Queen of the ‘Golden Era’

An exhibit celebrating the 45-year reign of England’s Elizabeth I makes a stop at MU’s Ellis Library
Sunday, November 5, 2006 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 10:20 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

‘I know I have but the body of a weak and feeble woman; but I have the heart of a king, and of a king of England,” Elizabeth I told her troops before facing the Spanish Armada in 1588.

This was a conviction the queen must have repeated to critics often in a world dominated by men.

Throughout her 45-year reign, Queen Elizabeth I made lasting impressions as a leader capable of thwarting the most formidable of foreign opponents, as well as diffusing the bitterest of domestic religious battles. These were accomplishments not only as a ruler, but most notably as a female ruler.

More than 400 years after her death, the “Virgin Queen’s” legacy is chronicled in an exhibit on display in Ellis Library’s colonnade through Nov. 29. The traveling exhibit, which premiered at the Newberry Library in Chicago in September 2003, began its second-to-last of 40 nationwide stops in Columbia on Oct. 19.


Anselm Huelsbergen, an MU technical services archivist, fastens a panel of the Elizabeth I exhibit in Ellis Library. The traveling exhibit will be displayed along with MU's additional material until Nov. 29.

(ROBIN HOECKER/Missourian)

The Elizabethan exhibit attracted the largest number of visitors than any other exhibit at the independent research library, said Carla Zecher, director of the Center for Renaissance Studies at the Newberry Library.

“You’d think, why would modern Americans care about a historic European ruler?” Zecher said. “Elizabeth answered the big question of whether women could rule at all; if women had the kind of mind and intellect to rule successfully. There’s also a lot of mystery, a lot of things we don’t really know about her — just enough to keep people interested.”

Elizabeth took the throne in 1558 in the wake of the brief but tumultuous reign of her half-sister, Mary, who was better known as “Bloody Mary” because of her persecution of Protestants. Mary had overturned the country’s conversion to Anglicanism that her father, Henry VIII, and her brother, Edward VI, established in the two preceding reigns.

In the midst of a war raging between Catholicism and Protestantism across Europe, Elizabeth restored Anglicanism as the Church of England, but de-emphasized the role of religion in the government, promoting peacefulness in the place of violent intolerance — a novel idea at the time.

Michael Holland, head of MU’s special collections, archives and rare books department, said he was amazed by the queen’s ability to peacefully calm the conflict.

“She became queen at a time when England was torn apart by religious differences — to a large degree, she was able to stabilize the country by being ambiguous about her own religious views,” Holland said. “She believed you should practice religion as you see fit — it isn’t a political issue; it’s between you and God.”

One of the greatest mysteries and fascinations surrounding Elizabeth is why she never married, despite having romantic interests, Holland said.

“Parliaments and ministers encouraged her to marry and

produce an heir, but she felt the authority she had would be diminished if she did,” Holland said. “It was probably an issue of maintaining her divine duty; she felt God chose her through a series of complex events to guide England.”

Holland applied in 2002 for a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to bring the exhibit to MU. The American Library Association constructed portable photo

panels of the Newberry Library’s original exhibit to travel around to public and academic libraries, consisting of two kiosks flanked by two additional panels set up in the south end of Ellis Library’s colonnade.

The first kiosk, titled “The Young Elizabeth,” outlines her birth to Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn in the Tudor Royal Court, and the religious pressures both Protestants and Catholics put on her after her father’s death in 1547.

The second kiosk, “Europe and America,” details Spain’s King Phillip II assembling the Armada fleet to invade the Netherlands and England in the name of Catholicism. “England’s military triumph over the Armada assured Elizabeth’s historical place as the preeminent leader of her people,” states the panel’s text.

One of the side panels, called “Sedition and Success,” highlights the numerous death threats Elizabeth received because she had produced no heirs, including one from Mary Queen of Scots. Upon Parliament’s urging, Elizabeth signed Mary’s death warrant in 1587.

The other side panel, “Elizabethan England,” ruminates on the “Golden Era” of Shakespeare, Edmund Spenser and John Donne, during which the country’s literacy rates rose rapidly.

Glass cases on the sides of the colonnade contain materials from MU’s special collections department, the Museum of Art and Archaeology and the Missouri Historical Costume and Textile Collection, including 16th century tapestries, a six-pence coin, a “horn book,” a hand-held text children used to learn to read and numerous 16th century books.

Karen Witt, a special collections librarian, said the “Elizabeth” exhibit was the biggest exhibit the library has held in the six years she’s worked there.

“To see actual pieces from history, that 400-year-old book right in front of your face, makes it more personal,” she said.

Witt said she hoped interest would continue through the exhibit’s six-week run on campus, which includes several presentations covering topics such as Shakespearean works and 16th century book binding.

The official opening and reception of the exhibit was Oct. 27, with MU history professor Lois Honeycutt giving the keynote speech, “Elizabeth I and the Problem of Female Sovereignty: The Reinvention of Medieval Queenship.” The reception included period music by the MU Brass Quintet.

Holland said he hoped people will learn more about the much-studied queen’s life and legacy through the exhibit:

“I hope people take away that Elizabeth was a remarkable person not because of her persona, but because she was a complex person in complex times facing complex problems, and she very much kept control of the state. She was not superhuman, but she was very much a remarkable person.”

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