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  • Queenship and Political Discourse in the Elizabethan Realms
  • Retha M. Warnicke
Natalie Mears . Queenship and Political Discourse in the Elizabethan Realms. Cambridge Studies in Early Modern British History. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005. vi + 306 pp. index. illus. tbls. bibl. $85. ISBN: 0–521–81922–9.

Mears began this book, which is a revised dissertation completed under John Guy's direction, to determine whether Jürgen Habermas's theory of the public sphere could be applied to Elizabethan England; as part of her research agenda she also assesses the privy council's role at court and critiques feminist scholarship. This diversity lends the book a somewhat disjointed structure. [End Page 942]

Habermas theorized that a public sphere emerged in mid-seventeenth-century England, focusing on coffee houses where literate, elite men debated public issues and addressed topics examined in newsletters. Subsequent scholars have revised parts of his theory and pushed the public sphere back toward Elizabeth's reign. When Mears looked for evidence of Habermas's public sphere in the Tudor period, she found something different: a multiple overlapping of forms of public discourse. Political debate was, she claims, widespread and extended out from Elizabeth's councilors and their contacts at court to encompass women and lower-class men in the English countryside, as well as in Wales and Ireland.

Proving the existence of this news network, she admits, was difficult. She found only scattered evidence which cannot be assessed quantitatively: it offers a "window in what may have been rather than a comprehensive picture" (27). Mears evaluates letters, small news pamphlets, broadsides, inventories, financial accounts, drama, and slander cases. She also identifies as public discourse oral exchanges: the rumor mill in addition to conversations at St. Paul's churchyard, ports, inns, taverns, and parish churches. It seems, perhaps not too surprisingly given this wide-ranging evidence, that sixteenth-century individuals, with all classes and women participating, were discussing public issues undirected by councilor debate.

In her court analysis Mears challenges the scholarship privileging the privy council's role in policymaking while treating informal counseling as exceptional occurrences. She notes in examining Elizabeth's marriage negotiations with the Duke of Anjou, for example, that the queen did not instruct the privy council to "debate the policy only elements for its realization" and appointed personnel, all of whom were privy councilors, to a "probouleutic group" to undertake the policymaking role (35–36). Elizabeth also sought advice from many at court and from others on diplomatic missions who were not privy councilors, partly because of their personal relationships with her. The household officials counseling her were, furthermore, mostly members of the chamber rather than the privy chamber. Even so, Mears challenges the claim that the privy chamber lost power because women dominated it. As they had access to Elizabeth, they could gain patronage and become patronage brokers. While Mears is correct, the women's role was more limited than that of the gentlemen of Henry VIII's privy chamber who served him as diplomatic agents abroad.

Mears attacks the work of feminists who argue that Elizabeth and her subjects manipulated gender conventions and that Protestant males expected queens regnant to heed their advice. Criticizing these scholars for lacking quantitative evidence, she labels their claims anachronistic, perhaps revealing a misunderstanding of the issues. This kind of manipulation is a variant on the old adage that the hand that rocks the cradle rules the world and refers to behind-the-scene strategies of women in a patriarchal society. When confronted with councilors claiming she must heed their advice, Elizabeth could be forthright, clarifying she would seek, but not have to accept, their counsel. That she felt it necessary to emphasize her regal powers makes Mears's assertion seem problematic that gender issues were far less important than, for example, religious debate. Validating the views of Patrick [End Page 943] Collinson, Mears depicts Elizabeth as ruling like a male monarch. In also denying that the queen's councilors attempted to pressure her to act, Mears apparently overlooked the Babington Plot, nurtured by Sir Francis Walsingham. Finally, while claiming Elizabeth was not Sir John Neale's successful monarch, Mears does reject Christopher Haigh's...


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