The ‘Monstrous Regiment of Women’: The Paradox of the Masculine-Female Monarch

By Megan Chance

“Weake, fraile, impacient, feble and foolish…unconstant, variable, cruell and lacking the spirit of counsel and regiment.” [1]

John Knox wrote “How abominable before God is the Empire or Rule of a wicked woman” [2] because “Woman in her greatest perfection was made to serve and obey man, not to rule and command him”. [3] Yet when Mary Tudor was succeeded by Elizabeth I in 1558, despite attempts to reconcile Elizabeth’s rule through marriage, Elizabeth rejected the notion she needed a man nor had to be a man to be a legitimate ruler and embraced the role of the King and Queen.

For Knox, women could not bear authority over men if they were naturally inferior and he wrote to John Calvin and Heinrich Bullinger to try to reconcile female rule: could Elizabeth rule by God’s will, or should she transfer such powers to a man? [4] Calvin responded reaffirming that female rulers were a deviation from the natural order – nevertheless, if a female ruler was established through law, public consent and tradition, then it would be unlawful to remove her because the government would still be ordained by God. [5] Bullinger followed suit:

“The law of God ordains the woman to be in subjection, and not to rule… But if a woman in compliance with…the laws and customs of the realm, is acknowledged as Queen, and…is married to a Husband, or in the meantime holds the reins of government by means of her councillors [she is lawful]…” [6]

Bullinger set the role of a husband against the role of councillors – therefore implying a female ruler needed a husband to provide the necessary masculine qualities needed in a monarch.

Carole Levin has suggested that queenship was difficult to accept when monarchy was historically defined as a male endeavour. [7] Levin notes there are three identifiable facets of monarchy: religious piety, courage-in-battle, and chaste behaviour. [8] Elizabeth exhibited religious piety by breaking from Rome and reasserting herself as the head of the Church of England, bringing in policies of religious toleration. Secondly, Elizabeth showed tremendous courage on the battlefield. In 1588, Elizabeth gave the below speech to troops at Tilbury when she went to inspect the militia:

“I know I have the body but of a weak and feeble woman; but I have the heart and stomach of a king, and of a king of England too…I myself will take up arms, I myself will be your general, judge, and rewarder of every one of your virtues in the field…”[9]

If piety, courage and bearing arms were masculine, Elizabeth exhibited masculinity. Elizabeth provoked a separation of her ‘weak and feeble’ sex and juxtaposed it to the image she wished to portray, that of a masculine soul. She was not weakened by her sex but used it to her advantage. There are doubts about the authenticity of the speech, but regardless of this, the notion of such gendered metaphors being used by the Queen were enough to cement her as a ruler capable of exhibiting masculine, kingly duties. Positions of power and authority have historically been held by male figures and therefore assertion of authority was marked by maleness, and incidentally masculinity; Elizabeth sought to use gendered rhetorical devices to exceed limits imposed by the gender norms bound to her physical sex.[10]

The third facet of monarchy was chastity. Kings were often not chastised for their sexual improprieties: Elizabeth’s father Henry VIII had himself taken six wives throughout his life which had not undermined his rule significantly and Henry II of France had his mistress, Diane de Portier, infamously live in the palace. Contrastingly, Elizabeth’s sexual behaviour was often cause for speculation and the maintenance of her virginity was crucial to the legitimacy of her rule.  Elizabeth clearly demonstrated religious piety and the ability to lead in battle, as far as she could as a woman, therefore asserting her capability in two critical, masculine facets of monarchy and yet much of the debate around Elizabeth’s reign centres around the third facet: her virginity, sexuality, and her marital status.

In 1566, she said:

“I say again I will marry as soon as I can conveniently, if God take not him away with whom I mind to marry, or myself…I hope to have children; otherwise I would never marry.” [11]

Elizabeth utilised her womanhood to control her advisors and maintain her autonomy. Elizabeth was able to invoke the stereotypes of femininity and expectations of her as a woman to marry and bear a child, to reconcile her role as a female ruler with the male body politic. When addressing Parliament on the question of marriage, Elizabeth said:

“To conclude, I am already bound unto a husband, which is the kingdom of England, and that may suffice you… ….I have no children: for every one of you, and as many are English, are my children…” [12]

Elizabeth addressed her position as an unmarried queen directly, and placed herself as the wife of England, her duty to the subjects of England. Elizabeth manipulated the expectations of her to marry, and the behaviour expected of her in the marital sphere and brought this into the public domain so she could continue as a female ruler.

Elizabeth did not marry a man, nor did she require a man to legitimate her authority, she was married to England, and she was succeeded by James VI of Scotland and James I of England and Scotland. John Knox made clear his belief women could not wield power or authority, and was supported by Calvin, Bullinger and others in such a belief: female rule was unnatural and ungodly. Elizabeth illustrated multiple times she was able to rule as a King and Queen, exhibiting all three facets of a monarch – a task which her male predecessors had been unable to illustrate. Elizabeth controlled the narrative as a result of her sex and was able to outwit and control men within the political sphere because they believed she could not do so; her greatest strength and source of legitimacy was the thing assumed to be her weakness. Ultimately, Elizabeth chose not to marry and allowed James Stuart to succeed the throne. In doing so, she resolved two problems. Firstly, Elizabeth united Scotland and England under one monarch, safeguarding the Reformation. Secondly, she proved a female ruler did not need a man, was not naturally tyrannous or effeminate, and could act as an effective monarch.

[1] Knox, John, The Works of John Knox Volume IV, p. 374

[2] Ibid., p. 365

[3] Ibid., p. 377

[4] Knox, John, The Works of John Knox Volume III, Laing, David (ed.), (Ontario: TannerRitchie Publishing. 2004), p. 222

[5] Knox, John, The Works of John Knox Volume IV, p. 357

[6] Knox, John, The Works of John Knox Volume III, p. 221-222

[7] Levin, Carole. The Heart and Stomach of a King: Elizabeth I and the Politics of Sex and Power. (Pennsylvania: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013.), p. 14

[8] Levin, Carole, The Heart and Stomach of a King: Elizabeth I and the Politics of Sex and Power, (University of Pennsylvania Press: Pennsylvania. 2013), p. 66

[9] Elizabeth I, Elizabeth I Collected Works, Marcus, Leah S, (ed.), (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002), p. 325

[10] Levin, Carole, The Heart and Stomach of a King: Elizabeth I and the Politics of Sex and Power, (University of Pennsylvania Press: Pennsylvania. 2013), p. 66

[11] Elizabeth I, Elizabeth I Collected Works, Marcus, Leah S, (ed.), (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002), p. 95

[12] Ibid., p. 59

Image Credit: Free to use via Wikimedia Commons, accessible at

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