Reign On!

Four centuries after her death, Good Queen Bess still draws crowds. A regal rash of exhibitions and books examines her life anew.

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At 20, Elizabeth found herself in even greater peril. After Edward died in 1553 at age 15, most likely of tuberculosis, Mary Tudor, Elizabeth’s staunchly Catholic half sister, ruled England with her fiancé, Philip of Spain. England had been convulsed by religious violence for decades, and under “Bloody Mary,” as the queen was called, hundreds of English Protestants were burned at the stake for heresy. When a plot against the throne was uncovered in 1554, Mary was convinced that the Protestant Elizabeth—now next in line to be queen—was involved. Mary had her half sister arrested and sent to the Tower of London, the customary last stop before execution. Debarking in a wintry downpour at Traitor’s Gate, Elizabeth called out, “Here landeth as true a subject, being prisoner, as ever landed at these stairs.” She then dropped to the rain-soaked flagstones, saying, “It is better sitting here than in a worse place.” The sodden princess refused to budge until one of her manservants broke down in tears. Disgusted by his show of weakness, Elizabeth collected herself and strode into the prison. Ultimately, Mary’s fear of a Protestant rebellion probably spared Elizabeth, and she was released after two months.


Four years later, in 1558, Elizabeth took to the throne with alacrity, slipping into the royal plural on learning that Mary Tudor was dead of cancer: “This is the doing of the Lord, and it is marvellous in our eyes,” she declared on becoming queen, quoting Psalm 118. After Mary’s unpopular reign, much of England was elated at Elizabeth’s accession. She was now 25 years old, slender, with long golden-red hair and a suitably regal comportment. Accompanied by 1,000 mounted courtiers the day before her coronation, in January 1559, she rode smiling through the streets of London. She stopped the procession from time to time to accept bouquets, a purse of coins, a Bible, even a sprig of rosemary from an old woman. “I will be as good unto you as ever queen was to her people,” she vowed to the delight of onlookers.


Says Clark Hulse, dean of the graduate college at the University of Illinois at Chicago and curator of the Newberry Library’s exhibition, “Elizabeth’s popularity had a lot to do with her manner—riding in an open carriage and all that. If her sister Mary was sober and inclined to burn people at the stake, Elizabeth projected the idea of ‘Merry England.’ ” Many, however, were horrified at the prospect of a queen reigning without a king. In a manifesto published the previous year, “The First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women,” a fiery Calvinist named John Knox had pronounced female rulers “repugnant to nature,” women being “weak, frail, impatient” and “inconstant.”


From the start, Parliament pressured the new queen to marry, but she was defiant. “A strange thing that the foot should direct the head in so weighty a cause,” she upbraided Parliament in 1566. What to the M.P.s was a matter of state—England needed a king and princes who would grow to be kings—was to Elizabeth a near-treasonous affront.

The Folger’s Ziegler says that Elizabeth’s marriage would surely have led to turmoil, even if Parliament and her Privy Council failed to realize it. “She was very astute politically,” Ziegler explains. “If she married a Catholic or a foreigner, that would upset a lot of people. If she married an English nobleman, it would create factions among the other nobles.”


Nevertheless, the royal families of Scotland, France, Spain, Sweden and the Holy Roman Empire eyed England covetously, and various male royals courted her from afar, using ambassadors as go-betweens. “Elizabeth played along with one foreign prince or another, but it was mostly a political ploy,” says Ziegler. Soon after she became queen, Elizabeth kept Spain’s enmity in check by letting her late sister’s husband, Philip II, now king of Spain, imagine he might marry her next. Later she kept France a wary ally against Spanish hegemony by pursuing a courtship with the French king’s brother, the Duke of Alençon, complete with mutual love letters. “There is no prince in the world to whom I would more willingly yield to be his,” the 45-year-old queen wrote him in 1579.


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