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. 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

  2. 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.

  3. 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!

  4. 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!

  5. 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!!

  6. 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.

  7. 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.

  8. 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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