It was mid-morning on Palm Sunday in the year of Our Lord 1554. A young woman of 20 sat in a barge at the Watergate of the Tower of London. Under this dark, forbidding, stone portal so many had passed to end their lives on Tower Green at the executioner’s block. Her own mother had made the self same journey some 18 years before. At first she refused to alight on the landing-stage but was informed by the Marquess of Winchester that she had no choice in the matter. As she stepped ashore she stated, “Here landeth a subject, being a prisoner, as ever landed at these stairs, and before Thee, O God, I speak it, having none other friend but Thee alone.” She turned to the assembled Tower Wardens and said, “O Lord, I never thought to have come in here a prisoner, and I pray you all, good friends and fellows, bear me witness that I come in no traitor, but as true a woman to the Queen’s majesty as any is now living; and thereon will I take my death.” Some of the Wardens broke rank and knelt before her saying, “God preserve your Grace!”
The evening before, Princess Elizabeth had managed to delay her journey down the Thames by writing to her sister, Queen Mary. By the time she had completed the letter the tide had risen to a height that made it impossible to go under London Bridge. She was pleading for her life.
The previous year had seen the death of her Protestant half-brother, Edward VI and Mary’s accession to the throne. Being half Spanish and the first female ruler of England, Mary turned for advice and support to Charles V, King of Spain and Holy Roman Emperor. She had received the Emperor’s ambassador, Simon Renard, and installed him as one of her closest advisors. Charles proposed a match between Mary and his recently widowed son, Philip. This would bring England into the orbit of Spain and sink any prospect of an alliance with France. The marriage was very attractive to Mary as it provided her with a partner in the burden of rule and the hope of producing a Catholic heir to the throne. The visage of Spanish rule in England was far from popular with its people.
As a Catholic monarch, Mary re-established the Catholic Mass at Court. Conscious of her unwelcome position as a figurehead for Protestant hopes, and therefore the danger of her situation, Elizabeth complied with her sister’s wish that she attend Mass. Renard was sceptical of Elizabeth’s sudden change in religious sentiment and urged that she be confined to the Tower. Parliament was persuaded to reverse the statute that made Mary illegitimate (passed at the time of Henry VIII’s divorce from her mother). Although, by law, Elizabeth was also illegitimate, she was, by statute, next in succession to the throne should Mary die childless. Mary was tempted to have the line of succession changed to exclude Elizabeth but Sir William Paget advised her that Parliament would refuse. The House was relatively compliant, but not that compliant. The only other legitimate candidate to take Elizabeth’s place would be Mary, the child Queen of Scots. Spain was whole-heartedly against such a move as the child was betrothed to the heir of the French throne. Mary was stuck with Elizabeth, the only alternatives being the production of an heir or Elizabeth’s death.
Elizabeth was staying as Ashridge at the time. Mary ordered her to Court, presumably to keep a closer eye on her. Elizabeth replied on about the 23 January 1554 declaring ill health as excuse not to attend. Two days later Sir Thomas Wyatt, with a small force from Kent, raised rebellion against the Spanish marriage. The London militia were sent to oppose them but promptly joined the rebels, taking Southwick on the south bank of the Thames. London Bridge was closed and Wyatt’s men were forced to march to Richmond Bridge to cross the river; by which time a force, loyal to Mary, had been organised and the rebels were easily defeated. It was this action that so endangered Elizabeth’s life for Wyatt had intended to place her on the throne. The prejudice against Elizabeth made it impossible, in the eyes of Mary’s councillors, for her not to have had knowledge of the plot. Despite Wyatt’s denial that she was innocent of any involvement, Mary was determined to bring her sister to book. She sent physicians to Ashridge to ascertain Elizabeth’s state of health. She had indeed been ill, her body all swollen – a complaint she suffered throughout her life at times of extreme stress. Despite her condition, Elizabeth was brought to London by litter and lodged at Whitehall behind guarded doors. Her household and anyone connected with her were examined in an effort to incriminate her. Elizabeth, herself, was interrogated by the Council and Bishop Gardiner encouraged her to place herself at the mercy of Queen Mary and ask for pardon. She replied that to do so would be a confession of crime – let them prove her guilty, then she would seek a pardon! No direct link could be established between her and Wyatt, or none that stood up to close scrutiny. Despite a lack of firm evidence both Mary and Renard were convinced of her complicity. The Queen felt she had no alternative but to confine her sister to the Tower.
Elizabeth’s incarceration failed to alleviate Mary’s problems. London, ever the Protestant city, began to voice its protest in favour of their martyred Princess. There is the strange story of the “Spirit in the Wall.” Thousands flocked to a particular wall where they cried “God save Queen Mary,” to which it replied nothing. They then cried, “God save the Lady Elizabeth,” to which it said in reply, “So be it.” When Parliament met on 3 April, the streets were strewn with handbills and pamphlets in support of Elizabeth. Three days later Wyatt was executed, protesting Elizabeth’s innocence from the gallows. On 17 April a London jury acquitted Sir Nicholas Throckmorton, an associate of Wyatt’s, of treason and on the same day, Wyatt’s head was stolen from the gallows on which it had been staked. A few days later a paper was discovered in the Queen’s kitchen threatening both Mary and Bishop Gardiner, and stating that Philip of Spain must look to his life when he landed in England for the proposed marriage.
Mary was at her wits end. She could not keep her sister locked in the Tower indefinitely nor could she set her free. The only course of action was to place her under house arrest outside London. It was decided to keep her at the royal manor of Woodstock under the custodianship of Sir Henry Bedingfield. On Saturday, May 19, after two months imprisonment in the Tower, Elizabeth left by boat for Richmond and her journey north. As she travelled under escort, crowds gathered to cry, “God save your Grace.” Cakes and tokens of affection and support were handed to her and at Wheatley and Stanton St. John the whole village turned out to cheer her.
Woodstock was well guarded and no one had access to her without the express permission of Bedingfield. Elizabeth’s servant, Thomas Parry, was given the duties of feeding and paying the household staff, though he was not permitted to stay in the house. He established himself at the Bull Inn at Woodstock and the place became a miniature Court – adding to Bedingfield’s problems. Sir Henry, a conscientious though slow-witted man, found his duties a great burden. He eventually found it safer to refer all matters to the Council; even to the extent of what books Elizabeth should be allowed to read.
Philip of Spain landed at Southampton in July 1554 and he and Mary were married at Winchester five days later. With the new king came a vast retinue. One Londoner noted, “At this time there was so many Spaniards in London that a man should have met in the streets for one Englishman above four Spaniards, to the great discomfort of the English nation.” Tempers were short and affrays frequent and there was even a rumour that the archbishopric of Canterbury was to be given to a Spanish friar.
With the Queen and her new King established in London, the full force of a counter reformation began. Heresy laws were passed and the stake and faggots were soon in use. This holocaust of religious fervour soon brought the Queen the epithet “bloody” and even disgusted the Imperial, Venetian and French ambassadors – Catholics all.
November saw the return of Mary’s religious mentor, Cardinal Reginald Pole, and she took the opportunity to announce her pregnancy. All was going in Mary’s favour – a husband, the hoped for Catholic heir and a compliant Council to reinstate the True Faith. She felt safe enough to allow her sister to be moved to Hampton Court. The two of them met, Elizabeth protesting her innocence, Mary ever suspicious.
Months passed and the time came for Mary to give birth. At one point rumours circulated in London that the child had been born and the church bells were set ringing. April became May, and May, June and still nothing happened. The “pregnancy” became a sick joke. The Polish ambassador arrived in London, complete with a speech of congratulations on the new child. Unfortunately nobody warned him and he read the speech out at Court, adding to the comic farce. At the end of August 1555 Mary and Philip travelled down river to Greenwich, Mary’s favourite palace. In early September Philip left England for Flanders on Spanish affairs.
In the meantime, Elizabeth had also been moved to Greenwich. She was now in a much stronger position. With Mary’s phantom pregnancy and the religious persecution, Elizabeth’s enemies knew of her popularity. Her greatest danger now was being married off to serve Spanish interests. In October Mary returned to London for a meeting of Parliament and Elizabeth moved her household to her manor at Hatfield.
In the course of the winter Elizabeth had to face a new danger. A party was founded in the House of Commons to resist all Catholic legislation. The Council placed a bill before Parliament against Protestant refugees abroad.
The Protestant hot-heads, who met at an eating-house in London called Arundel’s, managed to gain the keys to the House, locked the Catholic supporters of the bill out, forced a vote and defeated the measure. A number of Elizabeth’s servants and supporters were arrested and placed in the Tower but no evidence was found to connect her to the action and no charges were brought. For three months Elizabeth was kept under house arrest in the congenial care of Sir Thomas Pope. Sir Thomas was the opposite of Bedingfield in that he was a man of intelligence and wit and the founder of Trinity College, Oxford. Elizabeth and Sir Thomas, prisoner and jailer, became friends and passed the time discussing plans for the development of the college.
Mary longed for the return of her husband for her biological clock was in overdrive and hopes of an heir were fast disappearing. Philip was in no hurry to occupy the bed of his prematurely aged wife.
By the spring of 1557 Elizabeth was released from restriction and visited her sister at Whitehall. The two women seem to have declared a truce and there was a brief period of reconciliation. Meanwhile Elizabeth’s greatest fear was being realised. Philip was actively trying to find her a husband. The prime candidate was his kinsman, Emmanuel Philibert, heir to the Duke of Savoy. Elizabeth refused. Others were suggested and all refused. There was even a proposal that she marry Philip’s 11-year-old son, Don Carlos.
In March 1557, after an absence of nineteen months, Philip returned to his wife. He stayed long enough to get England involved in a war with France that ended with the loss of Calais.
The beginning of 1558 saw Mary failing in health, probably from cancer of the ovaries. Once more she thought herself pregnant, but it was wishful thinking. By the end of the summer her time was fast running out. The country was divided over religion, the treasury was empty and England’s only overseas possession had been lost. At Hatfield Elizabeth was quietly building her own Court. Men of skill and intellect gravitated to her, among them a man of thirty-eight named Sir William Cecil. He was to prove her anchor through much of her reign – a true servant of his beloved Queen.
On November 6th Mary bowed to the inevitable and recognised Elizabeth as her successor. At seven in the morning on 17 November Queen Mary died, with few tears shed at her passing.
According to tradition, Elizabeth was at Hatfield, walking in the park. The members of the Privy Council found her sitting under an oak tree. They knelt on the grass before her and presented her with Mary’s coronation ring. She cast her eyes to heaven and spoke the words, “A domino factum est et mirabile in oculis nostris” (“God has done it and it is marvellous in our eyes.”). Thus the reign of Gloriana began.
Elizabeth became Queen of an impoverished, divided minor kingdom on the northern edge of Europe; she left it, forty-five years later, a world power and on the edge of greatness.
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