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Elizabeth I did not marry, and continually refused to nominate an heir. In this fact lies the unique and remarkable quality of her reign. In December 1588 in a famous speech following the defeat of the Spanish Armada she said: "You may well have a greater prince but you shall never have a more loving prince."
Part of the idea of loving, and in a sense being wedded, to her people involved Elizabeth's refusal to marry. I recall a documentary about the Jackson 5, in which Michael was cross with his older brothers for marrying. Intense young Michael believed he was married to his fans. Perhaps it is not too fanciful to allow the history of the Jacksons to inform the history of Elizabethan England. Elizabeth's refusal to marry may have been part of what took her beyond monarchy into a kind of stardom.
While Elizabeth would always try and avoid the subject of an heir, the reign of her father Henry VIII was characterised by a desperate search for a male heir. Henry's first wife, Catherine of Aragon could only provide a daughter, called Mary. Henry then moved heaven and earth to find another wife, and probably met Anne Boleyn in 1520 when she was working as a lady in waiting to the wife of the French king. Knowing that the pope would not grant a divorce, Henry seemed trapped, until Anne, showing great presence of mind, steered Henry in the direction of Protestantism. Henry divorced England from the pope and Catholicism, and divorced Catherine. Marriage to Anne followed in January 1533, and on 7th September of that year Anne had a baby. Rather than the hoped for son, it was a girl, called Elizabeth, the future Queen Elizabeth I. Henry was bitterly disappointed. By May 1536 Henry had lost faith in Anne, and she was executed. Henry continued to see a male heir as his overwhelming priority, and went through wife after wife trying to secure his male successor. Meanwhile Elizabeth lived quietly, mostly at Hatfield Palace in Hertfordshire, and showed aptitude for study. This image of her as an intellectual may have been a little overblown, for the sake of her idol-like image. The poet and courtier Philip Sidney didn't like her taste in cruel animal sports and slapstick comedy. Nevertheless Elizabeth does seem to have been clever and scholarly. Her governess Kate Champernowne provided an extensive classical education. Henry's final wife Catherine Parr also encouraged the young princess in her studies.
In 1547 Henry VIII died, and was succeeded by his nine year old son Edward as Edward VI. The boy's uncle, Edward Seymour seized power as lord protector, before being replaced as protector by John Dudley , Duke of Northumberland. When Edward VI died in July 1553, Northumberland tried to maintain a protestant succession by putting Henry VIII's great niece Jane Grey on the throne. This plan failed, and Elizabeth's catholic older sister Mary became queen. Mary then began a violent attempt to return England to Catholicism. Elizabeth had to be very careful, since as the protestant heir to the throne she could very easily become a figurehead for discontent. Elizabeth was herself an illustration of the danger that an heir poses to a reigning monarch. The pressure on Elizabeth was great, since there was much opposition to Mary. Plotters visited Elizabeth at Ashridge, and often wrote to her, but Elizabeth was careful not to put anything in writing. In the end, only a single unsuccessful revolt took place, led by Sir Thomas Wyatt. The Wyatt rebellion of January 1554 put Elizabeth in great danger. Even though there was no evidence against her, Elizabeth was sent to the Tower for nearly two months. This action only served to increase her popularity. Elizabeth was taken from the Tower to Woodstock Palace in Oxfordshire - now the site of Blenheim Palace - where she was kept under guard for ten months. It was during this period that Mary began to burn protestants. Knowing how much danger she was in Elizabeth was careful to pledge her undying allegiance when she was finally taken to meet Mary at Hampton Court.
In the last two years of Mary's reign Elizabeth remained studiously unthreatening to Mary. Mary had other problems to distract her. In 1557 Calais was lost, and Mary realised she had been abandoned by her husband, Philip II of Spain, a man whose Catholicism and foreignness had compounded her unpopularity as queen. Mary was also ill, and her doctors could do nothing. She died on 17th of November 1558 and Elizabeth succeeded her, traditionally receiving news of her sister's death while standing under an oak tree at Hatfield Palace. Immediately the new monarch set about trying to heal the religious divide that had blighted England since the Reformation. Her aim was to create a broad church in which everyone except the most extreme catholics or protestants could find a place. People were required to go to church and take part in services in the form prescribed, but their actual beliefs as they stood in a church were a matter for them. At the head of this church was to be Elizabeth and no one else. Almost immediately after the coronation Philip II of Spain proposed marriage, but starting as she meant to go on, this proposal was politely and firmly rejected. Offers of marriage then came from Archduke Charles of Austria and Prince Eric of Sweden. Both were turned down. In 1559 the queen made a special friend of Robert Dudley, Master of the House. He was married to Amy Robsant. When Amy was found dead with a broken neck at the foot of her staircase, there were many wild rumours. Amy almost certainly collapsed as the result of advanced cancer, but Elizabeth felt that marriage to Dudley was impossible after such an occurrence. Dudley would never become the queen's husband, but he was, after a respectful time had passed, made Earl of Leicester.
The dangerous consequences of Elizabeth's refusal to marry or nominate an heir were soon demonstrated. In October 1562 the queen became critically ill with smallpox at Hampton Court. With no nominated heir, a chaotic power struggle was an ominous possibility. Elizabeth wished to take the idea of monarchy completely to herself. There was no heir, no queen or king but her, and no time, it seemed, but her own. This might make her an idol in her own time, but what would happen when that time ended? Elizabeth could barely bring herself to believe it could ever end. Nevertheless when she recovered from smallpox, a plan was made which at least nodded towards a future without Queen Elizabeth. Perhaps the most persuasive claim to the throne of England came from the Stuarts of Scotland. The present queen of Scotland, Mary Queen of Scots was granddaughter of Margaret Queen of Scotland, who had been Henry VIII's sister. Elizabeth planned to marry the newly ennobled Earl of Leicester to Mary Queen of Scots, safely partnering her rival with a dependable Englishman, and also providing a child who could take on the role of heir. This plan might have sounded good in theory, but ran into the problem of lack of enthusiasm on the part of Mary and Leicester. Elizabeth's advisers continued to favour the queen herself marrying, rather than using Mary Queen of Scots as some kind of surrogate mother for an heir. But the queen's refusal to marry remained as stubborn as ever. By 1566 Parliament was refusing to grant tax revenue until an assurance was given about the succession. Elizabeth was furious and in a telling phrase she declared that she did not want to be "buried alive" by naming a successor. This was a reference to the danger of discontent focusing on a nominated successor; but it was also a statement of her intent to reach for iconic status. To name a successor was to admit that one day she would not be there. Queen Elizabeth had a more heroic vision for herself. She wanted to be more than some temporary caretaker, a government worker on a short term contract. She wanted to be a star who would shine forever. Using skilful oratory and vague promises Parliament was pacified.
The question of possible succession through Mary Queen of Scots became more complicated when Mary was forced out of Scotland. Her husband Lord Darnley had died in mysterious circumstances, and Mary's involvement was suspected. Forced to flee, she was now a prisoner at Bolton Castle. Mary could not be sent back to Scotland, since she would certainly be executed there, which would anger catholic Europe. She could not be allowed to go to France, where she might become a figurehead for catholic hostility to England. Imprisonment was the only option. But even as a prisoner Mary was dangerous. In 1569 a catholic rebellion in the north took place, led by the Percys and the Nevilles, with the aim of releasing Mary and putting her on the throne of England as a catholic queen. The defeat of the Rising of the Northern Earls, as it became known, resulted in the execution of seven hundred and fifty men. Pope Pius V then proclaimed Elizabeth a heretic queen, absolving catholic subjects of their allegiance to her. This was a disastrous decision as all catholics were thus turned into potential traitors, forcing the government into repressive legislation which remained in place well into the nineteenth century. Once again all this tended to develop Elizabeth's role into an iconic one. With the pope legally rejected as any kind of authority in England, Elizabeth was confirmed even more powerfully as England's religious as well as secular leader. Once again, it was necessary for Elizabeth to make another step towards being a superstar. As with the great stars of later eras, there had to be more than simple respect for competence; there has to be an exultant, spiritual element to adulation. 1572 was the dark before the coming dawn of Elizabeth's superstardom. Elizabeth fell seriously ill once again, and seemed to have achieved nothing. Religious unity seemed as far away as ever, the succession was undecided, which threatened chaos if the queen died. Because there had been no marriage with a foreign prince England had no allies in Europe. And yet all the ingredients were now in place for Elizabeth to become a semi-mythic figure who went beyond the mundane business of keeping things in order.
A Faerie Land ruled by a Faerie Queene - Longleat
It would be in the following decade that Elizabeth's star really started to shine, against the dramatic background of threats from overseas. Inspite of an attempt to stay out of European politics, dangers were building on the continent which could no longer be ignored. In 1579 Elizabeth put her single status to good use by flirting with the Duke of Alencon, youngest son of Catherine de Medici, mother of a sequence of three French kings. There was worry about French expansion, and Elizabeth used flirting as a tool to keep the French under control. Certainly there were some, such as the senior advisor Burghley, who wanted flirting to lead to marriage. Others, such as the poets Philip Sidney and Edmund Spenser were very much against a marriage to Alencon. Probably Elizabeth never had any serious intentions of marriage but it was necessary to maintain appearances for a while, and opposition to a marriage was not well received. A puritan pamphleteer who opposed the match had his hand chopped off, Sidney found his career at court compromised, and Spenser was sent off to Ireland. In Ireland Spenser would write his famous Faerie Queene which only added to a mythic presence around the queen. Her eventual refusal to marry Alencon and wish to remain single, held her in the role of icon wedded to her people.
Queen Elizabeth understood the power of artifice and illusion. In an age when many puritans were hostile to theatre, she loved drama. She gave her personal support to English theatre which, in the plays of Shakespeare and Marlowe, was producing some of the greatest works in English literature. Without the queen's patronage it is possible that none of these plays would have been written. Every summer Elizabeth would herself go on tour, taking her huge "show" to all parts of the country. Naturally she was the star. A Spanish ambassador wrote of her working the crowd:
"She was received everywhere with great acclamation and signs of joy, as is customary in this country, whereat she was exceedingly pleased and told me so, giving me to understand how beloved she was by her subjects and how highly she esteemed this... She would order her carriage sometimes to be taken where the crowd seemed thickest and stood up and thanked her people. "
Even back in London Elizabeth would put on a daily show. There was public access into Whitehall Palace grounds, and anyone could watch the queen go in procession to the Chapel Royal. Queen Elizabeth's Accession Day tournament in the tiltyard of Whitehall Palace was the only large-scale organised form of sport in Elizabethan England. Thousands of spectators attended, many of them paying to sit in the stands closest to the queen. Here they would cheer the Earls of Oxford and Essex, and other seeded champions, who jousted for the sovereign's honour, and the prize of a jewel presented by Elizabeth herself. The tiltyard, survives today in the form of Horse Guards Parade. The horse riding displays involved in trooping the colour are a descendent of Elizabeth's tiltyard shows.
While Elizabeth spun her illusions of never ending greatness, her natural successor, Mary Queen of Scots, sat as a prisoner in various castles, plotting her rival's downfall. Mary's fate was finally sealed when she sent a letter to Anthony Babbington, lending her support to a planned rebellion. The head of Elizabeth's secret service, Francis Wallsingham, intercepted the letter, which gave incontrovertible proof of Mary's continued ambitions. Elizabeth hesitated, trying to find an alternative to execution. She signed the warrant for Mary's execution, which was then carried out as quickly as possible, on 8th February 1587. The queen's ministers knew Elizabeth would change her mind again if they delayed. The queen was furious when she found out that Mary had been executed. Elizabeth let her servants do the dirty work, while she stayed above it all, expressing outrage at their brutality. She had done a similar thing in Ireland, where Lord Grey had mercilessly suppressed the Irish. The government back in London made a show of objecting to such measures, when in fact some historians suggest they were really only unhappy with how much it was all costing. Elizabeth had to remain a symbol of a better life, even as normal life went on.
Plymouth Sound from Mount Wise Park - the English fleet sailed from here in 1588
With the death of Mary Queen of Scots, Philip II of Spain decided he had to attack England. England had rejected Catholicism, and had been making life difficult for Philip in the Netherlands. Even before the Spanish conquest of the Netherlands was complete, plans for the invasion of England went ahead. A huge fleet of ships was gathered together. A raid on Cadiz delayed the attack, but by 12th July 1588 the Spanish Armada came in sight of the Lizard peninsula in Cornwall. The drama of the occasion saw Elizabeth in her element, giving rousing speeches to her troops near Tilbury Fort:
"I am come amongst you, as you see, at this time, not for my recreation and disport, but being resolved, in the midst and heat of the battle, to live and die amongst you all; to lay down for my God, and for my kingdom, and my people, my honour and my blood, even in the dust. I know I have the body but of a weak and feeble woman; but I have the heart and stomach of a king, and of a king of England too..."
The Armada was defeated first by "fire ships," unmanned vessels packed with gunpowder and combustible material set ablaze, and then directed towards the massed ranks of Spanish ships. This was followed up by a close quarter battle off Gravelines. Sadly the Royal Navy seamen who won the battle were not treated well after their victory. While sailors dying of typhus were cheated out of their pay, the nobles celebrated at the tiltyard with a great review. Unappreciated sailors found that reality did not match the illusion of the Faerie Queene. But the illusion was what people wanted, and loved. Following the Armada's defeat Elizabeth's popularity reached new heights. Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex, underestimated the power of this popularity. Adulation at his own military exploits went to his head, and his megalomaniac tendencies led him in 1601 to a rebellion which was quickly defeated. Elizabeth now had her stardom. Unmarried, and resting on a bedrock of fantasy and shared trouble, she could claim that no prince loved her people so well. Like a rock star she could be there in some mystical way for all her devoted fans. Married only to her people, she took the role of someone above the day to day business of government. She was Spenser's Gloriana, queen of fairy land, using her theatrical bent in later life to hide thinning hair and loss of looks. But there was always the real world. Coming back to reality, Spenser reflected sadly that life at Court seemed to go nowhere: "To lose good days that might be better spent/ To work long nights in pensive discontent/ To spend today, to be put back tomorrow/ To feed on hope, to pine with fear and sorrow" (from Mother Hubbard's Tale).
Life didn't go anywhere at Court because this was a moment that would last forever. This wasn't an age waiting for better things to come along. The greatest dreams could be true right now, in daring raids across the world's oceans, in the creation of new worlds in America, and in the creation of timeless works of art in front of cheering crowds at the Globe Theatre in London. Even at Richmond Palace during her last illness Elizabeth still kept putting off the evil day of naming her successor. People had to take an oath of undying loyalty to Elizabeth, and in not marrying, and in denying that her people could have any other queen but her, she took a symbolic oath of undying loyalty to them. To paraphrase the Jackson 5, whose real life also did not match the fantasy...
You and I must make a pact
We must bring salvation back
Where there is love
I'll be there
Position of former Kew Palace beside the Thames at Richmond
Elizabeth was taken ill at Richmond Palace in February 1603, and died there on 24th March. She was the first monarch to give her name to an age, a fitting memorial to a queen who could not accept that any age would follow hers. Reading between the lines of her final statements, however, the eternal queen's councillors decided that she had nominated James Stuart, king of Scotland, son of Mary Queen of Scots, as her successor. It was James who should begin the age to follow the age to end them all. As Shakespeare said at the beginning of Henry V which opened on the stage at the Globe in 1599: "Or may we cram within this wooden O the very casques/ That did afright the air at Agincourt." Elizabeth in a similar way tried to pack all of time into the wooden O and unworthy scaffold of her lifetime and reign.