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Elizabeth and Mary: Cousins, Rivals, Queens
Jane Dunn


And so with Mary Stuart’s marriage and Elizabeth Tudor’s coronation the two most important celebrations of their lives marked the increasingly divergent yet interdependent paths of the Queen of Scotland and the Queen of England. The one had married her prince to pursue her destiny as a woman. The other had married her people in recognition of her destiny as a queen. Mary’s status as queen also mattered greatly to her but she considered it an immutable right, somehow divorced from any real sense of self-sacrifice and responsibility. Whereas Elizabeth never doubted the awesome responsibilities of her task, ‘the burden that is fallen upon me maketh me amazed’

(#litres_trial_promo) were amongst the first words she spoke as queen to her Lords. The struggles, triumphs and tragedies that followed were a direct result of each woman’s individual decision: the one to put the personal increasingly before the political; the other to sacrifice the personal and place her responsibilities as queen at the centre of her life.

A fatal complication ensued when Mary turned her sights on the greater crown of England, believing it her rightful inheritance and a prize worth pursuing. Elizabeth’s fundamental insecurity in her own legitimacy, where the whole of Catholic Europe was ranged against her, the ‘bastard child of a whore’, increased the tension and emotional volatility of the issue. The complex rivalry, the feinting and parrying of their personal relationship, sprang from the challenge Mary had made for Elizabeth’s throne and the unassailable legitimacy of her claim. The powerful passions this relationship engendered in each was a result of their strikingly different natures. The fact they never met allowed their rivalry to inflate in each queen’s imagination, their qualities elaborated upon by ambassadors and courtiers intent on their own ambitions.

In a tradition instituted by William the Conqueror, the Champion of England on coronation day would ride up through Westminster Hall and challenge anyone who disputed the right of succession. In front of the newly crowned queen and her peers, the clatter of hooves announced the arrival of the queen’s champion. Sir Edward Dymoke, the latest member of the family who for centuries had enacted this role, rode into the hall in full armour, and flung down his gauntlet, challenging anyone who questioned Elizabeth’s right to the English throne. An uneasy silence fell on the assembly. No voice was raised on this day. But Elizabeth and Mary knew that the question had already been asked, that the contest was engaged, and in a more public arena, with wider repercussions for everyone.

A rivalry had been instituted that ‘could not be extinguished but by Death’.


(#ulink_fb6ec991-c100-5fe6-93c2-ba65ecdf43ff)La Pléiade was a group of seven French writers, led by Pierre de Ronsard and including Joachim du Bellay, Jean Dorat and Remy Belleau, who aimed to elevate the French language to the level of classical Greek and Latin as a medium for literary expression. They were named after the constellation and are considered the first representatives of French Renaissance poetry.

(#ulink_5a149de0-ac63-556e-81e2-bf87cdd3aa93)The Hamiltons became nearest family to the throne when Lord Hamilton married James II’s daughter, Princess Mary, in c. 1474. Their grandson James Hamilton, 2nd Earl of Arran, born about 1516, engineered his position as regent and heir presumptive on the death of James V. But Matthew Stewart, 4th Earl of Lennox, was also descended from Princess Mary and so believed he too had a claim to be heir presumptive, possibly even more indubitably legitimate than Arran who was born of a marriage which had followed a divorce. The Hamilton – Lennox rivalry was one of the dynamic power struggles of the reign of Mary Queen of Scots.

(#ulink_5cabef35-8520-5777-9cf5-6d6cd62d051e)William Camden (1551–1623) was an antiquary and historian, one time headmaster of Westminster School where Ben Jonson was his pupil and claimed that he owed him ‘all that I am in arts, all that I know’. In 1615 Camden published his ground-breaking and authoritative Annales Rerum Anglicarum et Hibernicarum Regnante Elizabetha which marked a new departure in the writing of history with its use of state papers and lively, often first-hand, description, combined with academic detachment and lack of bias.

(#ulink_2fc3b018-482a-51d0-8679-99369c4fc6f5)Sir John Hayward (?1564–1627) a historian who was imprisoned by Elizabeth for offending her with his dedication to the Earl of Essex in his history of Henry IV (1599), suggesting Essex was likewise capable of usurping the crown. Hayward subsequently wrote a lively account of the early part of Elizabeth’s reign.

(#ulink_398582ea-b746-5a2a-865e-eb06dfe8efb8)The French queen, Catherine de Medici, was yet to assume full regency and exercise her considerable authority and guile in the religious wars which convulsed France.

(#ulink_f1c0eee4-527c-5960-bd9c-01a44da9108c)Schifanoya, resident in London at the time, was the author of some descriptive and lively dispatches to the Spanish court in Brussels.

(#ulink_a61d0429-7c4e-5489-b9ac-4a715ecfea51)Possibly Charles Howard, a handsome courtier born in 1536 who became Lord Chamberlain and Lord Admiral and eventually was rewarded with the earldom of Nottingham in 1597.

CHAPTER TWO The Disappointment of Kings (#ulink_508a71ba-cea0-53fe-add8-b48b3fcd54d8)

The primogenity and due of birth, Prerogative of age, crowns, sceptres, laurels, But by degree, stand in authentic place? Take but degree away, untune that string, And, hark, what discord follows!

Troilus and Cressida, act 1, scene 3

IF THE RIVALRY BETWEEN these two queens would only be resolved through death, the individual significance of their births had a certain symmetry too. Both entered the world as bitter disappointments to their fathers, and the birth of each princess was a contributory factor in the untimely death of a parent. It was all a matter of sex. Both fathers were kings without legitimate male heirs. Had Elizabeth not been a girl but the longed-for, expected prince it is most unlikely that her mother would ever have been executed. It is even possible that Henry’s popular reputation might have rested more on his Reformation, encouraged by his independent-minded reformist Queen Anne, than on his grotesque failures as a husband and father.

In the case of Mary Queen of Scots, her birth in 1542 was followed almost immediately by her father’s death. Already sick and humiliated, James V, on hearing his heir was a girl, literally turned his face to the wall like a wounded animal, and waited to die. His valedictory words showed him defeated as much by fate as by life: looking back two centuries to Marjorie Bruce, founder of the Stewart dynasty, he reputedly said to the messenger bringing the news of Mary’s birth: ‘It cam’ wi’ a lass, it will gang wi’ a lass.’

(#litres_trial_promo) In fact, James was as poor a prophet as he was survivor. He died aged only thirty and without seeing his daughter and heir. The Stuart

(#ulink_1c3199b3-e8dc-5995-b872-9e2e7222f249) dynasty, however, managed to teeter on for a further century, despite revolution and republicanism, although Scotland’s absolute independence did not survive the reign of his daughter Mary.

Nine years separated these two princesses, born in neighbouring kingdoms in an outlying island of Europe. England and Scotland were small and relatively unimportant, impoverished lands, mostly under threat from the many times larger and richer Continental powers of France and Spain, and spasmodically at war with them, and with each other. The newly established and insecure Tudor dynasty was in urgent need of a male heir; the Stewarts, although an ancient race of kings, were ill-fated, desperate for a monarch who could survive to middle age and produce a strong male heir. The last five Scottish kings had been children at their accession, most of them still in the cradle. (Mary Queen of Scots and her son, James VI, were also to succeed to the Scottish throne as infants.)

The Stewarts were plagued by their history of monarchs dying violently and dying young (James I and James III were murdered and James II, a murderer himself, was blown up while watching his own cannon being fired) and they were undermined by the subsequent power of factious regents and murderous clan rivalry. When they eventually succeeded at the start of the seventeenth century to the English throne and moved south, their life expectancy improved. The dynasty’s star, however, continued as mismanaged and bloody as ever it was in earlier centuries, with both Mary and her grandson, Charles I, tried and beheaded for treason.

Elizabeth was born on 7 September 1533 to a father who was already forty-one and who had longed for a healthy son during the twenty-three years of his marriage to the unimpeachable Catherine of Aragon. In despair at producing only one surviving child, Mary, born in 1516 (his other three sons and two daughters were either stillborn or died soon after birth), Henry began to wonder if somehow his lack of male heirs was not a personal punishment by God. He looked across to France at his main rival, François I, a chivalrous and extravagant Renaissance king whose reign of thirty-two years corresponded with Henry’s so closely that they even died within two months of each other, in 1547. Henry identified with this athletic, popular, resplendent monarch whose procreative vitality seemed gallingly superior to his own. François’s fragile Queen Claude had managed to produce seven live children, three of them sons, before herself dying of exhaustion at twenty-four.

In an age of superstition and magic, where God’s agency and the spirit world controlled the elements and directed daily lives, barrenness, and the lack of a son as heir, was never just a matter of chance. There was an uneasiness in kingdoms without male heirs that somehow the natural order of things had been disrupted and disappointment, rupture and discord would ensue. To continue the quote at the head of the chapter of the speech which Shakespeare gave Ulysses on the essential patterning of the universe:

The heavens themselves, the planets, and this centre,

Observe degree, priority, and place,

Insisture, course, proportion, season, form,

Office, and custom, in all line of order:

And therefore is the glorious planet Sol

In noble eminence enthron’d and spher’d

Amidst the other; whose med’cinable eye

Corrects the ill aspects of planets evil,

And posts, like the commandment of a king,

Sans check, to good and bad.

In such a closely ordered world where everything had a reason, and that usually a supernatural one, Henry feared that his virtually barren marriage indicated he had transgressed some article of holy writ. The words of Leviticus particularly troubled him: ‘If a man shall take his brother’s wife, it is an impurity: he hath uncovered his brother’s nakedness; they shall be childless.’

(#litres_trial_promo) Had he not done precisely that in marrying Catherine, the widow of his elder brother Arthur? But Henry was also an opportunist. Although conservative and orthodox in his own religious beliefs he cannot have failed to give thought to the Continental reformers whose disdain for the pope and evangelical zeal for an individual faith drawn directly from the Gospels gave him a different approach to his own immutable church. His troubled conscience, however, his questioning of a possibly invalid marriage, were made all the more insistent by the fact that Henry had long ago tired of his wife and found a determined replacement in an attractive, nubile, lady-in-waiting, Anne Boleyn. It was significant that this clever woman was part of the radical religious faction at court and her own conversation was as tantalising to the king as her physical charms.

Emotionally, Henry was a crass and simple man. He could be handled by any adept and resolute woman who managed to withhold from him something he desired. For more than six years Anne drew him close and reeled him out. At times he was driven almost to distraction by her seductive manner combined with her steadfast refusal to become his mistress. Henry had already produced a bastard son by Elizabeth Blount, a boy he was fond of and ennobled as Duke of Richmond and Somerset. But the prize Anne held out to the king was a legitimate son and heir. The longing to secure the succession with a male heir propelled him to marry again. So Henry put in train the momentous events which led him to sweep aside the Catholic Church and proclaim himself supreme head of the newly established Church of England. Spurred on by fear and desire, Henry drove this pragmatic revolution through Parliament. He had the support of the Protestant apologist Thomas Cranmer and his tireless executor Thomas Cromwell. His immovable Lord Chancellor Thomas More, however, paid with his life.

By the beginning of 1533, however, Anne Boleyn’s long game seemed to have paid off triumphantly. Showing remarkable self-confidence and independence of mind, she had refused the considerable honour of becoming the king’s mistress (having first been married off for propriety’s sake to a compliant nobleman). She had the presence of mind and the boldness to play for the much higher stakes of becoming his queen. This really was a remarkable ambition given that there was already a genuinely popular possessor of that title in Queen Catherine, and divorce was not an obvious or easy option. It suggested a woman of will and vision who, through force of character, could impart that vision to others. Certainly she did not appear overawed by her evident destiny, believing that God had elevated her to this high estate in a divine intervention of a personal kind: she told the Venetian ambassador that God ‘had inspired his Majesty to marry her’.

(#litres_trial_promo) The poet Thomas Wyatt, probably half in love with Anne, certainly arrested in the debacle of her downfall, left a compelling image of her mysterious and self-possessed attraction. His poem envisaged her as a magical deer whom only the king could hunt, her tameness an illusion:

Whoso list to hunt? I know where there is a hind,


Who list her hunt, I put him out of doubt,

As well as I may spend his time in vain!

And graven with diamonds in letters plain

There is written her fair neck round about:

‘Noli me tangere’ [do not touch] for Caesar’s I am

And wild for to hold, though I seem tame.


Anne Boleyn’s trump card was the promise of fecundity. The point of a queen was to produce the male heir, ideally a number of possible heirs to ensure against disease, misfortune and sudden death. In fact, Anne’s resistance to Henry’s sexual desire had been overcome sometime prior to their secret marriage at the end of January 1533. By then, already a month pregnant, she had proved her fertility. Perhaps her strategic surrender was Henry’s reward for ennobling her as Lady Marquess of Pembroke on the first day of September the previous year. With this honour came considerable estates and authority. Or perhaps Anne’s capitulation came little over a month later, after the triumphant diplomatic meetings with the French king King François I in Calais and Boulogne which she attended as Henry’s consort and where she gained gratifying recognition from this influential potentate. Whatever the timing, Anne quickly conceived and that boded well for her. Queen Catherine was much more widely loved but by 1533 she was beyond childbearing: for the people to be prepared to accept their new queen, Anne had to provide the hoped-for prince.
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