The Queen and Her Court
She rode through the streets of London on November 28, 1558, clad in the purple velvet gown of royalty, her procession consisting of some one thousand attendants and soldiers. Tens of thousands of Londoners lined the streets, cheering wildly as her carriage passed by. “God save Queen Elizabeth!”3 was shouted over and over again. Ironically, the procession led past the somber Tower of London, where she had been imprisoned awaiting execution four years earlier—falsely accused of plotting to overthrow her half sister, Queen Mary.
Eleven days earlier, Mary had died at age forty-two—probably a victim of influenza. Widely despised by many of her subjects—they dubbed her “Bloody Mary”—she was notorious for her persecution and execution of Protestants. On the day of Mary's death, a courier rode the 36 miles (58 km) north of London to Elizabeth's castle in Hatfield to announce the passing of the monarch and the declaration that Elizabeth was now queen of England.
Elizabeth promised the English people of Shakespeare's time that they would experience a much different reign from her than what had occurred under Mary. She dedicated herself to uniting her people and creating a society in which the ideas of the European Renaissance—an era of great advances in the arts, sciences, and literature—could flourish. On the day of her coronation, she told her subjects, “Be ye ensured that I will be as good unto you as ever Queen was unto 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 spend my blood.”4
Page 13 | Top of ArticleOn the day she was crowned queen of England, Elizabeth was just twenty-five years old. She ruled for nearly a half century.
The House of Tudor
Elizabeth's ascension to the throne of England had its roots in the Wars of the Roses, a series of civil wars fought in England between 1455 and 1485. The enemies were two aristocratic families, or houses, each laying claim to the English throne: the Houses of York and Lancaster. The conflicts acquired their name by the emblems of each house: a red rose for Lancaster, a white rose for York.
Shakespeare wrote about the Wars of the Roses in three of his plays, most notably the history Richard III. The protagonist of the play, King Richard III, was the last monarch of the House of York. Shakespeare portrays the hunchbacked Richard as a despotic, mad, and evil ruler. In Shakespeare's play Richard admits to exerting his rule through deceitful measures, claiming to be a pious man:
And thus I clothe my naked villainy
With odd old ends stol'n forth of holy writ,
And seem a saint when most I play the devil.5
Richard met his death at the Battle of Bosworth of 1485, which ended the Wars of the Roses and resulted in the ascendancy to the throne of Henry Tudor, a member of the House of Lancaster. The new monarch, who ruled England as Henry VII, united the two warring houses by marrying Elizabeth of York, a niece of Richard III. Henry also established the House of Tudor, a dynasty that ruled England for more than a century.
Era of Turmoil
In the seventy-three years between the death of Richard III and the coronation of Elizabeth, England was a place of turmoil, revolution, and persecution. Upon his death in 1509, Henry VII was succeeded by his son, Henry VIII, who defied the authority of the Roman Catholic Church—a significant influence in the lives of most Europeans of the era.
Henry's anger with the Catholic Church stemmed from an affair of the heart. He married Catherine of Aragon—the daughter of the king of Spain—at age seventeen, but by the time he reached his forties Henry found himself infatuated with Anne Boleyn, the daughter of an aristocrat. He was Page 15 | Top of Articlealso concerned with Catherine's inability to provide him with a male heir; his union with Catherine had produced a single daughter—the future queen Mary. When Pope Clement VII refused to grant Henry permission to divorce Catherine, the king declared that he did not need papal permission. He divorced Catherine and married Anne in January 1533, and a year later, at his behest, Parliament passed laws creating the Church of England and recognizing the king—not the pope—as the head of the church.
This was the beginning of the Protestant Reformation in England, a movement that had been led in Germany by Martin Luther and in France by John Calvin. Both men questioned the supreme judgment of the pope to define the practice of Christianity. Luther, Calvin, and other reformers argued that more power to interpret the Christian Bible should be placed in the hands of local ministers. The Reformation sparked widespread discord throughout Europe as the popes sought to maintain their authority and, relying on the loyalty of Catholic monarchs, waged war against the reformers.
On September 7, 1533, Anne gave birth to Elizabeth—the only child produced through her union to Henry. By 1536 Henry's eye had wandered once more. He accused Anne of treason and had her beheaded in the Tower of London. As for Henry, the king married four more times. It was his third wife, Jane Seymour, who in 1537 blessed Henry with a male heir.
Henry died in 1547 and was succeeded by his son, Edward VI, who took the throne at age nine. Edward was a sickly child and died at age fifteen. (During the boy's brief reign, a group of adult advisors, the Council of Regency, guided the young monarch.) Henry's will decreed that he should be succeeded by a male heir, and if none existed, he designated Mary as his first heir, to be followed by Elizabeth. Soon after Edward's death, Mary was crowned queen on July 19, 1553.
Born Catholic, Mary aimed to put an end to the Protestant Reformation in England. She appointed a representative of the pope as spiritual leader of the Church of England, a position known as the archbishop of Page 16 | Top of ArticleCanterbury. Moreover, during her reign Mary had hundreds of Protestant leaders beheaded or burned at the stake—a reign of terror that earned her the nickname Bloody Mary. In 1563, five years after Mary's death, the English historian John Foxe wrote, “We earnestly pray that the annals of no country, Catholic or pagan, may ever be stained with such a repetition of human sacrifices to papal power, and that the detestation in which the character of Mary is holden may be a beacon to succeeding monarchs to avoid the rocks of fanaticism!”6
Elizabeth narrowly escaped the wrath of her half sister. Soon after taking the throne, Mary announced plans to marry Prince Phillip, the successor to the king of Spain—a country ardently devoted to Catholicism. Fearing a Catholic takeover of their country, in 1554 a group of Protestant nobles led by Sir Thomas Wyatt led a rebellion aimed at deposing Mary and installing Elizabeth as queen. The Wyatt rebellion was prompted largely by the fears of aristocrats that they would lose large tracts of valuable land that had been awarded to them by Henry who, after creating the Church of England, stripped the Catholic Church of its English properties. Mary successfully put down the rebellion; she had Elizabeth imprisoned in the Tower, accused of complicity in the rebellion.
Mary wanted Elizabeth executed but was talked out of her plans by Phillip. Knowing that the daughter of Henry VIII was popular among the English people and fearing a major uprising against Catholics in England should the Protestant Elizabeth be executed, Phillip convinced Mary to release Elizabeth. For good measure, though, Mary had Elizabeth placed under house arrest and kept under watch in the countryside at the castle in Hatfield. After four years of virtual exile at Hatfield, Elizabeth succeeded her half sister as queen.
Politics and Spinsterhood
Although Henry's will designated Mary and Elizabeth as heirs to his throne, Henry expected—as did many in the English aristocracy of the era—that in the event either of his daughters took the throne, they would find husbands who would hold the true authority in the royal house. In sixteenth-century England, women were not envisioned as leaders of nations. In 1545 the English philosopher Thomas Elyot wrote, “In the partes of wisdom and civile policy, [women] be founden unapt, and to have litell capacite.”7 In fact, after her marriage to Phillip, Mary handed all matters of foreign diplomacy over to her husband.
But Elizabeth never married, a decision based partly on personal fears and partly on politics. Although she was expected to provide an heir to Page 19 | Top of Articlethe throne, it is likely that Elizabeth feared pregnancy because the death of mothers during childbirth was a common occurrence in the sixteenth century. Two of her father's wives died in childbirth; so had many of Elizabeth's friends. (Even so, Elizabeth was known throughout her long reign to have carried on affairs with nobles—most famously with Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester. She even insisted, until her death, that she had remained a virgin, but her closest friends and advisors suspected otherwise.)
But politics was also responsible for Elizabeth's lifelong spinsterhood. Her half sister's marriage to the future Spanish king, a Catholic, had angered many of her subjects. Therefore, a union with another European monarch—virtually all of whom were Catholics—was sure to provoke similar animosities by the English aristocrats. They feared a return to state-sanctioned Catholicism as well as the loss of lands awarded to them by Henry VIII. Moreover, there is no question that had she married she would have been forced, through tradition, to cede her authority to her husband. “I know I have the body of a weak and feeble woman,” she once declared, “but I have the heart and stomach of a King.”8
An Authoritarian Monarch
Elizabeth was authoritarian, bullying the Parliament to pass her laws and accept her policies. In the sixteenth century such absolutism was accepted by both the aristocracy and the commoners. And she was no more hesitant to toss her enemies in the Tower of London than her half sister had been. The aristocrat John Hayward, who spent a year in the Tower when Elizabeth suspected him of treason, nevertheless remained very respectful of his queen. “If any person had eyther the gift or the stile to winne the hearts of people, it was the Queene,”9 he wrote.
Moreover, even though roughly half her subjects were still devoted Catholics, they accepted her as their monarch. William Cecil, her top advisor, was a Catholic. And in Rome even the pope, Sixtus V, professed Page 20 | Top of Articlea grudging admiration for Elizabeth: “If she were not a heretic,” Sixtus said, “she would be worth the whole world.”10 Keeping her people's taxes low also may have helped her gain their devotion, although during her reign the English government's treasury was habitually short of funds.
The Privy Council
Elizabeth may have been the unquestioned and supreme ruler of England, but she relied on many close advisors to help guide her decisions. Cecil was her most valued advisor, but there were others—members of an administrative body known as the Privy Council. Elizabeth appointed all the members and made sure to keep the membership small. Mary had appointed fifty members to her Privy Council, but Elizabeth saw how infighting among the council members often led to dissent, so she reduced council membership to nineteen.
The council, composed of members of the aristocracy, did a fair amount of governing. Council members dealt with matters the queen delegated to them; among these duties were administration of the army and navy, relations with the archbishop of Canterbury, and regulation of banks. The Privy Council issued proclamations in the queen's name. Often, when Elizabeth called the council into session to hear their ideas on a knotty issue, she received contradictory advice from members—a situation she encouraged. Elizabeth believed that a divided council made her stronger. The council, for example, many times reported to her its unanimous decision that she should take a husband. When Elizabeth asked the council to nominate a candidate, the council's decision was never unanimous—a situation Elizabeth exploited by declaring that she would never marry until the Privy Council could find unanimous agreement on a suitor. The Privy Council could never agree, and Elizabeth never married.
For much of Elizabeth's reign the head of the Privy Council was Cecil, whose official title was secretary of state. After Cecil's death in 1598, he was succeeded by Sir Francis Walsingham, a very close ally who had created a vast and effective spy network—key to rooting out insurgencies in England as well as learning the plans of foreign adversaries.
The Royal Progresses
Beyond the Privy Council, Elizabeth maintained a large court: a group of aristocrats, both men and women—lords, ladies, knights, dukes, earls, and so on. These aristocrats attended the many functions of state and were always on hand to offer opinions, ideas, and counsel. Over the course of her reign, as many as twelve hundred aristocrats were summoned whenever Elizabeth held court.
The events that members of the court were expected to attend included the innumerable galas staged at the queen's palaces—of which there were five. These events could range from extraordinarily staged costume balls to much quainter evenings of backgammon with close friends. Although the queen loved festive occasions—she fancied herself an excellent dancer and owned more than two thousand ball gowns—these events were staged for more than just entertainment value. The parties, large or small, gave Elizabeth an opportunity to interact with aristocrats who were not members of the Privy Council and to hear ideas on the affairs of state from friends and allies who were not normally close at hand in the palace.
Whenever the queen traveled into the English countryside to visit the many small towns in the realm—which she did very often—members of the court were expected to accompany her. During the Elizabethan era, these trips were known as royal progresses. They usually occurred in the summertime, when Elizabeth found the steamy London weather unbearable. And so she ventured into the English countryside, seeking cool breezes as well as opportunities to greet her subjects. The poor and unwashed farmers and their families lined the muddy and dung-filled English country roads to capture a glimpse of their queen, who enjoyed their adulation immensely. She rode on horseback or in an ornate open carriage, waving to her subjects as they cheered wildly.
For a poor and destitute farmer and his family, the queen's tour of the countryside could seem like a fairy tale come true. The queen always wore a beautiful gown and exquisite jewels. It was very likely the only time in their lives these people witnessed such finery; in their eyes Elizabeth may have appeared more like a goddess than a queen. Moreover, the entourage Page 23 | Top of Articleof servants and soldiers who accompanied her added to the luster and the grand spectacle that unfolded before the eyes of the people. More than a century after her death, the English poet Alexander Pope translated the ancient Greek poem The Odyssey. Historians believe Pope's translation of this verse was inspired by stories he was told of the royal progresses of Elizabeth:
When through the street she gracious deigns to move,
(The public wonder, and the public love,)
The tongues of all with transport sound her praise,
The eyes of all, as on a goddess, gaze.11
When the queen arrived in the village of her destination, entertainment was usually provided. A stage, erected beforehand, provided a venue for performances by musicians. Food and drink were served. At night, the villagers could expect a grand display of fireworks. As for the local Page 24 | Top of Articlethieves, prostitutes, beggars, mentally ill persons, and other undesirables, they were rounded up and tossed in the local jailhouse—to be kept far from her majesty's presence for the duration of the queen's visit.
A Dismal Duty
During her visits to the countryside, Elizabeth was accompanied by members of the court. They rode behind the queen's carriage: silent, impassive, and indifferent to the commoners alongside the road. It was a duty abhorred by most members of the court, inasmuch as the country inns the nobles were forced to endure were hardly as comfortable, or the meals as succulent, as what they could expect at their own estates or London mansions. Wrote one anonymous historian of the era, “Nothing save war was more disruptive to the orderly well-being of court life than a Royal progress.”12
And if a member of the nobility was asked to provide lodging in his country estate home for the queen, it was very likely that he would have to spend large sums of money to prepare the house for the royal visit. Representatives of the queen arrived a week beforehand, bearing trunks of her clothes as well as furnishings to ensure her majesty's comfort during her stay at the residence. Food had to be stockpiled to supply meals to the queen and her attendants. Entertainment had to be provided: Elizabeth enjoyed going for long walks on the estates of her friends. And so they took great pains to spruce up their properties—planting gardens, pulling weeds, cutting trails—all designed so the queen could enjoy a leisurely stroll amid the luxury to which she was accustomed. Elizabeth was adventurous as well and enjoyed hunting deer and small game, and so hunting parties had to be organized. And then, after all that expense, trouble, and toil, after three weeks or so the queen departed and headed home to London.
But members of the court tolerated such distressful missions because there was value in court membership. Foreign ambassadors, men of business or law, or anybody who required the ear of the queen could gain access to her majesty by bribing influential members of the court. To be invited into Elizabeth's court meant evenings filled with parties, the occasional Page 25 | Top of Articleunpleasantness of a trip into the countryside, but also pockets filled with bribes. Wrote nineteenth-century historian Anna Jameson:
With regard to the state of morals and manners in Elizabeth's court, the first were not better, and the latter not worse, than in other courts of that time. The system of corruption was open and gross, for not only favor, but justice, was to be bought and sold. When we read that Lord [Francis] Bacon was disgraced in the following reign for accepting, or allowing his servants to accept, of bribes in his office, we are at first filled with pity, surprise, and even consternation, that a man so wise and so great, to whom God gave a spirit to comprehend the universe, who was the Columbus of modern philosophy,—that he should thus so poorly degrade himself; but we find that in the court in which he was educated and passed his early probation as a statesman it was a common and general practice.13
The Idle Parliament
If the court was a place of merriment, the Parliament was a place of apathy and idleness. During her reign Elizabeth paid Parliament little heed. In truth, Parliament rarely convened during Elizabeth's reign, and when it did she held the power of veto and used it often. Elizabeth believed strongly in the powers of the monarch, and so did many of her subjects.
During the reign of her younger half brother, Edward VI, a book of homilies was published and distributed to all Church of England ministers, who were expected to read its messages to their flocks. The book declared that the monarch was to be regarded as the supreme authority figure of the realm: “It is intolerable ignorance, madness and wickedness for subjects to make any murmuring, rebellion of insurrection against their most dear and most dread sovereign Lord and King, ordained and appointed by God's goodness for their commodity, peace and quietness.”14
In other words, ministers admonished their church members each Sunday that the queen had been selected by God to rule over the people Page 26 | Top of Articleof England. As for Elizabeth, in a 1566 speech to Parliament she dismissed the authority of England's popularly elected lawmakers with these words: “My Lords, do whatever you wish. As for me, I shall do no otherwise than pleases me.”15
Death of the Queen
Elizabeth died in 1603 at age sixty-nine. Given the lack of modern medical care in addition to unsanitary conditions and poor nutrition available to the citizens of England during her reign, Elizabeth lived a long life. Even the wealthiest and most aristocratic citizens rarely lived into their sixties. She was succeeded by James I, the son of her cousin Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots—a circumstance she brought upon herself, given her refusal to marry and produce her own heir. Still, in the final years of her life she began a correspondence with James, the king of Scotland, opening up diplomatic channels. She died having never met her successor.
Nearly forty-five years earlier, she had entered the city of London in triumph, leading a parade as her subjects welcomed her with loud cheers. And now, the body of the beloved queen left London in a casket as a slow procession made its way through the glum city streets. Witnessing the scene, the English historian William Camden wrote, “There was such a general sighing and groaning, and weeping, as the like has not been seen or known in the memory of man; neither doth any history mention any people, time or state, to make lamentation for the death of their sovereign.”16