Belphoebe and Gloriana



In The Faerie Queene, Spenser imagines two versions of Elizabeth Tudor: one is a virgin, the other a queen. Why are they distinguished? The image of Queen Elizabeth as a kind of secular Virgin Mary is so well established, in scholarship as well popular culture, as to be almost axiomatic. But according to Helen Hackett, the image is misleading: in practice, Elizabethan writers seem actively to have avoided making the analogy between virgin mother and virgin queen, with rare exceptions that cluster around the queen's death. What other models were available? In the sixteenth century, clerical celibacy was the subject of an ongoing debate that spanned four consecutive reigns. Spenser refers to this controversy in four separate poems; and while Elizabeth never claimed for herself the title of priest, Spenser garbs one of her stand-ins, Belphoebe, in what may be a clerical surplice. Spenser's Queen is not above criticism, but he limits his criticism to the queen's private persona. Belphoebe is censured, politely, but never Gloriana. Why not, and what is the difference? Also, why is Gloriana absent from most of the poem? Was Spenser omitting her by design, or saving her for his climax?