Article of the Month: “The King’s Two Genders” by Cynthia Herrup

In November, the RSJ blog highlighted Ernst Kantorowicz’s magisterial The King’s Two Bodies. This month we feature one of the many excellent pieces of scholarship that build on Kantorowicz’s work.

Cynthia Herrup’s “The King’s Two Genders” was originally delivered at the North American Conference on British Studies in October 2005. It was later published in The Journal of British Studies 45 (July 2006): 493-510.

In her article, Herrup does not retread Kantorowicz’s work so much as use his concept of the dual monarchial body to explore other avenues. Herrup focuses her article on Tudor-Stuart England and argues “that it might also have been functional for rulers to inhabit an artificial body that was gendered neither exclusively male nor female, but both” (Herrup, 496).

To support this argument, Herrup develops four main points. First, she discusses language: The terms king and prince were used for male and female monarchs. She then turns to the concept of tyranny and its associations with femininity. The tyrant allowed womanly characteristics to predominate and lacked much-needed masculine self-control. Third, the existence of multiple female monarchs and the excellent scholarship devoted to them has shown how successful women rulers embodied both masculine and feminine identities. But, Herrup contends, we must also look at how male kings had to embody both genders. Fourth, scholars must look at how monarchs exercised their right to pardon the guilty; rulers had to walk a fine line between overly-masculine harshness and overly-feminine pity. All rulers needed to exercise mercy, but they had to find balance so it did not undermine their authority or make them seem too effeminate.

Herrup ends her article with an acknowledgement that more detailed research needs to be done to better support her argument that early-modern English monarchs had two genders, but she has provided a fantastic starting place for scholars interested in further exploring gender and monarchy. Herrup’s concept of the monarch, male or female, needing to embody both male and female can be used in a variety of different chronological or geographical contexts. The king’s two genders is a fascinating, clearly-presented concept that encourages fruitful research in royal studies.

The RSJ Blog even had a chance to ask Cynthia (Professor Emerita of History and John R. Hubbard Chair in British History Emerita at the University of Southern California) a few questions about this article.

RSJ Blog: How did you come up with the idea of the king’s two genders? What were you working on that inspired you to develop this concept?

Cynthia: As I was researching material for a project on pardons, I discovered that political commentators were quicker to see pardoning as a dangerous prerogative than as a reassuring safeguard, and the danger was presented as gendered. One official even praised Elizabeth I’s attitude as manly and James I’s as effeminate. That got me thinking about why pardoning was a threat, why monarchs were advised to hold it so closely, and what these ideas meant for the definition of proper rule. The two genders was my result.

RSJ Blog: The concept of the king’s two genders seems to work well for medieval and early modern England, but your article suggests this balance might have become more difficult as the realm grew larger and more diverse. How so?

Cynthia: I think that personal monarchy itself gets increasingly problematic as government becomes more diverse geographically and culturally. Moreover, as real power shifts to a prime minister and ideological political parties, the monarch becomes less important and as that happens, their personal qualities and style become less relevant. So distance and impersonal government change what people expect from their ruler and at the same time they change the ruler’s ability to hinder or help subjects individually. Monarchs remain powerful officials but are less often expected to shape government in their own image.

RSJ Blog: Any early-modern English monarchs that you think were especially unsuccessful at balancing the king’s two genders?

Cynthia: Charles I is an easy target for ‘unsuccessful’ but he does seem to have been exceptionally tone deaf. He seems never to have understood that success in monarchy means being both reliable and adaptable.

 

RSJ Blog: Thank you for speaking with us!

Full citation:

Herrup, Cynthia. “The King’s Two Genders.” Journal of British Studies 45 (July 2006): 493-510.

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