Was Elizabeth a Jealous Old Hag?

I’ve just been listening to a BBC History Magazine interview with Tracy Borman, writer of “Elizabeth’s Women: The Hidden Story of the Virgin Queen”, which takes as its theme Elizabeth I’s jealous streak. It really is an interesting interview and well worth a listen – you can either download it from iTunes (BBC History Magazine Podcasts) or you can listen to it on the BBC History Magazine’s website – click here to go to the right page. The first half of the BBC History Magazine is an interview with Dan Snow about the Battle of Quebec and the Tracy Borman interview is in the second half.

In this interview, Borman considers Elizabeth I’s looks, her vanity, how she controlled her court and how she became embittered and jealous in her later years. As we know, Elizabeth was not a classic beauty, but she was certainly not ugly. She had her mother’s undefinable attraction and sex appeal, as well as her flirtatious nature, which kept her the centre of attention. She knew that she was the most desirable woman in the whole of Europe and it was this knowledge, combined with her sex appeal, intelligence and wit, that helped her control her court and have everyone trying desperately to win her favour. I can just picture her surrounded with men hanging on her every word!

Borman points out that Elizabeth had seen her half-sister Mary fail to control her court and always defer to men, and Elizabeth knew that she herself had to have ultimate control. Even though she was famous for her procrastination and indecision, she was always the boss and all of her advisors and council knew that she was in charge. Elizabeth was ready to listen to advice from trusted men like Lord Burghley, but she made the decisions and deferred to no man.

In her early years, it was easy for Elizabeth to control the men around her with her charms and to stand out from her ladies by outshining them with her extravagant costumes and her wit, but this obviously became harder as she aged and lost her looks. Borman points out that in Elizabeth’s later years it was natural for those at court to think about her successor, James VI of Scotland, and to try and win favour with him instead. How frustrating it must have been for Elizabeth to see her men change their allegiance and for her no longer to be the centre of attention.

Elizabeth tried desperately to hang on to her youth and it is said that she even experimented with alchemy in her early 30s to try and capture the secret of everlasting youth. It is a sad fact that she became “mutton dressed as lamb” as she still dressed like a young woman, plastered her face in thick makeup, wore low necklines and bright red wigs, and really became a laughing stock to visiting foreign ambassadors. As she aged and felt herself losing her grip on her male courtiers, she became bitter and jealous. There are stories of her lashing out at the women around her, throwing things at them, screaming and even breaking a lady’s finger. Her ladies were the ones who saw her as she really was and the ones who surrounded her, no wonder they bore the brunt of her fears and frustration.

At the end of the interview, Dave Musgrove, Editor of BBC History Magazine, asks Tracy Borman whether male monarchs also lost control of their court as they aged and lost their looks – an interesting question! Borman points out the example of Henry VIII who became so obese and ill that he had to be carried around everywhere, yet he was still in complete control and never lost that sense of majesty. How unfair!

So, perhaps Elizabeth did become a jealous old hag, but she was one of the finest monarchs that England has ever had and was truly loved and admired by those around her. Whatever she became, she is a role model for us today and managed to control her court in an era where women were just not meant to be Queens – bravo Elizabeth!

Tracy Borman’s book, “Elizabeth’s Women”, is available now from Amazon UK – click here for details. The book is also BBC Radio 4’s Book of the Week next week and you can hear extracts of it being read out on Radio 4 – click here for details.

18 thoughts on “Was Elizabeth a Jealous Old Hag?

  1. The portrait shown is one of Elizabeth I painted about twenty years after her death. During her later life, she controlled her portraits by insisting on the use of a pattern of her face at a much earlier age. She did not want to appear as aging to her subjects, but always as the young Virgin Queen. She was an early master of public relations.

    She also banned mirrors from her presence during her last twenty years so she didn’t have to face her crumbling self.

    It is interesting to equate this with an aging Hollywood superstar, once a beauty admired and adored by legions of handsome men, growing older and older and being relegated to mother roles and sympathy as she struggles to hold her body and her face together.

    And yet Elizabeth I went on outriding and outwalking others younger than herself almost until her death in a desperate effort to maintain the fiction of her youth.

    Jeane Westin, author of The Virgin’s Daughters:In the Court of Elizabeth I, released August, 2009 by New American Library

  2. Thanks for the comment, Jeane, yes, Elizabeth was far too vain and worried about the image portrayed to her subjects to allow a portrait like that to be painted while she was alive!

    Your book sounds interesting, I’ll have to check it out as I’m always on the look-out for good Tudor books.

  3. Jealous, old hag – ouch! That hurts! How many of us ladies are so secure and confident that aging does not matter to us? Yeah, it happens to us all, but it’s not fun! When I see more gray hairs and wrinkles, I grab the hair dye and retin-A! And I would only have photos taken of me that were photoshopped as well. When it comes to aging, Elizabeth has my fullest sympathy.

  4. So we have the case of a woman surrounded by dozens, if not hundreds of bickering pouting, pretentious males for a period of over forty years and she doesn’t occasionally lose her temper! Wow! Surprise surprise!
    That the occasional female rival might perceive her as jealous occasionally over the same period and post a negative report to some foreign ambassador or the other is also hardly astonishing. She actually did pretty well, I think And one broken finger (allegedly) over that entire period of running one of the most complicated countries in the world, surrounded by foes on all sides, again does not seem too bad a track record for anybody living in the real world.
    Meanwhile, the suggestion that somebody of Elizabeth’s intellect would pursue the study of alchemy due to vanity is risible. If this is a flavour of what we can expect over the next few days, it isn’t exactly ringing my bells yet.

  5. Yes, she was bound to lose her temper, I know I would. The incident when she boxed the Earl of Essex’s ears is infamous but it was well-deserved as I think he had been insolent and he even drew his sword on her. It must have been so hard to be a woman trying to control all those men and to be running her household. I’m sure her maids deserved her rages at times and seeing her maids have full lives and have affairs etc. must have stirred some jealousy and bitterness – Elizabeth gave up so much and who can blame her for resenting other people’s lives, I don’t. Henry VIII was known for his tantrums, yet we don’t blame his on his vanity or a loss of control, complete double standards!

    Yes, I’d never heard of the alchemy thing either. My book has been dispatched and I’m going to be looking carefully at the bibliography of sources because I always like ideas and theories to be be backed up. It annoys me when they aren’t.

    Sorry about the inflammatory title but it was the BBC who inspired it, Dave Musgrove asked Borman point blank if she thought Elizabeth was an old hag and she said yes and quoted a description from the Venetian ambassador, who called Elizabeth “of a repulsive physical nature” – poor woman!! She didn’t have Garnier, L’oreal or Oil of Olay did she?!

  6. I think what I was meaning to say (had a bit of a grumpy day myself yesterday) was that alchemy in the 16th century represented the science of the times. Those who interested themselves in alchemy were intelligent people wanting to investigate nature and to understand what made the world work, the processes hidden in nature.
    Yes, Elizabeth was certainly interested in alchemy, but the ‘eternal youth’ aspect of it (i.e. the elixir of life) was only a very minor and superficial part of the subject, which encompassed medicine, mathematics, botany, astronomy and chemistry and somehow managed to blend all these with meditation and prayer.
    Elizabeth was always enthusiastic and engaged in modern developments in these fields. Vanity, however, was not the driving force behind any interest. It’s like saying she was only interested in exploration of the new world because she fancied sailors. Well, she probably did fancy sailors – who wouldn’t like a piece of Walter Raleigh before it was all gone! But that was not what lay behind the voyages of discovery and colonization. I just think we have to give this remarkable woman the credit she deserves and not make a big fuss over the human frailties that she and all of us have from time to time.

  7. Sorry about your grumpy day, hope you’re having a better day today. No, I know what you mean, it’s not nice to speak ill of the dead, except Henry VIII lol! I think it’s good to see that even the superhuman wonderwoman, that Elizabeth was, had her frailties, faults and flaws, but it is disrespectful to call her a jealous old hag. I look terrible in the morning nefore my caffeine, shower and daily kiss so I can definitely empathise, and I don’t spend my time trying to run a court and surrounded ny pretty young women!
    Yes, she deserves our respect and I love her – makes you proud to be English!!

  8. Well Liz 1 (as I affectionately call her) I think made a few mistakes. I know she was very much on hygience but she did have a thing about painting her face with lead and other things which obviously got into the skin and affected the hair. Liz 1 was my heroine from the time I started to read which was at the early age of 3 because I was, and at the almost age of 58, still am. As a kid I went threw hell but those childhood books helped out a lot – The fact a red-ahired woman contolled everything for s number of years suited me fine then and has done do every since. She was a Virgo, I am a Scorpio and at one stage these two signs were the same but the period too long so Libra (the only sign in the zodiac which does not represent animal not person was introduced) (UI have the info somewhere). If “Clinique” had been around in Lis’s time thenshe would have been on an even better winner.

    Jealous old hag? Again depends on one’s point of view. I personally would prefer my own indepence and control my life that have some bloke do it for me. And like Liz I did have my finger burnt a long time ago so I not am happy as Larry being solo.

    Each to their own !

    Give ne my orange juice, my cafe intake in the morning – then I’m off although I don’t have a court to run, just a small business but it is like fighting the Spaniah Armada (I live in Madrid) to get things done sometimes when one is freelance.

    Things don’t change.

  9. Well I personally think Elizabeth was one of the most fascination people in English history and it mustn’t have been easy to be her. Since she was such a great woman I will allow her a bit of vanity and jealousy, well you are jealous whenever you want something yourself and you don’t feel too secure. I think that if she could have gotten married and if she had had sons she would not have minded with eteral youth. In her position she was desperate for a man by her side and a son in the cradle and she was not allowed either so she must vent it in some way or another and she had a fierce temperament so I am not suprised

  10. I would like to say that I finally received this as my birthday present and I enjoyed more than anything else. I respect Elizabeth as a queen and politician, but I don’t think I would have liked to be close to her! Her cousins hadn’t got the sense of a tom tit, any of them, and then those silly ladies in waiting who kept getting pregnant – I think I would have felt like slapping them! “The Virgin Queen” and her unruly pregnant ladies – it didn’t really help her image much! As for Mary Stuart, if she’d had any sense, she could have stayed safely in France, only it was fashionable to insult Catherine de Medici at the time and the silly little thing followed suit. That was really why Mary was returned to Scotland.

  11. I think Elizabeth was woman as well as queen. As a woman of a certain age myself, I know full well how the slow decline of the body pains the spirit and the mind. And for a woman in power such as Elizabeth, the fiction of eternal youth had to be maintained just as it does in Hollywood today. And not just Hollywood. Most professional women do all they can to look as young as possible. Where is that line that crosses into foolish?? hard to find! Elizabeth never lost her incisive intelligence or her zest for life. I admire that!

  12. Sandra, Elizabeth I was certainly not desperate for a husband OR a son. There were numerous negotiations for her hand in marriage. It was by her own personal choice that she never married even though all those around her pushed her to do so. She did not want to lose control of her kingdom to a husband so she avoided this issue by not having one. As far as an heir is concerned, this did not seem to be a “desperate” matter for her either by the evidence we have today. She did not want to sacrifice any of her attention for her kingdom to a child which she knew would do so. There is no evidence to support your claim that she was desperate for a husband. For male attention, quite possibly so, for a companion, almost certainly but for a HUSBAND, most certainly not!

  13. After reading this (and not wanting to think of E1 as a jealous old hag, haha) I got to thinking about what she would do if she were alive today. I wonder if she would go the way of so many celebrities and schedule an appointment with a plastic surgeon. Would she overdo it and be another Michael Jackson or would she be more like Elizabeth II and adopt a more conservative view about physical beauty and just grow old gracefully (I have a feeling that she wouldn’t be content with the role of the monarchy in today’s time)? How would she handle the fact that television and photographs tell a much truer story than carefully manipulated portraits? I wonder if she would have gone the same route if she hadn’t contracted small pox?

    Love the site, love Elizabeth I, love the history of England!!

  14. I don’t think she was a jealous ole hag, I think she had to watch all of her friends get married, have kids, and Grandchildren, replace her friends with younger versions and all they wanted was to use her as a means to get a husband and all that goes with having one. And even though she knew at a young age she didn’t want to be married that doesn’t mean she never thought about or yearned for love, children and a home life. I would be at least a little bitter if I had to watch 3 generations of ladies travel a road I knew I didn’t choose but one I certainly could have.

  15. Role model? She lock poor Mary Stuart in prison! Elizabeth also was very jealous about Mary beauty and popularity when queen of Scots go to England.

    Elizabeth also asked Mary ambasador, Melville who was tallest, fairest to which he replied that Elizabeth was the fairest in England and Mary in Scotland. But that was no enough for the jealous Elizabeth who then asked Melville who was of the highest stature. Melville had to admit that it was Mary. She retorted that she must then be too high for she was neither too high nor too low. She then wanted to know how Mary passed her time. Melville explained that she liked to read good books when she had the time and sometimes played on the lute. Also wanted to know who danced better.

  16. I read that the white lead she used to whiten her skin, really made her look bad. It’s toxic and makes one’s hair fall out. I always try to remember, I am an attractive OLDER lady. Anyone can be attractive at any age, but just needs to remember that they aren’t 16 anymore and never will be again. A person can’t wear a 16 year old’s clothes anymore.

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