Imagine a young Englishwoman waging war against the Spanish Armada, bringing peace to her country, and rallying the media of her day to spin herself into the Virgin Queen, wed only to England. Then imagine her having enough time to master the lute, write poems in Latin, speak several languages, and do her share of serious dallying with courtiers.
Next month marks four centuries since the death of one of England's most chronicled monarchs, Elizabeth I. Hollywood gave us a winsome Elizabeth in Cate Blanchett. But accounts and images from her day describe a red-haired, ruddy-skinned woman with an askew nose recalled less for appearance than for what her contemporaries termed sheer presence - chutzpah, if you will.
Myth and fact are addressed in two shows, one on either coast. Next month, Washington's Folger Shakespeare Library opens "Elizabeth I: Then and Now," focusing on the glittery side of Elizabeth's court - her wardrobe, men, and court entertainments. And an exhibit mounted by the Huntington Library in Pasadena, Calif. - "Gloriana! The Golden Legend of Elizabeth I" - offers a context for Elizabeth's person and times via letters, maps, artwork, anecdotes, and works of literature (such as Edmund Spenser's "The Faerie Queen").
That show presents a fairly responsible picture of a formidable, literate leader - a proto-feminist who did not let gender limit her desire for power or her political acumen, which was astute enough to rival the spinmeisters working Washington today.
Her story makes today's royal antics look tame: Henry VII, Elizabeth's granddad, arranged a marriage between his eldest son and Catherine of Aragon, princess to his powerful enemies, the Spanish Hapsburgs. When that son died, he married Catherine off to the younger Henry, soon to be Henry VIII. Catherine bore only Mary, so the fickle king challenged Papal authority to annul that marriage and wed Anne Boleyn. Anne gave birth to Elizabeth - only to be put to death by her loving husband.
Elizabeth was a toddler when this all took place. One wonders how the adult queen processed the history of her mother's execution, but that speculation aside, the context for intrigue, the penchant for power play, and the genes for leadership at any cost were well in place.
The show offers showcases filled with documents and letters that give a glimpse of a precocious, Protestant princess smartly navigating the dangers of the court of her half-sister Mary, a Roman Catholic.
At Mary's death, the throne passed to Elizabeth almost by default, and ministers wondered what this untried young girl could possibly know or do. They needn't have worried, as letters penned in Elizabeth's distinctive hand, lithographs, and historical sources chronicle.
During her 44-year reign, Elizabeth spread England's influence in the New World, defeated the formidable Spanish Navy, win free passage in important trade routes, and, by side-stepping thorny issues through pageantry, public relations, and diplomacy, to bring peace to a country ravaged by religious strife for nearly 40 years.
What the exhibition whitewashes a bit is that when pushed, or when England's sovereignty was at stake, Elizabeth turned Machiavellian. Her reign saw the killing of religious dissidents as well as political adversaries, and Mary Queen of Scots, a distant relative implicated in attempts on Elizabeth's life, was put to death with a lot less inner angst than Hollywood (or the Huntington) would have us think.
Accurately borne out here is that Elizabeth was strong-willed and brilliant (she spoke and wrote in seven languages and was an accomplished musician).
As queen, she maintained strong ties to the Church of England - a lovely lithograph shows the Queen holding the English Bible close to her heart - but made genuine attempts at religious tolerance.
Also made clear is Elizabeth's remarkable timing and innate knack for theater. Her public processions and parliamentary entrances were legendary. Exhibition documents describe her grand appearance at the port to make a stirring speech as the English navy set off to meet the Spanish Armada. Another engraving from Robert Glover's 1608 text shows the regal queen seated with the whole of Parliament in thrall.
Visitors are reminded of Elizabeth's uncanny understanding of modern mass media. Even her attire was deliberately symbolic: she did wear white face paint (and, late in life, a red wig) with jeweled collars arching around a somber face to look like halos encasing an icon.
She won the hearts of the common folk through something akin to Renaissance sound bites. Her speeches and pamphlets went out of their way to use simple language to promote a living deity of remote beauty, mercy, piety, and Tudor resolve.