Elizabeth I always had an instinct for image and public relations. Throughout her reign she took an active role in carefully constructing her public image. Her father had used fear and intimidation to rule his subjects. Her sister Mary had preferred royal edicts and inquisition tactics to cajoling an unhappy populace. But Elizabeth wanted to be loved. And she understood the need for public presentation of both her image and her ideas.
For Elizabeth, the manipulation of her public image began at her coronation. As a populace that suffered daily from congestion and unsanitary conditions, not to mention the ever-present dangers of starvation and disease, the citizens of London jumped at any occasion to celebrate. Elizabeth knew this and she gave them a show. She mingled, speechified, dispensed alms and provided entertainment. The procession from The Tower of London to Westminster Abbey was all carefully orchestrated to present Elizabeth as the new, young and beautiful Queen who was here to save England from all its recent woes.
She continued this very public form of communicating with her annual progresses. A progress was the royal court on the move, literally progressing through the countryside. Instead of staying in London, the monarch traveled to other cities, villages and country estates. Most English monarchs went on progresses, especially during the summer months when they were trying to avoid the many plagues in London. Before the Reformation, monarchs would make a progress to a holy shrine or favorite monastery or priory. Elizabeth loved to be on progress, and while she never left her kingdom, she traveled within it more than any other English monarch before her. With no holy shrines to visit, she was instead received and entertained by her nobles, (who often suffered financially for the honor).
The idea was to see and be seen by her public. It worked.
Elizabeth often referred to herself as “mere English,” the daughter of two English parents. This was a spin that worked well with her xenophobic public (and a subtle insult on her sister’s Spanish ancestry and her unpopular Spanish policies). Even recusant Catholics, time after time during her reign, rallied behind this English queen and against foreign powers, including the Pope. Elizabeth was no stranger to her people. And they never failed to rally behind her.
Some historians argue that Elizabeth served a greater role for her public. With the abolition of the Catholic Church in England the Cult of the Virgin Mary was also abolished. The Cult of Mary was very popular in the Middle Ages and the absence of this religious experience left a spiritual void for many people. In England, Elizabeth was able to fill this void…and she knew how to make the most of it. Her self-proclamation as the Virgin Queen had obvious echoes. And as she grew older this role only expanded as her people could look to her as their motherly figure.
Her iconic portraits and the many poems and plays dedicated to her from her devoted courtiers, helped create the mythology of the Virgin Queen for later generations.