Ode to Elizabeth.

youngelizaElizabeth 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?” (Ditto).

A bright child such as this probably did not escape from the knowledge that some claimed her as a bastard of whore. Others knifed even deeper and called her the daughter of whore and witch.

Until she was ten, and her father’s marriage with Catherine Parr, her life was marked with a constant change of stepmothers. Watching her father’s relationships with the women in his life likely taught Elizabeth many things. One hard lesson she learnt at eight: what her father professed to love one day he could simply destroy the next.

Catherine Parr, last and sixth wife of Henry V...

Catherine Parr, last and sixth wife of Henry VIII of England. Formerly thought to be Lady Jane Grey. (Photo credit: Wikipedia).

What damage it did to her, to be aware that her cousin, Katherine Howard, the fifth wife of the King and perhaps no older than nineteen, was executed by her father’s command, we can only guess. But it’s not surprising that 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 realised she had her mother’s eyes. Even so, 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.

Elizabeth was placed 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 a widow of King, he also sought to seduce 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 was willing to play 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 sexual abuse of a minor, sexual abuse that steered close to a full on sexual affair. Catherine Parr decided to send 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. 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 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, as well as make an unpopular marriage to Philip of Spain. 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 succeeded in achieving 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 her cousin’s scaffold had been taken 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.

English: The "Darnley Portrait" of E...

English: The “Darnley Portrait” of Elizabeth I of England, oil on panel, 113 x 78.7 cm, National Portrait Gallery, London (NPG 2082). Probably painted from life, this portrait is the source of the face pattern called “The Mask of Youth” which would be used for authorized portraits of Elizabeth for decades to come (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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, to know these stories light our way home.

Elizabeth Jenkins, 1958. Elizabeth the Great. Edition. Coward-McCann.

Related articles