Music and Authority in the Reign of Queen Elizabeth I

I was researching musical performances by Queen Elizabeth I (1558-1603) when I stumbled across John Davies’ poem, ‘To the Queen’ in the front of Roy Strong’s The Cult of Elizabeth (p.10).Davies’ poem characterises Elizabeth’s reign though a series of musical metaphors. While there has been extensive research into Elizabeth’s royal image, and while Elizabeth was widely known as a musical monarch (she played the lute, virginals, sang and even claimed to have composed dance music), the role of music in representations of the Queen had received surprisingly little comment, and so I began to look for other examples.

As I looked into musical images of monarchy I found that Elizabeth and those who represented her trod a fine line between music’s connotations of order, rationality and harmonious kingship on the one hand, and connotations of sensuality and the erotic power of female musicians on the other. There were potential problems that might arise for a musical Queen: criticisms of wantonness, frivolity or lack of chastity were not uncommonly levelled at musical women. The dangers had been realised for Elizabeth’s mother, Anne Boleyn, and another of Henry VIII’s wives, Catherine Howard, when supposed affairs with virginal players were among the evidence used to condemn them, while Mary Queen of Scots was criticised for her close relationship to the singer, David Rizzio. In addition, for any monarch metaphors of concord might easily be transformed into ones of discord in times of political turbulence. Yet musical symbolism also offered a means to characterise authority, divine rulership, piety and the stability of the realm, and offered particularly fitting images of Queenship in light of popular notions of the harmonious powers of female musicians in particular. Through combining Elizabeth’s practical musicality with speculative notions of political harmony – and by drawing on ideas of both the rational and sensual powers of music – Elizabeth and her courtiers were able to turn music into an image of female power and authority.

Some of the results of this research (there’s more to come) have recently been published, and as the enlightened editors at Renaissance Quarterly kindly allow authors to post copies of their articles on their personal website, I am able to post a link to an open-access copy here:

Katherine Butler,‘ “By Instruments her Powers Appeare”: Music and Authority in the Reign of Queen Elizabeth I’, Renaissance Quarterly 65 (2012), 353-384

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