biography · english history · history

Elizabeth’s Journey to Queenship

To the North, South, East, and West she was proclaimed Queen and to each proclamation an approval was received from the congregation. The moment she had waited for had come. She made a solemn oath in front of God to defend the Church, uphold the laws, and use justice and mercy in judgements. She knelt and accepted the anointing from the bishop of Carlisle. Slowly she stood up, taking in the moment, and went to the nearby pew to put on the robe of purple velvet and a mantle of gold. Though extremely nervous, she had to show strength in front of her people.

Sitting upon the chair of state before the high altar she was able to view the majesty of Westminster Abbey. So much history surrounded her; how many of her predecessors were crowned here as well? Would she be hated or loved as they all went through?

The ring representing England and her people was placed on her right hand, as if she was getting married. First, St. Edwards crown was placed on her head then removed. Next, the imperial crown was placed in the same position. At a full seven pounds she could barely lift her head to see the crowd, but she would not show weakness. A lighter crown was then replaced for the rest of the ceremony (did her mother once wear this crown as well?) and one by one the lords and bishops came up to give homage to her; Lords who may have opposed her just a few months ago. She stifled a laugh from the irony of this day; the daughter of the “Great Whore” had now become the sole Queen of England……

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Elizabeth’s coronation procession took place on January 14th

This description captures some moments from Elizabeth I’s coronation, which took place this week in history (January 15, 1559).  The English people loved Elizabeth who was young (only 25 years old) and full of light. She engaged with the crowds and acknowledge their prayers. This Protestant Queen was a welcomed change after the dreadful reign of her gloomy sister, Mary I. A new era was beginning (which would later be known as a Golden Age) and would last for another forty-four years. But, England’s new Queen had gone through many challenges and a difficult life up to this point. I can imagine this coronation was a significant moment for this young woman. The challenges she had faced in her past would shape the ways she would govern and self-fashion herself. In this post, I would like to discuss each of these events and then summarize how they affected her politics and personality later on.

In 1533, Elizabeth was born as an unwanted daughter of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn. At the young age of three, her own father executed her mother over, most likely, false charges. As a result the young toddler was disinherited and declared a bastard. She was sent to live far away from her father and his new love, Jane Seymour, and grew up in a lesser household. Her governess, Lady Bryan, would writer to Cromwell (Henry’s chief minister) begging for help in the raising of Elizabeth. How was an ex-princess to be raised?

“I know not how to order her, or myself or her woman or grooms,” Bryan would write. She also begged Cromwell for more clothing as the growing girl had outgrown all of hers with no replacement in sight. Eventually, Elizabeth would even lose her governess that she had known for years to her new (and most wanted) brother, Edward. Elizabeth grew up unwanted and motherless during the early years of her life.

The blight of Anne Boleyn would be something Elizabeth carried most of her life. At this point in time, it would destroy the young girl’s prospects of marriage (which was the expected life of women). She was considered a “whores” daughter and would cause a rift between her and her elder sister, Mary. Mary was known to make commentary that Elizabeth looked suspiciously like Mark Smeaton (one of the men accused during Boleyn’s scandal), but this was pushed aside because of Elizabeth’s obvious resemblance to Henry. The stigma of illegitimacy would always be hung over her head by her enemies who would continue to believe this information.

Despite this treatment, Elizabeth found solace in her education. She was taught a more “male” curriculum than those who came before her and would become proficient in a variety of languages. Unlike her sister Mary, her education contained Reformation teachings which definitely influenced her leanings toward the Protestant religion later in life. Elizabeth found a lifelong love of learning during these years and found that she loved to complete translations of various works. She would complete exercises where, for example, she would have to translate a piece form Latin to English and then back to Latin. She continued to create translations her whole life and found the experience meditative. She became so proficient that she presented her stepmother (Katherine Parr) and father handwritten translations for a New Year’s present, impressing them greatly.

After time had passed the King eventually reinstated both Elizabeth and her sister Mary into the line of succession, which is evident in the 16th century portrait of the Tudor dynasty that includes Mary and Elizabeth. Elizabeth was brought to court around 1546 in order to serve her stepmother Katherine Parr and be under her guardianship. This was another education moment for Elizabeth as now she was able to observe and learn from a female figure in power. Parr would rule as regent while Henry was abroad and she was a big supporter of a woman’s education. Up until this point Elizabeth had not seen a woman taking on a man’s role.

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British School, 16th Century, The Family of Henry VIII

In 1547, Elizabeth’s beloved father had died and her source of protection was gone. From here on out, her life became more difficult after tragedies befell her. She was brought under the guardianship of her stepmother and her stepmother’s new husband, Thomas Seymour (uncle to her younger brother). Seymour was said to have been handsome and charming. He was about 40 years old when Elizabeth knew him. Yet, he was also ambitious and shallow. He was jealous that his brother, the Duke of Somerset, had more control over Edward VI than he did. Seymour wanted the 14 year old Elizabeth for himself in order to gain the power she would have brought in a match. But, as a young and impressionable adolescence, Elizabeth did not realize this. She would develop a confused crush on her guardian, which Seymour used to take personal power over her and use it for his gain.

Elizabeth faced abuse at the hands of this man, someone she should have been able to trust. He would come into her room very early when he knew she was still abed and not properly dressed in order to touch her or spank her back/bottom. He sometimes would open the covers while she was in bed and would act like he was going to join her or attempt to kiss her. Elizabeth would “bade him to go away for shame.” Eventually, Elizabeth would try to change her own schedule and wake up even earlier, so when Seymour came in she would have been dressed and ready. Clearly, this was unwanted attention. When he was confronted about his behavior by Elizabeth’s governess, Kat Ashley, he stated he would not stop as he meant no harm and it was “just fun and games” (a disgusting excuse, but one that wouldn’t be argued in the male dominant 16th century). Even Katherine Parr began to become an accomplice as well and join in on these early morning surprise tickle fights. She was even a participant in a very upsetting situation. Parr would hold down Elizabeth in the garden while Seymour would cut up the girl’s dress into hundreds of pieces.

Once Katherine Parr finally became pregnant she had had enough and jealously caused her to send Elizabeth away. This was to the relief of her step-daughter who threw herself into her studies. After the birth of the child, Katherine Parr passed away and Elizabeth was warned that Seymour would be coming after her. He had already been inquiring about her financial situation and if her inheritance of land and wealth from her father had come through. He was going to pursue her to gain the power that Elizabeth held and use it to take control of his nephew, Edward VI, from his brother the Duke of Somerset. Elizabeth was only 15.

Elizabeth kept brushing off Seymour’s suit by stating she would not marry him until the council approved. As a result he devised a plan to kidnap the young king in order to take control of the government. This ended up great failure as he is found in the Kings room with an unsheathed sword, drawing attention after killing a barking spaniel. He was promptly arrested and executed for the plot, but it held consequences for Elizabeth. The rumors of closeness between Elizabeth and Thomas Seymour grew causing her to be viewed as a suspect.

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Elizabeth about 1546, unknown artist

She was brought in for questioning where all the traumatizing details of Seymour’s behavior towards her had to be revealed. All of this information was used against the princess in court. For a fifteen year old and a woman during this time of modesty, this was extremely embarrassing and traumatic. The abuses she experienced caused others to view her as guilty of treason against her own brother. Yet, Elizabeth remained strong during this time and refused to submit to anything and, in the end, there was not enough evidence to convict her. This was a turning point for Elizabeth as she was thrust quickly into the world of adult politics, sexuality, and the difficulties of being a woman in a man’s world. Men would only be interested in her for the power her position brought. She knew from this point on she could trust no one but herself.

After these harrowing events, Elizabeth closed herself off in the country at Hatfield and absorbed herself in her studies, writing, and hunting. During this time, her tutors gave her a copy of St Basils and St Gregorys Virtues of a Single Life. These writings argued that marriage was a distraction of the soul from the work of God, which makes one wonder if this book affected her future outlook on marriage. She would go on to surprise the court when she next was presented. She appeared in a simple dress with no jewelry or facial makeup showing that she was creating a new self. Elizabeth had discovered the political advantage of image and chastity. She became stronger in her Protestant leanings as well.

During the reign of Mary I, England was shifted back to Catholicism which caused more problems for Elizabeth. Mary would never trust her sister, mostly on the grounds of religion, but possibly because of a hatred of the mother who replaced her own. It didn’t help that Elizabeth would purposely boycott the now mandatory Catholic services. Summoned before the council she received a serious lecture over her behavior. Meeting with her sister, she apparently fell to her knees and asked “through tears” if Mary’s attitude towards her would be changed because of her “defective upbringing.” In this moment Elizabeth is referring to how she was raised with Protestant teachings and not Catholic doctrine. With this fake remorse, Queen Mary was delighted, but would all suspicion be eliminated?

Mary made another unpopular decision by insisting on marrying the Spanish Prince Philip. The public disliked the idea of a foreign prince having control in their country and would have preferred an Englishman. There was so much hatred over this Spanish prince that conspiracies and rebellions were beginning to develop. Elizabeth would receive an incriminating letter from Thomas Wyatt asking for her support for their rebellion against Mary. It is unclear how much Elizabeth knew of the plot or how much she was involved, but again suspicion was thrown upon her. The rebellion was quickly snuffed out, but with more consequences for Elizabeth. She was brought back to London by force and sent to the Tower with the knowledge that many who came here (including her own mother) would never return. Elizabeth would write her sister begging for her life and for fair treatment. She pleaded that she was innocent and a loyal subject, but Mary did not bother to reply.

“I never through to come here a prisoner. I beseech you all my friends and fellows, bear witness that I come here no traitor but as a true a subject to the queens majesty as any now alive”

For just about a year, Elizabeth was locked in the Tower. Did she know that she was not far from where her own mother was executed? She was constantly in fear of meeting the same fate.

Elizabeth was finally released when Queen Mary, who believed she was pregnant with her heir, wanted her sister present. Unfortunately, this was only a phantom pregnancy and Mary was actually dying. Even before Mary’s death, her husband, Prince Philip would begin to pursue Elizabeth’s hand for one of his men to maintain the Spanish hold on England. Elizabeth fiercely resisted having anything to do with the Spanish Prince’s plan.

As Mary lay on her deathbed it took a long time for her to finally admit that Elizabeth would be her heir, but eventually she relented.

On the 17th of November 1558, Elizabeth was told the news she was queen at her country estate of Hatfield. She was now free from the troublesome life she had up to this point and made it very clear that she would not be governed by anyone. Many told Elizabeth that she owed her throne to Prince Philip, but she would not acknowledge any claims of the sort.

I believe these events of her past shed some light on how Elizabeth became the woman and ruler we know today. They shaped her views of marriage, of politics, of religion, how to use her image and how she could only depend on herself.

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1588 “Armada Portrait” commemorating defeat of Spanish Armada during Elizabeth’s reign

As a woman in a man’s world there would constantly be men who tried to take advantage of her (ex: Thomas Seymour or her Spanish brother-in-law). Being the head of government, she had to find the balance of society’s feminine expectations along with being a strong and capable ruler. She learned quickly that she could only trust herself in this world as those close to her (her guardians, her sister, her brother, etc) would use her for their own gain.

To Elizabeth, marriage was not appealing in a personal and political sense. Looking at her life events, it is understandable why she would not pursue it. These were the examples that she carried throughout her life: her father murdering her mother and one of her stepmothers, the marriage of Thomas Seymour and Katherine Parr, and the political disaster of her sister’s marriage to a foreign prince. To marry a foreign prince would mean that another country would have control in England and to marry a domestic man would cause divisions within the country. It was better for her to rule solely as she had only herself to rely on and less worry that her government would not be safe. She knew she must be the sole divine ruler, married to her people and show them that her life was dedicated to them (no husband or children to take her attention from them). That was the way a woman could be a great Queen of a Golden Age during her era.

“Yea, to satisfie you, I have already joyned myself in marriage to an Husband, namely, the Kingdom of England…And to me it shall be a Full satisfaction, both for the memorial of my Name, and for my Glory also, if when I shall let my last breath, it be ingraven upon my Marble Tomb, “Here lieth Elizabeth, which Reigned a Virgin, and died a Virgin.”


David Starkey, Elizabeth I Documentary (Episode 1)

Elizabeth I by Anne Somerset



2 thoughts on “Elizabeth’s Journey to Queenship

  1. Great ruler, tragic life. It is amazing to me that she was able to stay so strong and focused with all the abuse and neglect she experienced so early in her life. A very extraordinary and admirable person.


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