Aidan Norrie on Elizabeth I and the Old Testament

What brought you to the field of Biblical analogies in the first place?

I have been asked this question quite a few times, and I always feel like I give a different answer each time. I was fascinated that the final pageant of Elizabeth’s coronation procession featured a depiction of Deborah the judge. She’s always been a favourite of mine (I’ve always loved how matter-of-factly Judges 4:4 just says, ‘Deborah, a prophetess, the wife of Lapidoth, she judged Israel at that time’), and as far as I’m aware, this pageant is the only one out of all the coronation processions to represent a scene from the Bible and use it to impart a didactic message. Certainly, biblical figures had appeared before, but the scene of ‘Debora with her estates, consulting for the good government of Israel’ is unique.

I also liked that comparing Elizabeth to male biblical figures showed that the idea we have built up that female kingship was treated as an aberration, an inconvenience that had to be begrudgingly endured, is wrong. The sheer number of examples that conflated Elizabeth with a man from the Old Testament show that we need to relegate outliers like John Knox to the dustbin. Why is it that most people who know something about the early modern period will have heard of Knox’s First Blast of the Trumpet, but not any of the hundreds of examples of Elizabeth being the contemporary embodiment of a favoured biblical figure and thus England’s rightful monarch?

What role does the Divine Right of King, or in this case Queen, play in your book?

For the overwhelming majority of early modern people, monarchy was ordained by God and intrinsic to human existence. This is why Protestants who opposed Mary I and Catholics who opposed Elizabeth always had a favoured ‘replacement’ monarch: as paradoxical as it might seem to us today, seeking to assassinate Elizabeth and place Mary, Queen of Scots, on the throne actually acknowledged the importance of monarchy in premodern society.

Because the doctrine of the divine right of kings has its basis in the Bible, there is considerable overlap between the doctrine and biblical analogies. This is most obvious in comparisons between Elizabeth and Old Testament monarchs: David, Solomon, Josiah, and Hezekiah were all monarchs who reigned with clear divine favour, and so comparing Elizabeth to one of these figures inherently showed that she likewise was divinely favoured. This is obviously more of an issue for a female king, however, as the Bible does not have any examples of women becoming monarch by hereditary succession (Athaliah was a usurper, Deborah was not a monarch, and Esther was a queen consort). Nevertheless, the example of Deborah in particular showed that God could—and did—choose women to rule, and it is therefore unsurprising that comparisons between Elizabeth and Deborah were the most frequent, both during Elizabeth’s reign and in the century after her death.

What was your most interesting discovery in the course of writing this book?

This may be a bit of a cliché, but I was genuinely surprised at the sheer range of biblical figures to whom Elizabeth was compared. There are of course the ‘big six’, as I like to think of them: Deborah, Judith, Esther, Daniel, David, and Solomon—the figures who Elizabeth compared herself to, and the ones that appear most frequently and consistently throughout her reign. But this is only part of the story. These analogies sit beside, and indeed sometimes appear in the same text as, figures like Joshua, Jonah, Susannah, Josiah, and Hezekiah, who are perhaps more familiar today, and figures that most academics don’t even know, including Judah and Jehoshaphat.

I think my favourite biblical analogy in the book is one I discuss in Chapter 4: a playing card that includes a portrait of Elizabeth and presents her as a contemporary Deborah. Biblical analogies are overwhelmingly a literary, textual phenomenon, so it was wonderful to be able to include this highly unusual, but significant, example.

Biblical analogy was an extremely adaptable device, and I remain impressed at the sheer range of people whose comparison between Elizabeth and a figure from the Old Testament have survived to today. You can see a whole spectrum of people: from John Jewel, Bishop of Salisbury, and John King, the future Bishop of London, at the higher end, to people whom we know very little about, such as Leonard Wright and the unknown adapter of Sapientia Solomonis. These people all saw it as their duty to emphasise that their monarch was the contemporary embodiment of an Old Testament figure, and I am delighted that I was able to consider this diverse range together.

What do you most hope the reader will take from your book?

We have far less, what I sometimes call, ‘biblical literacy’ today than the people of early modern England. That’s ok, as I’m sure many aspects of twenty-first-century life would bamboozle them! This unfamiliarity, however, means that people today are much less likely to engage with sources that are clearly drawing on the Bible. Forty years ago, you could probably count on most of your students knowing who Deborah was—now, you’re lucky if one does. This is not meant as a criticism: it is merely an acknowledgement of the way contexts and frames of reference have shifted. In a way, I wrote this book with this understanding in mind: I wanted people, no matter their understanding of biblical history, to be able to make sense of the various texts I discuss. To fully understand the Elizabethan period, you need to understand the Bible, and I really hope that people can use my book as a way to come to grips with some of the ways that the Bible was used in the period. After reading my book, I would like to think that if and when they come across a reference to a biblical figure—such as in Shakespeare’s Henry VI, Part 1, where the Dauphin, after being bested in a fight by Joan of Arc, claims that ‘thou … fightest with the sword of Deborah’—they have an idea who that figure is and why they might have been referenced.

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