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  • Kristin Bundesen, PhD

Did Elizabethan men recognize women's political power?

Highlights from the Understanding Diversity in the 15th and 16th Century conference, Edinburgh, Scotland April 2023


In 1592, Robert Beale published the Treatise of the Office of a Councillor, an instruction manual for those who hoped to obtain a post within the court in which he encouraged the wise secretary to cultivate the female members of the privy chamber ‘w[i]th whom you must keepe creditt, for that will stande you in much steede.’ While this has been interpreted as advice to assess the queen’s mood - you know women are so moody - before presenting her with any suits, it actually acknowledges the vital role played by women of the chambers as channels of communication.

‘w[I]th whom you must keep credit, for that will stand you in much steede’ - Robert Beale (1592) Treatise of the Office of a Councillor

Moreover, the fact that Beale continues to warn his reader, ‘yet yeilde not to much to their importunitie for sutes, for so you may be blamed’ clearly indicates that these women were active in pursuing business directly with the office of the secretary and were not just barometers of the queen’s mood. The important role played by the female staff of the royal household was in no sense a part of their official duties, but was part of how Elizabeth managed her court.


An example comes from a 1593 letter from Sir Francis Knollys to the queen challenging her criticism of how he managed the troublesome task of purveyance, a function of his office of comptroller of the royal household

Because I have hard bothe by the generall reporte of all men & p[ar]ticularlye by my daughter Leyghton th[a]t your Ma[jes]tie hathe conceyvid a harde opynion of me to be careles & neglygent in myne offyce. - Sir Francis Knollys to Queen Elizabeth

His daughter Leighton was Elizabeth Knollys Leighton who had been serving at court since she was nine years old and was by this time a Lady of the Privy Chamber. In a more modern voice, this might be translated as, 'Hey dad, the queen is mad at how you're managing the supplies for the court. I think we should do something. You should write her a letter.' Elizabeth Knollys Leighton’s timely advice allowed her father to mount a successful defense of his position resulting in the appointment of two additional deputies to manage the workload. This kinship-based communication pathway to the monarch helped lend stability to the kingdom.


Charlotte Merton has gone so far as to posit that one of the exacerbating causes of the Northern Rebellion a.k.a. the Revolt of the Northern Earls in the winter of 1569-70 was the lack of female representation from the Percy and Neville families in Elizabeth's court. This was the power that men believed women as ladies-in-waiting could wield at court - sufficient power that the lack of it could inspire rebellion. (For those who like to time travel see also the Bedchamber crisis in Queen Victoria's reign.)

Elizabeth Knollys Leighton, Maid of the Privy Chamber from 1559, Promoted to Lady of the Privy Chamber in 1565, Daughter of Sir Francis Knollys

Nor was the communication from queen via her ladies to their wider families one-way. On the contrary, for a queen who saw economy in using whoever was at hand regardless of their official status, she was quite happy to use her household staff on ‘official’ business. For example, Elizabeth sent Blanche Parry to John Dee at Mortlake to discuss which ‘ecclesiasticall dignity’ within the kingdom he should like to take up. Imagine the conversation. Blanche: John, the queen is considering you for a church office. It would be a handy way to augment your income. Do you have one in mind? Dee: What about the local parish? Blanche: Think bigger. That one doesn't pay much. What about . . . . Blanche would have known with positions were on offer and how much they paid.


Mildred Cooke Cecil, wife to William Cecil, was involved in the highest levels of foreign policy discussions carrying on a correspondence with William Maitland, Scotland's Ambassador to England, during the 1560’s that discussed the state of the Scottish regency government after the death of Mary of Guise and before the arrival of the newly widowed Mary Queen of Scots.


The assertion that Elizabeth’s ladies-in-waiting led narrow lives has clearly been colored by the falsehood that is termed ‘the passive role accorded to women in the sixteenth-century scheme of things’. (See Pam Wright's "A Change of Direction" in The English Court from the War of the Roses to the Civil War (1987))

In the earlier example, Francis Knollys is happy to let the queen know that his daughter had been reporting to him about Elizabeth’s thoughts and opinions. This implies that the queen expected her ladies to send these reports; that she was using them to send the messages she wanted to convey without any direct intervention on her part. If she had deliberately surrounded herself with passive domesticity as a cocoon against the political world, she would have been furious that these ladies were betraying her confidence.


Given the approximately two hours needed to dress and another two hours to undress the monarch, ample opportunity for discussion and debate was available to those present. It is also impossible to escape the fact that the women of the chamber were in daily contact not only with the queen but with her ministers and government administrators.


This daily contact meant that the women were at the very least well informed. For example, Elizabeth Knollys Leighton was familiar with the correspondence of the privy council as revealed in her 21 August 1593 letter to Julius Caesar, judge of the Admiralty Court, referring explicitly to the contents of ‘the counsels letter’ to the admiralty court concerning a conflict between a Guernsey sailor and the sea beggars of New Haven. Further, she was taking an active role in aligning herself with the privy council’s actions and speaking on their behalf.


Given that she was married to the captain of Guernsey, Thomas Leighton, and later in her letter comments that she had ridden in the victim’s boat, it is tempting to hypothesize that she instigated the privy council’s actions on behalf of the sailor in the first place.


In 1581, the women of the chambers had been more informed than the queen regarding Anglo-Scottish relations. When Henry Carey sent a raiding party into Scotland and suffered losses, the women of the chambers knew and informed the queen before Walsingham had a chance to make his report. Which ladies were involved remains unknown; however as Henry Carey and at least two of his sons were involved in this raid and there were at least five Carey women attending the queen at this time it is likely the information was conveyed to the court through kinship correspondence. One can imagine the letter: 'My Dear, Our raiding party returned and we are fine. Both boys acquitted themselves well and suffered no major injuries. But, ....'

Additional evidence that women participated in foreign policy discussions with the queen present comes from a report in February 1582 when Walsingham’s attempt to persuade Elizabeth that William of Orange deserved her support because he was a godly man was interrupted by a lady in attendance who pointed out that William was not so godly as he had an illegitimate child Again, the lady is not named but she was well informed about the religious and personal attributes of foreign leaders and felt sufficiently confident to break into the discussion and contradict the secretary of state.

Queen Elizabeth meeting the Ambassadors. The woman standing in black is thought to be Blanche Parry. Would love to know more about the three women on the floor - one clearly distressed.

Additional evidence that women participated in foreign policy discussions with the queen present comes from a report in February 1582 when Walsingham’s attempt to persuade Elizabeth that William of Orange deserved her support because he was a godly man was interrupted by a lady in attendance who pointed out that William was not so godly as he had an illegitimate child Again, the lady is not named but she was well informed about the religious and personal attributes of foreign leaders and felt sufficiently confident to break into the discussion and contradict the secretary of state. The painting above may be a depiction of the scene. Elite female activities extended into the privy council, foreign affairs, the running of the court, judicial activities, and the church.


Did Elizabethan men recognize women's political power? Yes!

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