The Death of Mary I & the Accession of Elizabeth I


Finally, we get back to some history! The last few weeks have been a little heavy on William, Kate and Harry, I know, but I’ve decided to treat it as a balancing act for August when news was sparse and there was plenty of time for back-to-back historical posts. I prefer a balance, so before more engagements are scheduled, I’m going to try and fit in a bit more about, you know, the Plantagenets and the Tudors.

So, let’s get to it: back in July we covered the unfortunate marriage of Mary I and Philip II of Spain, which took us to Mary’s final months as a disenchanted wife and thwarted would-be mother. In April of 1558, Mary once again held out hope that she was pregnant, but unfortunately the symptoms were only signs that her health was on the decline. By the end of spring, it was widely understood that her 25-year-old half-sister, Elizabeth, was her heir, a young woman whose religion was up in the air and whose politics were untested.

Mary had long tried to put off naming Elizabeth her heir mostly because of religion, but on November 6, when it was clear she was dying, her Privy Council finally forced her hand and received the acknowledgment they needed for a bloodless succession. The Spanish were deeply afraid of losing the influence they had maintained since Philip and Mary’s marriage in the summer of 1554, but their tries to establish similar ties with Elizabeth were fruitless. When one Spanish envoy tried to tell her Mary’s decision was thanks to Philip’s influence, she responded that “she owed her crown, not to Philip … but to the attachment of the people of England.”

Mary I

Even as Mary lay dying, the country shifted its focus to its new monarch, a cold wind change that shocked Mary’s government and even Elizabeth herself. The road between London and Hatfield, where Elizabeth was living, became packed with travelers hoping to pledge their allegiance to the younger woman or see her as she traveled to the capitol to claim her throne. Mary finally passed away on November 17, 1558 at St. James’s Palace and was interred in Westminster Abbey on December 14.

Members of the Privy Council immediately rode to Hatfield to tell Elizabeth the news. She fell to her knees and said in Latin, “This is the doing of the Lord; and it is marvellous in our eyes.”

By noon Elizabeth was proclaimed queen outside the Palace of Westminster. But while mourning for Mary was tepid, so too was the response to the new queen’s accession. Elizabeth was a mostly popular figure (save with Catholics), but she was also young, unmarried and unknown at a time when England desperately needed strong leadership. As one courtier put it:

“Certainly the state of England lay now most afflicted, embroiled on the one side with the treasure exhausted; Calais … lost, to the great dishonour of the English nation; the people distracted with different opinions in religion; the Queen bare of potent friends, and strengthened with no alliance of foreign princes.”

Elizabeth arrived in London six days later and then moved to the Tower of London on November 28. The transition was an emotional one for Elizabeth had found herself in the Tower during her sister’s reign as a suspected traitor whose life hung by a thread. The experience had a deep impact on her and she would reference it decades later – her survival seen by her to be a clear sign of God’s intention for her to end up on the throne.

Always one to understand the power of optics, she presented herself publicly as queen decked out in purple velvet. Even more importantly, she understood of necessity of being beloved by her people and she was one of the first monarchs to engage with her people directly when out and about, taking special care to acknowledge the poorest and most vulnerable of her subjects. It worked. Elizabeth’s popularity was on the upswing, though her actions scandalized old school courtiers.

William Cecil

After a week in the Tower, she moved to Somerset House and then from there to the Palace of Westminster for the Christmas holiday. Following years of uneasiness, isolation and financial uncertainty, Elizabeth pulled out all the stops and court was awash in decorations, entertainment and performances. In the midst of all of this, though, she started the real tasks of governing, including appointing William Cecil as her private secretary, a partnership that would last decades and, in many ways, define Elizabeth’s reign.

The big task for the new year was her coronation, a ceremony that had to do two jobs. Quite literally, it was Elizabeth’s crowning, but politically it needed to underscore the legitimacy of her claim to the throne. In addition to being a Protestant in a country still full of Catholics, there were many who believed her to be a bastard because of her parents’ marriage. When Henry VIII married Anne Boleyn in 1533, his first wife (and Mary’s mother), Katherine of Aragon, was still alive. To add insult to injury, when Anne was executed in 1536, he went to the trouble to first divorce her and declare their daughter illegitimate. Elizabeth was eventually added back into the line of succession, but the legality of her claim and status continued to be a matter of debate.

Nor was she helped by the fact that she had a cousin living in France, Mary Stuart, the granddaughter of Henry VIII’s elder sister, Margaret Tudor, who was put forth as a Catholic alternative for England. Her own parents’ marriage was ironclad and she had the dangerous bonus of being married to King Henry II’s eldest son, the dauphin. France, a very Catholic country, had a dangerous ax to hold over the English – the threat of military intervention to replace Elizabeth with a Catholic queen in their control, bringing the country into their fold. It never happened and France never truly meant to do so, but they did enjoy poking at the English and it was a scenario that Elizabeth genuinely feared.

Then there was Elizabeth’s gender. So much of what was wrong with England in 1558 was blamed on having been ruled by a woman for the five previous years, including (or most especially) the loss of Calais, that there was significant hesitation over approving of another female monarch. As of her accession, however, the silver lining was the understanding that Elizabeth would have to marry soon so as to produce an heir and the Privy Council was confident they could direct her towards an appropriate man who would be able to rule. Such would obviously not be the case, but it’s worth underlining that Elizabeth would have been horrified to see herself put forth as a feminist icon.

Elizabeth I, c. 1563

Elizabeth, like the men who surrounded her, thought of women as less than men. Her confidence in her own abilities and her own resolute belief that she deserved to rule had less to do with her being an aberration of the 16th century and more to do with what she considered the power of her blood. In her mind, she was first a “prince” and second a woman. Her birth, her parentage (she alluded to her father many times during her reign) and her lineage made up for the fact she was a “weak” woman. And more importantly, her safe succession against all the odds a clear sign from God that she was meant to be where she was.

It was self-confidence, but not of the sort we would immediately recognize today. Put less charitably, Elizabeth recognized herself as an extremely gifted person, but positioned herself as a clear exception to the rule among other women.

She was crowned in Westminster Abbey on January 15, 1559 and thus began a nearly 45-year reign that brought England from precariousness of religious wars to some of its most profitable and famous decades economically, martially and culturally.

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