Published: Jan. 20, 2001 By

(part of a series in Issue 33: First Ladies? Political Wives in Seventeenth-century England)

[1]   In the past eight years, Hillary Rodham Clinton moved through a range of roles: she took up a highly controversial and ultimately doomed position as her husband’s “two for the price of one” partner in shaping public policy, serving as a spokesperson for and architect of an ill-fated initiative to reform healthcare; she shared in the early financial and political scandals that attached to the Clinton presidency; she reclaimed public sympathy in the far more conventional role of the suffering yet forgiving wife of a chronically unfaithful husband; she moved out of the White House and began to pursue her own political career first as a candidate for public office, and then as an elected senator. Every one of these roles has provoked suspicion and hostility. The controversy surrounding Hillary Clinton brings into focus the continuing ambivalence about the role of the female consort: that is, the woman who has a public role as the wife of a male leader. Male leaders are generally expected to have wives, and those wives are expected to perform a long list of public duties. Yet there is still the expectation that they remain subordinated to their husbands, that they serve the office and the country, and help their men, without claiming power or influence. After all, as people were wont to say about Hillary: “I didn’t elect her.”

[2]   The complicated, in many ways no-win, role assigned to the female consort has a long and varied history. These essays explore one strand in that history: the role of the female consort in seventeenth-century England. While being a queen consort is very different from being the wife of an elected official, the two women discussed here, Elizabeth Cromwell, wife of Oliver, and Catherine of Braganza, wife of Charles II, were similarly parts of package deals, already married or betrothed to their husbands when those men rose to power. Like the wives of elected officials in twentieth-century America, they became targets for displaced anxieties, doubts, and resentments about their husbands and their politics. As Melissa Mowry demonstrates in her discussion of Princess Diana, female consorts, then and now, can also operate as displaced or abjected figures not for their husbands but for “the people.” In this role, they inspire empathy rather than action. In both cases, the figure of the consort works to displace or marginalize political energies, in part through the tenacious operations of misogyny.

[3]   Discussions and representations of queens in early modern England (c. 1500-1800) have understandably focused on Elizabeth I, notable not only for her long reign, but also for the fact that, as a queen regnant, she inherited and held the throne in her own right. This was true, too, of her half-sister, Mary Tudor, who reigned briefly before her, and of Mary Stuart, who reigned in Scotland, and bore a son, James, who would rule both Scotland and England and unite the kingdoms. Unlike the two Mary’s, both Catholics, Elizabeth never married; nor did she bear an heir, as Mary Stuart did, performing that function for both Scotland and England, and as Mary Tudor, who endured several “phantom” pregnancies, struggled but failed to do. The power and autonomy figured in Elizabeth are fascinating, although as most films about her suggest, still so difficult to represent that they are depicted as compensation for a broken heart. Approaching the question of political power and its relation to personal attachments from a different angle, the history of queens consort similarly focuses our attention on the complexity of women’s relation both to “the public sphere” and to “the people.” Katharine Gillespie uses representations of Oliver Cromwell’s wife, Elizabeth, to “reveal the degree to which debates over the scope and function of private and public spheres within particular political orders are often waged through the cultural politics of gender.” Melissa Mowry uses responses to Princess Diana and Charles II’s wife, Catherine of Braganza, to demonstrates that “the modern construction of ‘the people’ was explicitly and constitutively feminine.”

[4]   These essays examine the wives of some of Elizabeth’s successors in the course of what turned out to be a century of extraordinary upheaval. When Elizabeth died in 1603, thus bringing to an end the Tudor dynasty, James I was brought in from Scotland to take the throne, and to establish the Stuart dynasty. James was self-conscious about his role as the founder of a line of kings; he could little know how vexed their reigns would be. His son, Charles, would be tried and beheaded in 1649 after a civil war; Oliver Cromwell then presided over what was called the Protectorate or, in retrospect, the interregnum; at Cromwell’s death, dissatisfaction with the unfulfilled promise of a republic and uncertainty about the alternatives to monarchy led to the “Restoration” of Charles’s son, Charles II, to the throne in 1660. Since Charles had no legitimate heirs by his wife, Catherine of Braganza, his brother, James II, openly and infamously Catholic, stood in line to inherit the throne, despite an attempt to exclude him, called the “Exclusion Crisis,” in favor of one of Charles’s illegitimate, but Protestant, sons. At Charles II’s death in 1685, James did ascend the throne, but only to abandon it when the birth of a son, and thus a Catholic heir, brought resistance to him to a head. Through complicated parliamentary maneuvers, James was replaced by his daughter, Mary, who held the throne jointly with her husband, William of Orange. This process is sometimes called the “Glorious” or “Bloodless Revolution,” although not in Ireland, where support for James Stuart was violently squelched. William and Mary had no children, and were succeeded by Mary’s sister, Anne, who had a remarkable seventeen children, none of whom survived infancy. The Stuart dynasty thus ended as it began, in uncertainty about succession. The supposedly simple and natural expedients of heterosexual marriage and sexual reproduction failed to produce a string of acceptable rulers without interruption or disruption. Every Stuart ruler married. Yet they produced heirs who were of the wrong religion, or born on the wrong side of the blanket, or so politically unskilled and unlucky that they got the axe; in some cases, they produced no heirs at all. The Stuart era demonstrated that, without intervention, monarchy could not keep itself afloat. Female consorts became figures for this series of failures and disruptions, and targets for the unease produced amidst so much uncertainty.

[5]   Under a system of hereditary succession, if a female consort has one job, surely it is to produce an heir. However, the essays presented here throw this truism into question. First let’s consider the predessors to the two seventeenth-century consorts Gillespie and Mowry discuss here. Anne of Denmark bore the three children on whom James I staked his claim to founding a dynasty, but he did not allow her to raise them, and absorbed symbolic and iconographic credit for them into himself. Henrietta Maria had nine children, two of them future kings, but was as maligned for her fertility as she was praised for it, since this fecundity manifested her intimacy with her husband, an intimacy through which she was suspected of achieving political influence and promoting Catholicism. Scandalous precisely for playing the roles of wife and mother, Henrietta Maria revealed the ambivalence towards those roles themselves, the power associated with them, and the suspicion that it was not safe to confine women to the private because it was too risky and politically consequential a realm to cede to them. Attacks on Henrietta Maria suggested that women are a problem anywhere (Clark, Coiro, Dolan, Hibbard, Shell, Veevers). Similarly, as Katharine Gillespie argues here, Elizabeth Cromwell, who was always read against her predecessor, Henrietta Maria, found herself in a no-win situation in which she might offend by her presence or by her absence, by being too royal or too republican. As a consequence, she became “a compelling figure for the Protectorate as a tenuous middle way.” Elizabeth Cromwell had nine children, six of whom survived infancy, but while this proved her to be a good wife within the logic of the period, it also made her too closely resemble her immediate predecessor in performing the royal consort’s anti-republican job of producing heirs to a throne. Catherine of Braganza had no children, by a husband who had numerous illegitimate children, yet, as Melissa Mowry shows, she still managed to achieve influence and win praise as “the emblem of law and the resolution of faction.” Thus, even in the apparently uncontroversial endeavor of producing children, these consorts reveal the contingency and uncertainty of their roles.

[6]   As these essays show, the consort’s role varied widely. Katharine Gillespie shows that Elizabeth Cromwell, as an “anti-queen,” secured republicanism by being absent from the public eye. Thus she best served her husband’s political agenda by disappearing behind him. According to Melissa Mowry, Catherine of Braganza served her husband as the epitome of “the ideal royal political subject,” and thus the counter to the feminized threat of faction figured in the satires on Cromwell’s wife as common and garrulous that proliferated after his death. As a consequence, Charles II repeatedly validated his wife’s symbolic rather than material significance (i.e., as the mother of an heir), a symbolic role that, Mowry shows, was best fulfilled through silence. Standing mute, Catherine could distinguish herself from the raucous volubility of common, politically active women. Thus praise of Catherine became attack on other women. When consorts win praise through their absence and their silence, then the discourses so constructing them work to foreclose options for other women. As these essays show, the proliferation of discourses about queens consort in the seventeenth century granted them a new degree of prominence and grafted onto their material, reproductive role a more amorphous and controversial symbolic one. The buzz about queens consort did not necessarily grant them more power as much as it made them more subject to surveillance and to comment, and, thereby, more useful as figures through whom women’s participation in politics, even as or especially as, wives and mothers, could be debated and, ultimately, curtailed. As the debate surrounding Hillary Clinton suggests, the female consort is still serving that function.


Works Cited

  • Clark, Danielle. “The Iconography of the Blush: Marian Literature of the 1630s.” Voicing Women: Gender and Sexuality in Early Modern Writing. Ed. Kate Chedgzoy, Melanie Hansen, and Suzanne Trill. Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 1997. 111-28.
  • Coiro, Ann Baynes. “‘A Ball of Strife’: Caroline Poetry and Royal Marriage.” The Royal Image: Representations of Charles I. Ed. Thomas N. Corns. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999. 26-46.
  • Dolan, Frances E. Whores of Babylon: Catholicism, Gender, and Seventeenth-Century Print Culture. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1999.
  • Hibbard, Caroline. “The Role of a Queen Consort: The Household and Court of Henrietta Maria, 1625-1642.”Princes, Patronage, and the Nobility: The Court at the Beginning of the Modern Age, c. 1450-1650. Ed. Ronald G. Asch & Adolf M. Birke. London: Oxford University Press, 1991. 393-414.
  • Shell, Alison. Catholicism, Controversy, and the English Literary Imagination, 1558-1660. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999. 146-64.
  • Veevers, Erica. Images of Love and Religion: Queen Henrietta Maria and Court Entertainments. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989.