ON November 17, 1558, a courier galloped into the court of the royal palace at Hatfield, thirty-six miles north of London, and announced to Elizabeth Tudor that she was Queen of England. Her half-sister Queen Mary, of pitiful fame, had died in the dark of that morning. In London the Parliament, receiving the news, cried out, “God save Queen Elizabeth! Long may she reign over us!”—not dreaming that it would be forty-five years. The churches, though foreboding trouble, thrilled the air with the clangor of their bells. The people of England, as they had done for Mary, spread festive tables in the streets, and that evening they colored the sky with bonfires of eternal hope.
By Saturday the nineteenth the leading lords, ladies, and commoners of the realm had gathered at Hatfield to vow their allegiance and feather their nests. To them, on the twentieth, Elizabeth spoke right royally:
My Lords: The laws of nature move me to sorrow for my sister; the burden that has fallen upon me maketh me amazed; and yet, considering I am God’s creature ordained to obey His appointment, I will thereto yield; desiring from the bottom of my heart that I may have assistance of His grace to be the minister of His heavenly will in the office now committed to me. And as I am but one body materially considered, though by His permission a body politic to govern, so shall I desire you all, my lords, chiefly you of the nobility, every one in his degree and power, to be assistant to me; that I with my ruling, and you with your service, may make a good account to Almighty God, and leave some comfort to our posterity on earth.1
On the twenty-eighth, clad in purple velvet, Elizabeth rode through London in public procession to that same Tower where, four years earlier, she had been a prisoner awaiting death. Now, on her route, the populace acclaimed her, choruses chanted her glory, children tremblingly recited to her the little speeches of homage they had memorized, and “such shooting of guns as never was heard afore” heralded a reign destined to abound, beyond any English precedent, in splendor of men and minds.
Twenty-five years of trials had tempered Elizabeth to mastery. It seemed, in 1533, good fortune to have been fathered by Henry VIII, but it was dangerous to have been born of Anne Boleyn. The disgrace and execution of the mother fell within the child’s forgetful years (1536); yet the pain of that somber heritage outlived her youth and yielded only to the balm of sovereignty. An act of Parliament (1536) declared Anne’s marriage null, making Elizabeth illegitimate; coarse gossip debated the girl’s paternity; in any case, to most Englishmen she was the daughter of adultery. Her legitimacy was never re-established in law, but another act of Parliament (1544) confirmed her right, after her half-brother Edward and her half-sister Mary, to succeed to the throne. During Edward’s rule (1547–53) she adhered to the Protestant worship; but when Catholic Mary acceded, Elizabeth, preferring life to consistency, conformed to the Roman ritual. After Wyatt’s Rebellion (1554) had failed to unseat Mary, Elizabeth was accused of complicity and was sent to the Tower; but Mary judged her guilt unproved, and released her to live under surveillance at Woodstock. Before Mary died she recognized her sister as her successor and sent her the jewels of the Crown. We owe Elizabeth’s reign to the kindliness of the “bloody” Queen.
Elizabeth’s more formal education was overwhelming. Her famous tutor, Roger Ascham, boasted that “she talks French and Italian as well as she does English, and has often talked to me readily and well in Latin, moderately in Greek.”2 She had a daily stint of theology and became expert in Protestant dogma; but her Italian teachers seem to have transmitted to her something of the skepticism they had imbibed from Pomponazzi, Machiavelli, and Renaissance Rome.
She was never sure of her crown. Parliament (1553) had reaffirmed the invalidity of her mother’s marriage to her father; state and Church agreed that she was a bastard; and English law, ignoring William the Conqueror, excluded bastards from the throne. The whole Catholic world—and England was still largely Catholic—believed that the legal heir to the English scepter was Mary Stuart, great-granddaughter of Henry VII. It was intimated to Elizabeth that if she made her peace with the Church the Pope would wash her free of bastardy and recognize her right to rule. She was not so inclined. Thousands of Englishmen held property that had been expropriated from the Church by Parliament under Henry VIII and Edward VI. These influential possessors, fearing that a continued Catholic restoration might enforce restitution, were prepared to fight for a Protestant queen; and the Catholics of England preferred her to civil war. On January 15, 1559, amid the acclamation of Protestant London, Elizabeth was crowned in Westminster Abbey as “Queen of England, France, and Ireland, Defender of the Faith.” For English monarchs, since Edward III, had regularly claimed the throne of France. Nothing had been left undone to provide the Queen with problems.
She was now twenty-five, in all the charm of maturing womanhood. She was moderately tall, with a good figure, fair features, olive complexion, flashing eyes, auburn hair, and beautiful hands which she knew how to display.3 It seemed impossible that such a lass should cope successfully with the chaos that encompassed her. Hostile creeds divided the land, playing for power and wielding arms. Pauperism was endemic, and vagrancy had survived the terrible penalties laid upon it by Henry VIII. Domestic trade was clogged by a dishonest currency; half a century of false coinage had left the credit of the fisc so low that the government had to pay 14 per cent for loans. Mary Tudor, absorbed in religion, had skimped on national defense, the fortresses were neglected, the coasts unprotected, the navy unfit, the army ill paid and ill fed, and its cadres unfilled. England, which under Wolsey had held the balance of power in Europe, was now a political cripple bandied about between Spain and France; French troops were in Scotland, and Ireland was inviting Spain. The Pope was holding over the Queen’s head the threat of excommunication and interdict and of invasion by the Catholic states. Invasion definitely loomed in 1559, and fear of assassination was part of Elizabeth’s life from day to day. She was saved by the disunion of her enemies, the wisdom of her counselors, and the courage of her soul. The Spanish ambassador was shocked by “the spirit of the woman … She is possessed of the Devil, who is dragging her to his place.”4 Europe had not expected to find the spirit of an emperor behind the smiles of a girl.