Defending the Regiment of Women, Pierre de Ronsard and Catherine de’ Medici

In 1565, Catherine de’ Medici asked Pierre de Ronsard to put together a book of poems that could be sent to Queen Elizabeth I of England to celebrate the treaty she and the English queen had recently signed together. This was the Treaty of Troyes which ended the “First” war of religion between the Huguenots (French Protestants) and Roman Catholic forces fighting for the crown of France. Elizabeth was a crucial part of the treaty because the English had been financing the French protestant armies for three years of warfare, having felt it imperative that the English crown support England’s Protestant co-religionists in France who were being slaughtered by Catholic forces.

The main thrust of the book of poems, however, was not so much to compliment Catherine, La Reine Mère, and Queen Elizabeth for making peace between England and France, but to argue that in doing so they demonstrated beyond any doubt that women were eminently capable of rule.

For the truth is that the King of France and of England, however strong in arms, trained in politics or advised by council, only knew how to make unending war, surprises, factions and plots, while two queens, eminently wise and virtuous, as if by miracle, have not only made peace but perfectly: showing by such a magnanimous act, how the female sex, heretofore barred from bearing the scepter, is by its nature generously worthy of command.  . . . it seemed to me I should be envied for the ease and peace of the present age, and participating in the general and particular relief in which I see the people peacefully content, I bear testimony to such a prudent Gynecocracy, under which the public state is so virtuously policed and so I consecrate this little book in the memory of such happy government.  (Oeuvres Completes, ed. Paul Laumonier,  Paris: Librarie Marcel Didier, 1948, XII, 34)  

Ronsard dedicated the book to Elizabeth, Reine d’Angleterre and also included in it a masque that was dedicated to Mary Stuart, Reine d’Escosse.  The book thus links three Renaissance queens in Ronsard’s praise of female rule.  The book may well have been a counter argument to John Knox’s famous First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women, published in 1558, the year Elizabeth I came to her throne.    

Pierre de Ronsard, 1524-1585, a French poet

Based upon this drawing, the Société archéologique, scientifique et littéraire du Vendômois remounted a copy of a statue of Ronsard in 2012; it had been destroyed by the Nazis in 1942.

John Knox: No Friend to Women Rulers

1580, portrait in Theodor Beza’s book

The opening paragraph of Knox’s book, The First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women (1558) makes his position on women rulers quite clear:

The Proposition. To promote a Woman to bear rule, superiority, dominion or empire above any realm, nation or city is
A. Repugnant to nature.
B. Contumely to GOD.
C. The subversion of good order, of all equity and justice.

John Knox was a great friend of William Cecil, Elizabeth I’s chief advisor throughout her reign, and while Cecil clearly thought Elizabeth was the exception that proved this rule, he seems to have agreed with Knox’s basic tenet: that the choice of who should be king belongs to God, not to an accident of nature, i.e. that someone just happened to be born the child of a king. Of course this was the ground upon which all monarchy rested. The first born male child of a king becomes king after him, as female rising to the throne when there was no other male in the direct line of succession.

In the book that Catherine and Ronsard sent to Elizabeth, there is a curious poem to Cecil, in which his name (pronounced Sissel) is take to derive from Sicily, the island where Jove buried the giant Typhon beneath Mt. Aetna. Every time Aenta spouts off is another warning that the rebel forces of self-rule will always be ready to topple sovereignty power. Emphatically driving home the point that Cecil was assumed to be of the giants’ party,Ronsard creates a myth in which Jove creates a new political structure to keep the giants at bay; he creates kings, that is monarchy.

Cecil’s refusal to accept the divine right of kings to rule–and that they are specially chosen by god and must be obeyed by the people of a realm even if they are evil–finally bore fruit when he tricked Elizabeth into finally executing Mary, Queen of Scots 1587. Cecil had campaigned for her death for all the decades Elizabeth resolutely kept the Scottish queen imprisoned, but also alive.

Catherine de’ Medici clearly wanted to warn Elizabeth about Cecil’s Knoxian tendencies. But Elizabeth trusted him too much.

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