An objective, well written biography that explores the lesser known aspects of Elizabeth’s life, from her education, her relationship with her father, siblings and her eventual rivalry with Mary I and Mary, Queen of Scots, to the last years of her reign, and people’s perception of her during and in the aftermath of her death.
Elizabeth I is glorified in English history as the greatest monarch that ever lived. Not only that, but she has accolade of fans who -in their attempt to defend her- end up doing her the same disservice her rivals did back in the day. By putting her in a pedestal, she stops being a human being -an opportunistic, politically savvy, strong woman who was also a flawed individual, but didn’t let her demons get in the way of making her country great- and instead becomes a caricature.
Lisa Hilton also dispels myths about her rivals and family members, primarily her mother (Anne Boleyn), her half-sister (Mary I), her rival (Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots), and lastly, her last stepmother, Kathryn Parr.
What emerges is a woman who was deeply scarred by her experience but, as previously stated, learned from them, and used her femininity as her shield against her enemies before she became Queen. When she was Queen, she was stern while also cautious to a fault, affirming nothing and denying nothing. She played both sides and like most female rulers, she regarded herself as half-divine, her power justified by her intellectual and political prowess. But Lisa Hilton notes that the Virgin Queen would not have been as successful had it not been for her councilors. She often clashed with the more radical Protestant faction. They wanted a republic, one modeled after the classical Greek and Roman Republics, and were emboldened by the Netherlands and their Northern neighbors, the Scots. Of the latter, the Netherlands were more successful, and it was largely in part to Elizabeth. But as with many politicians today, supporting one’s cause, doesn’t mean you agree with them.
As a pragmatist, Elizabeth was in need of allies and if the Catholic countries would continue to conspire against her, she would do the same and look elsewhere. The end result is a contradictory tale. Elizabeth applauded her father’s establishment and the supremacy of the Church of England because it placed the monarch above the law, on the other hand, she despised other Protestant doctrines that downplayed the monarch’s power and wished to return to the times of a classical republic. Elizabeth supported them because she needed them, but deep down she despised what they were doing and whenever some of her countrymen got similar ideas, she struck back.
This is a biography history buffs (especially those who are sick and tired of generalizations of their favorite Tudor monarchs) will absolutely love. If you are new to the Tudor era, worry not, this book is easy to follow, highly descriptive and engaging from start to finish.
It is no secret that the last Tudor monarch detested the idea of naming an heir. She did not want whomever was next-in-line to plot in the same fashion as she did during her half-sister reign. In this, she was like her grandfather, the first Tudor monarch who imprisoned or exiled any potential claimant to his throne.
But people couldn’t stop asking: Who would succeed her?
Towards the end of the reign, Elizabeth I tried to dismiss their worries and appear unperturbed by diverting people’s attention on her public image. The people did not have need to worry about the next regime when they already had a goddess watching over them and that goddess was Bess.
This is when we see a drastic change in Elizabeth I’s image. Not that she was not a fashion icon before. Monarchs were the ones who dictated their country’s fashions after all, but Elizabeth I went above and beyond by changing people’s perception of her through more flamboyant fashions and elaborate paintings.
She wore ostentatiously low-cut dresses in the Italian fashion, and wearing heavy make-up. While she was subject to the ridicule of her ladies-in-waiting, chamber-maids and male courtiers who snickered behind her back, some foreign diplomat, travelers and English commons were in awe of her. Elizabeth’s status as a single woman allowed her to elevate her status from Queen and head of the Anglican Church, to a heavenly maiden. To put it simply, she sought to emulate the virtues ascribed to the Virgin Mary. This is nothing out of the ordinary. Women of her status often identified themselves with saints and other holy women. In the case of royal women, Queens and Princess, they all sought to emulate the mother of Christ and often commissioned portraits that portrayed them as such, while others wrote their names beneath one of the pages of their illuminated prayer books, the one where she receives a message from the angel Gabriel that she will give birth to the savior, or the one where she holds baby Christ.
Elizabeth’s mother did this with Henry VIII, when he was still courting her. Anne inscribed her name beneath a page of her illuminated prayer book, where the angel Gabriel informs Mary that she will be mother of the future savior. The meaning behind her name and her promise to Henry beneath this image was clear: Marry me and I will give you a male heir to save your country from chaos. While Anne didn’t give Henry the male heir she had promised, Elizabeth saw her birth as a fulfillment of that promise. On her coronation, she had holy images of the biblical heroines, saints and the Virgin Mary, mother of Christ to remind the people that she was their savior and like the old Testament Deborah, she would be a defender of the faith.
As she got older however, it became harder for her to hide her deteriorating health. Even the commons were beginning to sense that the sun was setting and soon a new dynasty would come to reign over them.
In her biography on the Tudor Dynasty, Leanda de Lisle says the following:
“Elizabeth feared the bond with her people was breaking. In June 1602 she was overheard complaining desperately to Robert Cecil about ‘the poverty of the state, the continuance of charge, the discontentment of all sorts of people’. She admitted to the French ambassador that she was weary of life, and wept over Essex’ death. He had been all she had left of the man she had loved as a young queen, yet he had betrayed her, and now he was being idolized, even despite the threat he had posed to her life. The last pageants held in Elizabeth’s honour that year venerated her as the ‘queen of love and beauty’, timeliness and unchanging; but as Elizabeth’s depression deepened, whispers about the succession became urgent once more.”
Despite that last part, Elizabeth refused to name a successor. After her death, it was said that Elizabeth did and that since she was unable to talk, she was asked to wave her finger in one direction or another, to signal whom she favored and she moved her finger in the direction of those supporting James. It is very unlikely that she favored James, given her discontentment with him in the last years of her reign, but what she wanted no longer mattered. Her councilors favored James and without the Queen drafting an official will, there was nobody to oppose them.
Elizabeth died on the 24th of March 1603. She was buried not long after and succeeded by her rival’s only surviving child, James VI of Scotland who became the First of England upon his coronation.
Following the people’s discontentment and the growing radical Protestant factions in England, people began to look back at the Tudor regime, especially at Elizabeth I’s reign, feeling nostalgic about those “good old days”. And before they knew it, the Tudor period and its last monarch became larger than life figures, separate from the real people who were feared, loved, despised, and whose actions caused great misfortune as well as good fortune for a select few. Like religious figures today, real and mythological, Elizabeth I and her predecessors have become legendary beings who are either ‘too good’ or ‘too bad’.
Lisle, Leanda de. Tudor: Passion. Murder. Manipulation. The Story of England’s Most Notorious Royal Family. Public Affairs. 2013.
Guy, John. Elizabeth: The Forgotten Years. Viking. 2016.
Hilton, Lisa. Elizabeth: The Renaissance Prince. Houghton Miffin Harcourt. 2015.
Norton, Elizabeth. The Boleyn Women: The Tudor Femme Fatales who Changed English History. Amberley Publishing. 2013.
Weir, Alison. The Life of Elizabeth I. Ballantine Books. 1999.
On the 29th of August, 1555, Mary bid her husband farewell. After he departed by water from Greenwich to Dover where he stayed for a few more days until the weather cleared up in September, to travel to the Low Countries. Mary had reluctantly agreed to her father-in-law and cousin Charles’ request to send Philip away, she had previously written to Charles expressing her fears that he would be gone for a long time. In this, she was not mistaken. Philip did not arrive until October of the following year, by then King of Spain and lord of the Netherlands after his father’s abdication. According to the Venetian Ambassador Michieli, Mary had insisted on accompanying Philip in a glorious ceremony through London three days prior and on the day of his departure:
“The Queen really on this occasion showed proper grief for a woman and a woman clothed as she was with royal state and dignity. There was no external manifestation of agitation, although it was evident she was in great trouble, and she chose to accompany the King through all the chambers and halls, as far as the head of the staircase: all the way she had a struggle to command herself and prevent any exhibition inconsistent with her high position from being perceptible to so many persons. But she was affected by the kissing of hands by the Spanish lords and especially at seeing the ladies taking leave of the King in tears, who, according to the custom of the country, kissed them one by one. On returning however to her apartments she lent on her elbows at a window overlooking the river, and there, not supposing herself any longer seen or observed by anyone, it was perceived that she gave free vent to her grief in floods of tears. She did not stir from the spot until she had seen the King embark and depart; looking till the last sight of him; he mounted on a raised and open part of the barge, so as to be better visible as long as he was in sight of the window, kept on raising his hat and making salutes with the most affectionate gestures.”
Michieli’s reports were exaggerated but they did convey a level of truth in expressing Mary’s anguish. Previously, Mary had written a letter to her father-in-law and cousin, Charles, expressing deep concern over Philip’s absence: “I firmly hope that the King’s absence will be brief … his presence in this kingdom has done much good and is of great importance for the good governance of this country.”
Mary wanted her country to benefit from the opportunities Spain offered and expand foreign policy, but she also needed Philip by her side to give her a male heir. Philip’s absence and new position complicated things. Boader, his secretary, expressed that he would not return until she agreed to share power with him -Something that our Queen, for all her sentimentalism, was not prepared to do. She was Queen of her realm and just as Philip was going to rule Spain, she was going to be her country’s sole ruler.
This was the beginning of the end for Mary. She would not die deposed or unopposed. As the rest of her family, she’d die as she lived, fighting until her last breath to hold everything together, under no illusions of what awaited her supporters and how she’d be remembered.
Always the pragmatist, but also a woman who was in need of allies and wished to make England one of the greatest nations in the world, as well as secure the Tudor Dynasty, Mary was aware that her union with Philip was becoming more unstable and if she didn’t give the appearance that things were okay then it would give her enemies another excuse to attack.
Porter, Linda. The First Queen of England: The Myth of Bloody Mary. St. Martin’s Press 2008.
Whitelock, Anna. Mary Tudor: Princess, Bastard, Queen. Random House. 2010.
Erickson, Carolly. Bloody Mary: The Life of Mary Tudor. Robson Books. 2001.
On the 11th of June Charles and Henry VIII traveled to Windsor Castle. They stayed there for nine nights until they departed on the 21st, setting for Farnham.
The first four days on Windsor were uneventful. On the 16th things became more interesting when the two monarchs discussed the terms of the treaty between Spain, the Holy Roman Empire and England. Although this meeting was merely a formality since the treaty was published that same day.
On the 19th, Henry and Charles got straight to business, and discussed another matter and signed another treaty.
“This one was to remain secret” Patrick William wrote in his biography on Katharine of Aragon, “for it committed them to the marriage of Charles to Princess Mary within eight years.”
In her biography on Mary I, Linda Porter explains that this marriage treaty stipulated that in the event that Katharine and Henry had no sons by the time this marriage came to be, the couple’s eldest son would inherit Henry VIII’s crowns, thus becoming King of England, lord of Ireland and King of France (in theory). In turn their second son, or daughter (if they couldn’t have any more sons) would inherit Spain and selected territories Charles ruled over.
Thirdly, since Mary and Charles were related in the second degree of affinity, the two monarchs would ask the pope for a special dispensation. And lastly, the matter of her dowry was settled and Charles promised that he would stay true to his betrothed and honor every part of the treaty.
On the 20th, Cardinal and Archbishop of York, Thomas Wolsey, convened a legatine court and asked the two monarchs to reaffirm their agreements with one another over the marriage treaty. The event had many important witnesses, among them Henry, Count of Nassau, Imperial Chancellor Gattinara, Pedro Ruiz de la Mota, Bishop of Palancia, Thomas Ruthall, Bishop of Durham, the Earls of Shrewsbury and Worcester, George Talbot and Charles Percy, Cuthbert Tunstall, the Bishop of London, and Sir Thomas Boleyn.
There is no need for spoilers beyond this point because we all know how this turned out. Henry VIII didn’t want to pay the full dowry after he felt betrayed by Charles V during their joint enterprise against France, and Charles V used this excuse to break the marriage treaty and marry his other first cousin, someone whom he didn’t have to wait for her to grow up because they were almost the same age, the Portuguese Infanta, Isabel of House Avis.
We do not know how Mary felt. Given that she was a child at the time the marriage broke, and her father felt betrayed yet again by her maternal family, she probably didn’t brood too much of it (if she did at all) and instead focused on her studies. Her mother would have been another case entirely as Katharine would have wanted both nations to be tied together against what she perceived to be their natural enemy, France. Had things gone differently, Mary’s situation would have been like Matilda, although probably less bellicose. As it happened, Mary would go on to be betrothed to countless more kings and princes and then when she was a bastard, minor royals in an effort to cement an alliance, but due to her gender, her lineage and her religious affiliation nothing would come out of it.
In the meantime, both parties were happy celebrating their alliance and the future marriage between Charles and Mary. Just as his daughter had previously showed off her artistic talents to their Spanish guests, Henry VIII did the same when he wrote to Charles an elaborate letter where he expressed deep gratitude for his arrival, and the amicability he’d showed to his ministers, including Cardinal Wolsey.
Porter, Linda. The Myth of Bloody Mary. St. Martin Press. 2008.
Whitelock, Anna. Mary Tudor: Princess, Bastard, Queen. Random House. 2010.
Williams, Patrick. Katharine of Aragon: The Tragic Story of Henry VIII’s First Unfortunate Wife. Amberley. 2013.
Fox, Julia. Sister Queens: The Noble Tragic Lives of Katherine of Aragon and Juana, Queen of Castile. Ballantine Books. 2012.
Weir, Alison. Henry VIII: The King and his Court. Ballantine Books. 2001.
On the 13th of September 1598, King Philip II of Spain died at the Palace of Escorial. His last act as king was giving a written permission for one of his two favorite offspring, Isabel Clara Eugenia to marry. From his bed, he continued to sign document and meet with his advisers but it was clear to everybody that their king was dying and that his son (also named Philip) would become their new king.
His daughter, the Infanta Isabel, remained by his side, screaming at him that somebody was touching the relics that had brought him so much comfort during his agony, so he would wake up and keep him from dying. Unfortunately by the twelfth, he was too sick to do anything and when his ministers thought he died, he laughed softly to assure them that he was still alive and finding some dark humor in the fact that he was not long for this world. He asked for his parents’ crucifix and “kissed it several times and afterwards he also held a consecrated candle from our Lady of Montserrat … and kissed it too.” On the next day, his ministers watched as their king gave his last breath before “his saintly spirit left him to enjoy eternal life”.
To this day Philip II continues to be a controversial figure. The image of the “Black Legend” remains and it is not likely to go away very soon. As a monarch, Philip was no different than others. It can be said that he bled his country dry for his expensive wars, and although there was some justification in some of these, others were just for the same reason his enemies engaged in war: for pure demonstration of might.
Historians such as Henry Kamen defend him, exculpating him from his mistakes, pointing out that although in the latter half of the century in which he reigned “much had changed”, the economic problems at the end of his reign were the result of events that were completely out of his control. And these came to light after his death, receiving great criticism from people who had once praised and served him faithfully.
“Philip was never at any time in adequate control of events, or of his kingdoms, or even of his own destiny. It follows that he cannot be held responsible for more than a small part of what eventually transpired during his reign … He imprisoned within a destiny in which he himself had little hand’. He could do little more than play the dice available to him. Condemned to spend his days sorting out the workings of his vast web of a monarchy, he was among the few who had access to a broad perspective on its problems. But he was unable to turn that perspective into a vision that might inspire his people… Eminently efficient and practical, he struggled always with the immediate and the possible.” (Kamen)
And although Henry Kamen has a point, historians Geoffrey Parker and Hugh Thomas make more valid ones. Geoffrey Parker is fair in his assessment, denoting his flaws as well as his achievements and giving us a king who was flawed, efficient, and full of many contradictions while Hugh Thomas shows us how vast his empire was.
As a man Philip was pious in the sense that he was highly spiritual and cared deeply for his soul and on his last days, he refused to grant the pope one request because it went against his conscience. Despite this deep passion though, he was not above bullying his own church to get what he wanted and this is eerily similar from what his father and maternal grandmother did. And like so many kings during this period, there was a cruel streak in him. His contemporaries didn’t flinch from punishing their own people with the excuse that they were punishing enemies of the state (heretics, rebels, etc) and sending their troops against them. His father’s on and off ally and rival, Henry VIII did it on several occasions, and so did his offspring (one to whom he was married). Philip II made a public exhibition of an execution in October of 1568 where he hundreds of heretics were burned at the stake.
He was called the “Prudent King” by many because he showed a deep humility that they found lacking in many monarchs, and despite his piety, he allowed Protestant chaplains in some of his battles out of the Continent and refused to let the Jews be expelled from his non-Spanish domains (but he finally agreed in 1597) and more than his predecessors, he read every document that was put on his table.
As a man though, he was deeply devoted to his children, especially his daughters, Isabel Clara Eugenia and Catalina Michaela. Both were some of the most educated and illustrious women of their day, and Philip’s letters to her survive to this day.
When Philip died, the Venetian Ambassador, Soranzo, wrote that “rich and poor universally show great grief” and acknowledged that he also grieved the King and that “for many the weeping will not end until life itself ends” adding that “he was a prince who fought with gold rather than with steel. Profoundly religious, he loved peace and quiet … He held his desires in absolute control and showed an immutable and unalterable temper.”
Philip II was buried the following day on Monday morning, in the church of San Lorenzo. Less than two months later, the criticisms began, largely by Franciscan friars and former members of his inner circle.
“Our Catholic King died after a drought that lasted almost nine months without a break, revealing that the earth had declared itself bankrupt –just like an unsuccessful merchant. At the same time, the price of everything in Castile increased as supplies ran short, coinciding with the collapse of public health throughout the kingdom and opening the door to plague in many areas … These disasters were harbingers of the greatest catastrophe Spain has even suffered since our Patriarch Tubal, grandson of Noah settled here.”-Fray Lorenzo de Ayala
Even one of the members of the Inquisition, the lawyer Martin Gonzales de Cellorigo, wrote that the decline of Spain had begun with Philip and that he: “Grieved to see that, because we lack the funds, we undertake campaigns with such weak forces that they serve more to irritate our enemies than to punish them; and the worst is that, whatever we may say, we eternalize the wars so that they become an infinite burden, and the problems that stem from these wars are both major and endless.”
And yet, not to condone or to exculpate him and all other kings from their responsibilities, something Philip II comes to mind and that is that even for a person who had this much power, he was incapable of doing everything at once. “I don’t think that human strength is capable of everything least of all mine which is very feeble.” To his son, he once wrote that kingship is like a prison, and it is for the points already mentioned, but it is the burden they feel they have to carry, and in Philip’s case, he felt it was his duty to do the impossible to protect his kingdom.
Imprudent King: A New Life of Philip II by Geoffrey Parker