Q From Marilyn Marshall: My reading group recently discussed Cranford by Elizabeth Gaskell and were amused and curious when we read, ‘Till she came back to give us our cue, we felt that it would be better to consider the engagement in the same light as the Queen of Spain’s legs — facts which certainly existed, but the less said about the better.‘ What is the story behind this expression?
A There’s clearly a real allusion here, one that was once well known. You mentioned that you also found this reference, in The Civilization of China by Herbert A Giles (1911): “At such interviews it would not be correct to allude to wives, who are no more to be mentioned than were the queen of Spain’s legs”, and this, in Letters From High Latitudes by Lord Dufferin (1857): “I am afraid, however, many a smart yachtsman would have been scandalized at our decks, lumbered up with hen-coops, sacks of coal, and other necessaries, which, like the Queen of Spain’s legs, not only ought never to be seen, but must not be supposed even to exist, on board a tip-top craft”. It also appears in a poem by Bret Harte:
And the merlin - seen on heraldic panes —
With legs as vague as the Queen of Spain's.
My sources let me down on this one, so I asked subscribers, who rallied around in a most satisfying way.
It turns out that the story is associated with a Queen of Spain at around the end of the sixteenth century, but the stories can’t agree which one. The references I’ve been sent variously refer to the wives of Philip II, Philip III, and Philip IV. This vagueness suggests that the story may be apocryphal, though one version, from Spain, refers specifically to Mariana of Austria, the wife of Philip IV.
The story goes that, during her journey south to be married, the young queen-to-be passed through a town that was famed for its silk stockings, then rare and expensive items. Wishing to show her due courtesy, the merchants of the town offered to present her with a pair.
This was a period in which women wore skirts down to the ankles and stockings were considered undergarments of a decidedly intimate nature (I refer you to Cole Porter: “In olden days a glimpse of stocking / Was looked on as something shocking”). The Queen’s courtiers were aghast at this embarrassing breach of decorum, regarded as both indecent and audacious, and one replied loftily that “The Queen of Spain has no legs”.