Friday, March 2, 2012

Elizabethan Quote of The Day: England Called a "Paradise" for Women!

In 1592, Frederick, Duke of Wurttemberg (south-west Germany) was visiting England. The Duke had begun a correspondence with Queen Elizabeth I herself, and would continue to exchange letters with her for many years thereafter. Part of the reason the Duke was so cordial was because he aspired to be made a Knight of the Garter by the British crown. By 1597 his campaigning payed off, as he was indeed elected as a Knight of the Garter. 

A detail of a portrait of the unfortunate-looking Frederick I, Duke of Wurttemberg. Picture acquired through Wikimedia Commons. Image public domain.

During his visit to England, Duke Frederick recorded his observations, which are now in the Record Office and British Museum (England as Seen by Foreigners in the Days of Elizabeth and James the First, William Brenchley Rye). There is a particular excerpt from the Duke's papers that I have chosen to share with you today, concerning the lives of women in 16th century England:

"England is a paradise for women, a prison for servants, and a hell or purgatory for horses-for the females have great liberty and are almost like masters."

First things first: No matter where you looked in 16th century Europe, including the Duke's native Germany, it was a difficult livelihood to be a servant, so please do not think that England had an exceptionally cruel policy toward the hired help. In fact, there were far worse places to be in service!

Second, I find the horse observation peculiar, since the English have a longstanding history of being partial to horses. It is unclear to me what kind of horse the Duke is referring to; seeing as he mentions them in the same clause as the servant, I would assume he means work or draft horses, not riding palfreys or warhorses, the latter two of which were treated with great care.

But the important part of the excerpt here is the Duke's observation of English women. The British Isles have historically always has fairly liberated women, especially when you compare their lives to the lives of women in the medieval and early modern states on the Continent.

In the 16th century, Spaniards were shocked at the shorter length of the dresses worn by the women at court, which sometimes scandalously revealed a bit of ankle (say it isn't so!). And I have read letters and journals from ambassadors from many different countries who repeatedly remarked at the freedom in which noblewomen conducted their lives and involved themselves in court intrigue.

And the women of the rising middle/merchant class ran businesses, managed households, kept financial books, and negotiated business deals. Some women even apprenticed in their own trades and became their own masters, but this was also true of other countries, and the practice itself hearkened back to the medieval era. The lives of the pastoral country folk were not bad either, and many foreign observers chose to remark on the wealth and autonomy of the English farming class. 

The Hardwick Portrait of Queen Elizabeth I was completed in 1592, the same year that the Duke of Wurrtemberg made his observation of English women. The embroidery on the front of  Elizabeth's partlet was done by Bess of Hardwick, and the portrait itself hung in Hardwick Hall. Picture acquired through Wikimedia Commons. Image public domain.
While many would assume that it was Queen Elizabeth's influence as female monarch that improved the lives of women, this was actually not the case; the movement of Humanism, which had caught on like wildfire in England long before Elizabeth was even born, and eventually the Reformation, had championed the educating of women and girls in religion, the classics, history and more, which expanded their previous traditional education of music, dance, reading and writing. Nonetheless, having a brilliantly educated, authoritative queen on the throne certainly inspired the women around her, and you need not look far to discover the countless remarkable women that changed Elizabethan England for the better. Queen Elizabeth also undoubtedly proved to the men that served her that the 'fairer sex" was every bit as capable as their male counterparts in achieving complex thought and assuming leadership (though it did take a while for her Councillors to believe it, and even then some only saw Elizabeth I as the exception, rather than the rule for womankind.)

Queen Elizabeth I presiding over her Parliament, c. 1580-1600. Picture acquired through Wikimedia Commons. Image public domain.
As you have probably guessed, English women's history and the evolution of their roles through time is a special interest of mine, and I plan to write more on the subject in the future. But I think the Duke of Wurrtemberg's observation is a good placeholder for the time-being, don't you?

And by the way, it may be a point of interest to my readers that three years after the Duke recorded his thoughts on English women, his Ambassador Breuning was charged by Lord Burghley for appearing before Queen Elizabeth I drunk. He was required to give an explanation of his deplorable behavior and a formal apology to the queen! (Brenchley Rye, 8) And I will let you draw your own conclusions from that!


Brenchley Rye, William. England as Seen by Foreigners in the Days of Elizabeth and James the First. Print.