Prairie Wolves in Print: Queens and Power in Medieval and Early Modern England

reviewed by Eric Wendt

Queens and Power in Medieval and Early Modern England
Edited by Carole Levin and Robert Bucholz
Chapter 7, “The Virgin and the Widow: The Political Finesse of Elizabeth I and Catherine de’ Medici”
by Elaine Kruse
326 pp.  |  University of Nebraska Press, 2009  |  $35


book cover of Queens and PowerAll’s fair in love and war. And all’s fair in preventing war—even feigning love.

In her chapter of Queens and Power—as brief and full of intrigue as any 30-minute soap—Professor Emerita of History Elaine Kruse showed how Elizabeth I and Catherine de’ Medici “played at the marriage game” to keep England and France from war.

The two queens were vastly different. Elizabeth came to the throne as an unmarried virgin at 25 in 1558. Catherine was 14 years her elder, and a widow. Elizabeth was Protestant; Catherine was Catholic. Their countries faced what Kruse called “the pitfalls of religious rancor and territorial aggrandizement.”

Given their differences, the closeness expressed in their correspondence is surprising. The two described one another as “our true friend, good sister and cousin.” When they entered negotiations for Elizabeth to marry one of Catherine’s sons, Catherine ratcheted up the rhetorical familiarity. “Now my good daughter—I pray you pardon me herein if in place of sister I say what I have so desired.”

Elizabeth volleyed back: “you will find me the faithfullest daughter and sister that ever Princes had.” These outlandish expressions were political more than emotional; Kruse wrote, “they would never meet.”

Over the years, Catherine would try to match Elizabeth with several of her sons. Each match faced obstacles ranging from age to religion to physical appearance (“Thanks be to God, [Alençon] has no deformities,” Catherine wrote). Elizabeth feigned a certain interest in most, but eventually declined them all.

Love was hardly the point. Kruse wrote, “[B]oth women used these marriage negotiations…to avoid war.”

War seemed especially likely in 1572 after French Catholics slaughtered thousands of Protestants in the Saint Bartholomew’s Day massacre. Despite Elizabeth’s rage, she agreed to be godmother to Catherine’s granddaughter Isabella. “Elizabeth’s willingness... is clear evidence of a diplomatic gesture overriding personal distaste,” Kruse wrote. “Catherine gushed gratitude…. The goodwill… made possible a new rapprochement after the ugliness of the massacre.”

The face of diplomacy has changed drastically in the centuries that followed. But many principles remain: one being that swallowed pride is nearly always preferable to spilled blood.