‘The Queen’s Bed’, the Queen’s Body, and the Body of the State

A rigorous, middle ground between lurid populist histories and dry academia, Anna Whitelock provides an excellent biography as a well trained historian.

The writing about the court of Elizabeth I, post-Victorian revival, is a fair indication of where the Anglo-American culture is at a given moment, and that an argument could be made that there is a split between the academic writers, and the popular writers. In very broad strokes, academics are mostly concerned with real estate, and populist writers are mainly concerned with sex. Discussions of real estate lead to questions of sex, and discussions of sex (or marriage, especially for a queen with a difficult line of succession), often lead to questions of real estate, but they are effective general categories.

For example, popular history runs almost the entire century with: Sarah Bernhardt and erotic melodrama in 1909; Bette Davis and history as a “women’s weepie” in the ’30s; the sexual autonomy of London and Glenda Jackson in the ’70s; the tart irony of Judi Dench in 2004. On the academic history, consider: Peter Guilday seems to ignore the great war as he works out the interactions of the courts and their religious implications, in 1914; the minute details of material culture in Erna Auerbach’s post-war studies, trying to pick narratives out of the ruins of war; or Susan Bassnett, writing an explicitly feminist perspective of the politics in 1988, or the recent glut of work about the body of Elizabeth.

Anna Whitelock, previously best known for an excellent critical biography, Mary Tudor: Princess, Bastard, Queen, is an interesting case study for this thesis, because she works between the populist and the academic. She is skilled at synthesizing the various trends around scholarship. The work is indebted to micro-history, to recent conversations about what female power means, but it’s also a book that functions like a mole through the archives, working tightly and explicitly through mostly primary sources.

The Queen’s Bed is not a radical reclaiming of history, but a book that makes small points, with a dry elegance. If one significantly reads the Tudors, or wants to have an opinion on them, this won’t change your mind — it doesn’t really answer any of the major questions. She often hedges her bets. But this is a mark of academic caution, and refusal of spectacle in a field that is often historically lurid.

One assumes that one can ask questions about with whom she might have shared her bed. But like Hill or Thomson or other ’70s social historians, Whitelock widens the potential of the court. The discussions of maids, ladies in waiting, the mother’s of suitors, and minor court functionaries — throughout England, but also in Anjou, Spain, Scotland, and Sweden — are all touched on. Whitelock realises that the questions of sex are questions of marriage, and the questions of marriage here are questions of the state. She makes the argument, perhaps less explicitly than others, that there are two tudor bodies: the first is the actual body of the queen, the second is the body politic. The queen functions as a metonymy of the state.

Whitelock’s views on the body, or the relationship of the body and the state, are often quite literal. She discusses the aging queen and the fear of succession, for example, or actively lists the cosmetics that the queen uses to prevent her from being viewed as aging, and thus evading the succession crisis. Elizabeth was almost 50 now, with no hope of having a child of her own, it was clear that she would be the last of the Tudor line. Concerns over her fertility, the pressure to marry and produce an heir had dominated her health and politics since the beginning of her reign. Now she began to be celebrated as the Virgin Queen who had selflessly sacrificed the desires of her natural body for that of the inviolable sovereign body” (190).

The problems of fertility flow into larger discussions of desire and the problems of the queen’s body as impenetrable, but prone to scandal. Discussing at first, the actual physical body of the queen, she concentrates less on the body as metaphor for the state. She portrays Elizabeth as flirtatious, as having desire, of possibly finding her legendary list of suitors attractive. And though she does not say so explicitly, she suggests that it was possible that Elizabeth might have had sex with a string of men — perhaps Dudley, the Earl of Essex, or a Swedish count, or Walter Raleigh.

What interests Whitelock more, however, are the marriages that Elizabeth does not make. The Tudor court, in the middle of major political and social upheavals, was a place of great fear — I would say it was paranoid, but there were dozens of attempts on the queen’s life, from people close to her. To marry was to inter-relate political, social, and religious courses in the midst of this upheaval, using a methodology that was both politically adroit and physically safe.

This marked the continual problem of her body as a metaphor. The Catholic mainland, and Catholic dissidents in Britain, Ireland, and Scotland would use nascent printing technology to distribute propaganda that marked the Tudor’s supposed wantonness with a lack of religious or social control. To oppose this social or political control, the queen would construct a life of vitality — the virgin could not have her essence sapped.

Whitelock is good at noting this problem of the body under siege — where Elizabeth was often sick, and how the court itself, used those sicknesses as something more literal than a metaphor. Whitelock centers her book on a discussion of how the corporeal body of the queen, in or out of the bedchamber, imprinted itself on the paratextual body of the state, and how the tension between these two mutual bodies functioned as a problem of courtier politics.

Combining this with the rigour of a historical record, she reads sometimes like a hepped up Hugh Trevor-Roper, but she has an essayist’s charm. One could see the edges of current discussions of gender and sexuality throughout this text. This discussion of the body politic as the body of the state might be outside of the place of a populist history, thus she was trying to move away from the salacious work of the Tudors “soap”. (Whitelock often shows up on television, talking about gender and popular culture, a point that is made in the biography at the front of this book).

I wish that she was a bit more adventurous around the queer potential for some of these texts. It is both the queer potential of the Elizabethan Body, work that has become popular in the recent feminist and sexual reworkings of Early Modern History, and work that is in Whitelock’s bibliography, but is not quoted extensively in the text itself (I am especially thinking of Sergio Bertelli). These new Early Modern scholars spend much time talking about what it means to penetrate a body, and what the liminal nature of the body politic and the physical body mean. This academic work, manages the rigour without being lurid, and they ask difficult questions about what the Elizabethan bodies signify. They also deconstruct ongoing problems of intimacy.

Whitelock pulls away from some of these more radical edges, however. For example, she mentions that ladies of waiting would share the bed with the queen, and she talks about the intimacy of these women, but she does not discuss with much detail other possible interpretations. I’m not suggesting lesbianism, which was of course not “invented” yet, but recent discussions of early modern sodomy continue to rest on the bodies of men, and there is a gap in discussing the possibility of female oriented sodomitical discourse. Nor am I talking about how recent radical critiques of celibacy could include discussions of the Tudor regent and thus by extension (and this might be my training as a theologian) it’s disappointing that these discussions of the body fail to discuss the queen’s bed as a site of church work.

That said, Whitelock has an excellent eye for detail, and she is knowing about the dual history that she is working through here. I also appreciate that someone well versed in post-structural historiography can return to the archives, and do a work of almost old fashioned history. The Queen’s Bed is a book well worth reading.

RATING 7 / 10