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Elizabeth and Mary: Cousins, Rivals, Queens
Jane Dunn

Perhaps the same astrological phenomena Dr Dee used were pored over by French diviners looking for auspicious signs, for this marriage was solemnized on 22 January just a week after the coronation of Elizabeth as the new Queen of England.

Elizabeth’s coronation managed to be both a grand spectacle and yet intimately involving of her subjects. This ability to combine ‘a superb show’

(#litres_trial_promo) with a certain informality at great state occasions seems to have been a characteristic peculiar to the English at the time, differentiating them from the Italians and the French. A perceptive Italian observer in his eyewitness account commented on this, not entirely favourably: ‘the English having no Masters of the Ceremonies … and still less caring about formalities’

(#litres_trial_promo) seemed to rely less on pomp and ceremonial. He thought the cheery way Elizabeth answered back to the jocular crowds who clamoured for her after her coronation was equally deplorable. This informality and sensitivity to the popular mood was to appear to her Catholic observers to extend even into her attitude to religious worship and allow a fatal backsliding, they feared, to her brother’s radicalism.

This ability to unite grandeur with a genuine common touch was memorably displayed in Elizabeth’s state entry into London on the Saturday afternoon, the day before her coronation. The sky was dull with heavy snow clouds, in fact some snow even fell on the waiting crowds, some of whom had been out all night ‘their untired patience never spent, eyther with long expecting (some of them from a good part of the night before) or with unsatiable beholding of the Ceremonies of that day’.

(#litres_trial_promo) There was thick mud everywhere, brought on by the rain and churned up by the increased traffic of carts and horses, and each householder had taken it upon himself to strew sand and gravel in front of his house to make the going less difficult. The whole court was present and so brilliantly arrayed the weather hardly mattered. They ‘so sparkled with jewels and gold collars that they cleared the air’.


Her court preceeded her on horseback, numbering about a thousand, one eyewitness estimated. Then Elizabeth herself finally arrived in an open carriage entirely upholstered in gold. She was dressed in cloth of gold and on her head over her unembellished hair she wore the simple gold crown of a princess studded with precious stones. Her hands held nothing but her gloves. Around her were her footmen in their crimson velvet jerkins with the white rose of York on their chests and the red Lancastrian rose on their backs. They wore too the letters E R in bold silver gilt relief, the first time the crowd had seen their new queen’s insignia.

Behind her carriage rode Lord Robert Dudley, resplendent on his fine horse, followed by the Lord Chamberlain and the lords of her Privy Chamber. At the Tower Elizabeth stopped the cavalcade. So deeply impressed had she been by the terror of her two months imprisonment there, and so struck by the subsequent transfiguration of her life, that once more she felt moved to make a heartfelt speech thanking God for delivering her from that place: as ‘he had delivered Daniell from the lyones denne’ so he had ‘preserved her from those dangers wherwith shee was both invironed and overwhelmed, to bring her to the joye and honour of that daye’.

(#litres_trial_promo) On her first formal entry into London as queen at the end of November, Elizabeth had expressed a similar gratitude to God for her deliverance from that place. Her tenacity of mind and loyalty of feeling meant that she revisited many times in her speeches the trials of her past as well as the triumphs. In this way she involved her people in an act of sympathetic imagination and in her lifetime created her own biography for them to share.

What struck the commentators who watched her stately progress through the city was the attentiveness and light-heartedness of her manner to everyone who called out or approached her. She was quick-witted and could be alternately funny and moving in her ripostes to the crowd. Her progress was leisurely; she kept on stopping to receive blessings, appeals and posies of flowers from even the poorest and humblest of her subjects. Her carriage became filled with modest bunches of rosemary and anything remotely flower-like that might have struggled to life through the January frosts. Being short-sighted, Elizabeth had to draw especially close to see those who spoke to her or to accept the gifts she was offered and this added to the sense of attentiveness and intimacy which so charmed the crowds. An eyewitness recalled: ‘her grace, by holding up her hands and merry countenance to such as stood far off, and most tender and gentle language to those that stood nigh to her grace, did declare herself no less thankfully to receive her people’s goodwill than they lovingly offered it to her’.


A number of tableaux were acted out for her on her progress, each of which symbolized an aspect of England’s history and the people’s hopes for Elizabeth’s reign. At each was hung a painting of specially composed verses explaining the meaning of the pageant in both Latin and English and, as the queen approached, a child stood forward to recite in English. So excitable were the crowds and noisy the bands of musicians that accompanied each set piece that the queen asked for quiet so that the child could be heard.

Elizabeth’s face was closely watched as she listened, nodding and smiling, before thanking the child graciously and turning to the crowd with encouraging words. No one was inclined to call her a great beauty. Elizabeth’s colouring was much admired; the pale skin and reddish gold hair were considered closer to perfection than dark hair and olive skin, but her face was thought rather too long, as was her nose with its ‘rising in the middest’,

(#litres_trial_promo) for classical beauty. Her eyes though were strikingly dark like her mother’s, and full of intelligence and humour. They had the largeness and the sweetness of expression of the very short-sighted. But what set her apart from all others was the vitality and force of her character and mind. ‘Her vertues were such as might suffice to make an Aethiopian beautifull’,

(#litres_trial_promo) where an ‘Aetheopian’ was seen by one of her earliest chroniclers as an example of someone as exotic and rebarbative as it was possible for a late sixteenth-century mind to imagine.

As the queen approached Gracechurch Street she came upon a tableau set within a triumphal arch, complete with battlements, and a three-tiered stage. Meant to evoke the union of the houses of York and Lancaster, the first tier supported two children representing Henry VII sitting with his wife Elizabeth, their hands joined in matrimony, the king clothed in the red rose of Lancaster and his wife in the white rose of York. Above them the two rose stems twined into one which flowered round the figure of Henry VIII, with his queen Anne Boleyn beside him. Both of these were represented also by children richly dressed and crowned, with a pomegranate between them, symbol of their blessed fertility in producing the precious Elizabeth, and each carrying sceptres, in an obvious reference to Elizabeth’s mother’s legitimacy as Queen of England. The rose stem wound on up to the top tier where sat another child representing ‘the Queen’s most excellent Majesty, Elizabeth, now our most dread Sovereign Lady’.

(#litres_trial_promo) The whole edifice was festooned with red and white roses, the royal arms of England and various trophies and symbols. The child orator interpreted it to the queen as a longing in the people for unity and concord: just as Henry Tudor’s marriage with Elizabeth of York had healed the wounds of the War of the Roses, so this new Elizabeth would heal the divisions over the succession and religion of the previous reigns, for now ‘she is the only heir of Henry VIII, which came of both Houses as the knitting up of concord’.


Another tableau had characterized Elizabeth as Deborah, ‘The Judge and Restorer of Israel’.

(#litres_trial_promo) Deborah was the prophetess and judge of the Old Testament who was used as a convenient example of God confounding his own dictates in sending a woman successfully to rule over men. But by this exemplar, Elizabeth was also reminded, ‘that it behoveth both men and women so ruling, to use advice of good counsel’.


As the day drew to its triumphant close, a final symbolic act from the last of the tableaux involved a Bible, translated into English, let down to her on a silken cord by a child representing Truth. Elizabeth, ever mindful of the visually dramatic, kissed both her hands as she reached out to receive it and then kissed the Bible itself and clasped it to her breast. She promised the expectant crowd she would study and learn from it, but her enthusiastic embrace of a Protestant Bible promised more.

And so Elizabeth left the city with cheers and blessings in her ears. The extraordinary emotion of the day was like a common exhalation of the anxiety and fear of the last years replaced with an inspiration of hope for what was to come: ‘some with plausible acclamations, some with sober prayers, and many with silent and true-hearted teares, which were then seen to melt from their eyes’.


The ancient ritual and solemnity of the coronation on the following day, a Sunday, was charged with even greater moment by the question everyone at home and abroad wanted answered: how would Elizabeth’s preferences on religion be revealed?

Nowhere was this more keenly monitored than in France where Henri II, with his eye firmly on his daughter-in-law, Mary Queen of Scots, and the opportunity she presented of further advancing his empire, was attempting to enlist the pope as a powerful ally in his plan to outlaw Elizabeth and annex England. The grandest of Spanish ambassadors was Count de Feria who, in his report to Philip II, saw nothing but doom to Spanish hopes, to the world, if France got its way. ‘Whenever the King of France finds means in Rome to get this woman declared a heretic, together with her bas-tardy, and advances his own claim’,

(#litres_trial_promo) Feria believed, France would be able to walk into England, so debilitated was its exchequer and so disabled by having yet another woman ruler, this time of dubious legitimacy. All the French needed was the pope’s authority assuring the support of the English Catholics and the seductive substitute queen, Mary Stuart, as the rightful heir: already he had the one and was working on providing the other.

Elizabeth and all her court made the journey from Westminster Hall to Westminster Abbey on foot. The great church, rebuilt by Henry III as a soaring monument to faith three centuries before, dominated the skyline and drew thousands of the new queen’s subjects from the grandest to the lowliest to witness and participate in this ancient rite. Elizabeth walked in procession to her coronation along a carpet of purple cloth which seemed to melt like snow and disappear the moment her feet had passed, as the crowd grabbed what they could, tearing and cutting it away, for any scrap as a memento of this auspicious day.

Tall and slim, Elizabeth followed the procession of lords and ladies of the court and her bishops, her face pale, her hair worn loose and unadorned over her shoulders as a symbol of virginity. As she arrived at the abbey all the church bells in the city were ringing out in a clamour of celebration. Then Elizabeth mounted the high platform raised in front of the altar that exhibited her clearly to everyone and the question was asked of the people whether they wished to have her as their queen. The roared ‘YES’ was followed by a cacophony of ‘organs, fifes, trumpets, and drums playing, the bells also ringing, it seemed as if the world were come to an end’.


The coronation Mass proceeded to its centuries-old pattern of prayer and elaborate ritual lasting several hours, with Bishop Oglethorpe of Carlisle officiating. Resplendent on her throne, Elizabeth retained all aspects of the ceremony and Mass, except for the crucial elevation of the Host. This was a rite which she had already made clear was distasteful to her; she had ordered once before the same bishop to desist from elevating the Host at his Christmas Day mass and when he had refused she had withdrawn from the service.

(#litres_trial_promo) Now at her coronation, when the Host was elevated, with all the concomitant meanings of transubstantiation, a doctrine considered clearly idolatrous by the Protestant reformers, the queen once more withdrew. She only returned to her throne once the offending ritual was over.

There was one other modification that would have given her bishops and their Catholic supporters pause for thought. At the end of the coronation ceremony itself, just prior to the Mass, the monarch accepted a ritual homage from her bishops and peers. Traditionally the archbishops headed the queue in order of seniority, followed by the bishops and then the lords. This was the order followed by Elizabeth’s father and the founder of the dynasty, her grandfather Henry VII. It was also followed closely by her sister Mary. Her brother Edward, however, accepted homage first from the Protector, the Duke of Somerset, followed by the Archbishop of Canterbury and then all the bishops and peers together with no distinction between his lords temporal or spiritual. Elizabeth instituted a significant change in accepting homage first from her officiating bishop but ‘then the Lordes went up to her Grace kneeling upon their knees and kissed her Grace. And after the Lordes had done, the Bishops came one after another kneeling and kissing her Grace.’

(#litres_trial_promo) This was a clear message to her bishops, and the church they represented, not to take their pre-eminence for granted.

The news travelled fast to her Continental neighbours. The Count de Feria, always full of foreboding and implacable in his dislike and suspicion of the English and ‘that woman’ wrote to Philip of Spain in outrage and a sense of doom: ‘I had been told that the Queen [the following continued in cipher] took the holy sacrament sub utraque specie [both wine and bread] on the day of the coronation, but it was all nonsense. She did not take it.’

(#litres_trial_promo) His spirits were lowered further when Elizabeth told him she resented the amount of money that flowed out of the country yearly for the pope’s use and that she considered her bishops to be ‘lazy poltroons’.

(#litres_trial_promo) It did not need a Dr Dee to divine that change was going to come.

Mary, along with her father-in-law Henri and her own Guise family, was increasingly concerned about the growing strength of the reformed religion in France and the inevitable factions and unrest. A desultory peace process between Spain, France and England had already begun before Elizabeth’s accession to the throne and this progressed slowly throughout the early months of her reign. Mary wrote to her mother with some of her anxieties: ‘We were hoping for a peace but that is still so uncertain … God grant it all turns out well.’


The greatest stumbling block in the peace negotiations between France and England was the emotive question of Calais. This was not helped by the insolence of the French negotiators who had stated initially: ‘that they knew not how to conclude a peace with the Queen’s majesty, nor to whom they should deliver Calais, but to the dolphin’s wife, [Mary Queen of Scots] whom they took for Queen of England’.

(#litres_trial_promo) Elizabeth’s Minister of State William Cecil, who had noted this insult in a report written in his own hand, On the Weighty Matter of Scotland, was also concerned by Mary’s manner towards Elizabeth, revealed ‘by her own disdainful speech to diverse persons’.

(#litres_trial_promo) The young Scottish queen’s disparagement of her older cousin was not confined to her acolytes at court but rashly had been expressed to some of Elizabeth’s own gentlewomen in France. Mary’s impetuous nature and political naivety had already begun to store up trouble for her in the fast evolving dynamic between the two queens.

As Elizabeth left the abbey on her coronation day as Queen of England, wearing her heavy robe of cloth of gold and carrying her orb and sceptre in each hand, she was greeted by the clamour of the crowds, their voices and their musical instruments sounding, and all the city’s church bells ringing. Young, alone, and with her ministers and court processing behind her, she seemed in no way overwhelmed by the solemnity and significance of the occasion. On the contrary, she was beaming so broadly, greeting everyone who greeted her, shouting witticisms back to the crowd, sharing her delight with her exuberant subjects to such an extent that at least one of her foreign, Catholic observers looked on with disapproval: ‘in my opinion she exceeded the grounds of gravity and decorum’.


It was remarkable indeed that Elizabeth, still young and quite inexperienced, should exhibit such confidence and revel so obviously in the acquisition of power. Her animal high spirits naturally reciprocated her own subjects’ ebullience, and they loved her for it. In fact her ability to be affectionate and informal with the crowd was all the more surprising given that this was a queen who was a natural autocrat of the most self-conscious kind, in all ways the daughter of a ruthlessly autocratic father to whose burnished memory she aspired. With a penetrating intelligence and lively sympathy, Elizabeth was never to be as brutal or warlike as Henry, nor as self-serving, but she was capable of being as princely as Machiavelli could ever have prescribed in her pragmatic ability to do what was necessary.

The Spanish ambassador was surprised at how superstitious he found the English to be: ‘so full of prophecies … that nothing happens but they immediately come out with some prophecy that foretold it … serious people and good Catholics even take notice of these things.’

(#litres_trial_promo) And so as Elizabeth walked amongst them on that cold January day, what were the prognostications for her reign? Some Catholics hoped she would only rule for a short time before Philip II of Spain was once more back in power, presumably as her consort; others thought her growing popularity and the promise of change would pacify the discontented; others looked to a French Catholic alliance with Mary Queen of Scots as queen. But most rejoiced in the fact that Elizabeth was a monarch in whose veins ran unadulterated English blood. The Venetian ambassador also noted, ‘She prides herself on her father and glories in him; everybody saying that she also resembles him more than [Mary I did]; and he therefore always liked her.’

(#litres_trial_promo) If this imperious and clever daughter could prove herself even half the man her father was they would be happy.

Her sex was a problem, but they consoled themselves with thoughts of Deborah, and God’s trust in her, of Mathilda, Boudicca, even of Cleopatra VII whose courage in holding off the Romans was well known to the educated through their reading of Horace and Plutarch. They had claimed Cleopatra’s conversation rather than her beauty was the secret of her fascination. But even if there were a few precedents for successful female rulers, no one considered that a woman could effectively rule alone. One thing everyone agreed on, from her first minister, William Cecil, to the lowliest beggar in the stocks: the queen must marry, and marry soon. No one seemed to take seriously Elizabeth’s professed contentment with the ring of state she had worn on her marriage finger since pledging herself to the nation at her coronation: ‘bound unto an husband, which is the kingdom of England’.
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