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Negative Representations of Gloriana
By Julia M. Walker
Duke University Press Copyright © 1998 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
The Bad Seed
Princess Elizabeth and the Seymour Incident
For Elizabeth Tudor, youth cannot have been easy. Always something of a disappointment because of her sex, Elizabeth careened between legitimacy and the precarious disgrace of bastardy, always with an uncertain place in the line of succession. Throughout each of the reigns falling between her birth and eventual accession to the throne, Elizabeth remained vulnerable to a seemingly infinite assortment of competing interests holding considerable influence over her personal and political fates. As a consequence, the status of her title, her household, and her future were continually subject to unpredictable and uncontrollable external forces. Determining whom she could trust and where she should ally herself undoubtedly consumed much of the young woman's attentions.
During this phase of her life, rumors about Elizabeth's behavior and opinions were rampant. The widespread uneasiness about the precarious state of the royal succession–which was enhanced by Edward VI's minority and by the female-dominated pool of candidates who might follow him to the throne–ensured that the most likely future monarchs would be subject to considerable scrutiny and speculation. Furthermore, Elizabeth's lineage and personal history were far from straightforward; therefore, it is not surprising that she would be watched closely and discussed widely. Since the Tudor princess's place in the succession fluctuated even during her father's lifetime, she would never have been able to presume unequivocally that it would be honored after his death. In this climate, there was little room for skepticism about her political intentions, her private allegiances, or her virtue. Consequently, as she matured, her life inevitably generated numerous narratives, based both upon perceived facts and upon speculation, as those in power–or wanting to be–kept a close watch on the politics of succession.
One of the most complex, and most telling, stories which circulated about the young princess concerned her relationship with Thomas Seymour, husband to her father's widow Catherine Parr and brother to the wife Henry married immediately after Elizabeth's mother was executed. The ill-fated Seymour engaged in suspiciously familiar activity with the princess during his wife's lifetime and reportedly sought Elizabeth as a marital partner after Parr's death. Rumors of Seymour's ambitions and transgressions in both these regards were widely circulated; even the young princess admitted to knowing of his marital quest in die testimony she offered after Lord Admiral Seymour's arrest. Here, she acknowledged that her governess, Katherine Ashley, had informed her of Seymour's purported intentions in this arena, and had also insinuated that Seymour saw Elizabeth as an attractive marriage possibility even before his marriage to Catherine Parr:
Kat. Aschlylye tolde me, after that my Lord Admiralde was maried to the Quene, that if my Lorde might haue his owne Wil, he wolde haue had me, afore the Quene. Than I asked her how she knewe that: Than she sayd, she knewe it wel inought, bothe by himselfe and by others. The Place, wher she said this, I haue forgotten, for she hathe spoken to me of him manye Times, and of the wiche I have forgotten divers Times.
Although Elizabeth knew that any hint of her own participation in marital discussions could create political turmoil for her, she did not attempt to hide her awareness of such talk after her servants testified. Presumably, the incidents were so well known that there was little to be gained by attempts at concealment.
Lord Admiral Thomas Seymour played the central role in these tales and in the scandal that accompanied them. For the most part, his execution represented the culmination of official concern about a number of his schemes and plots, including his apparently manipulative and personally ambitious relationships with Edward VI and with Lady Jane Grey. Here, Seymour again focused, at least in part, on marital possibilities and his own related gain, as he attempted to engineer a match between these two. Seymour's effrontery, as we know, ended in death, and Elizabeth's involvement with Seymour constituted only one aspect of the complex saga leading to the lord admiral's 1549 imprisonment and execution on accusations of treason. The charges which led the government, including Seymour's brother, the lord protector, to decide upon death, were many and varied. From the perspective of those seeking to stop Thomas Seymour's impetuous interference in political affairs, the domestic episode with Elizabeth was only one of many transgressions.
For Elizabeth, on the other hand, Seymour's risks, ambitions, and punishment presumably were secondary. From her perspective, official responses to the incident also demonstrated her vulnerability to stories linking her to transgressions previously attributed to her parents–most particularly to her mother. In addition, the episode bringing Seymour into questionable alignment with the princess underscores the overdetermined role played by narrative in the ongoing shaping of Elizabeth's existence and status. Reluctant depositions combined with plausible and exaggerated rumors kept the young princess in a precarious position, particularly since the stories told by members of Elizabeth's household were considered unreliable. Although she emerged unharmed and even managed to arrange the return of her implicated household staff, the potential danger to Elizabeth was very real. Despite Seymour's central role as target of the investigation, the intense questioning of the princess and her household suggests that Elizabeth's exoneration was not assumed. If complicity with Seymour could be proved, the princess's future might well have been compromised, particularly since the succession was often treated as though it were fluid, despite Henry VIII's instructions to the contrary. While there is no direct evidence to confirm a conspiracy against Elizabeth, the focus placed upon her and her household demonstrates diat the government felt sufficient concern to warrant a close investigation in this instance of the young woman's character, political beliefs, and behavior.
The questionable contact between the princess and the lord admiral occurred while Elizabedi was resident in the household of her father's widow. Catherine Parr married Thomas Seymour only a few months after the death of Henry VIII, concluding a match which seems to have been derailed some years previously when the formidable monarch began to show interest in the woman who became his final wife. Elizabeth lived with her stepmother in 1547, while her brother Edward was on the throne. From all accounts, she passed her time there in relative amity until die attentions of Thomas Seymour toward the young girl became excessively familiar.
The scandalous episode that followed emerged from official and domestic responses to a range of anecdotes produced about the potentially compromising relationship between the lord admiral and the young princess. Whether formalized as depositions or circulated privately, these tales became the "evidence" which contributed to the defeat of the ambitious Seymour and which threatened also to bring down Elizabeth. The numerous renditions that have followed in subsequent centuries demonstrate the continuing lure of the tale, with its implications of sexual intrigue and incest, particularly when seen retrospectively in relationship to the "virgin" queen.
The stories, familiar to us through countless renditions in novels and scholarship, certainly contain ample information to give one pause over the intentions and conduct of those involved, even if the stories are only partially true, and even if Frederick Chamberlin overstated the case in his 1922 account: "In the Seymour Affair, fate made Elizabeth the leading character in one of the most daring intrigues ever recorded." According to the depositions provided by Katherine [Kat] Ashley, a longtime member of Elizabedi's household, Seymour regularly appeared in the princess's chamber, dressed in his nightshirt, while the young woman was still in bed. Such familiarity apparently characterized their interactions, to the extent that even a supporter such as Ashley, who later apparently favored die pair's marriage, protested to Lord Admiral Seymour that his behavior toward Elizabeth was unseemly. According to Ashley's testimony, the chamber frolicking between Seymour and the princess either approached too near or crossed the line of decency. Since Ashley was such a strong supporter of the two, it is even possible that she altered and shaped her version in order to put everyone involved in a better light–a likely scenario since she was initially reluctant to testify at all. Although the intentions of those involved cannot be discerned, it seems incontrovertible that there was excessive informality between the pair.
According to Ashley's account, Seymour's unseemly conduct occurred regularly:
After he was maried to the Queene, he wold come many Mornyngs into the said Lady Elizabeth' s Chamber, before she were redy, and sometyme before she did rise. And if she were up, he wold bid hir good Morrow, an ax how she did, and strike hir upon the Bak or on the Buttockes famylearly, and so go forth through his Lodgings.... And if she were in hir Bed, he wold put open the Curteyns, and bid hir good Morrow, and make as though he wold come at hir: And she wold go further in the Bed, so that he could not come at hir.
And one Mornyng he strave to have kissed hir in hir Bed: and this Examinate was there, and bad hym go away for shame.
Ashley's stories were repeated, corroborated, and expanded upon by other household witnesses. Thomas Parry, Elizabeth's cofferer, for example, gave detailed testimony about events that he either witnessed or heard about which involved the princess and the lord admiral. As part of his tale, he recounted an incident he heard described by Mrs. Ashley:
I do remembre also, she [Ashley] told me, that the Admirall loved her but to well, and hadd so done a good while; and that the Quene was jelowse on hir and him, in so moche that, one Tyme the Quene, suspecting the often Accesse of the Admiral to the Lady Elizabeth's Grace, cam sodenly upon them, wher they were all alone, (he having her in his Armes:) wherfore the Quene fell out, both with the Lord Admiral and with her Grace also.
According to Parry and others, this incident led Catherine Parr to expel the young princess from the household–an event which cannot have helped Elizabeth's cause when she and her servants were under investigation.
Related stories were told by members of the lord admiral's household. In his testimony, for instance, Seymour's servant Wyghtman discussed the admonitions of Nicholas Throckmorton, who urged Wyghtman to dissuade the lord admiral from any thoughts of a match with Elizabeth. Wyghtman's deposition details this conversation:
[Throckmorton said] My Lorde is thought to be a verye ambitious Man of Honour; and it maye so happen that, nowe that the Quene is goene, he woold be desyrous for his Advauncement to match with oone of the King's Sisters; but in anye wyse in the World, as youe loue him and bear him your good Hearte, if euer youe heare any thing sounding that Waye, worke all that youe canne possiblye to stopp that Intent.
All of the testimony offered from members of both households makes it clear that everyone involved knew that there were rumors of improprieties between Seymour and Elizabeth while Catherine Parr was still alive. They had also all been involved in conversations after Seymour had been widowed where the possibility of marriage between the lord admiral and the princess had been discussed. Consequently, the interrogators received significant corroboration for their suspicions that something improper had probably occurred. At the same time, however, none of those questioned gave any indication that Elizabeth had behaved treasonously. The examiners received no hard evidence that the princess had encouraged any marital negotiations. Nor did they hear anything substantive to suggest that she had encouraged Seymour in his attentions. Nevertheless, Sir Robert Tyrwhit appears to have believed in her complicity, writing to the lord protector, "I do se yt in her Face that she ys guylte."
Despite such suspicions, Elizabeth expressed extreme reluctance in admitting her preferences in the matter of her marriage, even when the questioner asked her to presume the approval of the King's Council. In her interrogation with Tyrwhit, for instance, she demurred from answering such questions directly: "[He] asked me, wether if the Counsel did consente that I shulde have my Lord Admiral, wether I wolde consente to it or no: I answered that I wolde not tel him what my Minde was." Similarly, in her account of discussions with Kat Ashley, she maintains that they never discussed a match which would violate her obligation to the King's Council: "And as concerning Kat. Aschilye, she never avised me unto it, but said alwais (whan any talked of my Marriage) that she wolde ever have me marry, nether in Inglande nor out of Inglande, without the Consent of the Kinge's Majestie, your Grace's and the Counsels."
Throughout her depositions and correspondence, Elizabeth calmly denies wrongdoing on the part of herself or of her staff, saving her vehemence to express outrage against those rumors which she deemed especially scurrilous, particularly those which claimed that she was pregnant:
Master Tirwit and others haue tolde me that ther goeth rumers Abrode, wiche be greatly both agenste my Honor, and Honestie, (wiche above al other thinges I estime) wiche be these; that I am in the Tower; and with Childe by my Lord Admiral. My Lord these ar shameful Schandlers, for the wiche, besides the great Desire I have to see the Kinge's Majestie, I shall most hartely desire your Lordship that I may come to the Court after your first Determination; that I may shewe my selfe there as I am.
Clearly, Elizabeth was most disturbed by die suggestion that she had compromised her honor to such a degree that she was carrying an illegitimate child. When the charges moved from the realm of rumor into the domain of verifiable physical fact, her outrage against them increased. She would obviously realize that this accusation carried the most serious threat against her; she presumably also recognized diat she could personally offer proof of this story's falsity, something she could not provide so unequivocally in the case of the odier rumors.
At the same time, Elizabeth's response to die stories of her pregnancy also illustrates how she was able to use this unfortunate episode to hone her growing political skills. While the young girl was unable to avoid being implicated in the scandal, she clearly learned some valuable lessons during this incident. At the peak of the crisis, for instance–in February and March of 1549–she wrote to the lord protector, sending letters that expressed contrition and that offered her suggestions for handling the situation. Undoubtedly recognizing that she needed the support of the lord protector and of the King's Council in order to escape significant political or personal harm, she prefaced her requests with markedly conciliatory comments: "I was sorye that ther shulde be anye suche [rumors] aboute me, was bicause that I thogth the people wil say diat I deserved throwgth my lewde demenure to have such a one, and not that I mislike any thinge that your Lordeshipe or the Counsel shal thinke good, for I knowe that you and the Counsel ar charged with me; or that I tak upon me to rule my selfe." Similarly, her petition asking that the lord protector intervene on her behalf to help stop the stories being spread about her strikes a tone of humility:
But if it mougth so seme good unto your Lordeshipe and the rest of the Counsel to sende forthe a proclamation in to the countries that the[y] refrane their tonges, declaring how the tales be but lies, it shulde make bothe the people thinke that You and the Counsel have great regarde that no such rumors shulde be spread of anye of the Kinges Maiesties Sisters, as I am, thougth vnwordie, and also I shulde thinke myselfe to receve such frendeshipe at your hands as you have promised me, althogth your Lordeship hathe shewed me greate alreadie.
Excerpted from Dissing Elizabeth by Julia M. Walker. Copyright © 1998 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
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