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 five years, the longest reigning monarch in Tudor history and the third longest ruling female monarch in English history. Elizabeth I was the daughter of Anne Boleyn and Henry VIII. She was born on September 7th, 1533, she was bastardized less than three years later in 1536, following the execution of her mother. It is not known whether Elizabeth remembered her mother, likely she did not. However, she spent a lot of time with people who did, namely her maternal family. Through them, she probably got to know the woman who gave birth to her. She had one ring with her picture on it, and while she didn’t renew the validity of her parents’ marriage as her sister had done with hers; she made them an important part of her coronation celebrations, showcasing them together along with their sigils, the Tudor rose and the glorious white falcon crowned. Elizabeth also made an important point of showcasing her paternal grandparents, Henry VII and Elizabeth of York and what their union represented: The end of the wars later known as the wars of the roses, and the bringing of peace. Elizabeth I’s reign was not an easy one and she was always plagued by conspiracy, betrayal and suspicion. As she got older the Queen saw enemies everywhere, and as her predecessors she became more ruthless. While her religious establishment was more conciliatory than any of her ancestors (especially her father, sister and brother) had been, she still burned heretics, namely Anabaptists, and persecuted many Catholics who resisted her rule.
Out of all the monarchs, Elizabeth was unique in the sense that she never married. She refused to be tied to anyone; not so much because she feared love but because as a woman in a country that was not used to female rule, she knew that being married would mean submitting to her husband’s rule, or worse. If she married into another House, that House would expect more favor than the others and that could disrupt the whole order of things. Elizabeth I had many favorites nonetheless, but it is unlikely she had any sexual relations with any of them. They were more of platonic love interests, who gave the Queen companionship and who (like Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester) also served as faithful advisors.
News of the Queen’s death spread like wildfire, also reaching her preferred successor, James VI of Scotland. Weeks before, on March 9th, Robert Cecil, the son of her 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 in fact, walking back and forth in her chambers, perhaps pondering of what the future would bring once she was gone. Less than a week later, she became worse and was no longer able to move so freely. 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. Her cousin tried to cheer her but it was clear to everyone that their beloved Queen wouldn’t live for much longer.
On Tuesday, the twenty-second she was brought to her bed where she stayed until her death. Her councilors visited her and insisted that she dictate her will, but she refused. Like before, Elizabeth refused to name an heir. All those who had been potential heirs, had suffered tragic fates. Katherine Grey had been punished for marrying without royal permission, and with her only witness to her wedding, dead, she had been incarcerated and forced to give birth (twice) in prison. Then she died from depression. Her youngest sister, Mary Grey was forbidden from having intimate contact from her husband who was of lower rank, with no royal ties whatsoever. She was later forgiven and became one of Elizabeth’s most loyal subjects. Her other cousin, Mary Queen of Scots, suffered the worse penalty by being executed for plotting against her. Her son, James VI, was Elizabeth I’s councilors favored heir.
According to one story, on the day before her death, the Privy Council seeing that she was unable to speak, suggested that she raised her finger to the successor she’d like. Supposedly, she raised her head when they mentioned James, giving her approval to her late enemy’s son. Others who were present, said that she never moved.
It didn’t matter in the end. Everyone was set on James and probably Elizabeth knew it, and that could have been the reason she refused to move, knowing that as the sun was setting on the Tudor dynasty, nothing she did, would have changed her soon-to-be former subjects’ minds.
“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
She died on the next day, between two and three o’clock in the morning.
Eight hours later, her cousin, Sir Robert Carey with whom she had an audience days before, was given the order to go North to Scotland to carry the ring his sister had taken from the Queen’s finger and deliver it to James as confirmation of his new future as King of England.
It was the end of the Tudor Dynasty and the beginning of the Stuart Dynasty.
Some historians today dispute the image of Elizabeth as Glorianna, and while their reasons are well-founded, no one can deny that Elizabeth I was unique in many ways, and that as her sister; she fixed the coinage that had been debased during their father’s and brother’s reigns. And while her “idiosyncratic attitude to marriage left her equally isolated … she was saved, once again, by divided counsel” writes Starkey. Therefore, after nearly forty five years of rule, Starkey adds, “she handed over to her Stuart successor something that was recognizable as the inheritance of Henry VIII”. And yet she continues to divide public opinion. Some want to portray her in a negative light, overturning previous propaganda, and this is equally bad because it is doing the same, only in another extreme. In reality, Elizabeth was as Leanda de Lisle, Tudor biographer, writes in her latest book, neither heroine nor villain. Both she and her sister, ruling England, a country which had a negative perception of female rule, were both “rulers of their time”. Both had to take on the role of mother. Mary had shown herself as a mother to her children in her speech during the Wyatt Rebellion. Elizabeth I had done the same, and gone a step further by presenting herself as the defendress of the faith, as a new Deborah, defending the precepts of the holy tenant, a reluctant warrior who would be mother and protector to her people. It was an image that put everyone at ease, and by doing little to change the social order, she earned the acceptance of most of her subjects. Truly, as Claire Ridgway says in her book “On this day in Tudor History”:
“Elizabeth I’s death was the end of an era in so many ways: the end of England’s “Golden Age”, the end of a long reign and the end of the Tudor dynasty.”
After people grew tired of James’ extravaganza, they began to look back and think differently of their late queen. And so, the legend of Glorianna began, a legend that has endured since then.
Elizabeth is buried at Westminster Abbey, on top of her half’s sister, in a magnificent tomb which has the next inscription: “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
- On This Day in Tudor History by Claire Ridgway
- Tudor Age by Jasper Ridley
- Tudor. Passion. Manipulation. Murder: The Story of England’s Most Notorious Royal Family by Leanda de Lisle.
- Anne Boleyn Collection by Claire Ridgway
- Sisters who would be Queen by Leanda de Lisle.