Ever since British Prime Minister Theresa May arrived in Downing Street, friends and enemies have sought to find another woman to whom we can compare her — and each time come up with former prime minister Margaret Thatcher. Now the PM has caused a stir by citing Elizabeth I as a role model in a carefully vetted Q&A with her local constituency paper. I’m not sure Elizabeth would have been impressed: Four years working on her private papers has made clear to me that she was determined to be sui generis (unique). If there are lessons to be learned from Britain’s most impressive absolute monarch, they are not easily applied to a modern democracy. Historical comparisons tell us more about ourselves than they do about the past. Elizabeth’s success in a male world appeals to Britain’s new PM, who tells us to admire “A woman who knew her own mind and achieved in a male environment”. She cites Elizabeth’s supposed Tilbury speech: “I know I have the body of a weak and feeble woman, but I have the stomach of a king.”
May has made no secret of her contempt for former prime minister David Cameron’s old boys’ club. Her reference to Elizabeth, however, looks more artfully planned. For Brexiteers, Elizabeth I is a symbol of the fight against “European” influences. (No matter that, like May, she preferred compromise, negotiating with all sides right up until the Armada.) May’s loyalty to the Brexit cause has been suspect, to put it mildly. As meetings for Brexit approach, she’s repositioning herself on the Tilbury cliffs, shaking an armoured fist at Jean-Claude Juncker. Not that there aren’t other striking comparisons. Elizabeth’s long wait for the throne prefigures the tribulations of May.
In 1549, the guardian of the 15-year-old Elizabeth, Thomas Seymour, was arrested for attempting a coup. Suspecting her involvement, Edward VI’s government ordered Elizabeth’s favourite servants to be banished from her household; two — Thomas Parry and Katherine Ashley — wound up in the tower. May’s special advisers never quite made it to a dungeon, but it came close. In 2014, Fiona Hill was forced to quit May’s office as a punishment for her role in the “Trojan Horse” row with Michael Gove over radicalisation in schools.
Another two, Nick Timothy and Stephen Parkinson, were removed from the parliamentary candidates list a few months later after their boss incurred the wrath of Grant Shapps. Many thought Elizabeth would never outlive her predecessor’s government. Instead, she kept her head low, avoided taking sides and slowly accumulated friends. Elizabeth remembered her old servants when she finally took power: Parry and Ashley received senior roles in the royal household, not unlike Hill, Timothy and Parkinson, now in No 10.
But unlike May, Elizabeth reined in the revenge reshuffles. Half of her early Privy Council were veterans of her sister Mary’s cabinet — many had acquiesced in her own imprisonment. Instead, the surprising brutality of May’s approach to Team Cameron — sacking men like Dominic Raab, Nick Boles and Ed Vaizey, for the crime of friendship with Gove or Osborne — recalls a different young queen. Victoria has a softer image than Elizabeth Tudor, but viewers of ITV’s current hit series, starring Jenna Coleman, will know her reign started with a ruthless purge.
Sir John Conroy, the disciplinarian who had run her household, was dismissed, and she moved him, together with her own hated mother, to distant rooms in Buckingham Palace. Her refusal to compromise over the Bedchamber Crisis finds echo in the ruthlessness with which May has not accepted even a few token enemies in her Cabinet. Victoria quite enjoyed Swiss holidays, too.
There are still plenty of reasons for May to admire Elizabeth. A vicar’s daughter, she is committed to the Tudors’ Anglican legacy — a point she returned to in this week’s interview. But when she’s bored of dressing up as the Brexiteers’ favourite queen, she might enjoy reading up on Victoria’s rise to power.
Visitors to Victoria in earlier years had reported her pliable, while a Tory grandee was recently reported, somewhat preposterously, as dismissing May during the coalition as “a jolly nice girl”, incapable of leadership. No one ever underestimated Elizabeth Tudor. But sometimes it’s the quiet ones who surprise you.
— The Telegraph Group Limited, London, 2016
Kate Maltby is a theatre critic for the Times and writes on politics, culture and history for the Spectator.