‘Some have fallen from being Princes of this land to be prisoners in this place; I am raised from being prisoner in this place to be Prince of this land. That dejection was a work of God’s justice; this advancement is a work of His mercy.’ Elizabeth I at the Tower of London, during her coronation ceremonies, 1559
There is an apocryphal story about Elizabeth’s accession. In it, she was out in the meadows surrounding Hatfield when the courtiers approached. They bowed before her, and presented Mary’s signet ring. Elizabeth supposedly fell upon her knees and exclaimed, most aptly, ‘A Domino factum est illud et est mirabile in oculis nostris.’ (‘This is the Lord’s doing, and it is marvelous in Our eyes.’) The citizens of London undoubtedly felt the same; upon receiving word of Mary’s death, bonfires were lit and tables were set in the streets for a grand celebratory feast.
A glorious accession, then, and much celebrated. A contemporary observer, however, commented wryly upon the state of affairs in England in 1558: ‘The Queen poor; the realm exhausted; the nobility poor and decayed; want of good captains and soldiers; the people out of order; justice not executed; justices of peace unmeet for office; all things dear; excess of meat and drink, and apparel; division among ourselves; war with France and Scotland; the French King, having one foot in Calais and the other in Scotland; steadfast enmity, but no steadfast friendship abroad.’
Elizabeth was well aware of the dire situation she faced. She herself had been the victim of the religious and political confusion of Mary’s reign. And even the weather had been uncooperative for Queen Mary; the droughts which had plagued farmers led to high prices and much poverty. Most of the poor flocked to London where they crowded into ever-expanding slums. Mary’s attempts to reform the debased currency of Henry VIII and Edward VI’s reign had been somewhat successful, but England was still considered a poor credit risk on the Continent.
And so the new queen, though popular and much-admired, did not inherit a stable and prosperous country – and the quest for stability and prosperity became the guiding force of her reign. To that end, she came to eschew foreign entanglements and religious extremism. Practical and pragmatic, Elizabeth chose as her motto ‘Semper Eadem’ (‘Always the Same’), and it was highly appropriate.
Her succession was assured and untroubled. But Elizabeth knew that when the celebrations ended, the real work would begin. Almost immediately, she would be forced to consider a rival claim to the throne by her cousin, Mary Stuart. Queen of Scotland since infancy, and now the wife of the French dauphin (and crowned queen of France in 1559), Mary was denied a place in the Tudor succession by Henry VIII’s will. But she was a Catholic and had the French monarchy behind her. For her part, she was content to stay in France. But she did – with spirit and not much sense, as was her wont – choose to quarter the royal arms of England, Wales and Ireland upon her heraldry, thus openly laying claim to the throne of England. Even this symbolic act was fraught with political danger for the queenly cousins. From her accession on, Elizabeth knew her Scottish ‘sister’ was a serious concern; and while Mary was safely in France, it was all for the better. Scotland was already turning Protestant and England could continue to support its religious dissension and political upheaval. If their northern neighbor was kept busy with its own troubles, it was less likely to clash with England.
As for her English subjects, even the Catholics were largely against Mary Stuart’s claims. In this case, nationalism trumped religion. There were other English claimants, of course; the younger sisters of the unfortunate Lady Jane Grey. But of the two, Catherine was flighty and foolish and Mary was barely four feet tall. Neither was a popular choice to be queen.
Her smooth accession was further assured by the Lord Chancellor, Nicholas Heath. Parliament had been in session while Mary lay dying and, on 17 November, Heath announced her death to the assembled lords and commons. He then said, ‘Which hap as it is most heavy and grievous unto us, so have we no less cause another way to rejoice with praise to Almighty God for that He hath left unto us a true, lawful and right inheritrice to the crown of this realm, which is the Lady Elizabeth, of whose lawful right and title we need not to doubt. Wherefore the lords of this house have determined with your assents and consents, to pass from hence into the palace, and there to proclaim the said Lady Elizabeth Queen of this realm without further tract of time.’
There was no dissension at Heath’s words. Traditionally, Parliament dissolved upon the death of the reigning monarch – but Heath’s prompt actions ensured Elizabeth’s lawful recognition as queen before the lords and commons dispersed. And, as a leading Catholic, Heath also secured the loyalty of his religious party for the new queen.
Elizabeth held court at Hatfield for about a week, assembling statesmen and studying English affairs more acutely. Nicholas Throckmorton wrote to her immediately; he advised her to be wary and careful, so that neither ‘the old or the new should wholly understand what you mean.’ She did not need such advice; it was already central to her character. How else had she survived the reigns of Edward and Mary?
On 20 November, she held her first council meeting and appointed the loyal William Cecil as her Principal Secretary of State. They had been friends for a long while, since his appointment as her accountant many years ago. And, for the next forty years, they were to rule England as a virtually inseparable team. Elizabeth’s words to Cecil have become justly famous: ‘I give you this charge, that you shall be of my Privy Council and content to take pains for me and my realm. This judgment I have of you that you will not be corrupted by any manner of gift and that you will be faithful to the state; and that without respect of my private will you will give me that counsel which you think best and if you shall know anything necessary to be declared to me of secrecy, you shall show it to myself only. And assure yourself I will not fail to keep taciturnity therein and therefore herewith I charge you.’
All monarchs use such appointments to reward loyalty and friendship; Cecil’s was also a reward for ability. On a more personal note, Elizabeth rewarded the faithful servants who had been her companions since childhood, among them Thomas Parry and Kat Ashley. The handsome Robert Dudley was appointed Master of the Horse; he was the son of the late Lord Protector and had been imprisoned in the Tower with Elizabeth during Mary’s reign. Not coincidentally, this position required close contact with the queen. Thus from the very beginning, a source of rivalry was established amongst Elizabeth’s closest councilors. Cecil and Dudley disliked one another, each man viewing the other as his main rival for the queen’s attention. But even this potentially untenable situation benefited the young queen; it meant that she alone dominated her government while two rival factions developed, each centered around Cecil and Dudley.
‘Everything depends upon the husband this woman takes.’
the Spanish ambassador De Feria, 1560
‘If I were a milkmaid with a pail on my arm, whereby my private person might be little set by, I would not forsake that poor and single state to match with the greatest monarch.’ Elizabeth I to Parliament, regarding marriage
Elizabeth well understood the importance of public relations and knew her entry into London must be a lavish spectacle; the coronation which would follow must be even more impressive. Dudley was placed in charge of the coronation plans. He was well-suited to the task. Elizabeth’s favorite astronomer, Dr John Dee, was consulted and Sunday, 15 January 1559 was selected as the perfect date.
On 23 November, Elizabeth left Hatfield for London; she stayed at the Charterhouse, and for the next five days she made regular appearances before adoring crowds. On Monday 28 November, she left the Charterhouse to ride through London and to the Tower. She wore a purple velvet gown and had a scarf tied loosely around her neck. Dudley rode closely behind her. When they neared the Tower, both the queen and her Master of the Horse appreciated the irony of the moment. Elizabeth said simply, and wittily: ‘Some have fallen from being Princes of this land to be prisoners in this place; I am raised from being prisoner in this place to be Prince of this land. That dejection was a work of God’s justice; this advancement is a work of His mercy.’
She spent the next ten days at the Tower, holding council meetings and slowly but steadily learning how to rule. She had been welcomed to the throne with great celebration, but few monarchs have inherited such a dire predicament. Religious turmoil was inevitable; though the Protestants regarded Elizabeth as their savior, many Marian exiles believed she would maintain her sister’s religious changes. She had to tread carefully – and fortunately for both Elizabeth and her nation, she was uniquely suited to do so. She made it clear to her councilors that she wanted no windows into men’s souls. Also, she would not be dominated by one religious party at the expense of another. For Elizabeth, her citizens were Englishmen first; their religious loyalties – whether Catholic or Protestant – were to remain subservient to their loyalty to her as queen of England. This explains her later disregard for Puritanism. She characteristically remarked that she preferred loyal Catholics to Puritans; this may have confused some of her subjects since she was a Protestant queen, and the Puritans were simply Protestant extremists. However, Elizabeth recognized that, by the end of her reign, most of her Catholic subjects were loyal to her instead of the pope (despite her excommunication) and accepted royal prerogative. Her Puritan subjects, however, did not recognize the sanctity of the crown, and their presence in Parliament ensured a steady erosion of royal power. The end result of this conflict occurred during the reign of Charles I, when a powerful Puritan populace revolted against their Catholic king and beheaded him.
Luckily, most of Elizabeth’s councilors were of the same mind as the queen. Their first priority was the stability of the realm, and they wanted to negotiate a truce of sorts between the two factions. Of course, the more extreme members of both parties could not be satisfied. Also, Philip II of Spain and Henri II of France had recently ended their near-constant warfare, and now England remained outside Continental affairs; perhaps it would become the prey of both powers. When Elizabeth’s court moved to Whitehall for Christmas, the Spanish ambassador De Feria tried to secure a possible marriage between Elizabeth and one of Philip’s innumerable relatives. Already her expected marriage dominated European politics. No one expected her to rule alone.
The Christmas festivities at Whitehall were quite extravagant. The English court had not had cause for much celebration in years; Mary’s reign had been increasingly insular and solemn. But Elizabeth, young and beautiful, was determined to celebrate her near-miraculous triumph. And yet Christmas would pale in comparison to her coronation festivities.
On the 12th of January, she set out once again to the Tower, traveling by river from Whitehall. Two days later, at two o’clock in the afternoon, she rode in an open litter for her recognition procession throughout London. She wore a gown of crimson velvet and cloth of gold with an ermine cape for warmth, and was surrounded by richly-dressed lords and ladies. Crowds of Londoners thronged the streets, to the queen’s open delight. It was a cold and wet Saturday with snow flurries settling upon the brocade canopy of the queen’s litter, but the weather could not distract from the spectacle.
The entire route through the city was marked by pageants, plays, and orations; even Anne Boleyn appeared in a tableau beside Henry VIII. Elizabeth’s replies to each presentation were memorable and kind; to the Recorder of London, she memorably said, ‘Whereas your request is that I should continue your good lady and Queen, be ye assured that I will be as good unto you as ever Queen was to her people. No will in me can lack, neither do I trust shall there lack any power. And persuade yourselves, that for the safety and quietness of you all, I will not spare if need be to spare my blood.’ These words were not merely facile endearments. Long ago, during the dark days of Mary’s reign, she had realized the importance of public relations and popular support.
The next day she was crowned queen of England. She entered Westminster on foot, walking upon a long blue carpet which the crowd promptly cut up for souvenirs. The great Abbey was crowded full of both rural and urban dignitaries, and their ladies. They watched as the queen marched slowly forward, the long red velvet train of her gown carried by the duchess of Norfolk. Hundreds of candles and lamps burned, and the boys’ choir sang beautifully while a medley of pipes, drums, and the church organ played.) She was crowned by Owen Oglethorpe, the bishop of Carlisle. The archbishop of Canterbury, Reginald Pole, had died the same day as Queen Mary; the archbishop of York asked to be excused on grounds of conscience; the bishop of Durham said he was too old to perform the ceremony. And so it fell to Dr Oglethorpe, who was as good as anyone else in Elizabeth’s eyes. The ceremony itself was a mish-mash of Catholic and Protestant rituals – the Mass was said in Latin but the celebrant did not elevate the Host; the epistle and gospel were read in Latin and English; and the coronation oath itself was read from an English Bible. In other words, it was a ceremony which accurately reflected the religious confusion of mid-16th century England.
Oglethorpe placed the heavy Crown of St Edward on her head, but it was quickly removed after the oath was administered. Then, wearing a lighter crown, the new queen was presented to the congregation. There was an explosion of noise (the Venetian ambassador said it sounded like the end of the world) as bells were rung, trumpets were blown, and every other musical instrument played with such force that spectators winced. The coronation banquet was held at Westminster Hall at three o’clock and lasted until one o’clock Monday morning. The new queen, who now wore a becoming gown of purple velvet, sat beneath the great window on a raised dais. There were eight hundred guests, and the queen was served by the Lord Chamberlain and the Chief Steward. She spoke little during the banquet, and was so tired when it ended that a tournament planned for Monday afternoon was canceled. She had also caught a cold; the opening of Parliament was thus delayed from the 23rd of January to the 25th. Her arrival at Parliament, however, was another moment of triumph for Elizabeth. She wore a crimson gown and a cap decorated with pearls and was quite lovely and energetic despite her recent cold. When the crowd called out, ‘God save and maintain thee!’, she responded with enthusiasm, ‘God a’ mercy, good people!’
All things considered, these first two months on the throne had gone very smoothly. But most European powers were convinced she wouldn’t last a year as queen. If she did, it would only be due to a quick marriage. And so, over the next several years, the dominant issue of her reign would be one which she personally detested – who would the queen marry, and when? For Elizabeth, treading carefully and conscious of the novelty of her position, the issue was a personal and political threat – and one which she handled with exquisite care.
‘She [Elizabeth] is incomparably more feared than her sister, and gives her orders and has her way as absolutely as her father did.’ the Spanish ambassador De Feria, 1559
Elizabeth’s seeming obliviousness to marriage, her refusal to discuss it, or her occasional witty but vague comments – all these infuriated her councilors. They seemed incapable of appreciating the impact marriage would have upon her life, while its impact was distressingly clear to Elizabeth. The councilors wanted a king, and an heir, a natural enough desire since her throne could not be completely secure without them. But Elizabeth knew herself to be intellectually superior to most men and she relished her independence. And, of course, her father’s marital history – as well as her sister’s – made her question both the personal and political cost of marriage. The new queen always had a low opinion of marital happiness, and saw little reason to change her mind.
Even in her own lifetime, rumors abounded that Elizabeth was physically deformed, incapable of pleasing a husband or bearing a child. It was also whispered that she was a sexual deviant whose appetites could not be satisfied by marriage. However, it is clear enough that Elizabeth’s character – pragmatic, rational, and calculating – was not overly romantic; she was openly fond of many courtiers, particularly Robert Dudley. But she never wed Dudley, and a healthy flirtation does not indicate sexual deviancy. Rather, it shows Elizabeth to be a normal young woman who enjoyed the company of a handsome man. If she had not flirted with Dudley, or her other courtiers, then speculation about her character would be understandable. In truth, she was no less flirtatious than her father, but the simple, unavoidable fact of her gender made her flirtations far more politically charged.
Furthermore, any sexual activity would have been immediately reported. ‘I do not live in a corner,’ the queen once commented. ‘A thousand eyes see all I do, and calumny will not fasten on me for ever.’ A foreign ambassador was caught paying one of her laundresses for proof of the queen’s regular menstrual cycle; everyone at court gossiped about her relationships with the handsome courtiers who soon flocked to London. The queen herself preferred to rise above such discussion. If she fulfilled her royal duties with care and diligence, and if she brought prosperity and peace to her country, then she was successful. And since she had great faith in her own talents, she saw no reason to share her throne with a husband.
And so, out of love of independence and power, and a native distrust of marriage, Elizabeth was determined to remain single. Her councilors, for their part, pretended to believe otherwise for quite a long time. Despite her repeated vows to ‘live and die a virgin’, they embarked upon countless rounds of diplomatic negotiations searching for a husband. They visited her in private, they openly begged her; they eventually forced a parliamentary showdown upon her. William Cecil prayed that ‘God would send our mistress a husband, and by time a son, that we may hope our posterity shall have a masculine succession.’ Despite their close friendship, and mutual respect, even Cecil succumbed to the sexism of their age – he rebuked a messenger for talking to the queen of something that ‘was too much for woman’s knowledge.’
But over the years, her councilor’s discomfort lessened. Mary Stuart bore a son, James, in 1566 and was imprisoned in England shortly afterwards. James was raised as a Protestant and was soon the only Tudor relative with a viable claim. His religion allowed most Englishmen to look favorably upon him as Elizabeth’s eventual heir. The queen wisely dangled its possibility before him and thus ensured Scottish political cooperation throughout the later years of her reign. Also, as the years passed, so did the possibility that Elizabeth would bear a child. And why marry, if not for an heir?
It is also worth noting the endless difficulties in selecting a suitable husband. A foreign match would have dragged England into the morass of European politics, with possibly the same disastrous results of Mary’s marriage. But marriage to an Englishman would have given too much power to one political faction or the other. And so Elizabeth’s personal dislike of marriage turned out to be a shrewd political decision, though it confounded everyone for several years.
From the earliest days of her reign, one of Elizabeth’s greatest political attributes was her endless prevarication. Many historians have described it less as an attribute, and more as her greatest failing. They mention her inability to decide upon marriage, or – most famously – her refusal to execute Mary queen of Scots. They argue that these incidents prove she was hesitant and indecisive. But it actually reveals a formidable political talent, and one which greatly benefited her nation. The new queen was not one to whole-heartedly plunge into any scheme, personal or political; thus, she refused to become involved in foreign entanglements which would have bankrupted her country and produced strife and discontent. She sent money and a few troops to continental Protestants, but no more. In terms of religion, she sought to strike a balance between two extremes through careful thought and debate. In doing so, she negotiated a truce of sorts which lasted through most of her reign – in contrast to the religious turmoil which marked the reigns before and after her own. One could label her indecisive since she did not strike a definitive stance on either issue. But she preserved the peace and prosperity of her nation; she put England, and the welfare of its citizens, first. Thus, the ability to prevaricate was an essential tool of her political success, however much it frustrated those who wanted her to take sides. In Elizabeth’s case, one could argue that she took only the English side.
‘She is a very vain and clever woman. She must have been thoroughly schooled in the manner in which her father conducted his affairs. She is determined to be governed by no one.’ the Spanish ambassador De Feria, 1559
This understandably caused strife within her council. It was clear from the beginning that Robert Dudley was the queen’s favorite courtier. They were openly affectionate and Dudley enjoyed flaunting the queen’s favor. Cecil was often terrified that Elizabeth would wed Dudley, but that fear at least was soon put to rest. At the start of Elizabeth’s reign, Dudley was still married to an heiress called Amy Robsart; she was safely tucked away in the country while her husband flirted at court. Elizabeth knew of the match; she had attended the wedding. But the marriage, which had begun happily, was soon torn apart by Dudley’s ambition. But whatever he planned for the future, it was soon impossible for him to dream of becoming king. Amy was living in secluded and deprived circumstances at Cumnor Place, the Oxfordshire manor of Anthony Forster, an MP and close friend of Dudley’s. She had been ill for some time. On Sunday the 8th of September 1560, roughly nine months after Elizabeth’s coronation, she gave her few servants permission to visit a fair. When they returned, they found her lying dead at the bottom of the staircase with a broken neck. There had been other ladies in the home; they reported playing backgammon with Amy until, suddenly and without explanation, she left the room and fell to her death. Dudley was informed of the news while at Windsor Castle with the queen. He immediately ordered a thorough investigation. Why? His close relationship with the queen was already a minor scandal; Amy’s suspicious death could make it explosive.
Amy had been ill for some months, with a ‘canker in her breast’, as the doctors said. They had assured Dudley that his wife would not live much longer. So the immediate supposition after her death – that Dudley had murdered Amy so he could marry the queen – does not make sense. There were only three other conclusions to draw – first, that Amy, knowing her own condition, was depressed and angry at her husband; she therefore took her own life in an attempt to end her suffering and Dudley’s hopes to be king. Second, that one of Dudley’s enemies had murdered Amy in an attempt to discredit him and make marriage with the queen impossible. Or third, that nothing so nefarious occurred and her death was completely accidental; she simply fell while walking down the stairs.
But everyone enjoyed gossip and scandal too much to let it pass. And Amy’s maid told a jury that her mistress had often ‘prayed to God to deliver her from desperation’, and many courtiers remembered Dudley’s public speculation about divorcing his wife. Elizabeth was forced to send Dudley from court until the funeral, but he did not attend the service. The queen sent Lady Norton as her representative, and it was known that other ladies had been asked but refused to go because of the scandal. But Elizabeth’s affection for Dudley was at its greatest during these early years and could not be denied. Soon enough he was back at court and in as much favor as always. Once, during a boating party on the Thames, he asked the ambassador de Quadra, who was also Bishop of Avila, to marry he and Elizabeth immediately. The ambassador remarked that he would do so as soon as the queen dismissed her Protestant councilors from service.
In light of Amy Robsart’s death, it is worth considering Elizabeth’s own feelings on the matter. Her closest advisors thought she had good cause to dread the woman’s death, though not because of any scandal. The queen, they realized, enjoyed flirting with Dudley and occasionally encouraged his fantasies, but she did not want to be given the opportunity to marry him. When Amy Robsart died, Elizabeth had no ready excuse for denying Dudley’s proposals.
But the queen had other, far more appropriate suitors. Cecil’s natural inclination was to make peace with England’s traditional enemy, France. He urged a match with one of Queen Catherine d’Medici and King Henry II’s sons. These Francophile maneuvers began seriously after Mary Stuart’s French husband died in 1560 and she returned to Scotland. To thwart Cecil, other councilors pressed a Spanish marriage, perhaps even to her former brother-in-law Philip. The queen expertly considered all options but never committed to any. This routine would continue until advancing age made childbirth impossible. Only then was Elizabeth truly free of parliamentary meddling in her private affairs, a situation which had inspired several famously bitter outbursts in 1566. After insisting that the succession was too weighty an issue for such “a knot of harebrains” as the House of Commons, she later invoked her own arrest during Wyatt’s rebellion as the reason for her refusal to name a successor (if she would not marry): “I did differ from her [Mary I] in religion and I was sought for divers ways. And so shall never be my successor.” And, she warned them, “as your Prince and head”, it was up to her to judge such weighty political issues without parliamentary interference, “For it is monstrous that the feet should direct the head.”
In other words, they could discuss and debate and suggest – but only Elizabeth could rule.