Queen Elizabeth I – Tudor Queen
Elizabeth Tudor is considered by many to be the greatest monarch in English history. When she became queen in 1558, she was twenty-five years old, a survivor of scandal and danger, and considered illegitimate by most Europeans. She inherited a bankrupt nation, torn by religious discord, a weakened pawn between the great powers of France and Spain. She was only the third queen to rule England in her own right; the other two examples, her cousin Lady Jane Grey and half-sister Mary I, were disastrous. Even her supporters believed her position dangerous and uncertain. Her only hope, they counseled, was to marry quickly and lean upon her husband for support. But Elizabeth had other ideas.
She ruled alone for nearly half a century, lending her name to a glorious epoch in world history. She dazzled even her greatest enemies. Her sense of duty was admirable, though it came at great personal cost. She was committed above all else to preserving English peace and stability; her genuine love for her subjects was legendary. Only a few years after her death in 1603, they lamented her passing. In her greatest speech to Parliament, she told them, ‘I count the glory of my crown that I have reigned with your love.’ And five centuries later, the worldwide love affair with Elizabeth Tudor continues.
‘Proud and haughty, as although she knows she was born of such a mother, she nevertheless does not consider herself of inferior degree to the Queen, whom she equals in self-esteem; nor does she believe herself less legitimate than her Majesty, alleging in her own favour that her mother would never cohabit with the King unless by way of marriage, with the authority of the Church….
She prides herself on her father and glories in him; everybody saying that she also resembles him more than the Queen does and he therefore always liked her and had her brought up in the same way as the Queen.’ the Venetian ambassador Giovanni Michiel describes Elizabeth; spring 1557
Elizabeth Tudor was born on 7 September 1533 at Greenwich Palace. She was the daughter of King Henry VIII and his second wife, Anne Boleyn. Henry had defied the papacy and the Holy Roman Emperor to marry Anne, spurred on by love and the need for a legitimate male heir. And so Elizabeth’s birth was one of the most exciting political events in 16th century European history; rarely had so much turmoil occurred on behalf of a mere infant. But the confident predictions of astrologers and physicians were wrong and the longed-for prince turned out to be a princess.
Eustace Chapuys, the Imperial ambassador and enemy of Anne Boleyn, described the birth to his master as ‘a portrait of Elizabeth’s mother, Anne Boleyn great disappointment and sorrow to the King, the Lady herself and to others of her party.’ But for the next two years, Henry VIII was willing to hope for a son to join this healthy daughter. Immediately after Elizabeth’s birth, he wrote to his 17 year old daughter, Princess Mary, and demanded she relinquish her title Princess of Wales and acknowledge both the annulment of his marriage to her mother, Katharine of Aragon, and the validity of his new marriage. Mary refused; she already blamed Anne Boleyn (and, by extension, Elizabeth) for the sad alteration of her own fortunes. In December, she was moved into her infant half-sister’s household. When told to pay her respects to the baby Princess, she replied that she knew of no Princess of England but herself, and burst into tears.
Henry already ignored Mary and Katharine’s constant pleas to meet; now he began a more aggressive campaign to secure Anne and Elizabeth’s position. For one mother and daughter to be secure, the other pair must necessarily suffer. Most Europeans, and indeed Englishmen, still believed Katharine to be the king’s valid wife. Now old and sickly, imprisoned in one moldy castle after another, she remained a very popular figure. Anne Boleyn was dismissed in polite circles as the king’s ‘concubine’ and their marriage was recognized only by those of the new Protestant faith. Henry attempted to legislate popular acceptance of his new queen and heiress. But the various acts and oaths only cost the lives of several prominent Catholics, among them Sir Thomas More and Bishop John Fisher. The English people never accepted ‘Nan Bullen’ as their queen.
But while she had the king’s personal favor, Elizabeth’s mother was secure. And she held that favor far longer than any had expected. It was only after she miscarried twice that Henry began to consider this second marriage as cursed as the first. The last miscarriage occurred in January 1536; Katharine died that same month. With her death, the king’s Catholic critics considered him a widower, free to marry again. And this next marriage would not be tainted by the specter of bigamy. It was only necessary to get rid of Anne, and find a new wife – one who could hopefully deliver a son. The king already had a candidate in mind; her name was Jane Seymour, a lady-in-waiting to both Katharine and Anne.
In the end, Henry VIII was not merely content to annul his marriage to Anne. She was arrested, charged with a variety of crimes which even her enemies discounted, and executed on 19 May 1536. Her little daughter was now in the same position as her half-sister, Princess Mary. However, all of Europe and most Englishmen considered Mary to be Henry’s legitimate heir, despite legislation to the contrary. No one believed Elizabeth to be more than the illegitimate daughter of the king. Also, there were already disparaging rumors of her mother’s infidelities; perhaps the solemn, red-headed child was not the king’s after all? It was to Henry’s (small) credit that he always acknowledged Elizabeth as his own, and took pride in her intellectual accomplishments. As she grew older, even Catholic courtiers noted Elizabeth resembled her father more than Mary did.
Henry married Jane just twelve days after Anne’s execution and his long-awaited son, Prince Edward, was born in October 1537. Elizabeth participated in the christening, carried by Thomas Seymour, the handsome young brother of the queen. Jane died shortly after the birth of childbed fever. Henry VIII married Anne of Cleves on Twelfth Night (6 January) 1540. The marriage was a disaster, and Henry quickly divorced Anne and married Catherine Howard. Catherine was a cousin of Anne Boleyn; they were both related to Thomas Howard, 3rd duke of Norfolk and perhaps Henry’s most nervous peer. The king enjoyed a brief few months of happiness with his fifth wife. But Catherine was thirty years younger than Henry and soon enough resumed an affair with a former lover. She was executed in February 1542 and buried beside Anne Boleyn in the Tower of London.
For Elizabeth, these changes in her father’s marital fortunes did not pass unnoticed. She was part of her half-brother Edward’s household; her days were spent mostly at lessons, with the occasional visit from her father. As a child, no one expected her to comment upon her various stepmothers. It was only when she reached adulthood and became queen that its psychological effects were revealed. Elizabeth had a dim view of romantic love and, given her father’s example, who can blame her?
It was Henry’s sixth and final wife, Katharine Parr, who had the greatest impact upon Elizabeth’s life. A kind woman who believed passionately inPrincess Elizabeth, c1546, attributed to William Scrots education and religious reform, Katharine was a devoted stepmother. Understandably, she had far more of an impact with the young Edward and Elizabeth than with Mary, who was just four years her junior. Katharine arranged for 10 year old Elizabeth to have the most distinguished tutors in England, foremost among them Roger Ascham. As a result, Elizabeth was educated as well as any legitimate prince, and she displayed a genuine love and aptitude for her studies. ‘Her mind has no womanly weakness,’ Ascham would write approvingly, ‘her perseverance is equal to that of a man.’ And later, ‘She readeth more Greek every day, than some Prebendaries of this Church do in a whole week.’ And so she did; Elizabeth’s love of scholarship never faltered and, in an age when women were considered inferior to men, she was a glorious exception.
Along with such classical subjects as rhetoric, languages, philosophy, and history, Elizabeth also studied theology. Ascham and her other tutors were famous Cambridge humanists who supported the Protestant cause. Likewise, Katharine Parr was devoted to the reformed faith. Unlike their half-sister Mary, both Edward and Elizabeth were raised Protestant during its most formative years. Yet while Edward was known for his piety and didacticism, Elizabeth already displayed the pragmatic character which would make her reign successful. She studied theology and supported the Protestant cause; she had been raised to do so and knew only Protestants recognized her parents’ marriage. But she was never openly passionate about religion, recognizing its divisive role in English politics.
Most people viewed the adolescent Elizabeth as a serious young woman who always carried a book with her, preternaturally composed. She encouraged this perception, which was as accurate as any, by dressing with a degree of severity virtually absent at the Tudor royal court. But she was not so serious that she avoided all the material trappings of her position. Her household accounts, which came under the management of William Cecil (who later became her secretary of state), show evidence of a cultivated and lively mind, as well as a love of entertainment: fees for musicians, musical instruments, and a variety of books. As she grew older and her position more prominent, her household also expanded. During her brother Edward’s reign, she lived the life of a wealthy and privileged lady – and apparently enjoyed it immensely.
Elizabeth was thirteen years old when her father died. They were never particularly close though he treated her with affection on her few visits to his court. He even occasionally discussed the possibility of her marriage for, in the 16th century, royal bastards were common and often used to great advantage in diplomacy. Under the 1536 ‘Second Act of Succession’, which declared both her and the 19 year old Mary illegitimate, Parliament gave Henry the ability to determine his children’s status, as well as the actual succession. Typically for Henry, he simply let both his daughters live as princesses and gave them precedence over everyone at court except his current wife. But they had no real claim to the title of ‘princess’ and were known as ‘the lady Elizabeth’ and ‘the lady Mary’. This was often followed by the explanatory ‘the king’s daughter.’ It was an awkward situation which the king saw no reason to resolve. His will did recognize his daughters’ crucial place in the succession. If Edward died without heirs, Mary would inherit the throne; if Mary died without heirs, Elizabeth would become queen. He also left them the substantial income of 3000 pds a year, the same amount for each daughter.
Did Elizabeth mourn her father? Undoubtedly so, for at least under Henry VIII she was three steps from the throne and protected by his rough paternal affection. After his death, she had good cause to wish him alive again. Ten year old Edward was king in name only. The rule of England was actually in the hands of his uncle, the Lord Protector Edward Seymour, soon titled duke of Somerset. Elizabeth was now separated from her brother’s household, moving to Katharine Parr’s home in Chelsea. This was perhaps the happiest time of her adolescence.
But Katharine married again quickly, to the man she had loved before Henry VIII had claimed her. Her new husband was Thomas Seymour, the younger brother of Lord Protector Somerset and uncle to the new King Edward. He was handsome, charming, and very ambitious. He also had terrible political instincts. Seymour was not content to be husband of the Dowager Queen of England. He was jealous of his brother’s position and desperate to upstage him. And so he inadvertently played into the hands of the equally ambitious John Dudley, earl of Warwick. Dudley wished to destroy the Seymour protectorship and seize power for himself. He allowed the feuding brothers to destroy each other.
For Elizabeth, the main problem with Seymour was his inappropriate and very flirtatious behavior. As a teenaged girl with little experience of men, she was flattered by his attention and also a bit frightened. Certainly it placed great strain on Katharine Parr, who had become pregnant soon after her marriage. The queen originally participated in Seymour’s early morning raids into Elizabeth’s room, where he would tickle and wrestle with the girl in her nightdress. But while Katharine considered this simple fun, her husband was more serious. He soon had keys made for every room in their house and started visiting Elizabeth while she was still asleep and he was clad in just his nightshirt. She soon developed the habit of rising early; when he appeared, her nose was safely in a book. Edward’s council heard rumors of these romps and investigated. Elizabeth proved herself circumspect and clever; she managed to admit nothing which would offend
She left the Seymour home for Hatfield House in May 1548, ostensibly because the queen was ‘undoubtful of health’. Elizabeth and Katharine exchanged affectionate letters, but they would not meet again. The queen died on 4 September 1548 of childbed fever.
After her death, Seymour’s position became more dangerous. It was rumored that he wished to marry Elizabeth and thus secure the throne of England in case Edward died young. He had already bought the wardship of Lady Jane Grey, a Tudor cousin and heir in Henry VIII’s will. He planned to marry Jane and Edward, thus securing primary influence with his nephew. Eventually, his grandiose plans unraveled and he was arrested. Perhaps the most damning charge was his planned marriage to Elizabeth. Immediately, the council sent Sir Robert Tyrwhit to Hatfield with the mission to take control of Elizabeth’s household and gain her confession. He immediately arrested Elizabeth’s beloved governess Kat Ashley and her cofferer, Thomas Parry; they were sent to the Tower. Now, Tyrwhit told the princess, confess all; he wanted confirmation of the charge that Seymour and Elizabeth planned to wed. If she confessed, Tyrwhit said, she would be forgiven for she was young and foolish – her servants should have protected her.
Elizabeth did not hesitate to demonstrate her own wit and learning. Indeed, she drove Tyrwhit to exasperation; ‘in no way will she confess any practice by Mistress Ashley or the cofferer concerning my lord Admiral; and yet I do see it in her face that she is guilty and do perceive as yet she will abide more storms ere she accuse Mistress Ashley,’ he wrote to Somerset, ‘I do assure your Grace she hath a very good wit and nothing is gotten of her but by great policy.’ Elizabeth refused to scapegoat her loyal servants and defiantly asserted her complete innocence. She told Tyrwhit she cared nothing for the Admiral and when he had mentioned some vague possibility of marriage, she had referred him to the council. She also secured permission to write to Somerset and, upon doing so, demanded a public apology be made regarding her innocence. She also demanded the return of her loyal servants for if they did not return, she said, her guilt would be assumed. She read Ashley and Parry’s ‘confessions’ in which they described Seymour’s romps with her at Katharine Parr’s home. The details were undoubtedly embarrassing but she recognized their harmlessness. In short, she demonstrated every aspect of her formidable intelligence and determination. Poor Tyrwhit left for London with no damaging confession.
But the council didn’t need Elizabeth’s confession to execute Seymour. He was charged with thirty-three other crimes, and he answered only three of the charges. He was not given a trial; a messy execution was always best passed by a Bill of Attainder. He was executed on 20 March 1549, dying ‘very dangerously, irksomely, horribly… a wicked man and the realm is well rid of him.’ Contrary to some biographies, Elizabeth did not say, ‘This day died a man with much wit, and very little judgment.’ The 17th century Italian novelist Leti invented this, as well as several forged letters long supposed to be hers.
Soon enough, Seymour’s brother followed him to the scaffold. Somerset was a kind man in private life and genuinely dedicated to economic and religious reform in England but, as a politician, he failed miserably. He lacked charisma and confidence; he preferred to bully and bluster his way through council meetings. He simply did not understand how to manage the divisive personalities of Edward VI’s privy council. Meanwhile, John Dudley had been quietly manipulating other councilors and the young king to gain ascendancy. Upon Somerset’s execution, Dudley became Lord Protector; he was also titled duke of Northumberland. He was the first non-royal Englishman given that title.
For Elizabeth, these events were merely background noise at first. Dudley took pains to cultivate a friendship with her, which she wisely avoided. He sent her and Mary amiable letters. Since Mary was a Catholic, and Dudley a Protestant who had benefited materially from the Reformation, he was necessarily more friendly to Elizabeth. For example, Edward VI had given Dudley Hatfield House, which was currently Elizabeth’s residence. Dudley graciously returned it to her in exchange for lesser lands in her possession. He also passed the patents to her lands, which allowed her more income. This, of course, should have been done at Henry VIII’s death. So Elizabeth at first benefited from Dudley’s rise to power. She was now a well-respected and popular princess, a landed lady in her own right with a large income and keen mind. She was also an heir to the English throne, though still officially recognized as a bastard. But she was shown every respect, and a degree of affection from Edward VI completely lacking in his relations with their sister Mary.
Their mutual faith was an important connection with the increasingly devout Edward. Elizabeth visited Court occasionally, corresponded with her brother, and continued her studies mainly at Hatfield. She had always been excessively cautious and very intelligent, qualities she displayed to great effect during the Seymour crisis. The only time in her life when she demonstrated any recklessness had been during the Seymour debacle; she had learned its lesson well.
She also cultivated the image of a sober Protestant young lady. When queen, she became known for her love of beautiful gowns and jewels. But before 1558, she took care to dress soberly, the image of chastity and modesty. This was perhaps a conscious attempt to distance herself from Mary, a typical Catholic princess who dressed in all the glittering and garish finery she could afford. It is an ironic note on Mary’s character that she has become known as a dour, plain woman; she was as fond of clothes and jewelry as her sister would become. It was Elizabeth who dressed plainly, most often in severely cut black or white gowns. She wore each color to great effect. She had matured into a tall, slender and striking girl, with a fair, unblemished complexion and the famous Tudor red hair. She wore her hair loose and did not use cosmetics. When she traveled about the countryside, crowds gathered to see her, a Protestant princess renowned for her virtue and learning, her appearance modest and pleasing. In this respect, she was emulated by her cousin Jane Grey. When Jane was invited to a reception for Mary of Guise, the regent of Scotland, Mary Tudor sent her ‘some goodly apparel of tinsel cloth of gold and velvet laid on with parchment lace of gold.’ Jane, a devout Protestant, was offended; such apparel reflected the material trappings of Catholicism. When her parents insisted she wear it, Jane replied, ‘Nay, that were a shame to follow my Lady Mary against God’s word, and leave my Lady Elizabeth, which followeth God’s word.’
Elizabeth was honorably and extravagantly received at her brother’s court. For example, on 17 March 1552, she arrived at St James’s Palace with ‘a great company of lords, knights and gentlemen’ along with over 200 ladies and a company of yeomen. Two days later she left St James for Whitehall Palace, her procession accompanied by a grand collection of nobles. The visit was a marked success for Edward was open in his affection. She was his ‘sweet sister Temperance,’ unlike Mary who continued to defy his religious policy. The Primary Sources section of this site contains an excerpt from Edward VI’s journal in which he records a religious argument with Mary. In that matter, Elizabeth remained distant, preferring to let her siblings argue without her.
Edward’s ministers, especially after the Seymour affair, were careful with her. Dudley recognized Elizabeth’s formidable intelligence. When Edward VI became ill in 1553 and it was clear he would not survive, Dudley had a desperate plan to save himself from Mary I’s Catholic rule – place Henry VIII’s niece, Lady Jane Grey on the throne. (This is discussed in great length at the Lady Jane Grey site.) Simply put, Dudley believed he would be supported because Jane was Protestant and the English would not want the Catholic Mary on the throne. Of course, the question arises – Elizabeth was Protestant, so why not put her on the throne instead of Jane? The main reason is that Dudley was well aware that Elizabeth Tudor would not be his puppet, unlike Jane Grey whom he had married to his son Guildford. As for Edward VI, he went along with the plan because of two main reasons: Elizabeth was illegitimate so there might be resistance to her rule and, as a princess, she might be persuaded to marry a foreign prince and England would fall under foreign control. Jane was already safely wed to an Englishman.
Edward VI’s decision should not indicate any great dislike of Elizabeth. He was primarily determined to preserve the Protestant regime in England. He believed this was necessary for his personal and political salvation. He was also practical. He disinherited Mary because of her Catholicism; however, it was officially sanctioned because of her illegitimacy. Like Elizabeth, Mary had her illegitimacy established by an act of Parliament during Henry VIII’s reign. Since he had ostensibly disinherited Mary because of this act, he couldn’t let Elizabeth inherit – it simply wasn’t logical. So the throne would pass to the legitimate – and Protestant – Lady Jane Grey. As most know, she ruled for just nine days before Mary became queen of England. It should be noted that Edward originally told Dudley that, though he didn’t want Mary to succeed him, he saw no logical reason for Elizabeth to be disowned. It was Dudley who pointed out the logical inconsistency – that Mary ‘could not be put by unless the Lady Elizabeth were put by also.’
Dudley attempted to place Mary and Elizabeth in his power while Edward was dying. He knew that if he imprisoned the two princesses, they would be unable to rouse popular support against his plan. But if that failed, he was determined to prevent them from seeing Edward, especially Elizabeth. Dudley feared that Edward’s affection for his sister, and Elizabeth’s cleverness, might persuade Edward to rewrite his will in her favor. Like her sister, Elizabeth would undoubtedly destroy Dudley, making him the scapegoat for Edward’s ineffectual regime. In fact, Elizabeth had suspected her brother was ill and set out from Hatfield to visit him just a few weeks before Edward died, but Dudley’s men intercepted her and sent her home. She then wrote her brother a number of letters, inquiring about his health and asking permission to come to Court. These were intercepted as well.
But as Edward’s health continued to deteriorate and death was imminent, Dudley sent a message to Hatfield, ordering Elizabeth to Greenwich Palace. She may have been warned of his intentions – more likely she guessed them. She refused the summons, taking to her bed with a sudden illness. As a further precaution, her doctor sent a letter to the council certifying she was too ill for travel. As for Mary, Dudley had told her that Edward desired her presence; it would be a comfort to him during his illness. She was torn – though Dudley hid the true extent of the king’s illness, the Imperial ambassador had kept Mary informed. He was the agent of her cousin, the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V; Mary’s mother had been his aunt. Conscious of her sisterly duty, Mary set out for Greenwich from Hunsdon the day before Edward died.
Dudley was enraged by Elizabeth’s refusal but he could do nothing. Soon enough, events moved too quickly for the princess to be his primary concern. It was being whispered that Dudley had poisoned the king to place his daughter-in-law on the throne. Of course, this was untrue since Dudley needed Edward to live as long as possible for his plan to work. To this end, he had engaged a female ‘witch’ to help prolong the king’s life. She concocted a mix of arsenic and other drugs; they worked, at least for Dudley’s purpose. The young king lived for a few more weeks though he suffered terribly. Finally, on 6 July 1553, Edward VI died. Immediately, Dudley had Jane Grey proclaimed queen, an honor she had not sought and did not want. It was only Dudley’s appeal to her religious convictions which convinced her to accept the throne.
Meanwhile, Jane’s cousin, Mary Tudor, was still on her way to Greenwich to see her brother, until a sympathizer (sent by Nicholas Throckmorton or William Cecil) rode out to meet her; the summons was a trap, he told her, and Dudley intended to imprison her. Mary rode to East Anglia, the conservative section of England where her support would be strongest. Eventually she would realize the true extent of her support. Protestants and Catholics alike rallied to her cause since she was Henry VIII’s daughter and the true heir under his will. As she left for East Anglia, she didn’t know her brother was already dead but she sent a note to the Imperial ambassador Simon Renard; once she knew of Edward’s death, she said, she would declare herself queen. She sent another note to Dudley, telling him she was too ill to travel.
The failure of Dudley’s ambitions is discussed at the Lady Jane Grey site. Suffice to say, he was overthrown and executed and Mary Tudor, at the age of thirty-seven, was declared queen of England in her own right. During the nine days of Jane’s reign, Elizabeth had continued her pretense of illness. It was rumored that Dudley had sent councilors to her, offering a large bribe if she would just renounce her claim to the throne. Elizabeth refused, remarking, ‘You must first make this agreement with my elder sister, during whose lifetime I have no claim or title to resign.’ So she remained at her beloved Hatfield, deliberately avoiding a commitment one way or another. When word reached her that Mary was finally queen, she sent a letter of congratulation to her sister and set off for London. On 29 July, she entered the capital with 2000 mounted men wearing the green and white Tudor colors. There she awaited Mary’s official arrival into the city. On 31 July, Elizabeth rode with her attendant nobles along the Strand and through the City to Colchester, the same path her sister would take. It was here she would receive her sister as queen. They had not seen each other for about five years.
Mary had always disliked her half-sister for many reasons, not least because she sensed an innate shiftiness in Elizabeth’s character. Elizabeth, Mary believed, was never to be trusted. Originally, this dislike was because of Elizabeth’s mother, Anne Boleyn. Mary had long blamed Anne for her own mother’s tragic end as well as the alienation of her father’s affections. After Anne died and Elizabeth, too, was declared illegitimate, Mary found other reasons to hate Elizabeth, chief among them religion. Like her mother, Mary was a devout Catholic; she recognized Elizabeth’s lack of religious zeal. But at her accession, the moment of her great triumph, she was prepared to be conciliatory.
Mary ordered that Elizabeth share her triumphal march through London. Their processions met at Wanstead on 2 August. There, Elizabeth dismounted and knelt in the road before her sister. Mary dismounted and raised her sister, embracing and kissing her with affection. She even held her hand as they spoke. Their two parties entered London together, the sisters riding side by side. The contrast between their physical appearances could not have been more striking. Mary, at thirty-seven, was old beyond her years. An adulthood passed in anxiety and tribulation had marred her health and appearance. She was small like her mother and thin, with Katharine’s deep, almost gruff voice. Elizabeth was nineteen years old, taller than her sister and slender. While Mary was richly attired in velvets covered in jewels and gold, Elizabeth was dressed in her usual strikingly severe style. Neither sister was conventionally beautiful but onlookers commented upon Mary’s open compassion and kindness and Elizabeth’s innate majesty. And since Mary was thirty-seven, quite old to have a child, Elizabeth was viewed as her probable heir. As such, she was cheered as much as the new queen.
On 1 October, Elizabeth rode to Mary’s coronation with Henry VIII’s discarded fourth wife, Anne of Cleves. She was once again accorded a place of honor amongst the English ladies, though not the highest position as was her due. The Imperial ambassador Renard reported that she spoke often with the French ambassador de Noailles. For his part, de Noailles reported that Elizabeth complained her coronet was too heavy and made her head ache. He replied to her that, God willing, she would soon wear a heavier crown.
This was dangerous talk, as Elizabeth soon discovered. Mary’s mood was fickle regarding her clever half-sister. For every kind word or gesture, there were public statements dismissing Henry VIII as Elizabeth’s father, or allowing distant cousins precedent at court. It was simply impossible for Mary to forget the past, etched so acutely upon her spirit. She could not like Elizabeth, nor trust her. Elizabeth responded to this emotional hostility by retreating to Hatfield. There she continued her studies and attempted to remain safe in the morass of English politics.
But however much she might wish for peace, she was not to have it. She was destined to be the focal point for all discontent over Mary’s reign. And there was soon much reason for discontent. Edward VI’s council had left the economy in shambles; currency was debased and near worthless. There was a series of bad harvests. Prices rose and discontent spread. And worst of all, Mary soon decided to marry King Philip II of Spain, son and heir of Charles V. This was yet another example of her inability to forget the past. Philip represented the homeland of her beloved mother, and a chance to bring all the weight of the Holy Roman Empire to bear upon the heretics of England. Mary was determined to turn back the clock on twenty years of religious reform and make England a Catholic nation again.
Understandably, her subjects were less than thrilled. Even English Catholics did not want their country to become a powerless appendage of the Hapsburg empire. Certainly a queen had to marry, but not the emperor’s son! In this climate of rebellion and repression, Elizabeth’s life was in great danger. It could not be otherwise; she was the only alternative to Mary’s rule.
Elizabeth conformed outwardly to the Catholic faith. But she could not distance herself too much from her Protestant supporters. When Sir Thomas Wyatt, the son of her mother’s great poetic admirer, led a rebellion in January 1554, matters came to an unpleasant impasse. Wyatt had written to Elizabeth that he intended to overthrow Mary but his letter was intercepted, as was a letter from de Noailles to the king of France. His letter implied that Elizabeth knew of the revolt in advance, and repeated rumors that she was off gathering armed supporters. The government was able to suppress the rebellion before it spread very far and Wyatt was arrested. Mary’s council could find no real proof that de Noailles’s suppositions were true but they decided to summon Elizabeth back to London for questioning. She was understandably frightened and ill; she sent word that she could not travel. Two of Mary’s personal physicians were sent to evaluate her condition. They diagnosed ‘watery humors’ and perhaps an inflammation of the kidneys. She was ill, they reported, but not too ill to travel the 30 miles to London in the queen’s own litter. Three of the queen’s councilors – Howard, Hastings, and Cornwallis, all of whom were friendly with Elizabeth – escorted her back to London. They traveled quite slowly, covering just six miles a day.
Elizabeth kept the curtains of the litter pulled back as she entered the city, and the citizens were able to see her pale, frightened face. She had good cause for her fear; the heads and corpses of Wyatt and his supporters were thrust upon spikes and gibbets throughout the city. The queen waited for her at Whitehall but they did not meet immediately. First, Elizabeth’s household was dismissed and she was told that she must undergo close interrogation about her activities. She was questioned by the unfriendly bishop of Winchester, Stephen Gardiner, but she was not intimidated. She denied any involvement in the rebellion and repeatedly asked to see the queen. But she was told that Mary was leaving for Oxford where she would hold a Parliament. Elizabeth would be leaving Whitehall as well, though at first the council could not decide where to send her. No councilor wanted the responsibility of keeping her in close confinement at their homes; it was too unpleasant and potentially dangerous. And so Gardiner and Renard had their way and she went to the Tower of London. The earl of Sussex and the marquess of Winchester were sent to escort her from Whitehall.
Elizabeth was terrified. The mere mention of the Tower was enough to shatter her already fragile nerves. She begged to be allowed to write to her sister, and the men agreed. The letter was long, rambling, and repetitious – proof of her fear and trepidation:
I have heard in my time of many cast away for want of coming to the presence of their Prince…. Therefore once again kneeling with humbleness of my heart, because I am not suffered to bow the knees of my body, I humbly crave to speak with your Highness, which I would not be so bold to desire if I knew not myself most clear as I know myself most true. And as for the traitor Wyatt, he might peradventure write me a letter but on my faith I never received any from him; and as for the copy of my letter sent to the French king, I pray God confound me eternally if ever I sent him word, message, token or letter by any means, and to this truth I will stand it to my death.
….Let conscience move your Highness to take some better way with me than to make me be condemned in all men’s sight afore my desert know.
After finishing, she carefully drew lines throughout the rest of the blank sheet so no forgeries could be added, and she signed it ‘I humbly crave but one word of answer from yourself. Your Highness’s most faithful subject that hath been from the beginning and will be to my end, Elizabeth’.
The letter had taken too long to write; they had missed the tide. They could wait a few hours and take her to the Tower in the darkest part of night, but the council disagreed. There could be an attempt to rescue her under cover of darkness. They decided to wait until the next morning, Palm Sunday, when the streets would be nearly deserted since everyone would be in church. Meanwhile, her letter was sent to Mary who received it angrily and refused to read it through. She had not given permission for it to be written or sent, and she rebuked her councilors fiercely.
The next morning, 17 March 1554, arrived cold and grey; there was a steady rain. At 9 o’clock in the morning, Elizabeth was taken from her rooms and through the garden to where the barge waited. She was accompanied by six of her ladies and two gentleman-attendants. She waited under a canopy until the barge began to slow; she then saw that they would enter beneath Traitor’s Gate, beneath St Thomas’s Tower. This was the traditional entrance for prisoners returned to their cells after trial at Westminster. The sight terrified her and she begged to be allowed entry by any other gate. Her request was refused. She was offered a cloak to protect her from the rain but she pushed it aside angrily. Upon stepping onto the landing, she declared, ‘Here landeth as true a subject, being prisoner, as ever landed at these stairs. Before Thee, O God, do I speak it, having no other friend but Thee alone.’ She then noticed the yeoman warders gathered to receive her beyond the gate. ‘Oh Lord,’ she said loudly, ‘I never thought to have come in here as a prisoner, and I pray you all bear me witness that I come in as no traitor but as true a woman to the Queen’s Majesty as any as is now living.’ Several of the warders stepped forward and bowed before her, and one called out, ‘God preserve your Grace.’
She still refused to enter the Tower. After the warder’s declaration, she sat upon a stone and would not move. The Lieutenant of the Tower, Sir John Brydges, said to her, ‘You had best come in, Madame, for here you sit unwholesomely.’ Elizabeth replied with feeling, ‘Better sit here, than in a worse place, for God knoweth where you will bring me.’ And so she sat until one of her attendants burst into tears. She was taken to the Bell Tower, a small corner tower beside Brydges’s own lodgings. Her room was on the first floor, and had a large fireplace with three small windows. Down the passageway from the door were three latrines which hung over the moat. It was not as destitute or uncomfortable as she had feared, but it was still the Tower of London and she was a prisoner.
This was the beginning of one of the most trying times of her life.
Elizabeth spent just two months in the Tower of London, but she had no idea that her stay would be so brief – and it did not feel particularly brief. She truly believed some harm would come to her and she dwelt most upon the possibility of poison. She knew Mary hated her and that many of her councilors constantly spoke ill of her, encouraging either her imprisonment or execution.
However, Elizabeth had enough popular support that she would not face death at her sister’s orders. But Lady Jane Grey, the unfortunate Nine Days’ Queen, and her husband were neither so popular or lucky. They, too, had lived in the Tower under threat of execution; both had been convicted of treason. But Mary had always been fond of Jane and was close friends with her mother Frances; she allowed her cousin to live very comfortably in the Tower while her fate remained undecided. Mary probably intended to release Jane as soon as the country settled under her own rule. But Renard wanted both Jane and her husband executed. He warned Mary that the emperor would not allow Philip to enter England as long as Jane lived. She was a traitor, and it was only a matter of time before the Protestants tried to place either Jane or Elizabeth upon the throne. Mary was not persuaded by Renard’s arguments, but his threat carried greater force – she wanted to marry Philip and he would not come to England until it was safe. The small rebellion led by Jane’s father clearly did not help matters. And so Jane and the equally unfortunate Guildford Dudley were executed. Elizabeth herself arrived at the Tower just six weeks later, and her cousin’s fate must have weighed heavily on her mind. After all, she and Jane had lived and studied together briefly under Katharine Parr’s tutelage, and Jane’s admiration of Elizabeth had been open and obvious.
It was abundantly clear to Elizabeth that her position was precarious and dangerous. During the first weeks of her imprisonment, she was allowed to take exercise along the Tower walls but when a small child began to give her flowers and other gifts, Brydges was told to keep her indoors. Elizabeth had always been active, both physically and mentally. She chafed at her confinement and its boring routine. She was occasionally interrogated by members of Mary’s council, but she held firm to her innocence. She had faced such interrogations during Thomas Seymour’s fall from grace, and could not be easily intimidated. Still, the stress – which she handled with outward aplomb – took its toll on her physical health. She lost weight, and became prone to headaches and stomach problems.
Ironically enough, it was the impending arrival of Philip of Spain which led to her freedom. Renard had urged Mary to execute Jane and imprison Elizabeth so that Philip would be safe in England. Philip, however, was far more sensitive to the political implications of such an act. He knew the English were acutely sensitive to any shift in Mary’s policies simply because she had chosen to marry a foreigner. If she made an unpopular decision, it would be blamed upon his influence. He knew, too, that the Protestant faith was still popular in the country, and that Elizabeth embodied its greatest hope. If she were harmed in any way, his arrival in England would be even more unpopular and dangerous. And the Wyatt rebellion had merely reinforced Philip’s natural inclination to tread lightly. His intention was to wed Mary, be crowned king of England, and find a suitable husband for Elizabeth, preferably one of his Hapsburg relations. Then, if Mary died without bearing a child, England would remain within the Hapsburg sphere of influence, a willing and useful adjunct of the empire.
Accordingly, Philip wrote to Mary and advised that Elizabeth be set at liberty. This conciliatory gesture was not appreciated by Mary, always inclined to believe the worst in her half-sister, but – once again – her eagerness for Philip’s arrival made her desperate to please him. She dispensed with Renard’s advice and on Saturday 19 May at one o’clock in the afternoon, Elizabeth was finally released from the Tower; incidentally, her mother had been executed on the same day eighteen years earlier. She spent one night at Richmond Palace, but it was clear that her release had not lifted Elizabeth’s spirits. That night she summoned her few servants and asked them to pray for her, ‘For this night,’ Elizabeth said, ‘I think to die.’
She did not die, of course, but she was still frightened and lonely. She had been released into the care of Sir Henry Bedingfield, a Catholic supporter of Queen Mary whose father had guarded Katharine of Aragon during her last years at Kimbolton Castle. He had come to the Tower on 5 May as the new Constable, replacing Sir John Gage, and his arrival had caused Elizabeth no end of terror. She believed he was sent to secretly murder her for, not long before, a credible rumor had reached her; it was said that the Catholic elements of Mary’s council had sent a warrant for her execution to the Tower but that Sir John Brydges, the strict but honest Lieutenant, had not acted upon it because it lacked the queen’s signature. With Bedingfield’s arrival, Elizabeth lost her almost preternatural self-control and she asked her guards ‘whether the Lady Jane’s scaffold was taken away or no?’ When told it was gone, she asked about Bedingfield, and if ‘her murdering were secretly committed to his charge, he would see the execution thereof?’
From Richmond, Bedingfield took his cowed charge to Woodstock, a hunting-lodge miles from London and once favored by her Plantagenet grandfather, Edward IV. She was neither officially under arrest nor free, a nebulous position which confused nearly everyone. She could not be received at court, but she could not be set at liberty in the countryside. And so Bedingfield was essentially her jailer, but not referred to as such; and Woodstock was her prison, but also not called such. The journey to Woodstock certainly raised her spirit. She was greeted by throngs of people shouting ‘God save your grace!’ and other messages of support. Flowers, sweets, cakes and other small gifts were given to her. At times, the reception was so enthusiastic that Elizabeth was openly overwhelmed. It was now clear to her that the English people loved her, perhaps as much as they did Queen Mary.
But the love of the people was small comfort when faced with the dilapidation of Woodstock. The main house was in such disrepair that Elizabeth was lodged in the gatehouse. The queen had ordered that her sister be treated honorably and given limited freedom; Elizabeth was allowed to walk in the orchard and gardens. She also requested numerous books. After a few weeks, her initial fear of Bedingfield had settled into a bemused appraisal of her jailer. She now recognized him for what he was – a conscientious, unimaginative civil servant with a difficult assignment. They got on tolerably well, and Bedingfield even forwarded her numerous letters to the Council and the queen. Elizabeth was concerned that her imprisonment in the countryside would remove her too much from the public eye and her ceaseless letter-writing was an attempt to reassert her position as princess of England. Mary did not read the letters and angrily order Bedingfield to stop sending them along.
At the end of June, Elizabeth fell ill and asked that the queen’s physician Dr Owen be sent to her. But Dr Owen was busy tending to Queen Mary and told Bedingfield that his charge must be patient. He recommended the services of Drs Barnes and Walbeck. Elizabeth refused to allow their examination; she preferred to commit her body to God rather than to the eyes of strangers, she told Bedingfield. Finally, on 7 July, Mary finally sent permission to Woodstock for Elizabeth to write to her and the Council about her various concerns. Elizabeth was petulant and took her time with the composition of this most important letter. When it was finally sent, written in Bedingfield’s hand from her dictation, it was a typically shrewd and pointed document. Elizabeth wanted the Council to consider ‘her long imprisonment and restraint of liberty, either to charge her with special matter to be answered unto and tried, or to grant her liberty to come unto her highness’s presence, which she sayeth she would not desire were it not that she knoweth herself to be clear even before God, for her allegiance.’ Elizabeth specifically requested that the members of the queen’s council who were executors of ‘the Will of the King’s majesty her father’ read the letter and be allowed to visit with her. It was a pointed reminder that despite her deprived circumstances, she was still next in line to the English throne. The Council heard the document uneasily.
Mary, however, had other matters on her mind. Finally, on 20 July, even as Elizabeth mulled over her letter, Philip II of Spain finally landed at Southampton. The handsome, fair-haired 27 year old King was already a widow with a male heir; his first wife Maria of Portugal had died in childbirth in 1545 after two years of a marriage. He was a conscientious and pious man who impressed all who met him with his discipline and work ethic. But he also had a tendency toward religious asceticism which worsened as he grew older. As a child, he had accompanied his father to the inquisition in Spain, watching impassively as heretics were burned alive. But his marriage to Mary was one of political necessity and Philip had no intention of threatening its success with unpopular religious policies. He was willing to move England slowly back into the Catholic fold; faced with Mary’s impatience, it was Philip who advised moderation. He wed his cousin at Winchester Cathedral on 25 July in a splendid ceremony. On 18 August they finally entered London in triumph, its citizens plied with enough free drinks and entertainment to greet Philip enthusiastically. But there were already signs of trouble; the anonymous pamphlets condemning foreigners and the queen’s marriage circulated, and Philip’s Spanish entourage were unhappy over a number of petty slights and insults from their English hosts.
Elizabeth had hoped the marriage would result in some change in her circumstances. But she was sadly mistaken. Instead she passed the months needling Bedingfield for more books, scribbling more letters, and listening to the occasional rumor from her servants. The rumors were hardly comforting. The queen was reportedly pregnant and she and Philip would open Parliament together on 12 November. From then on, the reunion between England and the papacy could begin in force. Mary was the happiest she had been since childhood, but the problem of Elizabeth remained. Gardiner wanted her executed; he argued that Protestantism could not be completely eradicated until its great hope, Elizabeth herself, was gone. But Philip and most other councilors were more pragmatic. Parliament had already agreed that if Mary died in childbirth, Philip would be regent of England during their child’s minority. However, if both mother and child died, then Elizabeth once again assumed prominence. Philip, always prudent, preferred to know his sister-in-law before making an enemy of her. With his encouragement, and flush with happiness at her marriage and pregnancy, Mary finally invited Elizabeth to court.
In the third week of April 1555, almost a year since she was sent to Woodstock, Elizabeth was brought to Hampton Court Palace. Mary had gone there to prepare for her lying-in. They did not meet immediately. Elizabeth was brought into the palace through a side entrance, still closely guarded. According to the French ambassador, Philip visited her three days later but Mary never came. Two weeks later, the most powerful members of the council appeared to chide her for not submitting to the queen’s authority; she was told to admit her past wrongdoing and seek the queen’s forgiveness. Elizabeth replied that she had done nothing wrong in the past and wanted no mercy from her sister ‘but rather desired the law’. She told Gardiner she would rather remain in prison forever than admit to crimes she had never committed. He went off immediately to tell Mary of her sister’s continued stubbornness. The queen was not pleased. The next day, Gardiner told Elizabeth that the queen marveled that ‘she would so stoutly use herself, not confessing that she had offended’. Did Elizabeth really believe she was wrongfully imprisoned? Gardiner asked. Elizabeth refused the bait. She did not criticize her sister explicitly, telling him only that the queen must do with her as her conscience dictated. Gardiner replied that if she wanted her liberty and former position, she must tell a different story; only by admitting her past faults, confessing all sins, could she hope for forgiveness. It was a stalemate. Elizabeth again told him she would rather be unjustly imprisoned than gain freedom with lies.
The next week passed with no word from anyone. And then, around 10 o’clock one evening, a message arrived that the queen would see her. Elizabeth had begged for an interview for more than a year but now that the moment had at last arrived, she was understandably nervous. She was accompanied into Mary’s apartments by one of her own ladies-in-waiting and Mary’s close friend and Mistress of the Robes Susan Clarencieux. The queen’s bedroom was lit with flickering candlelight; the queen herself was half-hidden in shadow. Without asking permission, Elizabeth immediately prostrated herself and declared her innocence. And though she and Mary sparred for a short while, the queen was willing to be generous at her own moment of triumph. It was rumored that Philip watched the sisters from behind a curtain; whether or not he was there, Mary was content to make peace of sorts. She sent Elizabeth away amicably enough and a week later poor Bedingfield was relieved of his duties. Elizabeth would remain at Hampton Court, still under light guard but with her own household and permission to receive certain guests. It was the end of over a year of tiresome captivity and she was delighted.
While she enjoyed her newfound liberty, the burning of Protestant heretics began in earnest. These killings have earned Mary the nickname ‘Bloody Mary’ and blighted her reputation. In truth, the roughly 300 people killed (about 60 women) was not considered excessive by Mary’s European contemporaries; and in the government’s mind, Protestantism had become dangerously linked with treason, sedition, and other secular crimes. For Mary, who was perhaps the most personally kind and gentle of the Tudor rulers, the killings were necessary to save the heretics’ souls as well. It is a telling feature of her character that she could often forgive treason against herself, but would not countenance treason against God.
The burnings, coupled with the Spanish marriage, caused enough resentment; but, unfortunately for Mary, famine and poverty added to her list of woes. But the greatest tragedy of all for the queen was the humiliating and heartbreaking realization that her pregnancy was not real. Mary had truly believed she was pregnant; her stomach had become swollen and she had felt the child quicken. But she had always suffered from digestive and menstrual troubles. It is probable that she developed a tumor in her stomach which, combined with the lack of a cycle and her own fervent prayers, made her believe she was pregnant. All of April was spent in a state of readiness. Dozens of nurses and midwives crowded into Hampton Court, joined by a throng of noble ladies who would assist in the delivery. On 30 April a rumor reached London that a male child had been born and celebrations ensued. But it was a false alarm; the next three months were spent in a state of suspended disbelief. Finally, on 3 August, the queen’s household departed to Oatlands and the pregnancy was not mentioned again.
Mary’s heartache was soon worsened by the impending departure of Philip. He had spent over a year in a country he disliked, married to a woman he pitied but did not love. He used the excuse of pressing business in the Low Countries to leave England. Mary protested passionately, begging him to stay; it was clear to everyone that she truly loved her husband. But Philip was equally determined to go. It was perhaps clear to him that Mary was seriously ill and would never have children. If that was the case, he had no reason to remain in England. He left explicit instructions that she treat her sister well.
Elizabeth was sent to a small manor house a few miles from Oatlands where she played another waiting game, only this time with some measure of freedom and hope. But it was to be another three years before she would become queen of England.
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Link will appear as Hanson, Marilee. "Queen Elizabeth I: Biography, Facts, Portraits & Information" https://englishhistory.net/tudor/monarchs/queen-elizabeth-i/, January 31, 2015