Ever since Theresa May arrived in Downing Street, friends and enemies have sought to find another woman to whom we can compare her – and each time come up with Margaret Thatcher. Now the PM has caused a stir by citing Elizabeth I as a role model in a carefully vetted Q&A with her local constituency paper. I’m not sure Elizabeth would have been impressed: four years working on her private papers has made clear to me that she was determined to be sui generis. If there are lessons to be learned from our most impressive absolute monarch, they are not easily applied to a modern democracy.
Historical comparisons tell us more about ourselves than they do about the past. Elizabeth’s success in a male world appeals to our new PM, who tells us to admire: “a woman who knew her own mind and achieved in a male environment”. She cites Elizabeth’s supposed Tilbury speech: “I know I have the body of a weak and feeble woman but I have the stomach of a king.” May has made no secret of her contempt for Cameron’s old boys’ club. Whether Elizabeth ever really admitted to a “weak and feeble” body, to a politician who has endured briefing about her mild diabetes, or like Elizabeth, suffered gossip about her fertility, it must be a compelling mantra.