This work demonstrates that earlier Christian perceptions of virginity, once dominant in Catholic England, although suppressed by Protestantism, maintained enough influence to transform an unmated queen with no successor into a divine virgin goddess. The epithet 'Virgin Queen' has become particularly associated with Elizabeth I from the 1580s onward, yet the mystical and spiritual origins of virginity have been lost; in the twentieth century, Elizabeth's virgin status refers only to her unmarried and sexually inexperienced state. This reductionist view of the term has, in effect, reduced the iconography of Elizabeth and eradicated the complex system of cultural beliefs and mythological themes that contributed to the construction of her image, leaving only the literal meaning. The idealized representation of Elizabeth served a variety of purposes: the patronage of the Queen and court, the continuation of Elizabethan propaganda, the perpetuation of the idea of a once and future (eternal) monarch, and the creation and maintenance of an apotheosized queen as symbol of an entire nation.
The focal point to Elizabeth's power as queen regnant was her virginity, and although in Protestant England women were encouraged to marry, the queen's status as exceptional woman was enhanced further by the traditional perception of virginity as a powerful moral, spiritual, and even political attribute. Though the character, reign, and representations of the Queen have been studied by a variety of scholars, this approach differs in its attempt to rediscover the mythological background of virginity that lent such a mystique to the power of a queen. The author rediscovers the complex background of idealized virginity and analyzes its purpose in creating and maintaining the monarchical power of Elizabeth I. In addition, the study focuses on two works that have not received a great deal of critical attention: Thomas Bentley's "The Monument of Matrones" and Thomas Blenerhasset's "A Revelation of the True Minerva". Both works were published in 1582, the year of the Queen's final marriage negotiations. While Bentley's work assumes a general audience, Blenerhasset seems to speak to an aristocratic readership.
In each of these texts, the shifting of Elizabeth as a 'maiden Queen' to a nearly-divine virgin icon is apparent.
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