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A Secret History of the Reign Of Elizabeth I
By STEPHEN ALFORD
Copyright © 2012 Stephen Alford
All right reserved.
Chapter One A Secret History
Of all the ruling families of England none has been more accomplished at projecting its majesty than the Tudors. As usurpers with a tenuous claim to the English throne they had to be. Seizing the crown from the Yorkist King Richard III in 1485, the first Tudor monarch, Henry VII, based his grab for power on the royal ancestry of his mother's noble family, the Beauforts, and his father's connection by marriage to the Lancastrians Henry V and Henry VI. The first of these fifteenth-century kings was a warrior and a model of chivalry, the second posthumously a saintly worker of miracles. Out of these rich and complicated threads of family and history the Tudor kings (Henry VII, Henry VIII and the boy-king Edward VI) and the Tudor queens (Mary I and Elizabeth I) wove a pattern of power and dynasty that is as vibrant and recognizable today as it was five hundred years ago.
Certainly the Tudors still dazzle. Their magnificent buildings are stunning in scale and grandeur, from the solidity of Hampton Court Palace to the splendid gothic traceries of St George's Chapel in Windsor and King's College Chapel in Cambridge. As remarkable is the Tudors' mausoleum in the Lady Chapel of Westminster Abbey, first intended by Henry VII as a shrine for his saintly Lancastrian forebear Henry VI. In royal propaganda the early Tudors never lost an opportunity: even a badge as simple as the double rose of the rival houses of Lancaster and York, the red and the white united, expressed so clearly and neatly the bringing of peace to a kingdom divided in the fifteenth century by civil war.
Henry VIII, who ruled between 1509 and 1547, continued his father's ambitions in the stone and stained glass of palaces and chapels but also through the printing press and the pulpit. At Henry's court Hans Holbein the Younger, a German painter of spectacular talents, produced masterpieces of minute detail, showing members of the royal family and leading courtiers in portraits that have the immediacy of photographs. More obviously political in purpose was Holbein's great mural for the audience chamber of Whitehall Palace, so powerful a representation of Henry VIII, massive and regal, that it made visitors who saw it tremble.
This Henry was the king who changed English history in a way no other monarch had done before. He set England upon a path strikingly different to most of the countries of Europe. Refused an annulment of his first marriage by the Pope, in 1530 Henry's eyes were opened to new possibilities. He broke away from the Church of Rome. Recognizing the insistent calls of God and history, he proclaimed himself an emperor, magnificent in his power, supreme head of the Church of England on earth next under God. These facts of Henry's kingship were pressed home unceasingly from the pulpits and the printing presses. In a beautiful woodcut on the title page of the official translation of the Bible from Latin to English Henry was shown to be in direct communication with God, with no need for the intercession of priests or popes; the interests of the king in his palace and God in his heaven were identical. This whole edifice of projected authority was inherited eleven years after Henry's death by his daughter Elizabeth, who ruled the kingdoms of England and Ireland between 1558 and 1603. And Queen Elizabeth, as her subjects and enemies alike well knew, was very much King Henry's daughter, unbending, wilful, at times severe, a magisterial presence in government.
The impression of Elizabeth's England is fixed firmly in the popular imagination. It was a glorious Renaissance kingdom distinguished by its self-confidence, its wealth, the imperial exploits of its royal navy and its aggressive determination to succeed. Courtiers sparkled, poets and dramatists wrote, and audacious sea captains harried the Spanish enemy. We have to be impressed by the Elizabethan roll call of brilliance: Sir Francis Drake, Sir Philip Sidney, Sir Walter Ralegh, Edmund Spenser, Sir John Hawkins, Ben Johnson, Christopher Marlowe, William Shakespeare, Gabriel Harvey, Francis Bacon, William Camden. Presiding over her kingdom was a queen who in her last speech to parliament, in 1601, said: 'your sovereign is more careful of your conservation than of herself, and will daily crave of God that they that wish you best may never wish in vain.'
Portraits of Elizabeth are as eloquent an expression of that commanding authority. In the 'Ditchley' portrait of 1592, which hangs today in the National Portrait Gallery in London, Elizabeth has an almost supernatural presence. Standing against a storm-racked sky giving way to sunshine, she wears a bejewelled white dress; her feet are planted firmly upon a map of her kingdom; three times the size of England she towers above Europe; she is dazzling, radiant and serenely powerful. The earlier 'Armada' portrait celebrates the royal navy's famous victory over the great invasion fleet sent by King Philip II of Spain in 1588. Here once again the political statements are insistent. The queen is magnificently dressed, her right hand resting upon a globe of the world. Her imperial crown sits next to her, while framed in the background of the painting are two images, the first of Elizabeth's navy sailing in calm waters, the second of the Spanish fleet being dashed against rocks by a terrible storm. These are only two of many portraits. Their message was always consistent: touched by God, unmovable, majestic, serene, Elizabeth was a queen for whom the motto Semper Eadem, 'Always the same', was superbly appropriate.
Or so we may think. Lurking in fact behind these clever and persuasive projections of political stability, empire, self-confidence and national myth is a much more complicated and fascinating story. It is a darker story, too, set against the background of a Europe divided and oppressed by religious conflict, civil war and the ambitions of kings and princes. Its themes are faith, loyalty, treason, martyrdom, espionage and a ferocious contest for dynastic pre-eminence.
Elizabeth's England was in fact anything but stable. There were, after all, few secure foundations for stability. As a family the Tudors held on to power rather precariously. After the death of Henry VIII in 1547, the English royal succession swerved unexpectedly between all three of Henry's children: a boy too young to rule for himself and two women, one a Catholic, the other a Protestant. Between 1530 and Elizabeth's accession as queen in 1558 Tudor England experienced a political, religious and social revolution. Henry VIII broke away from the Catholic Church and destroyed the monasteries, ploughing the money he raised from their suppression into war against France. This was followed in the reign of young Edward VI, between 1547 and 1553, by the final obliteration of Catholic worship in England. After Edward's death his half-sister Queen Mary returned the English Church to Rome and set about suppressing Protestant heresy. For the six years of Edward's reign Protestants had ruled England: a few years later under Mary they fled into exile or were burned at the stake for heresy. These profound changes were punctuated by foreign wars, domestic rebellions, the emergence of corrosive theories of political resistance and for many ordinary men and women economic misery. In 1558 Queen Elizabeth inherited a shocked and shattered nation.
It was no wonder that Elizabeth and her government became so adept at masking these harsh realities. Elizabethan propaganda was not a thing of luxury: it was an essential anaesthetic. Elizabeth found an empty treasury and a country sick of war. Yet still the revolution continued. Against the conservative inclinations of many of her own people and to the anger of Catholic princes and potentates in Europe, she and her ministers built a Protestant Church modelled upon that of her father and younger brother, in which the queen exercised the authority to govern. Catholics throughout Europe found this proposition both incomprehensible – how could a woman place herself at the head of Christ's Church? – and deeply offensive.
One thing that Elizabeth did not do, famously, was to marry. She resisted practically every effort to find her a husband; even when a marriage looked possible, the negotiations were scuppered by political and religious reservations. There was no plausible candidate to succeed her. Without either a legitimate heir or a named successor backed by the political elite, England faced ruin. Upon Elizabeth alone rested Protestant England's survival or catastrophe. That is one of the great underlying themes of this book. True, England survived the dynastic ambitions and military might of King Philip of Spain as well as the claim to Elizabeth's throne of a dangerous pretender, Mary Queen of Scots. One mark of Elizabethan success is that the queen survived to die in her bed in 1603. But it was a near-run thing.
A bullet, a dagger or a dose of poison – or equally a fever or disease – could have changed things for ever. And then how easily the Elizabethan world would have come crashing down. Indeed, how contingent upon the fragile life of one woman is the history we know. So let us, for a few pages, imagine the possibilities.
On a morning late in the summer of 1586 the sound of gunfire was heard in St James's Park, the royal hunting ground between the great palaces of St James's and Whitehall in Westminster. It was a volley of fire quite different in sound to that of the cannon which came weekly from the artillery ranges near the Tower of London. More to the point, the sound was unexpected and thus troubling. Quickly it was clear to the officials and servants who ran out from Whitehall that the queen, who had been travelling near the park in her coach, was badly wounded. She was the victim of assassins who, with some planning and a good deal of luck, had at last taken their chance.
Suspicions of murder plots were common in her reign, yet Elizabeth had always seemed oddly unconcerned by threats to her life; after all, she was a queen touched by God, and she had the assurance of divine protection. Some conspirators had plotted to kill her while she walked in her palace gardens with a few of her ladies and gentlewomen, though even the most desperate assassin was disconcerted by the queen's sense of presence and her aura of power.
Firearms, though less effective than a rapier or dagger to the body, put at least some distance between a killer and his victim. And on that late summer's morning this is how fifteen men, some carrying heavy harquebuses, others armed with lighter pistols, had set about killing the queen. Taking her light escort by surprise, they had fired accurately enough into her coach to wound her. The attackers, all young Catholic gentlemen who saw Elizabeth's death as the only way to prevent their families' financial and social ruin, dispersed, galloping quickly away into the countryside surrounding Westminster and London. They left their queen with bullets lodged in her stomach and shoulder. As hurriedly as they could manage, her servants carried Elizabeth to Whitehall, where she was given over to the care of her physicians and ladies. The royal chaplains began to pray earnestly for her safe delivery. Servants and officials in her private chambers had seen her desperately ill before, with sicknesses, fevers and once even smallpox. She had always made a miraculous recovery; surely she was indeed in God's protection. But this, they knew, was different. Those princes and noblemen who had been shot in Europe's wars of religion had struggled against the loss of blood, infection or crude surgery. Few had survived. Elizabeth was alive, for the time being.
Within an hour of the attack Elizabeth's Privy Council, her board of senior advisers, had gathered in emergency conference. They were powerful and experienced men equal to what they were about to do. They were not particularly surprised by the attack; they had expected something like it for some years. And yet there was a feeling of unreality about their meeting, a sensation of nightmare. They knew that they would soon have to meet the extraordinary challenge of rebellion, insurrection, even a civil war. If the queen died, the result would be catastrophe: she had no successor. Controlling their anxieties around the Council table, Elizabeth's ministers were quietly gripped by fear.
But things had to be done, instructions to be sent out, resolutions to be made. They ordered watches to be put on every road and highway out of London and Westminster. There was some hope that the queen's attackers could be captured. Then they prepared their orders. Mary Queen of Scots, Elizabeth's cousin and a dangerous claimant to the Tudor throne, though already in English custody was to be put under even heavier guard and restraint. Any attack on the queen, the councillors agreed, would certainly be coordinated with an effort to free Mary by force. For years English Catholics in exile and foreign Catholic princes had planned for such a mission. The queen's secretary gave a report to the Council on the activities and movements of prominent Catholics, Catholic priests and suspected conspirators in London. The Council ordered London's prisons to be made secure and all Catholic prisoners to be held in close confinement. They instructed the mayor and aldermen of the city to raid the lodgings of everyone under the observation of the secretary and his informants. None of this, they knew, would be easy in a city crammed with people, where the slightest provocation could spark disorder and panic.
As they had done many times before, the Council prepared England for war. In the 'Narrow Sea' of the English Channel Elizabeth's small navy was put on alert. Military orders were sent to the governor of the large garrison at Berwick-upon-Tweed on England's border with Scotland. If the King of Scots tried to take advantage of political instability in England then at least Berwick, whose defences could resist a heavy artillery assault, would hold. Orders went out also to York, to the Welsh border country and to Ireland. Rebellions almost always began in the outlying parts of England where, as the Council well knew, many of the queen's subjects had never fully reconciled themselves to Elizabeth's Church, sympathizing with the imprisoned Queen of Scots. Ireland had been in a state of rebel insurgency for years. Even London in these new and dangerous circumstances was unpredictable, and so the Council sent out instructions for mustering the city's militia. As a precaution the Tower of London was made ready to house the royal court, its lieutenant alerted to the need for vigilance and defence.
While the clerks went off to prepare the Council's letters for their lordships' signatures, Elizabeth's advisers turned their thoughts to the solemn business of hunting down those responsible for the murderous assault upon the queen. They were sure that the attackers worked on behalf of greater powers, probably Spain or perhaps France, certainly the Queen of Scots. That, simply, was the evidence gathered over years of discovering and frustrating plots. They had a law to deal with this kind of emergency, the Act for the Queen's Surety, passed by parliament only the previous year, which gave the Council and queen the authority to summon a commission to bring the traitors to justice. Every councillor in the chamber had also put his signature and seal to an oath of association in which he had promised to hunt down and to kill anyone who tried to murder the queen or threaten her kingdom on behalf of a pretended successor. Once again, those who sat around the Council table thought of the pernicious influence of Mary Queen of Scots. They deliberated, sending for the queen's attorney-general and solicitor-general. For the moment they held off summoning foreign ambassadors to court. How and when they did this would depend upon the queen's health in the coming hours. Soon enough, however, they would have to act.
News and rumour of the attack on the queen's coach, spreading quickly through Westminster, soon reached the crowded streets and narrow alleyways of London. There was anxiety, even a little panic. Some shopkeepers closed their shops, and prudent householders ordered their servants to bar gates and lock doors. Young apprentices looking for excitement and probably also trouble congregated in small groups along the thoroughfares near St Paul's Cathedral. Crowds quickly gathered in the two most important meeting places of London, the churchyard of the great gothic cathedral at the heart of the city, and a little further east at the Royal Exchange, the bourse where English and foreign merchants and businessmen met to make deals and enjoy themselves at the taverns near by. Some Londoners said that the queen had escaped without harm; others reported that she was already dead. There were mutterings about Catholic traitors and a rumour of Spanish agents. Sensible foreigners in London – religious refugees from France and the Low Countries, Germans, a few Italians – felt it was wise to stay away from the crowds. The mood of the city was only excited by the groups of aldermen and parish constables moving slowly through the lodging houses and taverns looking for potentially dangerous Catholics.
London was quiet but tense overnight. A few bonfires burned, the crowds at St Paul's and the Royal Exchange had been reluctant to go to their homes and lodging houses. The night watch dealt with a few minor scuffles. Still there was no proper news.
Excerpted from The Watchers by STEPHEN ALFORD Copyright © 2012 by Stephen Alford. Excerpted by permission of BLOOMSBURY PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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