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Was Queen Elizabeth I the first feminist?

Queen Elizabeth I, played by Elsie Bennett, is the subject of Red Rose Chain's Progress, being staged in February. Photo: Bill Jackson

Queen Elizabeth I, played by Elsie Bennett, is the subject of Red Rose Chain's Progress, being staged in February. Photo: Bill Jackson

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A new play about the Virgin Queen’s visit to Ipswich seems like a good opportunity to consider what, if anything, she did for women. Entertainment writer Wayne Savage spoke to the writer and the actress who plays her...

Elizabeth I of England, the most powerful woman of her time, a time when women's rights were unheard of.Elizabeth I of England, the most powerful woman of her time, a time when women's rights were unheard of.

She was the most powerful woman of her time, at a time when most women were nothing more than possessions. Strong, intelligent, dogged in her refusal to be constrained by a political marriage, Elizabeth I is viewed by many as a modern feminist icon. Not that she would’ve seen herself that way.

“The idea of women’s rights and women being allowed to do all of the things that men can do just wouldn’t occur to her and yet as an individual she was that; she lived that (ideal). She was brilliant at sport and horse riding, really active, a massive intellect − she was living proof women are absolutely amazing,” says Red Rose Chain’s Joanna Carrick, who’s written new play Progress, charting the queen’s visit to Ipswich in 1561.

“(But) she was the monarch and (felt she’d been) appointed by God despite being a woman (and) that set her apart from the rest of humanity. In a way she was a complete contradiction. She had lots of really good female friends but didn’t think women should be in a powerful position politically. She was quite keen to rid certain places in society of women. (Everything she achieved) was unarguably brilliant; she was unarguably brilliant (but) in a modern context was extremely sexist: anti-woman in many ways.”

A view, you could argue, borne out by her famous quote “I know I have the body of a weak and feeble woman, but I have the heart and stomach of a king, and a king of England, too”.

Red Rose Chain's artistic director and writer of Progress, 

Joanna CarrickRed Rose Chain's artistic director and writer of Progress, Joanna Carrick

“I hate to say this, but there are slight parallels with Margaret Thatcher. The first female prime minister, which was an incredible thing, she then appointed lots of men to her cabinet − not women − and didn’t particularly promote women’s rights.

“(Still) part of (a world) where society’s hierarchy depended on men’s supremacy, although Elizabeth I was a powerful woman, she was kind of isolated by that power.”

You can argue that was of her own choosing. Expressing no desire to wed from a very young age, she later said “better beggar woman and single than queen and married”.

Her mother, Anne Boleyn, was executed before Elizabeth I turned three for not giving husband Henry VIII the son he desperately wanted. The union was annulled and Elizabeth declared illegitimate. You could forgive her for not being all that into marriage.

Elsie Bennett as Queen Elizabeth I and Daniel Abbott as Robert Dudley in Red Rose Chain's ProgressElsie Bennett as Queen Elizabeth I and Daniel Abbott as Robert Dudley in Red Rose Chain's Progress

“They (the male hierarchy) didn’t think a woman was in any way, shape or form competent to rule; of course, she proved that wasn’t the case. When she did become queen, proposals came thick and fast on a daily basis from domestic and foreign nobility,” says Carrick.

“All her advisors were pressurising her unimaginably hard to marry because they didn’t see her proceeding without a husband as an option. The husband would come along and even though she was the monarch she would have a duty of obedience to him, so he’d basically become the ruler.

“I think she decided the cleverest course to steer for stability within the country, and also to protect her position, was not to marry and actually play one suitor off against the other throughout her rule.”

There’s a lot of evidence she was in love with the Earl of Leicester, Robert Dudley, who plays an integral role in Progress − requiring incredible will on her part to stay true to her path rather than her heart.

Red Rose Chain's Fallen in Love, starring Emma Connell and Scott Ellis, charted the rise and fall of Anne BoleynRed Rose Chain's Fallen in Love, starring Emma Connell and Scott Ellis, charted the rise and fall of Anne Boleyn

“Exactly. Her heart was probably telling her to do the opposite; but this whole cult of the Virgin Queen that she became was something she realised was going to serve her sense of duty best.”

Tudor history buff Elsie Bennett, playing Good Queen Bess, says everybody has their own opinions, shaped by the monarch’s portrayal on the large and small screen. In her mind, Elizabeth I is a woman confident about who she is despite the sacrifices she had to make.

Born a woman in a man’s world, she’s spent her whole life being told she’s not good enough; giving her even more reason to go for it, Elsie laughs.

“She’s very sure of herself and knows she can get things. When she is queen she can do what she wants; she’s the boss. I think she knows her power and how to control the room when she walks in... It’s interesting, at the time she obviously had the power, the magnetism, to make all these traditional expectations (such as marrying) be forgotten when she didn’t fulfil them.”

Progress is a follow-up to the story started in Carrick’s critically acclaimed Fallen in Love, which followed the rise and fall of Elizabeth I’s mother, Boleyn.

Set in Ipswich during the summer of 1561, tailor Peter Moone is working on a play with a group of locals to be performed for the queen, who is coming to Ipswich on a “Progress”, heralding a new dawn of hope and tolerance.

It’s a tale of court intrigue, scandal and passion set against the harsh backdrop of the story of the Ipswich martyrs and based on factual accounts of real events.

“I always thought it would be really great to write something about Elizabeth I, to continue this story,” says Carrick.

“I looked up dramas about her and there are very few, almost none really; no big, mainstream, successful plays. Lots of cinema. Lots. I wanted to tell the story of Anne’s triumphant daughter, having had her (mother) being executed because she couldn’t give birth to a son after having this little girl.”

While her role as a feminist pioneer may be in question, the play does tackle her modern approach to religion and the monarchy’s dealing with subjects.

“(She was) really kind and condescending in the best meaning of the word. She was famous, rather like Princess Diana, for being approachable. She would touch people, take flowers... She was actually criticised by certain dignitaries and foreign emissaries for being so kind (to those) of not high enough status. Actually we know that’s how somebody really gains status, by having that kindness.”

Elizabeth I was seen as an angel by those crowding Ipswich docks when she got off her boat, bringing tolerance after her sister Mary’s bloody persecution of Protestants.

Establishing and becoming supreme governor of the English Protestant church, she expressed “no desire to make windows into men’s souls”: basically saying your God can be what you want it to be in your heart. A far more moderate approach to religion than her father and half-siblings.

“That doesn’t mean she was perfect. If you examine history, you can see lots of instances of ghastly things happening in her reign, but the contrast between her level of tolerance and the cruelty of her sister’s reign is marked.”

Carrick’s take on Elizabeth I?

“She was an extremely religious woman who believed it was her destiny and God’s will for her to reign, so she wanted to put that above all else − including herself.”

Progress runs at Red Rose Chain’s new theatre, The Avenue, Gippeswyk Hall, Gippeswyk Avenue, Ipswich, from February 3-28.

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