Documentary Notes – ‘Elizabeth’ with David Starkey – Part 1, From the Prison to the Palace


Elizabeth I c.1546 by William Scrots
Elizabeth I c.1546 by William Scrots
  • January 1559 Elizabeth I was crowned Queen of England
  • She was the last of the Tudor dynasty and dazzled the nation and the world
  • Elizabeth reigned for 45 years and her ships sailed round the world and defeated the Armada, Shakespeare wrote plays and Spenser wrote poems
  • English noblemen and foreign princes wooed her
  • Elizabeth was the daughter of Henry VIII
  • The right of women to succeed to the throne was still in doubt
  • Her father would kill her mother and she would be disinherited.
  • Her sister would imprison her in the Tower and threaten to execute her
  • She would be molested by her own stepfather
  • Most monarch have their crowns handed to them on a plate, but Elizabeth would get hers by cunning and courage
  • Elizabeth’s sex was a disappointment to Henry VIII when she was born in September 1533
  • Henry already had a daughter, Mary, aged 17
  • Elizabeth had a magnificent christening with every detail seen to
  • She was declared princess as heir to the throne
  • According to the French ambassador the occasion was perfect, and nothing was lacking
  • But things were far from perfect as Elizabeth was the child of a second marriage
  • The Imperial ambassador refused to attend the baptism and refused to recognise Anne Boleyn as Henry VIII’s wife – referring to Anne as whore and Elizabeth as bastard
  • “Hot but not hot enough” – one ambassador when asked if the baby Elizabeth had been baptised in hot or cold water
  • Henry VIII divorced his first wife Katherine of Aragon because she didn’t give him a son
  • Anne had a stillborn baby boy after 2 miscarriages
  • Anne had failed in her principle duty and Henry had fallen in love with another woman
  • Anne was accused of multiple adultery with 4 men and incest with her brother
  • Anne was executed on Tower Green on 19 May 1536 with a single stroke of a sword rather than an axe
  • Elizabeth was only aged 3 when her mother was executed
  • Elizabeth seems to have airbrushed her mother from her memory and her father filled her world instead
  • Henry and Anne’s marriage was declared null and void
  • Elizabeth was made illegitimate and unable to inherit the throne
  • She became Lady Elizabeth, second bastard daughter of the king
  • Elizabeth’s governess didn’t know what to do and wrote to Cromwell for guidance on Elizabeth’s treatment and clothes
  • No one could forget that Elizabeth was Anne’s daughter and it was to marry Anne that Henry had broken with Rome
  • The monasteries had fallen victim to Henry’s desire to marry Anne – assets were seized, and the buildings destroyed
  • Glastonbury Abbey was one of those that fell
  • There was also spiritual damage – out of the ruins would form a new faith which would divide his country and his family
  • Just over a year after his marriage to Jane Seymour she gave him a son and heir – Edward
  • Elizabeth and Mary were minor royals
  • Elizabeth also lost her governess, Lady Bryan, who was transferred to look after the new baby prince
  • Kat Ashley replaced Lady Bryan and she became close to Elizabeth
  • Her father rarely saw her as she was brought up away from the court
  • December 1539 Henry VIII sent Thomas Wriothesley to convey his Christmas greetings to his daughter – she enquired after the king’s welfare
  • Children in the 16th century had to join the adult world as quickly as possible
  • Even slight misdemeanours were severely published
  • One royal tutor advised that children should be handled without cherishing
  • Tutors of the new school thought that kindness was a better teacher than the cane
  • Elizabeth studied languages from aged 4 and was fluent in French, Italian, Latin, and Greek as well as English
  • Elizabeth was taught through double translation – translate from Latin into English and back into Latin, getting it right word for word
  • Elizabeth seems to have revelled in it as she continued to translate for the rest of her life
  • She did them as a mental discipline to keep her emotions under control, rather like modern yoga or meditation
  • 1544 Henry reinstated Mary and Elizabeth to the succession
  • No woman had sat on the English throne before, but now there was a possibility
  • When Henry went to war in 1544 Henry left England in the hands of Katherine Parr
  • Elizabeth saw for the first time that a woman could rule effectively
  • Around this time Elizabeth also acquired a new tutor in Roger Ascham
  • Ascham found Elizabeth the equal of the minds at Cambridge
  • She demonstrated her abilities in a New Year’s gift for her father – a work of prose, bound in red cloth of gold embroidered
  • The cover was the work of a professional but inside is Elizabeth’s own work in Italianate handwriting
  • It shows how much she had come on in a year as her previous year’s gift to Katherine Parr was filled with mistakes but this one was perfect
  • In the introduction she describes her father as “matchless and most kind”
  • Elizabeth showed her love for her father and the monarchy
  • She had never been more secure in her royal status
  • In 1546 she had a portrait painted for her father with the Bible open beside her and a finger holding her place in a book in her hand
  • Henry VIII was dying when Elizabeth was aged 13
  • The next decade would be the most threatening period of her life
  • The king suffered from an old jousting injury which turned to a chronic ulcer
  • On 30 December 1546 Henry completed his will
  • As Henry lay dying Edward Seymour paced with his advisors to plot the takeover of power
  • Henry died with Cranmer at his side, Elizabeth’s godfather
  • Henry’s death was kept secret for 3 days to ensure a smooth transfer of power
  • Seymour brought together Edward and Elizabeth to tell them that their father was dead – the two threw themselves into each other’s arms weeping
  • Edward was just 9 years old and a pawn of the royal councillors, as was Elizabeth
Edward VI as Prince of Wales 1546.
Edward VI as Prince of Wales 1546.
  • Her father’s will had made Elizabeth rich and Thomas Seymour had his eyes on her
  • The Seymours were the most powerful family in the land
  • Thomas Seymour was jealous of his older brother, Edward, as Edward made himself Duke of Somerset and lord protector
  • Thomas plotted from Sudeley Castle in Gloucestershire – his first plan was to marry one of the king’s daughters, but the council vetoed it
  • He next proposed to Katherine Parr who had already been passionately in love with Seymour before her marriage to the king, so she accepted him
  • Elizabeth was living with Katherine Parr, so Seymour was her stepfather and guardian
  • Seymour abused this position of trust
  • Katherine’s involvement made Seymour’s games seem innocent
  • Seymour was aged 40 and Elizabeth aged 14
  • Seymour saw a relationship with Elizabeth as a means of drawing closer to the throne
  • His games went darker and Katherine was deceived but Kat Ashley was disturbed – Seymour cut up Elizabeth’s gown while Katherine held her
  • Seymour got hold of the key to Elizabeth’s room and would enter her room in the early morning half dressed
  • Elizabeth was confused by Seymour’s behaviour and her reactions to it
  • She was flattered by his attentions, as well as scared by them
  • Sometimes she pretended it was a game, but other times acted as if her modesty was outraged
  • Kat Ashley knew what was going on and accused Seymour of threatening Elizabeth’s reputation, but he said he wouldn’t stop because he meant no harm by it
  • When Katherine fell pregnant Seymour’s flirtation with Elizabeth grew more serious
  • At first Katherine couldn’t believe what was happening but was eventually left in no doubt
  • Following a painful interview Katherine sent Elizabeth away
  • This was the last time Elizabeth saw Katherine
  • Elizabeth wrote to Katherine at Sudeley wishing her luck for the birth
  • Katherine died shortly after the birth of her child and she was buried at Sudeley
  • In Katherine’s final delirium her fears revived
  • Seymour renewed his suit to Elizabeth, but she said she wouldn’t consider the marriage without the backing of the council
  • Kat Ashley was enthusiastic about the match and Seymour wouldn’t wait to act
  • Seymour tried to get Edward VI on his side, and decided to abduct him
  • Seymour was found in the king’s apartment with a sword in his hand and one of the king’s spaniels dead at his feet
  • Seymour was arrested and charged with treason
  • Elizabeth became a suspect because of her relationship with Seymour
  • She was questioned at Hatfield to discover if she was involved
  • Her closest confidante, Kat Ashley, was arrested and taken to the Tower
  • Under threat of torture, Kat Ashley revealed what she knew about the previous summer and the relationship between Seymour and Elizabeth
  • Despite the evidence Elizabeth refused to admit any wrongdoing
  • A rumour circulated that Elizabeth was pregnant by Seymour and in the Tower
  • Elizabeth asked to be allowed to court to disprove the rumours
  • There was no proof against her and she survived the crisis, but Seymour’s guilt was clear and in March 1549 Somerset signed his brother’s death warrant
  • Seymour was beheaded on Tower Hill
  • This marked a turning point in Elizabeth’s life
  • She learnt the hard way that a sexual relationship or close friendship could destroy her
  • She learnt that men wanted the throne rather than her
  • Elizabeth was left alone at Hatfield where she continued to study and indulged her passion for riding and hunting
  • She had been plagued by headaches and sickness during the investigation
  • These would continue to plague her throughout her life during moments of stress
  • At about this time Elizabeth received a work on the advantages of the single life
  • Elizabeth created a sensation at court with straight hair, no make up and almost no jewellery
  • There was more to it than just image – Elizabeth was supporting the new protestant faith which her brother, Edward VI, supported
  • By 1553 Edward VI was dying of tuberculosis
  • He wanted to stop the protestant reforms being undone by his sister, Mary
  • So, he excluded her from the succession because she was a bastard, but this meant that Elizabeth was also excluded
  • Edward chose his cousin Lady Jane Grey to succeed her
  • Elizabeth waited at Hatfield with her followers to see what would happen next
  • In July 1553 when Edward died Jane was declared queen
  • In the eyes of the people Mary was the rightful queen and was supposed by many of England’s leading families
  • Henry Bedingfield was one of the first to declare for Mary
Mary I 1554 by Hans Eworth
Mary I 1554 by Hans Eworth
  • Mary was first at Kenninghall and then to Framlingham where her army swelled
  • Mary rode to London and was joined by Elizabeth en route once Jane was defeated
  • In the face of the overwhelming support for Mary the opposition collapsed, and Jane was later beheaded at the Tower
  • On 19 July 1553 Mary was declared queen and she wanted to return England to the Catholic faith, so Elizabeth’s Protestantism marked her out as a potential enemy
  • For the first few months of Mary’s reign Elizabeth avoided going to mass
  • Mary eventually gave her an ultimatum
  • 8 September 1553 Elizabeth was told to attend mass
  • Elizabeth asked for an interview with Mary and pled that she had never been taught the old faith so could she have priests to teach her
  • On the morning she was to attend mass she got a diplomatic cold
  • She complained loudly of a bad stomach-ache and no one was deceived
  • Mary’s religion involved doing things like pilgrimages, but for Elizabeth they didn’t feature
  • Elizabeth’s religion was more Bible-based and interpretation
  • Mary married Philip of Spain which was very unpopular
  • Philip’s envoys were pelted with snowballs, but Mary brushed the problems aside
  • Elizabeth became a figurehead for Mary’s opponents
  • Early in 1554 Elizabeth received a letter from Thomas Wyatt to tell her that he intended to rebel to prevent the Spanish marriage
  • Elizabeth didn’t reply in writing but told Wyatt’s messenger that she would do as god would direct her
  • Wyatt raised an army of 7,000 men in the south east and marched on London
  • There was panic in Mary’s court
  • Elizabeth was told to travel to court where Mary could keep an eye on her, but Elizabeth said she was too ill
  • She was told to travel to London anyway and took 11 days to make the journey
  • By the time she arrived Wyatt’s rebellion had collapsed as he had overestimated his support
  • Wyatt was beheaded and quartered on Tower Hill
  • At first Elizabeth was detained and questioned at Whitehall before being sent to the Tower
  • The night before the journey Elizabeth wrote to Mary, writing for her life
  • “A place more wanted for a false traitor than a true subject”
  • She begins writing with a clear hand but later her handwriting becomes looser
  • She thinks she only has days or even hours to live
  • To stop anyone making incriminating additions to the letter she drew diagonal lines across the remainder of the page
  • Elizabeth’s letter was long, deliberately so, as by the time she finished the tide was too high to make the journey to the Tower
  • Mary didn’t even reply to the letter and the next morning Elizabeth was taken to the Tower
  • It was raining and Elizabeth knew that most of those who went to the Tower would never leave it
  • When Elizabeth landed the river was high and the steps slippery
  • She couldn’t control her terror “I never thought to come here a prisoner”
  • “I come here no traitor but as true a subject as any here now alive”
  • The soldiers who were sent to guard her fell on their knees saying “god save your grace”
  • Elizabeth was imprisoned in the Bell Tower supposedly
  • These weeks were the darkest days of her life and she fell ill, thinking constantly of death
  • She was imprisoned only a few yards from the spot where her mother was executed
  • 2 months dragged by and Elizabeth expected the worst
  • 19 May 1554 Henry Bedingfield arrived at the Tower with 100 men and Elizabeth believed she was about to die
  • From Mary’s point of view Elizabeth deserved death as she knew Elizabeth had been involved in Wyatt’s plot
  • But Elizabeth had covered her tracks well
  • Without firm evidence Mary couldn’t risk executing Elizabeth, the heir to the throne
  • Elizabeth was taken to Woodstock Palace near Oxford
  • Henry Bedingfield was her jailer to all intents and purposes
  • She couldn’t receive gifts or visitors and had to be accompanied at all times
  • She was locked up for almost a year before being summoned to court – Mary believed she was pregnant and wanted to crow over her victory
  • Philip’s attitude changed towards Elizabeth and wanted to marry her to one of his friends
  • In autumn 1555 Elizabeth travelled to Hatfield
  • She wanted to escape the court’s intrigue and surveillance
  • Elizabeth also wanted to put distance between herself and the actions of Mary’s government as protestants were beginning to be burnt
  • Around 300 people were burnt during Mary’s reign – some kind executioners would tie bags of gunpowder around their legs to finish them off quickly
  • Every death created a protestant martyr
  • Making England Catholic wouldn’t be easy
  • Elizabeth resisted Philip’s plans to marry her off to the Catholic Duke of Savoy, sensing that her time was near
  • Mary was dying but resisted naming Elizabeth as her successor
  • 10 days before her death Mary finally relented under pressure from her council
  • 17 November 1558 messengers arrived at Hatfield to tell Elizabeth that her sister was dead, and she was now queen
  • Elizabeth knelt along with the messengers and said “this is the lord’s doing and it is marvellous in our eyes”
  • The Spanish ambassador told Elizabeth she owed her throne to King Philip
  • Elizabeth would have none of it and would be governed by no one
  • 23 November 1558 Elizabeth rode into London to take possession of the capital
  • Her journey from Hatfield turned into a triumphal progress and crowds greeted her arrival
  • Elizabeth consulted John Dee before choosing 15 January 1559 for her coronation
  • Crowds cut off pieces of the cloth she walked on as souvenirs
  • Her coronation in Westminster Abbey was a performance on a grand scale
Elizabeth I coronation portrait c.1610 copy of a lost original
Elizabeth I coronation portrait c.1610 copy of a lost original
  • Elizabeth was acclaimed by the people and swore the oath before the outer robes were removed and she knelt for the anointing before being enthroned
  • Successively 3 different crowns were put on her head and on her fourth finger a ring to symbolise the marriage between Elizabeth and her kingdom
  • Tradition, mystery, and symbolism made her Queen of England completely
  • Elizabeth at last wore the crown but now she needed to show that she could grasp the reality of power and govern a divided country
  • She had to disprove that no monarch could match her father and that no woman could make an effective ruler

Author: Helene Harrison

I have an MA in History, with a thesis entitled 'The Many Faces of Anne Boleyn: Perceptions in History, Literature and Film'. I have an interest in the Tudors and the Wars of the Roses along with my love of reading and literature.

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