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  • Kristin Bundesen, PhD

Women as actors on the political stage

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


Assuming you've read previous posts in this series . . . . Opening up the historical narrative sufficiently to bring women into it is difficult enough much less establishing their political agency. I returned to higher education as my children were finishing their first degrees. As you’ve heard/read, I attended the University of Nottingham. When I arrived the School of History secretary gave me a tour of the building. I had been assigned two supervisors. As we went through the historic building, she pointed out the office doors of each. “Here’s supervisor A’s office. He doesn’t admit he has a gender. This is supervisor B’s office. She’s lovely. Plus, her office is bigger." Decision made. This decision was confirmed when in our first meeting Supervisor B, Dr. Joyce Ellis, an historian of 18th century urban development, without either of us mentioning Dunnett, pulled Elspeth Morrison’s Dunnett Companion book off the shelf behind her and handed to me. In a moment that sealed our relationship, I looked up and said ‘Thanks! I brought mine with me.’


At the first post grad student conference at a neighboring university, I gave my first paper laying out the context for the research I planned to conduct. The professors in the room were gracious but critical. How was I going to prove that women had political agency they asked. There were no sources for that. I replied, I’m not sure, but I have three years to figure it out.


I was much encouraged when I delved into the secondary literature to find one of the most eminent historians of Tudor women had faced similar resistance. Her supervisors told her- you can’t write the history of women because none exists. Then she found approximately 1,000 references to women in the standard published archive available, the Letters and Papers of Henry VIII, known as L&P, and which is referenced in almost all Tudor research as it is the largest printed primary source available for the time period.


This reemphasizes the point, that we must look for and then share the fact of diversity throughout history. Throughout this conference we have discussed the lens through which we view and analyze. If a term did not exist in the early modern period are we wrong to use it to describe that experience? Is it our responsibility to use terms familiar in today’s political and public discourse in order to connect the links in the chains to our past, Even as recently as the 2000s, 30 years after second wave feminism, the received wisdom about Europe in the 15th and 16th century is that it was peopled by white men who ran the world.


Good news! That wasn’t the case. My research looks at the first Elizabethan court for a couple of reasons including the length of the reign which allows for a larger set of archival sources. But even the basics can seem opaque.


More than a handful of Elizabethan women at court.

Let's start with how many women were at the Elizabethan court. Wallace MacCaffrey, the eminent Harvard historian estimated that in 1567, 8 years into Elizabeth I’s reign there were approximately 175 men and only 12 women in the court. Received wisdom can make no sense.


Let’s do some math. Start with 12 women. It is widely assumed that in the English court, there were six maids of honor at any given time, itself something to be challenged as Charlotte Merton has done. This would leave only three women for the privy chamber and three for the bed chamber. A very strange environment as well as an impractical one. It is hard to imagine a court entertainment that would include dancing, and Elizabeth loved to dance, with 175 men and only twelve women.


Historian Elizabeth Brown provides a slightly more optimistic estimate of sixteen paid and six unpaid women. As the maids of honor were frequently unpaid, this would leave eight women for each chamber. However, in 1567, the year MacCaffrey chose for his estimate, the records list at least forty women receiving wages.


In addition, there were the women who served without wages, including but not limited to Anne Morgan Carey who split her time between the court and Berwick-upon-Tweed where her husband was nominally in charge but which she put in order including rebuilding of defense works, bulking up the provisions, adding horses to the stables, and organizing the back pay of resident soldiers while her children were sick; the Cooke sisters known for their extensive learning to the point of sometimes being referred to as the original blue stockings; Helena Snakenborg, a Swedish lady-in-waiting to Princess Cecilia who stayed in England to serve Elizabeth after her mistress left; and Anne Russell Dudley who served the length of Elizabeth’s reign raising troops to send to the Low Countries to support her brother-in-law Robert Dudley Earl of Leicester, to name but a few.

An estimate of at least sixty elite women at court including the maids of honor would be nearer the mark. This count does not include the many women at court as wives, mothers, sisters or daughters to male courtiers without posts of their own, nor those employed as fools, painters, entertainers or the female chamberers from below stairs employed to clean and wash. It is much more likely therefore that there was a relatively equal gender balance at the court. With this more balanced picture comes the question of the role women played. The historiography is in complete agreement that women of the privy and bed chamber spent time dressing and undressing the queen as well as aiding in the maintenance of her wardrobe.

Elizabeth I and her ladies receiving Dutch ambassadors. 1570-1575. Artist Unknown. Neue Galerie, Kassel, Germany.

There is even general agreement over their decorative value and deployment, dressed and jeweled, as visual representation of the majesty of the English court when receiving foreign ambassadors. However, the historiography makes a distinction between male attendants who concurrently held office such as keeperships of the dry stamps and the privy coffer, members of Henry VIII’s and Edward VI’s privy chamber and the female attendants of Mary and Elizabeth’s reign who did not. The removal of these tokens of administrative functions from the female-dominated chambers has led to the assumption that without them the chamber was devoid of political significance.


This is yet another misconception of the relationship between office and power but in this case the significance of office-holding has been given disproportional weight against proximity and trade in information, which is also a political tool.


Next up: how the men of the Elizabethan court viewed the power of women at court.

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