History Professor Goes ‘Undercover’

December 1, 2010

When the sleuthing historians from the National Geographic Channel were working on a project to shed light on the personal life of Queen Elizabeth I, they turned to none other than Mary Baldwin’s own Mary Hill Cole.

A team from the hour-long show “Undercover History” reached out to the history professor in early November to find out why the Virgin Queen never married. Specifically, researchers wanted to examine Elizabeth’s relationship with her stepfather, Thomas Seymour. Seymour married Henry VIII’s last wife, Katherine Parr, after the king died.

Mary Hill Cole

“They also wanted me to discuss what historians know about Elizabeth’s views of marriage, her virginity or sexual activity, and her relations with men in general,” Cole said. “I was pretty nervous — I haven’t done anything like this before. But some people who heard parts of [the interview], and the National Geographic people as well, said that I did fine.”

The “Undercover History” crew interviewed Cole at the Blackfriars Playhouse in downtown Staunton on November 17.

Cole, chair of Mary Baldwin’s history department, earned her bachelor’s degree in history from James Madison University and her PhD in English history from University of Virginia. She teaches undergraduate courses in English history, modern European history, and women’s history. In the graduate Shakespeare and Performance program, she teaches courses in Tudor-Stuart political, religious, and social history. Her book, The Portable Queen: Elizabeth I and the Politics of Ceremony, was published by University of Massachusetts Press in 1999.

This is the second time this year that an Mary Baldwin professor has been tapped to shed light on Elizabeth I. In July, Professor of Art Sara Nair James ’69 joined a team of researchers at East Carolina University to help uncover the origins of a rare 16th-century portrait of the queen.

Producers tell Cole that the “Undercover History” episode about Elizabeth will air sometime in the series’ next season.