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19.06.15 Beer, Queenship at the Renaissance Courts of Britain

19.06.15 Beer, Queenship at the Renaissance Courts of Britain

Michelle Beer's excellent study of Margaret Tudor and Catherine of Aragon goes far beyond tired misogynist stereotypes of the tragic queen discarded by a philandering husband in search of a male heir (Catherine) and or the sexually motivated, unstable, and inexperienced queen (Margaret). Beer has done something that is not easy to do: she resists writing from hindsight. Her subjects are practically everywhere--on our televisions and laptop screens, in popular fiction and non-fiction, and now in the news as yet another royal baby is born in England. But Beer knew better than to let Margaret and Catherine be overshadowed by later events--Henry VIII of England's later affair with Anne Boleyn and his rejection of Catherine, and James IV of Scotland's affairs both before and during their marriage. By letting the events transpire without hindsight, Beer is able to argue convincingly that for both couples, marital peace was more common than strife. Unlike many scholars of queens-consort, she is not terribly concerned with marriage and maternity. It is not that the husbands and children do not matter to her. They do, and they are in the book, but her point is that when we focus on a queen-consort as a wife and mother, we risk overlooking the richness and texture of the rest of their lives.

Her critique of the historiography of Margaret and Catherine would be welcome enough, but Beer brings a fresh set of sources into the mix. This is not an easy task. First, the queens appear only in scattered references in the chronicles and records for them in the national archives in England and Scotland are few in number. Only a handful of letters exist because both queens were only briefly involved in direct governance and spent most of their married lives in close proximity to their husbands. Second, sources were lost, some in a shipwreck and some were willfully destroyed by later generations. There was no systematic accounting to the Exchequers of the queens' officials. Some records are buried deeply among the king's records and it requires a scholarly game of hide-and-seek to find Margaret and Catherine. Beer's trip to the archives took her all over the UK: the National Records of Scotland (Edinburgh), The National Archives (Kew), St. John's College (Cambridge), and the John Rylands Library (Manchester). We can be grateful that Beer was not deterred by the task because she found household records, account books, wardrobe accounts, heraldic and ceremonial records, records of indenture, and wills. Her careful, meticulous research and strong theoretical framework produced a revealing study with a wealth of detail about the personal and public lives of two queens who were crucial to English and Scottish politics.

Beer opens the book with a memorable bit of historical reconstruction, imagining the queens together in Catherine's chamber at Westminster in 1516. But this is not historical fiction. She deftly shifts the tone and continues thematically, weaving together the narratives and analysis. The structure of the book is a convincing methodological argument for studying queens together. Keeping a tight focus on only three decades allows Beer to consider the two queens together and analyze the similarities and differences in two queens who were enmeshed in complex family networks. They were close in age (Margaret was four years younger than Catherine) and related by marriage; Margaret was Henry VIII's sister; Queen Elizabeth of York was Margaret's mother and Catherine's mother-in-law. They both built on the example of their mothers, Elizabeth of York and Isabel of Castile. And they knew each other well. They often spent time together and experienced many of the same life-changing events: early marriage and widowhood, the birth of an heir, husbands who had extra-marital lovers, and they served brief regencies. As queens, they worked in tandem with their husbands, but their partnerships were not necessarily or exclusively concerned with politics or governance. Beer opens up the idea of partnership to include the personal, social, cultural, religious, and political. She argues convincingly that "Catherine and Henry, and Margaret and James, were royal partners, working together at times, but often at a distance" and, in what may be a surprise to some scholars, that Catherine and Henry's relationship was "ultimately a positive and productive one" (3). Finally, they shared an almost unbelievable twist of fate: In 1513, Catherine celebrated a victory over the Scots at Flodden while Margaret grieved the death of her husband in that battle.

This book is a substantial revision of Beer's 2014 dissertation, with the chapter on Catherine's fiscal management of her dower estates pulled out and published as an article. [1] For this book, she added a chapter on Elizabeth of York that sets up her argument for the importance of paying close attention to the wider generational context to grasp the nuances of Tudor queenship. This establishes a key element of queenship for Margaret and Catherine--a dense network of elite families whose members served Elizabeth of York and later served Margaret and/or Catherine and provided both insider knowledge of the organization of the court and a vital continuity.

Beer next focuses on how both Margaret and Catherine followed Elizabeth of York's example and skillfully "harnessed visible symbols of their status in order to overcome threats to their authority" (46). She focuses on three moments of personal, cultural, and political significance: each queen's first pregnancy; Margaret's return to England in 1515 after the death of her husband, her brief regency, and her remarriage; and Catherine at the Field of the Cloth of Gold in 1520. Beer carefully examines the material magnificence of both queens who astutely used clothes to mark their identities, honor, and royal dignity, and moves between detailed descriptions of material objects (clothing, jewelry) and a sophisticated analysis of how they used diplomacy and pageantry to communicate with their subjects.

Chapters 3 and 4 consider how both queens participated in and benefited from the social world of the Renaissance court. These chapters mark an important inversion in the traditional subject of monarchy: Margaret and Catherine alongside their husbands, but the kings are not central. She argues that royal courts were incomplete without women who "established the necessary gendered balance to Renaissance kingship" (71), but that Margaret and Catherine were not merely sidekicks in a chivalric fantasy. Beer challenges the sexist description of both queens as passive audiences rather than active creators of the performance. It is unclear whether the queens were less involved in the making of the "social queen" because they were uninterested, unskilled at devising an event, or otherwise occupied (pregnancy, governing as regent). Beer makes a very important point that the sensibility of spectators at highly staged public and less formal private royal events—from processions into towns to dancing at court—led them to understand these acts "to be constitutive of the queen's power and authority" (10). Margaret and Catherine exploited the power of the queen's pomp and publicity in court ceremony, and this public staging of the power of queens-consort was vital to the reigns of the powerful queens-regnant Mary I and Elizabeth I.

Even the intimate informal settings in the royal chambers and at court were sites of governance and diplomacy that situated the queen proximate to the king and centers of power in the kingdom. Playing cards, listening to music, and hosting banquets were not merely something women did to pass the time--they were as essential to networking as golf is today. Both queens met with church officials and diplomats in their Privy Chambers, negotiated marriage agreements, distributed patronage and rewards, and participated in the highly symbolic ritual of the New Year's Day gift exchanges. Untangling the sources that document informality requires both linguistic skill and a keen eye for content buried in the archives. Beer's careful close reading of the scattered sources reveals a wealth of telling details: Queen Elizabeth of York seated on her bed as she received gifts from her chamberlain and usher, James's gifts of jewelry to Margaret, and Henry VIII's refusal of Catherine's gift to him during the divorce. These details shed light on the complex social dynamics and reveal just how much the king relied on the queen. Margaret and Catherine maintained political relationships and alliances not only for their personal benefit, but also, and more importantly, for the benefit of the dynasty.

In a chapter on queenship and pre-Reformation piety, Beer depicts Catherine and Margaret as "sacred royal partners, magnificent consorts, and good Christians" (123). They used public performances of piety, pilgrimage, almsgiving, Royal Maundy ceremonies as a way to intimately connect the queens to the English and Scottish. This worked in both their favors, but it was most publicly evident for Catherine when she reaped the public support of the English when Henry bullied her around during the divorce. One of the most compelling arguments is that both queens probably were personally involved with the ritual of washing the feet of poor women on Maundy Thursday. Her evidence is strong, but tentative, and is an extraordinary public act with great significance in the context of pre-Reformation piety.

The conclusion is more than just a summary, it is a separate argument that the regencies of the two queens were the "ultimate official acknowledgement of the public partnership between queens and their kings" (149). This chapter scrutinizes the dramatic events of 1513 and the Battle of Flodden, where Catherine, as regent for Henry (who was in France trying to regain lost territory), worked with the Duke of Surrey and supervised the English victory over the Scots and the death of James, who was also Catherine's brother-in-law. This extraordinary family drama had tremendous consequences, but scholars to date have been uninterested in the role of the queens. Geoffrey Elton and J. J. Scarisbrick devote little more than a paragraph or two to this event. Scottish writers recognize the importance of the queens but are more interested in military tactics. Catherine's biographer, Garrett Mattingly, spends a page dismissing it as not terribly important. But, as Beer shows us, they all are wrong: Two queens who were also sisters-in-law and regents, who managed the run-up to a war (Catherine) and the events of the tragic aftermath (Margaret), constitutes important political history that deserves more than a terse dismissal. Queens were part of the revolution in Tudor government. They were witnesses to and participants in the seismic shift in monarchical governance, from one where a queen-regent (or queen-lieutenant) could wield considerable authority to a much more bureaucratic monarchy that displaced queens-regent with secretaries and councils. This section, dense with detail that did not show up elsewhere in the text would have been more effective as a stand-alone chapter or, better yet, a full-length book.

While I read, I kept noting in the margins all the possible research projects that Beer's book has unleashed. What about materials in local archives? Both queens travelled about their realms often, and their visits are probably buried in local parish registers and town record offices, household accounts of the nobles with whom they stayed. What about objects stored in regional museums and historical sites? I wager that there are all sorts of things--such as clothing fragments, pottery, architectural fragments, memorials in prayer books--lurking about in the countryside. Reading about how both queens learned from one another and from their mothers prompted questions about our distinctions between medieval and renaissance queenship and monarchy. Beer concludes that "Catherine's and Margaret's queenships meant opportunities for the expansion of monarchical power, as Henry and James worked with their wives to distribute rewards at court, amplify the monarchy through spectacle and magnificence, and foster alliances amongst the nobility and abroad" (155). This book raises more questions than it can possibly answer, and that is a good thing. I makes it essential reading for scholars and students, and will, I predict, prompt theses, dissertations, articles, and more books on these two important queens.



1. Michelle L. Beer, "A Queenly Affinity? Catherine of Aragon's Estates and Henry VIII's Great Matter," Historical Research 1:253 (2018): 426-445.