The first talk I attended at the inaugural Chelsea History Festival was by ‘She-Wolves’ author and medieval historian Helen Castor. Located in the State Apartments of Royal Chelsea Hospital, with a magnificent portrait of Charles II and his family as the backdrop, we couldn’t have asked for a better setting.
Castor isn’t just a brilliant historian, she has a beautiful way with words and we were spellbound as she talked to us about the subject of her new book – Elizabeth I – and its theme, which is the insecurity which gripped the Tudor monarch her entire lifetime. Not insecurity in the form of lack of self-esteem, Castor hastened to add, but the impact that living with an ongoing lack of security, her life under constant threat had upon one of our greatest monarchs. There’s a tendency, today, to treat Elizabeth’s reign as a fairy tale; Castor wanted her book to describe the human reality. There was nothing inevitable, she argues, about Elizabeth’s eventual triumph.
Arguably, the first two and a half years of Elizabeth’s life were the only period during which she was safe. In 1536, before she had even turned three, her mother, Anne Boleyn, was killed on the order of Henry VIII. This was an “unprecedented moment” in history: never before had a high-born woman been put to death by her royal spouse. Anne could have had no idea she was putting her life on the line when she married Henry.
Until then, Elizabeth had been the heir to her father’s throne, her half-sister, Mary, having been disinherited when Henry divorced Catherine of Aragon. Suddenly, Elizabeth was a bastard and no longer a princess; her title changed to ‘Lady Elizabeth’.
From a psychological perspective, we have no idea how this bloody and violent start to her life affected Elizabeth. As far as we know, she never mentioned Anne by name. The single remaining record referring to both Anne and Elizabeth is an inventory of the beautiful clothes purchased for Elizabeth by her mother. In later life, however, Elizabeth would surround herself with Anne’s relatives, including in her Privy Council.
This silence, argues Castor, is “eloquent” and characterised Elizabeth’s reign; she was as unfathomable to her contemporaries as she is to modern historians. From an early age, she donned a public mask; “Hiding in plain sight”, one never knew whether to believe what she was saying.
Over the next six years, Elizabeth gained – and lost – three stepmothers, one of whom was also beheaded. Catherine Parr, Henry’s final wife, provided some stability – but of Henry’s three children, Elizabeth was the least safe (Edward was male and Mary had influential relatives on the Continent). Her father was “the one certainty who remained”; without him, Elizabeth was lost.
As women, Mary and Elizabeth were pawns on a marriage chessboard. Legally, however, they were bastards – even though Henry had named them as Edward’s heirs. Bizarrely, Henry perceived this strategy as perfectly normal – but it left his daughters in “political limbo”. Who, asks Helen, would want them in marriage – and who, after Henry died and Edward inherited the throne, would Edward’s Privy Council allow them to marry?
Following Henry’s death, Elizabeth went to live with Catherine, who almost immediately married Thomas Seymour. Fresh danger lay in wait; after Catherine died in childbirth, in January 1549 Seymour was arrested on charges of treason. Apparently, he had been scheming to marry Elizabeth – and she was not resistant to his advances (although Castor believes any reciprocation to have been no more than a crush on the part of a teenage girl – and, potentially, a desire to be spared the usual fate of royal daughters, i.e. sent abroad to marry someone she’d never met).
Elizabeth’s public mask was now essential. Interrogated for weeks by Edward’s advisers, she managed to save herself – and her servants – by taking up a defensive position and refusing to budge. Whilst Seymour lost his head, this fourteen year-old-girl somehow kept her composure.
She employed the same tactic when her cousin, Jane Grey, was placed on the throne. During that unfortunate girl’s nine-day reign, we know nothing of what Elizabeth said or did.
That brings us on to the reign of ‘Bloody Mary’ which began in 1553 when Elizabeth was 20 – and, again, heir to the English throne. Within months, Elizabeth found herself in the Tower of London, imprisoned in the same rooms where her mother spent her final weeks before her execution. As a Protestant, she was a threat to Mary’s ardent Catholicism – and under intense psychological pressure. Yet, she didn’t crack – instead, proclaiming her innocence and demanding to be shown proof of her guilt (there was none).
Mary died, aged 42, in 1558 and against all the odds Elizabeth found herself on the throne. Having spent most of her life in danger, the threats refused to go away; rather, they were different. But Elizabeth had learned from her previous mistakes, for example with Thomas Seymour and, whilst only 25, was an astute woman.
The new queen was prudent in her choice of advisers: Robert Dudley, William Cecil and Francis Walsingham would all serve her well. Elizabeth had established a court who she could trust. She avoided change where at all possible, in respect of both policy and personnel.
However, from the very beginning of her reign Elizabeth faced two huge problems which would always haunt her. The first of these was, unsurprisingly, religion. Here, she trod a path of compromise – not easy, considering Europe was riven by religious division. Elizabeth adjusted the central doctrine of the Eucharist by allowing room for judgement around the argument as to whether the wine and bread really are wine and flesh; more prosaically, she refused to appoint a single churchman to her Privy Council.
And then there was the ongoing issue of who should be named Elizabeth’s heir. She was the last of the Tudor line and it was universally agreed that she needed an heir. Life is never straightforward though, is it? Elizabeth couldn’t marry an Englishman because that would have meant marrying one of her own subjects; marrying “abroad”, however, had caused Mary much turmoil. We should not forget, either, that two of Elizabeth’s stepmothers had died in childbirth. No king, points out Castor, had ever faced such problems.
And so began “two decades of matrimonial dance and centuries of speculation”. Elizabeth went through the motions of courtship, but baffled her contemporaries, whilst building a political and diplomatic network across Europe. She drove her ministers mad, because they believed they knew better than her – and she was, says Castor, “capricious”. Looking back now, it seems likely that Elizabeth never intended to change her mind about marriage; change would bring forth yet more danger.
Perceived by Catholics as a heretic and a bastard, the country’s religious problems intensified when Mary, Queen of Scots, fled to England for safe harbour. Plot after plot to kill Elizabeth ensued and she agonised for years over what to do with her cousin. She did not, believes Castor, want to kill Mary: to execute an anointed queen was to go against God’s will – and the fate that had befallen Elizabeth’s own mother. She understood, too, that the problem wouldn’t disappear should Mary disappear – and that point was proved by the arrival of the Armada on the English coastline just one year after Mary’s death.
“Semper eadem” – “Always the same” – was Elizabeth’s motto, yet she learned, the hard way, that this isn’t always possible. Dudley, Walsingham and Cecil all died before Elizabeth and it was as age caught up with her that she made her first big mistake, promoting Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex (and son of one of her favourites, Walter Devereux). When Essex was found guilty of treason and sentenced to death he denounced his own sister, Penelope, as a co-conspirator: make of that what you will.
Not naming a successor was also a mistake and her own ministers began plotting for James VI of Scotland, Mary’s son, to inherit the throne – eventually having to beg Elizabeth, on her deathbed, to agree. That said, Elizabeth’s final triumph was a peaceful succession; there were no riots, or unrest.
Elizabeth’s psychology, concludes our historian, was shaped by insecurity – but this made her into an incredibly clever politician and an excellent judge of character. I loved Helen Astor’s take on Elizabeth and that golden era and cannot wait to read her book.