Saturday, December 27, 2014

Movies and the U.S. Constitution: The Tudors and the Age of Elizabeth: Elizabeth I, the Virgin Queen

This is part of a series of posts following this summary of movies that provide a chronological history of the U.S. Constitution.

The Tudors and the Age of Elizabeth:

8.  Elizabeth I, the Virgin Queen (BBC/PBS miniseries, 2005) set in 1558-1603 

Relevance to the U.S. Constitution:

A. Rule of Law.   

It's hard to overestimate the significance of Elizabeth I's rule for the recognition that the constitution  is above the leader.  Simply by being a female ruler on her own under British law she represented a view that the law of England superseded Papal authoritarianism.

Elizabeth ascends to the throne through an order of succession that starts with her half-brother Edward IV. Edward IV attempts to override Parliament's 1543 Law of Succession by giving the throne to Lady Jane Grey, a cognatic descendant of Henry VII and an ardent Protestant.  The 1543 Law of Succession made Mary, the ardent Catholic first daughter (and first child) of Henry VIII, the first in line, and Elizabeth, the ardent Protestant second daughter (and second child) of Henry VIII, the second in line.

Despite the widespread elite and popular base of protest against the Catholic Church, the Privy Council interpreted the law to be above Edward IV's override, and put Mary on the throne, surely knowing that she would try to restore Catholicism but seeing the law as more important.  She did, in fact, reestablish Catholicism and executed many Protestants in the Marian Persecutions.  She generally did this by getting Parliament's consent, such as through the Heresy Acts, not by authoritarian power derived from the Pope, and the Parliamentary laws did not fully submit to Rome, keeping lands from being given to the Catholic Church in connection with the reestablishment, among other issues.  She does show authoritarianism in the Marian Persecutions, however.  In these executions of non-recanting Protestants, she was violating her own rule that she would not require subjects to follow her own religion, but she was following Parliament's Heresy Acts, enacted during her reign in cooperation with her reestablishment of Catholicism.  She is authoritarian in her executions of persecuted Protestants who convert to Catholicism.  The law required their lives to be spared, which she did not do.  Elizabeth is imprisoned during this time.

As a general matter of British constitutionalism, however, the movie depicts that the law overrode the authoritarianism and Mary was allowed to rule.   When she died at age 42, after 5 years on the throne, from an illness that was probably cancer, Elizabeth was enthroned, as the law required, despite Mary's restoration of Catholicism.    In the movie, one of Elizabeth's first acts as Queen is to recognize the Protestant Church, but she also says she will not persecute Catholics.

The movie does not show Elizabeth speaking much of any requirement that she submit to the law, however.  In fact, Parliament met only a few times during her reign. She created by royal prerogative a number of monopolies, which would cause problems late in her reign and in subsequent years.  These were not prohibited by the Magna Carta or other law, however.

Elizabeth does act out a submission to law, however.  The laws that she does have to contend with are common law of coverture, imported to England in the Norman Conquest, and jure uxorious, the law that a king who marries a queen regnant would hold her power and title and she would have to submit to his authority.   In Mary's rule, when she married the Catholic Philip of Spain after taking the throne, Parliament passed laws to counteract the laws of coverture and jure uxorious but this Act for the 1554 Act for the Marriage of Queen Mary to Philip of Spain applied specifically to their marriage not to all Queens of England.   Under Papal authoritarianism, Mary would have had to submit to Philip as well.

Had Elizabeth decided to marry, presumably Parliament would have passed a similar law to prevent operation of coverture and jure uxorious, however, she chose not to marry and ended up corporally acting out a powerful debunking of the Catholic "virgin birth" myth that would presage England's later constitutional documents based in "rights of person", addressed below.

B.  Use of the Term "Person".

It's also hard to overestimate the significance of Elizabeth I's rule for the concept that the English and later U.S. Constitutions are based in rights of person, not rights of man or responsibilities of woman (as neighboring countries Ireland, France, and countries in Latin America still base their constitutions today and which is the ideology of the Catholic Church).

This movie depicts Elizabeth's vow of virginity she took.  She had numerous suitors, both in Britain and outside it, but she elected not to marry.  She did this is a very public vow of virginity, which gave her enormous symbolic meaning to a burgeoning Northern and Western Europe protest movement against the Catholic Church, with its basis in a "virgin birth".  In the Counter-Reformation, the Pope, and particularly the Jesuits, sought to pull people back in by elevating the status of Mary in what is sometimes called "Marianism".  In Latin America, this became "Marianismo".  This elevation of the Virgin Mary began during the Council of Trent, during 1545-1563, just as Elizabeth was throned.

She was a virgin in service to "God" but yet produced no child so she thus acted out a debunking of this Catholic myth.

The movie shows her contending with all manner of gender stereotypes, some of which she internalizes, but also her eventually functioning very capably as a woman leader in her own right.  She makes many mistakes, but also has substantial success, resulting her rule being called "The Golden Age of Elizabeth."  Because she had no husband, her success could be attributed to nothing but her own self and agency, thus debunking these stereotypes very successfully over her 44 year reign, often simply through her own capable behavior.

After her death in 1603, it would take fewer than a hundred years before England established the Bill of Rights, when in 1689 and William and Mary were jointly given the throne subject to Parliamentary consent.   The English Bill of Rights would be based in "rights and responsibilities of person" and from this point forward, neither the English or U.S. Constitution, nor and of their amendments, would have operative language based in "rights of man".  Some colonies and states in the US would seek to establish "rights of man" in their state constitutions, particularly those founded before the English Bill of Rights in 1689, and many of them still have this today. 

Despite a recognition of basis in "rights and responsibilities of person" not "rights of man", paternity is not yet provable, however, and this will cause problems, as we shall see.

Previous:  The Tudors and the Age of Elizabeth: The Tudors Miniseries [to be completed]

Next: Cromwell: Not a Monarchist, Not a Constitutionalist: The Devil's Whore [to be completed]

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