Centuries before feminism, these two women ruled Europe

Cover of the new book "Blood, Fire and Gold"
The 16th-century story of the women who led England and France is told in a new book by NCH at Northeastern in London professor Estelle Paranque. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

One was known as England’s “Virgin Queen.” The other wielded power as mother to three French kings.

Estelle Paranque, assistant professor in early modern history for Northeastern University in London. Courtesy photo

The saga of their groundbreaking rivalry five centuries ago is told by Estelle Paranque, an assistant professor in early modern history for at Northeastern University in London, in her new book: “Blood, Fire and Gold: The story of Elizabeth I and Catherine de Medici.”

Elizabeth I, who presided over the Shakespearean era, was the unmarried queen of England and Ireland from 1558 until her death in 1603. For 30 years she maintained a relationship that was both adversarial and constructive with Catherine de Medici, queen of France from 1547 to 1559, whose authority was established when her sons ascended to the throne. 

“I’ve always been interested in strong, powerful women,” says Paranque, whose book was published in Britain and will be available in the U.S. on Dec. 6. “The story of their relationship is that one (Catherine) was an orphan, the other one was a bastard. They were never meant to be queen and yet they ruled over the second half of the 16th century together.”

Paranque came across the letters of the two queens while researching an academic project. She recognized the makings of a mainstream book that she has written like a novel, with dialogue recreated from their ancient letters.

“I found their story extremely moving,” Paranque says. “There’s no villain. There’s no hero. There are just two women with different dreams and a love for power who had to deal with one another.”

Paranque spoke with News@Northeastern about how each emerged as an early role model of feminism, the compelling differences between them, and Catherine’s failed attempts to offer her sons in marriage to Elizabeth. Her comments have been edited for brevity and clarity.

What drew you to the story of these two women?

They had to navigate challenges and overcome obstacles. It’s mostly men telling them they shouldn’t be doing things. And both of them overcame.

As a single woman ruling the 16th century for 44 years, Elizabeth I has no true equal. When she is young—in her 30s—and she’s in front of her parliament, being pressured by all these men to make a decision to marry someone, she tells them: “It is monstrous that the feet should direct the head.”

Back then it was believed that men were the head and women were the feet. And for her to say, “Actually, because I am queen, you are the feet and I am the head”—this was a massive insult.

To what extent can they be called feminists?

There is no feminism in the 16th century. There is no idea of helping each other as women. There’s not this type of sisterhood that we have today. 

But as she said herself, Elizabeth is an extraordinary woman. By setting the example of a woman standing up for herself, she created generations and generations who even today talk about how she empowers them to be the strong woman they want to be. It’s what I love about her.

How were they different?

Catherine de Medici was married. During her marriage to Henry II, he had a mistress that he really loved, and she was a third wheel. She kept quiet. She was extremely humble. But then she got her power through motherhood. She married her daughters away, and she had sons who became kings. And so this little orphan from Florence who had lost everything became the queen mother of France, and more or less in charge of the country.

And so you see two types of women. Elizabeth is the woman who decides to have a career. Catherine de Medici is the mother who decides to have a say and to have power as well.

What was the state of their relationship?

It didn’t start well. When Elizabeth became queen in 1558, her sister, Mary I, had just lost Calais to the French. And that was thanks to Catherine de Medici, who convinced men in Paris to give money to her husband that helped him to keep Calais. 

For the next few years, the two women are assessing one another. There is a religious civil war in France that started in 1562, and Elizabeth is trying to support the Protestants. But Catherine is going to play her. The Protestants are going to turn their back on Elizabeth, there are going to be massive casualties of Englishmen, Elizabeth is going to have nothing to bargain with to get back Calais and Catherine is going to be victorious. 

Elizabeth learned her lessons very, very fast. You couldn’t fool her twice.

Much of their dueling involved Catherine’s attempts to marry each of her three sons to Elizabeth. What was the outcome?

Catherine, who feels a bit too confident, is going to pursue Elizabeth. She’s going to offer all her sons, and now Elizabeth becomes the one who is playing Catherine—saying yes but no; saying yes, but maybe one day.

So you have this 12-year period where Elizabeth and Catherine are playing the cat and the mouse, right? Catherine thought she was the cat, and she’s going to realize after all these years that she’s been the mouse. It becomes obvious that Elizabeth is never going to marry one of her sons, Catherine becomes really annoyed with Elizabeth, and the tensions rise between them to the point where they will never recover from it. It becomes a rivalry where their courts play against one another like a chess game. 

Elizabeth underestimated Catherine early on with Calais, but she never did again.

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