Ode to Elizabeth.
Elizabeth I — despite her many human failings — will forever remain ‘hero’ in my mind because her life story is a perfect example of how the human spirit can prevail over almost impossible odds.
Elizabeth’s journey to the throne was indeed one that could have defeated a lesser spirit. Unwanted daughter; mother executed by her father months before Elizabeth turned three; seemingly neglected and forgotten while her father sires his prince on his new Queen.
Elizabeth’s parental neglect forced her governess to write to Thomas Cromwell, the King’s Secretary, after her charge had outgrown all her old clothes,
“I have driven it off the best I can that by troth I can drive it off no longer; beseeching you, my Lord, that ye will see that her Grace hath that which is needful of her” (Jenkins 1958, p. 4).
But it didn’t end there. Not long after this, Elizabeth was made a bastard. She asked at three, “How haps it, Governor, yesterday my Lady Princess and today but my Lady Elizabeth?” (work cited).
A bright child such as this probably knew many claimed her as a bastard of whore — and even a witch..
Until her father’s marriage with Catherine Parr, Elizabeth had a childhood when she had one stepmother after another. It was a time when she absorbed many lessons about the power men had over women’s lives. One powerful lesson she re-learnt at eight: a man could profess to love his wife one day, and then kill her the next.
We can only guess the damage it did to the eight-year-old Elizabeth when her father executed his fifth wife, her cousin, Katherine Howard. But there is little doubt this event re-opened the wound of her mother’s death and knifed deep into her psyche. Elizabeth said, not long after Katherine’s execution, ‘I shall never marry ‘.
Elizabeth’s relationship with her father had its share of grim moments. At twelve, Elizabeth said or did something that displeased the King, so much so he banished her from his presence for a year. Perhaps she simply lifted her gaze, and he saw her mother’s eyes. Nevertheless, only three months after her thirteenth birthday, her father’s death hit her hard. Henry VIII was not much of a father, but he was the king, and a strong one at that. His death left her to face her teenage years not only without a father’s protection but also a King’s.
After her father’s death, they placed Elizabeth in the care of her last stepmother, Catherine Parr, a woman Elizabeth loved and respected. But someone else also soon assumed the role of her guardian, Catherine Parr’s new husband, the Lord High Admiral, Thomas Seymour, uncle of her brother, Edward, now the new king of England. Not satisfied with having married the king’s widow, he also sought to woo his daughter Elizabeth.
Thomas Seymour was the type of man that always would attract Elizabeth. A hot-blooded male, handsome, possessing a rough charm. Despite his marriage to Catherine, he foolishly played with fire in his attempts to win the heart of the King’s daughter. Today we would describe what happened at the Queen’s home at Chelsea as grooming. Even more than that — it was probably sexual abuse that steered close to a full on sexual affair. I do not believe Seymour would have been foolish enough to deflower a girl so close to England’s throne. After months of ignoring her husband’s behaviour, Catherine Parr sent Elizabeth away when she caught her husband kissing Elizabeth. By then, the damage to Elizabeth’s reputation had been done.
For Elizabeth, a girl not yet fifteen, all this was too much for her to come away from unscathed. For months, she was ill. There were rumours her illness was because of pregnancy. Then Catherine, brought to bed of her first child in four marriages, died. Not long after her death, Tom Seymour played his hand at not only gaining Elizabeth but placing the young king, her brother, in his power too. He failed on both accounts and ended his life on an execution block. His arrest and death also cast over Elizabeth’s life the dark shadow of the axe.
The last years of her brother’s reign saw a very circumspect Elizabeth, determined to live down the scandal of her teenage years. But with Edward VI death came new dangers. Elizabeth’s sister came to the throne with much rejoicing, but the rejoicing soon ended when people realised how determined Mary was to return England to the Catholic faith. Mary also made it clear she wished to marry Philip of Spain — an unpopular choice for many. Within a year of Mary’s reign, Sir Thomas Wyatt (son of the poet Sir Thomas Wyatt) led a rebellion to place Elizabeth and Edward Courtenay, great-grandson of Edward IV, on the throne. The rebellion only achieved the deaths of most of the ringleaders, making Mary also sign the death warrants of her sixteen-year-old cousin, Jane Grey, and her husband Guildford Dudley, as well as order the arrest of Elizabeth.
Elizabeth’s time in the Tower of London was possibly the worst period of her life. Years later, Elizabeth told the French ambassador she wondered if she should beg for the mercy of a sword rather than an axe (Jenkins 1958, p. 43). When Bedingfield came to take her into his care, she asked in panic whether they had taken her cousin’s scaffold down, thinking he was taking her to her death (Jenkins 1958, p. 44).
But the tide of threat to Elizabeth’s young life was now drawing back. After a period of close confinement, she resumed her position as her sister’s heir. With the passing of three more years, men found her, sitting underneath an oak tree, reading, and there they told her she was Queen. The men watched as the twenty-five-year-old Elizabeth knelt, and heard her say:
This is the Lord’s doing, and it is marvellous in our eyes.
As for all of us, Elizabeth’s life was never easy. Yet she kept faith, believing,
I shall not die but live and do the works of the Lord.
Throughout history, men and women — no matter what race, religion or creed — have shown themselves capable of good and evil. We know that. But I believe, with all my heart, that we only need to remember such stories as Elizabeth’s, where the human spirit has kept faith and belief and surmounted terrible days to seize victory, to know these stories are important for us to remember. They light our way home.
- Catherine back at Henry’s side after 500 years (standard.co.uk)
- Three contenders to Hilary Mantel – the reigning queen of historical fiction (metro.co.uk)