was of high importance during her forty-five years of rule. Wilson saw the idealization of the Queen as the inevitable result of her extraordinary qualities and the spirit of the age.
Wilson found some of the greatest written use of the idolizing of Elizabeth in the prayers that grant her the status of not only the head of the church, but also of the second maid in heaven He partially excuses the extreme glorification by believing that "patriotic Englishmen unconsciously half shifted their affection for a sacred Virgin to profane." The picture of Elizabeth as God's handmaiden on earth, who was venerated as such during her reign is aided by Wilson's mention of her use of the royal healing touch, a miracle which also aided the public to view her in the light of extreme holiness.
The worship of Elizabeth constituted poetry as well as praise, however. This aided the queen to justify her unmarried state, and when "this scriptural figure was turned to glorify Elizabeth; it fused prettily with her conceit that she was the virgin mother of her people, joined in holy wedlock to the state." Her virginity was highly prized and highly praised by the people of England, and "Elizabeth missed no chance to catch the veneration due "sacred virginity."
This literary idolatry is excused by Wilson by arguing that the historical context justified the use of the symbol of the Virgin Mary for the Virgin Queen. Ecclesiastical forms notoriously did service along with profane, feudal, and classical ones in armorous verse addressed to a mistress. It still remains that such idolatry was being created in a time when the new Protestantism was specifically destroying idols of Mary, due to the " way in which attention was so often focused on Mary's exaltation rather than on God's condescension in the Incarnation." Instead of unleashing any negative comments on the hypocrisy present, Wilson finds it "interesting and ironic" that "English iconoclasts while wrecking the image of the Queen of Heaven turn to adoring that which they model after the queen of England" Again, other than a subtle chastising of the queen for enjoying the praise too much, he thought no more evil of the people than that they had "unconsciously transferred some of the ad oration which by right
Continuing in the work on examining the idolatry of Elizabeth I is Roy Strong's The Cult of Elizabeth, Elizabethan Portraiture and Pageantry. This work is complimentary to Wilson's, as it utilizes the art of Elizabeth, rather than the writing, as its primary source. This book, along with a few other texts by strong, is another major landmark in the study of the idealization of Elizabeth.
Strong views the symbols in the art of the time as a code that requires deciphering. He sees the Virgin Mary in symbols used to surround or imply the presence of Elizabeth, especially elegantine. "As a virgin rose, used in medieval religious art to celebrate the virgin Mary, the cult of Elizabeth as the elegantine would be a logical extension of her rose imagery." The portrait of a young man standing among such flowers then becomes a story of a man enraptured by the beautiful and chaste queen, untouchable, and worthy of the highest praise and devotion.
While the majority of Strong's work focuses on art, it is in his pure history that he sees the most serious usage of the symbol of the Virgin Mary - in Accession day. This day, November 17th had previously been a holy day of celebration in honor of the nativity of Mary. During Elizabeth's reign, the day instead became a celebration of the anniversary of the day that the queen ascended to the throne. Although the origin of this change is unclear, it showed an obvious move from the old church, to the worship of the new head of the Protestant church, the virgin queen. In addition, though the origin of the celebration may have been unknown, Strong points out the eventual distribution of prayer books and the like to be used for the day, extolling Elizabeth, that came from government-controlled presses This was one of the largest of the many ways that the queen managed to replace Mary in the hearts of the people. The churches that day sang their praises to Elizabeth, defending the idol atry with patriotism.
Unlike Wilson's defense for the replacement of Mary with Elizabeth, Strong makes no attempt to cover the obvious blasphemy of the worship of a non-divine figure. Instead, he merely finds that "the Anglican position was thus a somewhat peculiar one, for on the one hand the use of religious images was denounced as popish superstition, while on the other, the sacred nature of the royal portrait was to be maintained." Strong also differs from Wilson by beginning to implicate the monarchy in the shaping of Elizabeth's image, because rather than only examining the church usage of the glorification of the queen, he widens his context from not only viewing the text, but also looking at the event which created them. This way, he sees the Accession day first, and then the prayers.
The next step to fully understanding the idolatry of Elizabeth was taken by John N. King, who begins to remove the uniqueness of the religious iconography. He gives credit to Wilson and Strong for having created the 'modern' view of the suibject, however, he qualifies these views with 'the fundamental importance in Elizabethan iconography of scriptural and medieval formulas" as it "had been employed in literary and artistic praise of both the Protestant Tudors, and their Catholic successor" (31) In addition, he wishes to show that the creation of the queen's images was a dialectic, and especially stress the evolution of the image.
King views the Virgin Queen's image as progressing through three stages - martyrdom in youth, marraigeability, and only then becoming the perpetual virgin. "It was not until after the failure of the last effort at marriage, one third of the way through Elizabeth's reign, that the patriotic cult of an unmarried virgin queen who would remain ever wedded to her nation took hold in officially-sponsored propaganda" It is of special notice that until now, the assumption made in previous works was that Elizabeth had always been compared to and used in place of the Virgin Mary. He is sure to point out, however, that "this iconographical shift is clearly evident in royal portraiture, which begins to incorporate esoteric virginity symbols into arcane allegories that may be impenetrable to casual observers" He notes that until this time, the people of England still hoped Elizabeth would marry and produce an heir, but after reaching the age when childbirth would be dangerous or impossible, t he 'cult of the virgin King's examination of the idolatry is greatly improved by the wider historical context that he uses, and his chronological, rather than hidsighted view. He only serves to expand the work done previously, however, rather than attempting to create a new picture of the subject. He borrows much from his predeccessors, as is evident in such things as his heavy use of Strong's term 'cult of Elizabeth.'
Carole Levin steers well through this subject in The Heart and Stomach of a King. She makes short work of the loyalty inspired in the queen through the use of the sacred. A short listing is made of the "number of symbols were used to represent Elizabeth as Virgin Queen - the Rose, the Star, the Moon, the Phoenix, the Ermine, and the Pearl - were also symbols used to represent the Virgin Mary." She recalls the church festivals in Elizabeth's honor and the contemporary critics of those festivals, and the posthumous praise that was even greater. In addition, she also continues the theory of how "denying [the Virgin Mary] power and prestige, as the protestant reformers did, did not lessen the tremendous appeal the Virgin had for the popular imagination; it simply left a void" which was quickly filled by Elizabeth. Here, the scholarship seemed to have reached stasis.
There is,however, another voice to challenge those 'final' words on the subject. In Rediscovering Shock; Elizabeth and the cult of the Virgin Mary, Helen Hackett writes on the blasphemy of replacing the Virgin Mary with Queen Elizabeth, placing the most importance, as the title suggests, on its shock value that has been avoided in past works. She does not limit her critisism there, however, and goes on to attack the lack of examination and analysis that other historians have shown where they did not choose to challenge past works.
Hackett first tears at the lack of notice paid to the chronology and development of the Marian symbols, although she does compliment John King for his work in that area. Then, the overimportance placed on symbols, as instituted by Strong is brought out for attention, where there is a "tendency to identify just about any symbol in Elizebethian pangyric, such as 'the Rose ... the Star, the Moon [etc. ]' as Marian, playing down their wider and alternative associations with femininity and virginity in general, or with the Tudor dynasty" Complains of chronology, overworking of symbols, but especially gap theory acceptance by other historians
Uses incident to show the theatrics of the move, how we must understand that this was a major thing back then, so we can't disregard it now. Insisting it was idolatry, not ideology.
In Hackett, we have the most comprehensive view of the subject, but the least elaboration of any of the works studied. What she takes into consideration. the time views were formulated, and how the whole replacement could be viewed in full context of the time without current bias.