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Danger to Elizabeth
By Alison Plowden
The History PressCopyright © 2011 The estate of Alison Plowden
All rights reserved.
A wise and religious Queen
'We have a wise and religious Queen'
John Jewel, London, 22 May 1559
When Elizabeth Tudor succeeded to her sister's throne in November 1558 she was the same age as Mary Stuart at the time of her flight into England, but Elizabeth at twenty-five was still very much of an unknown quantity. This was partly due to the fact that she had spent most of the previous five years either in prison or living in rural retirement under some form of surveillance, and partly to the habits of discretion and dissimulation acquired during her precarious adolescence, However, as it became obvious that the ailing, unhappy Mary Tudor would leave no other heir, international curiosity about the young Elizabeth had intensified, and in 1557 the Venetian ambassador included a detailed description of the Princess in his report on his tour of duty in England. Her face, wrote Giovanni Michiel, was comely rather than handsome, but she was tall, well-formed and with a good skin, although sallow. She had fine eyes and very beautiful hands which she took care to display.
Even in her early twenties, the pale, sharp-featured, red-haired Elizabeth had never been able to compete with her Scottish cousin's fabled beauty, but she possessed other attributes which were to prove of greater value in the long-drawn-out battle between them. As early as 1557, Michiel could comment respectfully on the excellence of her mind and on the wonderful intellect and understanding she had shown when facing danger and suspicion. She was proud, too, and haughty, he declared, in spite of the fact that her birth was regarded as illegitimate by most of Christian Europe and that her mother, the great-granddaughter of a London mercer, had once been commonly referred to as that goggle-eyed whore Nan Bullen. Nevertheless, Elizabeth it seemed did not regard herself as being of inferior degree to her half-sister the Queen, whose mother had been a Spanish princess of irreproachable lineage and virtue. 'She prides herself on her father and glories in him', wrote Michiel, adding that her resemblance to Henry VIII was remarked by everybody.
Elizabeth's greatest source of strength in the dismal days of her sister's reign had always been her immense popularity, especially with the Londoners, and her accession was greeted with a spontaneous outburst of public rejoicing which has seldom been equalled. The uninhibited warmth of her welcome cannot be explained away by mere desire for a change, or relief that the transition had been accomplished peacefully. In the decade which had passed since King Henry's death, the nation had suffered from the rule of greedy, factious juntas during the minority of Edward VI and the unpopular, inefficient government of a Queen accused of loving Spaniards and hating Englishmen. Mary Tudor had indeed leaned heavily on Spanish advisers and on her Spanish husband, who had ended by dragging the country into a ruinous war with France, culminating in the loss of Calais, last outpost of England's once great Continental empire.
Some people doubted whether another woman ruler would be much of an improvement, but there seems to have been a widespread, intuitive feeling that Henry VIII's younger daughter was a genuine chip off the old block. Elizabeth was at least a full-blooded Englishwoman, unencumbered by foreign ties. Most important of all, she was young and healthy and with any luck would bear healthy sons. That apart, in the winter of 1558, she looked like being England's last hope of peace and good government for a long time to come, and one senses an undercurrent of rather desperate optimism in the cheers, the pealing bells and salutes of guns which greeted the new Queen as she rode in procession through the City to the Tower on 28 November.
Among the legacy of problems Elizabeth had inherited from her sister were a restive, divided kingdom, an empty Treasury and a mountain of debt. The international situation, too, looked grim, with 'steadfast enmity but no steadfast friendship abroad'. Technically England was still at war with France – 'the French King', in Armagil Waad's picturesque phrase, 'bestriding the realm, having one foot in Calais and the other in Scotland'. The first task facing the new administration, therefore, was to make peace on the best terms it could get, and it did not seem as if they would be very good. As well as possessing all the military and strategic trumps, the French held a strong political card in their control of young Mary Stuart, granddaughter of Henry VIII's elder sister Margaret who had married James IV of Scotland.
In the eyes of the Catholic world which, of course, had never recognised the King of England's famous divorce, Mary had a far better legal claim to the English throne than Henry's daughter, born during the lifetime of his first wife. Elizabeth had, after all, been bastardised and disinherited by her own father in a still unrepealed Act of Parliament, and her present title was based on another Act of 1544 restoring her to the succession. The English Catholics, led by the Lord Chancellor, Nicholas Heath, had accepted her on the strength of her parliamentary title. The French, however, were less convinced of either Henry's or Parliament's competence to manipulate the natural laws of inheritance, and in December 1558 Lord Cobham reported from Brussels that they 'did not let to say and talk openly that Her Highness is not lawful Queen of England and that they have already sent to Rome to disprove her right'. A few weeks later, Sir Edward Carne was writing from Rome that 'the ambassador of the French laboreth the Pope to declare the Queen illegitimate and the Scottish Queen successor to Queen Mary'.
The King of France had every reason to take a close interest in this matter, since Mary Stuart, who had been brought up in France, was now married to the Dauphin while her mother, Mary of Guise, ruled Scotland with French support. If the Queen of Scots' right to the English throne could be established, it opened up a tempting prospect of French hegemony. So at least it seemed to several experienced English politicians, among them Nicholas Wotton, one of the Commissioners at the preliminary peace talks being held at Cercamp.
Wotton was pessimistic about their prospects of coming away with anything more than 'a piece of paper only containing the words of a treaty of peace', and he wrote to William Cecil gloomily outlining the various causes which moved him to doubt the sincerity of the French. These included 'the ancient and immortal hatred they bear unto us ... the pretence they make now by the Scottish Queen's feigned title to the crown of England; the occasion and commodity they have now to invade us by land on Scotland side ... the most dangerous divisions in religion among ourselves ... the poor state the crown of England is in for lack of money, which I fear they understand too well; the lack of good soldiers, captains and of all kind of munition that we have; the nakedness of all our country, having almost never a place well fortified to sustain a siege; the great commodity which they look to have thereby, if they may subdue England to them; for, bringing once that to pass, (which God forbid) and having England, Scotland and Ireland, no doubt they would look shortly after to be monarchs of almost all Europe; and so were they like to be indeed.' Wotton also regarded Mary Stuart's ambitious Guise relations with the gravest misgivings, 'considering that the House of Guise's greatness and authority dependeth chiefly upon the great commodity that France hath and looketh to have by this marriage of Scotland. And therefore, whatsoever they shall say, sing or pipe, their meaning and intent can be none other but to seek all the means possible to increase the power and honour of their niece the Queen of Scots and of her posterity.'
The fact that the sixteen-year-old Mary was now quartering the royal arms of England with her own and was styled Queen of England in official documents, appeared to reinforce Wotton's forebodings. As it turned out, however, the King of France was not so much interested in embarking on military adventures on behalf of his daughter-in-law as in using her potential status as a lever to extort concessions from the English Commissioners. For example, when the question of the restitution of Calais was raised at the conference table, the French were able to enquire blandly: to whom should Calais be restored? Was not the Queen of Scotland true Queen of England?
This sort of talk naturally infuriated Queen Elizabeth, but she and her advisers knew that without Spanish assistance there was not the slightest chance of recovering Calais. They also knew – as did the King of France – that Philip II, King of Spain, Naples and Sicily, Lord of the Netherlands and widower of Mary Tudor, while showing no disposition to help England in the matter of Calais, would go to considerable lengths to prevent France from interfering in the matter of the succession. Philip might be a zealous Catholic, but he was also a practical statesman who infinitely preferred to see an English queen of doubtful orthodoxy on the English throne, than one half-French by birth and wholly French in sympathy.
Nevertheless, although for the time being, Mary Stuart's very Frenchness was paradoxically a safeguard, the question of her claim remained a source of anxiety and possible danger. The 'auld alliance' between France and Scotland had been a running sore in England's side for generations. It was unfortunate that just now, when the body politic seemed least able to deal with it, this complaint should be present in an acute form.
The other immediate task facing the new Queen of England and her government was the particularly delicate one of making a religious settlement at home. Ironically enough, it had been to ensure her own birth in wedlock that Elizabeth's father, a quarter of a century earlier, had separated England from the body of the Roman Church and had thus helped to destroy the unity of Christendom – that seamless garment of common discipline and belief which had covered the whole of mediaeval Western Europe. Henry's Reformation had been a deliberate political act and, although explicitly denying the authority of the Pope, his Church retained many of the basic tenets of Roman Catholicism.
As long as he lived, the old King had ridden both conservative spirits and more radical reformers with a tight rein, but after his death the radicals quickly took the bit between their teeth. Doctrinal and liturgical innovations followed one another thick and fast. Old rites and ceremonies were abolished, the clergy were permitted to marry, heresy laws were swept away, it was ordained that the laity should henceforward communicate in both kinds, and on Whitsunday 1549 Cranmer's first English Book of Common Prayer became the official and obligatory order of service in every parish church. Based on the old Sarum use, Cranmer's prayer book was still something of a compromise between old and new and worded loosely enough to be acceptable, it was hoped, to both old and new. The new liturgy was, however, rejected by certain ungrateful and reactionary West Countrymen as 'a Christmas game', while others of a more progressive turn of mind did not scruple to refer to it as 'a Popish dunghill'. Three years later a second, more radical version was introduced. The Prayer Book of 1552 completed the process of transforming the sacrifice of the ancient Latin Mass into a communion or commemorative service. The words of the administration: 'Take and eat this in remembrance that Christ died for thee, and feed on him in thy heart by faith with thanksgiving' could no longer be interpreted, even by the most elastic conscience, as anything but a denial of the Real Presence.
Then, in 1553, Edward VI, enthusiastically hailed by the reformers as 'a young Josiah', died in his sixteenth year and Mary Tudor, after unexpectedly defeating the coup d'état in favour of Lady Jane Grey, succeeded to the throne. Henry VIII's elder daughter had never made any secret of her devout Catholicism. Indeed she had suffered for it repeatedly, both at her father's hands and the hands of her brother's ministers. She made no secret either of the fact that she believed herself to have been specially called by God to save her unhappy and deluded subjects from the forces of darkness.
There can be no question about Mary's sincerity, but her gallant rearguard action was foredoomed to failure. Had she been content merely to restore the Anglo-Catholic settlement of her father's day, she might well have succeeded. The Protestant left-wingers, although noisy and well-organised, represented as yet only a small minority of the nation, the great bulk of which would have been glad enough to return to the more seemly ritual of the Henrician Church – as in fact was demonstrated by the Parliament of October 1553. Unfortunately this could not satisfy one of Mary's uncompromising spirit. The following year it seemed as if she had won her victory when, on 30 November, England was officially absolved from the sin of schism and received back into the bosom of Mother Church. The Edwardian ecclesiastical legislation had already gone, the married clergy had been ordered to put away their wives and Mass was again being celebrated in all its old panoply; now the mediaeval heresy laws were revived once more and all the Henrician statutes denying papal authority repealed.
But Mary's victory proved a hollow one. The contemporary habit of obedience to the sovereign's will was strong. It was not strong enough to persuade any of those who had profited from the plunder of the Reformation to part with an inch or a pennyworth of their loot. Watertight safeguards for the holders of Church property had had to be devised before Parliament was prepared to accept the Pope's forgiveness. Worse than this, it soon became depressingly clear that the Queen was losing the battle for hearts and minds. Many prominent Protestants found it prudent to go abroad to wait for better times but many others, in less fortunate circumstances, were showing a disconcerting readiness to suffer for their faith. Serious heresy hunting began in February 1555 and continued spasmodically until Mary's death; by which time nearly three hundred men and women, nearly all of them humble people and nearly all of them from London and the south-eastern counties, had been burnt alive.
It is often predicated that the persecution of a minority for the sake of an ideology is invariably a self-defeating exercise; this is a fallacy. There have been instances in history when persecution has been extremely successful. In order to succeed, however, such persecution must be carried out with utter conviction and single-minded ruthlessness. It must also have at least passive support from the bulk of the population in the country concerned. The Marian persecution fulfilled neither of these conditions and therefore had the inevitable effect of strengthening the persecuted. The Edwardian reformers, hitherto quite widely regarded as a loud-mouthed gang of troublemakers, grew immeasurably in dignity and stature and, in Bishop Latimer's immortal words to Ridley as they stood bound to the stake in the dry ditch outside the walls of Oxford, they did indeed light such a candle, by God's grace, in England as never was put out.
In the sixteenth century violent and painful death was too much of a commonplace to be regarded with the same revulsion as it is today, but on those people who witnessed the fortitude of their neighbours – poor widows, journeymen and apprentices, agricultural labourers, weavers, clothworkers, artisans and tradesmen – dying in agony for what they believed to be God's truth, the burnings made an impression disproportionate to the numbers who actually suffered. From the ashes of the Marian martyrs rose the phoenix of that bitter, ineradicable fear and hatred of Rome which had begun to spread its wings even before John Foxe published his famous best-seller, and which was to brood over the national consciousness for centuries to come.
Although public sympathy for Mary's victims was immediate, it has also to be remembered that for every Protestant who took his conscience to the more congenial climate of Germany or Switzerland, or who lit a candle of martyrdom in the local marketplace, there were many thousands more who stayed at home, going about their business, obeying the law and keeping their opinions to themselves. The most notable of these conformers was the heir to the throne. During Edward's reign Elizabeth had come in for a good deal of praise from Protestant divines who commented approvingly on her 'maiden shamefastness' and devotion to godly learning; and, as the Holy Roman Emperor's ambassador reported rather sourly on the occasion of one of her visits to Court, 'she was most honourably received by the Council who acted thus in order to show the people how much glory belongs to her who has embraced the new religion and is become a very great lady.' Elizabeth, however, was not the stuff of which religious martyrs are made. After little more than a token show of resistance she had asked for instruction in the Catholic faith and was soon accompanying the Queen to Mass. She unblinkingly assured her anxious sister that 'she went to Mass and did as she did because her conscience prompted and moved her to it; that she went of her own free will and without fear, hypocrisy or dissimulation'. While she was living under restraint at Woodstock, her custodian reported that she had received 'the most comfortable sacrament', and after her release she had joined the rest of the Court in a three-day fast to qualify for indulgence from Rome.
Excerpted from Danger to Elizabeth by Alison Plowden. Copyright © 2011 The estate of Alison Plowden. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
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