On the 24th of March 1603, Queen Elizabeth I died at Richmond Palace at the age of sixty nine. She had ruled England for forty four years and was the longest reigning Tudor monarch, and third longest ruling Queen monarch in English history.
Elizabeth I was the daughter of Anne Boleyn and Henry VIII. Born on September 7th 1533, she was bastardized three years later following her parents’ annulment and her mother’s execution.
It isn’t known whether Elizabeth had any recollection of her mother.
Probably she didn’t given that she was very young at the time. But she spent a lot of time with people who did, most of whom belonged to her maternal family. During her coronation she included the personal emblems of her ancestors, including her mother’s during her coronation (the royal falcon); this small gesture along with the ring bearing Anne’s picture shows Elizabeth’s desire to know about the woman who gave birth to her.
Out of all the English monarchs, Elizabeth was unique in the sense that she never married. She refused to be tied to any nation or any house. This can be due to the emotional trauma she experienced at a such young age when she was demoted from Princess to mere “Lady”, and subsequently saw wife after wife being replaced by her father on mere whim. But there is also the pragmatic aspect that some historians deny and that is that Elizabeth had seen the troubles that a foreign marriage had brought to her half-sister, Mary I. England was not used to having female Kings, and the concept of one would mean she would have to marry someone equal to her, and for that to happen she would have to look elsewhere, beyond her English borders. This would also mean she would have to negotiate some sort of agreement where her husband would have to agree to keep himself and his councilors separate from English affairs; and the possibility of death during childbirth. England had a bad history with boy-kings. The last time, it resulted in the wars of the roses and that was something that was still fresh on the minds of many people.
“Her determination to preserve what was hers also turned her into a great war leader against Spain. She was not a general in the field nor an admiral … Instead, and more importantly, she was a mistress of language, thinking, in her speech at Tilbury, ‘full of scorn that Parma or Spain or any prince of Europe should dare invade the borders of my realm.’” -David Starkey
Therefore, by refusing any marriage offer –while coyly entertaining every ambassador, making all sorts of promises that she would consider- she abstained herself from such troubles and was able to be her own mistress.
“This morning Her Majesty departed from this life, mildly like a lamb, easily like a ripe apple from a tree … Dr. Parry told me he was present, and sent his prayers before her soul; and I doubt not but she is amongst the royal saints in heaven in eternal joys.” –John Manningham
News of the Queen’s death spread like wildfire, also reaching her councilors’ preferred successor, James VI of Scotland. Weeks before on March 9th, Robert Cecil, son of her late and most trusted adviser William Cecil (Lord Burghley), wrote to George Nicholson, the English ambassador in Edinburgh, informing him that the Queen was ailing and that “her mouth and tongue” were “dry and her chest hot” and that she couldn’t sleep anymore. This is somewhat false. Elizabeth was deathly ill but she was far from helpless as Cecil’s report suggests. She was about her business, walking back and forth in her chambers, pondering on the future that awaited her country once she was gone.
Less than a week later, her condition worsened and she was no longer able to move as freely. Then on the 19th of March she gave a last audience to Sir Robert Carey (Mary Boleyn’s youngest grandson). She held Carey’s hand and confessed to him that she was not well. Sir Robert tried to cheer her up but to no avail. Elizabeth, as the rest, knew that her days were numbered and she wouldn’t live for another week.
On Tuesday, the twenty second she was brought to her bed where she stayed until her death. Her councilors visited her, insisting that she dictate her will so she could leave a successor but she refused. Like before, Elizabeth was always hesitant when it came to the issue of an heir. So many had competed for that position and so many were now gone.
Katherine Grey had married without permission and died nearly half mad in 1568, and ten years later her younger sister Mary Grey -who wasn’t allowed to see her husband because Elizabeth feared she could also produce children and rival claimants- and lastly, Mary, Queen of Scots who lost her head in 1587.
The favorite on everyone’s mind was James VI and one simple word from their queen’s mouth would give his claim even more validity but the Queen, probably not caring or in agony, remained adamant in her position. A story later circulated that Elizabeth I had indeed named James by way of her fingers when the council asked her to move her finger a certain way to mean that James was her successor and she did, but this cannot be corroborated and it is likely false.
The death of Elizabeth I marked the end of an era. A bloody, tumultuous era packed with religious and social change. She was not a staunch Protestant but she did push for Protestant reformer on the Church, primarily on the Book of Common prayer, and neither was she a Catholic –though one Pope expressed admiration for her, claiming that if she wasn’t a Protestant, he would support her instead of Philip II of Spain. Elizabeth was a moderate and she took a moderate approach. That is the type of monarch she was. Her laws were just as fierce, if not fiercer in some aspects, than her father’s, grandfather’s and siblings.
The way in which she used her image says a lot about her. In one painting she is standing next to the goddess but if one looks closely it is the goddesses who are standing next to her, leading her to her destiny. Elizabeth was in popular eyes not just an anointed sovereign, but the head of all spiritual and earthly matters.
Elizabeth I was highly honored by her successor who built a beautiful monument, at the cost of overlooking her predecessor who was placed beneath her. The two sisters lie together with Elizabeth’s effigy being the only one visible and a plaque that reads: “Consorts in realm and tomb, here we sleep, Elizabeth and Mary, sisters, in hope of resurrection.”
- Elizabeth: The Struggle for the Throne by David Starkey
- Elizabeth: Renaissance Prince by Lisa Hilton
- Tudor. Passion. Manipulation. Murder: The Story of England’s Most Notorious Royal Family by Leanda de Lisle
- The Life of Elizabeth I by Alison Weir