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Elizabeth and Mary: Cousins, Rivals, Queens
Jane Dunn

Unable initially to find any legal reason to invalidate Anne and Henry’s marriage, her accusers sought another way to destroy her. Anne was a natural flirt and an accomplished social creature. Emotionally expressive and thin-skinned, her education in the French court had added to her manner a gloss of worldliness and wit that her more stolid compatriots regarded with some suspicion. To charge her with adultery of the most depraved kind seemed an obvious and usefully double-barrelled weapon: if it could be suggested that this last abortive pregnancy was the result of Anne’s moral turpitude with another man (or the devil) then Henry was absolved of any responsibility. The baby was then a punishment of Anne’s behaviour, not of his.

The Tudor state could act with expedient ruthlessness. Within only three months of Anne’s miscarriage she and seven men were arrested and sent to the Tower. Of the two who were released one was the poet Thomas Wyatt, an admirer of Anne’s from before her marriage. The remaining five, however, including her own brother George Rochford, were accused of fornication with the queen. Only one, Mark Smeaton, a court musician and a gentle and artistic man, confessed, probably under torture, to this dangerous adultery: ‘The saying is he confessed, but he was first grievously racked,’ it was reported to Cromwell.


The charges worked up to ensnare the queen and destroy the power of her family, by implicating her brother, involved Anne’s incitement of these men to commit adultery with her. A second charge of conspiring the king’s death was also brought. Again it was Anne’s malignancy, her powers of bewitchment, which were implied in the wording: ‘The said Queen and these other traitors … conspired the King’s death and destruction … And the King having a short time since become aware of the said abominable crimes and treasons against him took such inward displeasure and heaviness, especially from the said Queen’s malice and adultery, that certain harms and perils have befallen the royal body.’

(#litres_trial_promo) The evidence brought against the defendants was so tenuous as to be merely a gesture, an incoherent ragbag of gossip, innuendo and misinterpreted courtliness. She did dance with the king’s chamberlains, but then so did all the ladies of the bedchamber; she did kiss her brother and write to him of her pregnancy but then, as Alesius pointed out, ‘it is a usual custom throughout the whole of Britain that ladies married and unmarried, even the most coy, kiss not only a brother, but any honourable person, even in public’.


However one piece of evidence was of terrific moment and had also the ring of authenticity. Anne was accused of making an unguarded comment to her sister-in-law, Lady Rochford, who had subsequently become a hostile witness against her husband and queen. The rash female confidence was: ‘que le Roy n’estait habile en cas de soy copuler avec femme, et qu’il n’avait ni vertu ni puissance’ [that the king has not the ability to make love to a woman, for he has neither the vigour nor the potency].

This was so sensitive an area of discussion that when Lord Rochford at his trial was asked to comment on this statement he was handed a piece of paper with the words written down rather than have them broadcast to the packed court. (He inadvertently – or otherwise – read them out loud.) To cast aspersions on Henry’s virility was bad enough. To say such things about a king so wilful in his drive for a son and heir, and so ruthless in his actions to achieve that, was dangerous in the extreme. And the danger was doubly reflexive against Anne, for a powerful man’s impotence was readily blamed on the woman. Perhaps the words of the indictment against Anne, that due to her activities ‘certain harms and perils have befallen the royal body’, referred implicitly to that dreaded loss of virility which may well have periodically affected the king.

So the net closed in around the queen. She was almost certainly innocent of the gross charges brought against her, as were the men chosen as luckless tools in her downfall. The evidence produced against them was barely plausible let alone proof of anything more than acquaintanceship and, in Lord Rochford’s case, fraternal affection. Pride, reckless indiscretion and ill luck were Anne’s undoing at the hands of a king with absolute power, his fickle heart and tyrannical nature in harness to a fanatic pursuit of a male heir.

There was one poignant glimpse of the baby Elizabeth, only two and a half years old, being held up to her father by a distraught Anne for the last time. In his letter to Elizabeth on her accession, Alesius wrote: ‘Never shall I forget the sorrow which I felt when I saw the most serene Queen, your most religious mother, carrying you, still a little baby, in her arms and entreating the most serene King, your father, in Greenwich Palace, from the open window of which he was looking into the courtyard … the faces and gestures of the speakers plainly showed that the King was angry.’

(#litres_trial_promo) Anne must have been dispatched immediately to the Tower for just as Alesius arrived in London from Greenwich the cannon thundered out, heralding the imprisonment of a person of the nobility or higher.

Having collapsed in hysterical terror when first imprisoned, Anne recovered her composure to impress even her enemies at her trial. On 19 May 1536 she was beheaded. As a special dispensation a swordsman was imported from France so that her execution was effected not by an axe on the block but by a sword. His dexterity was so great that Anne appeared unaware of the moment of death and those present thought the whole process looked more like sleight of hand than the gruesome butchery it so often became. Her arrest, trial and execution had all taken place within seventeen days. Three days before she died, the final humiliation was delivered by Archbishop Cranmer, her fair-weather friend. He had managed to elicit from Anne some statement that could be used to nullify her marriage to the king, possibly concerning the contractual status of her previous engagement to Lord Henry Percy. So Anne went to her death, still a young woman but technically no longer a queen.

The baby princess’s future also was in the balance. Although she too was to be threatened with a traitor’s death eighteen years later, at this time she was not in peril. Elizabeth’s own status, however, was inextricably bound up with her mother’s and just as the legality of Anne’s marriage was denied, so too was her daughter’s legitimacy. Two months after her mother’s execution, an act removing her from the succession stated she was ‘illegitimate … excluded and banned to claim, challenge or demand any inheritance as lawful heir … to [the king] by lineal descent’. From being the much-vaunted Princess Elizabeth, for a time sole heir to her father’s crown, she now became just Lady Elizabeth, with no clear place in the Tudor succession. Significantly, given the sexual charges against her mother, there was never any occasion when Henry chose to doubt the fact that Elizabeth was his true daughter.

Although largely oblivious at the time, for she was not yet three years old and living in a separate household, Elizabeth’s subsequent demeanour and expectations were affected fundamentally by the legacy of Anne’s spectacular fall from favour, her execution for treason and subsequent vilification for obscene acts and rumours of evil. Of all Henry’s wives, her own mother, Anne Boleyn, was to attract the most attention and opprobrium during her lifetime and the most scandalous stories in the centuries which followed. Lurid tales of incest and witchcraft grew with the telling. And witchery was strongly believed to be passed to subsequent generations as a hereditary taint: people born of ‘bad and wicked parents’ were deemed likely to be witches themselves.

(#litres_trial_promo) This was a damnation that would fuel her daughter’s enemies and echo in unexpected ways down the years.

But even more damaging to Elizabeth’s confidence was her disputed legitimacy and shifting status as one of her father’s heirs – or not – as his own dynastic struggles continued. Even as a small child she appeared to be conscious of her demotion. When the new queen, Jane Seymour, recalled the Princess Mary to court in the spring of 1537, the three-and-a-half-year-old Elizabeth was reputed to have said to the governor of her household: ‘How haps it, Governor, yesterday my Lady Princess, and today but my Lady Elizabeth?’ This insecurity would become a lasting strain in her life, played upon and exacerbated by the indubitable claims on the English throne of her cousin and rival Mary Queen of Scots.

Prior to Mary’s birth and the beginning of her own lifelong competition for the English throne, her father, James V of Scotland, was already locked into a futile arm-wrestling with his uncle and neighbour Henry VIII, both conducting raids and counter-raids of the border lands between their two kingdoms. Although James had managed to wrong-foot his uncle in the marriage stakes by winning the hand of Mary’s mother, Mary of Guise, from under Henry’s nose (Henry had her in mind as his fourth wife), he was having less luck with his frontier skirmishes against the English king. Henry had launched spasmodic raids across the border and James, increasingly demoralized by the lack of solidarity from his lords (many of whom were accepting money from the English exchequer), had attempted a counterattack. In 1542, in the bitter end of November, James presided over an ill-judged retaliatory invasion of the Debatable Land, the unruly and ungovernable strip of wild country to the west of Liddesdale. In this godforsaken heath he suffered a humiliating rout of his men by the English troops at Solway Moss. His uncommitted nobles had deserted him and over a thousand Scots were taken prisoner.

James was left to ride north, broken in spirit and submerged in deepest melancholy. He was an intelligent, sensual man, a creative builder of beautiful palaces, personally attractive to his people but temperamentally more suited perhaps to the life of an enlightened landowner than to the crown of thorns of the Scottish monarchy. He had a complex character, combining opposing qualities of rapacity and a certain identification with his people. He tried to break the domination of his lords and establish a rule of law but earned the suspicion of both church and nobility with his attempts at raising money from their assets in order to build grand palaces such as Falkland and Linlithgow. Striving to secure a male heir for his dynasty he, nevertheless, was known for his licentiousness and fathered seven or more illegitimate children, at least five of whom were sons. John Knox managed succinctly to sum up his doublesided nature, a polarity that fatally weakened him as a man and a king: ‘Hie was called of some a good poore mans king; of otheris hie was termed murtherare of the nobilitie, and one that had decreed thair hole destruction. Some praised him for the repressing of thyft and oppressioun; otheris dispraised him for the defoulling of menis wiffis and virgines. And thus men spake evin as affectionis led thame. And yitt none spack all together besydis the treuth: for a parte of all these foresaidis war so manifest that as the verteuis could nott be denyed, so could nott the vices by any craft be clocked [cloaked].’

(#litres_trial_promo) After a long night’s ride James arrived at Linlithgow, where Mary of Guise was awaiting the birth of their baby, the much-needed son and heir.

Part of the king’s melancholy lay in the recent deaths of his two baby sons and heirs, cared for in separate establishments but dying within days of each other in a tragic synchrony. The timing was so inexplicable and shocking that poison was suggested, as it always was in cases of sudden death. But these deaths mingled natural grief in James’s mind with a supernatural warning. They seemed to give ominous meaning to a nightmare that had haunted him. In his dreams a dead man, possibly his old friend Sir James Hamilton (whose property James V had appropriated after he had been executed on trumped-up charges), approached, brandishing a sword. The animated corpse then cut off both the king’s arms and swore he would return to cut off his head.

When, in the late April of 1541, King James’s eleven-month-old heir, James, and the week-old infant, Robert, died it seemed to James as if he had in fact symbolically lost both his arms, as the dream had foretold. All that remained now was for him to lose his head and thereby his life. With the betrayals of Solway Moss followed so closely by the birth of Mary, not the replacement prince who would bring hope for the future but a weak and premature girl, James’s own death seemed to him to be an awful certainty.

As the King of Scotland rode further north and collapsed into bed in Falkland Palace, the following day Mary of Guise went into labour at Linlithgow. She cannot have been in a peaceful and optimistic frame of mind. Contemporary reports suggest that the labour was not full term and so the subsequent risk to the child was increased, especially as she was born in the heart of a storm in the deepest of bitter winter. Her husband too had just left her in a state so utterly distraught that she could not be sure when or if she would ever see him again. The country was in dire peril without an effective king and with a ruthless neighbour in Henry threatening invasion and war. Religious divisions were sweeping Europe, the Reformation had a dynamic all its own which James V had resisted, but which focused factions within Scotland and inflamed dissent.

And all the while the Scottish nobles were in disarray, captured, bribed by the English, unwilling to serve the crown before their own interests. Scotland that December was especially cold, dark and dangerous. On the 8th of that month a small frail baby entered the world. Unwelcome as she may have been to her father, she was her mother’s fifth child

(#ulink_49bc2f3b-19d2-5cec-b281-7f9bad7b7745) and her first daughter. Mary of Guise was a redoubtable woman and a fond mother, with a close relationship with her own mother, and there is every reason to believe that, despite the dynastic disappointment of her child’s sex, she was happy to have given birth to a girl.

Both Elizabeth Tudor and Mary Stuart were to become queens regnant in their own right but aware always of the pitfalls and inveterate expectations of their roles. Just as for less exalted women, marriage was their unequivocal duty and procreation the necessary thing. But the marriage contract for princesses and queens traditionally had little to do with personal choice and everything to do with political expedience. Just as the three-month-old Elizabeth had been offered in marriage by her father to a French prince, in order to build an alliance between historic enemies, so the infant Mary, now Queen of Scots, became the focus of a fierce struggle between these same old adversaries.

Mary, as a female heir, may have been equally as disappointing as was her cousin, but her marital prospects in 1543 were much more dazzling. For Mary was already a regnant queen while Elizabeth’s chances of inheriting the crown, having been bastardized and disinherited by her father, seemed very remote. It was traditional that the kingdom with the misfortune to be ruled by a queen was considered part of her dowry in the marriage negotiations. The future dispensation of Scotland, therefore, made Mary’s tiny, oblivious form the immediate focus of her ambitious neighbour. Elizabeth’s father, the ageing bully Henry, was determined to annex Scotland and prevent for ever his old enemy France from getting a base from which to invade England. He meant to claim the infant Mary as a wife for his five-year-old son, Edward.

On 12 October 1537 Henry had at last been awarded his prince and heir after marrying his third wife, Jane Seymour, within eleven days of the execution of the second. The eruption of happiness in court and country was crowned with the baby’s magnificent christening later that October. Elizabeth, just four years old, was carried to the ceremony by Edward Seymour, uncle to the new prince. The elder of the ambitious brothers of the queen, Edward Seymour was to become Lord Protector on Henry’s death, the most powerful nobleman in the land.

But the birth of a male heir came at a high cost. After a gruelling three-day labour, Queen Jane was dead in less than a fortnight of a postpartum sepsis. She died in the midst of her triumph aged only twenty-eight. Henry seemed to be genuinely grief-stricken, writing to François I of France, ‘Divine Providence has mingled my joy with the bitterness of death of her who brought me this happiness.’


However, the monarch’s round of marriages, alliances and wars continued with barely a pause. And so, five years later, when his old Scottish adversary, James V, died in the winter of 1542 with a sole female heir, just five years younger than the English male heir, it appeared to Henry to be a God-sent opportunity. The Spanish ambassador considered it a possible double boon for Henry, for the ageing king was in need of a wife himself, caught in an unusual marital lacuna between Catherine Howard, whom he had just executed for adultery, and Catherine Parr, whom he had yet to woo. Certainly, for those with any memory, there was a certain justice in the possibility of Henry finally winning the admirable, and fertile, Mary of Guise, having lost her the first time to his nephew James of Scotland. Such a marriage would have brought the baby Queen of Scots into closest sisterhood with Elizabeth, most probably sharing a similar education and upbringing in England. How different her future would have been. But the idea of marrying the dowager queen did not appear to fire Henry’s imagination as it had five years before.

The marriage of his heir to Scotland’s heir was a much more rewarding enterprise. Henry wanted to get his hands on this intractable kingdom and there was no easier way, it would seem, than through such a marriage alliance. The fact that the English provided the male side of the bargain ensured England’s natural superiority in any union with Scotland, just as a husband had dominion over his wife. From the English point of view there was something right and natural about uniting these two sea-bound kingdoms, with England as the senior partner. Such a marriage of neighbours would annex Scotland in an expansion of Henry’s own house and territory and thereby reduce the attrition on the border and, more seriously, close the back door to France.

Needless to say, Scotland, with a real pride in her own ancient history and fiercely protected independence, saw the situation rather differently. There was also the small matter of how revenues were raised and where they were spent: ‘if both the realms were under one, all should go to the King of England out of the country of Scotland not to be spent there, whereby Scotland now being poor already should be utterly beggared and undone’.

(#litres_trial_promo) But Henry had a fistful of Scottish noblemen captured at Solway Moss, whom he would treat well, bribe with money and promises of patronage, and return to Scotland to work on his behalf to facilitate the marriage contract. Ten of these signed a secret pact recognizing Henry as King of Scotland should Mary Queen of Scots die without an heir.

(#litres_trial_promo) This was a shameful precursor of the secret treaty Mary herself, when a young woman, was to sign with the Guises and the French King Henri II, ceding Scotland to France in the event of her death without issue.

Initially there were fears for the baby queen’s survival: ‘a very weak child and not like to live’.

(#litres_trial_promo) Even two weeks after her birth, Chapuys, the Spanish ambassador, was writing that not only the child but the mother too was expected to die. However, the frail baby did thrive and by March the following year, Henry’s ambassador, Sir Ralph Sadler, had travelled north to oversee the marital negotiations and examine the prize himself.

Sadler, a loyal but literal-minded man, was shown into the presence of the dowager queen, Mary of Guise. After discussing the marriage proposals, Mary led Sadler to the nursery to see the new queen. The baby Queen of Scots was not yet four months old. Her mother asked the nurse to unwrap her and show her quite naked for Sadler’s approval. Sadler, a fond husband and father himself, seemed touched and impressed by the sight: ‘I assure your majesty, it is as goodly a child as I have seen of her age, and as like to live, with the grace of God,’ he reported back to Henry.


Sadler’s conversations with Mary of Guise and with Arran, the regent, were doggedly relayed back to his master in meticulous letters of epic length which make them an invaluable source of information, conveyed with an immediacy which transcends more than four and a half centuries of intervening history. Sadler was ever puzzled as to whom he should trust. Mary of Guise was charming, intelligent and a skilful stateswoman. She was quite capable of dissembling when need be. Mary gave the impression that the King of England’s plans for her daughter were exactly what she would have hoped, and Sadler was naturally credulous. But Arran had warned him, ‘that I should find her in the end (whatsoever she pretendeth) a right French woman’, with her main motive to keep England at bay and the ancient Scottish alliance with her own country strong.

No one could fail to appreciate the incongruous weight of responsibility which had fallen to this unwitting infant. She was already queen in name. One day she would have to become queen in deed of a kingdom of proud, disputatious clans centred on ancient tribal strongholds spread out across a sparsely populated, mostly mountainous, beautiful but inhospitable land. And as Mary lay in her cradle the factions were already entrenched in their rivalries, working for their own advancement and against their foes.

The immediate struggle for influence was between Cardinal Beaton, a powerful, worldly, pro-French ally of Mary of Guise, and the Earl of Arran, a vacillating opportunist and the leader of the pro-English tendency. Arran won the first round by wresting the regency from the churchman and declaring himself, as a Hamilton, next in line to the throne after Mary. But even these allegiances were not as they seemed, for Arran was rumoured to be intending to marry his own son to the new queen, and thereby doubly ensure his family’s hold on the crown. This meant that, despite being in the pay of Henry, he was unlikely to be working to promote the English king’s ambitions. On hearing this, Henry decided to offer his daughter Elizabeth to Arran for his son: in return Arran was expected to support the marriage proposal that really mattered to Henry, that between his heir Edward and the baby Queen of Scots.

Elizabeth was nine years old at the time, serious, highly intelligent and so well educated that those who met her inevitably remarked on her evident abilities. When she was only six years old her father’s courtier, soon to be secretary, Wriothsley was struck by the small girl’s grace and presence of mind: having been offered the king’s blessing, Elizabeth gave her humble thanks and then ‘[asked] after His Majesty’s welfare, and that with as great a gravity as she had been forty years old’.

(#litres_trial_promo) Yet at the age of nine, Elizabeth was unlikely to have been informed of her father’s offer of herself in marriage to Arran’s son, a mere compensation in the hopes that the real prize, Elizabeth’s new cousin, Mary, would be saved for Henry’s grander scheme. But her impromptu place in this scheme showed that in Henry’s mind his illegitimate daughter, by the woman he had hoped to erase forever, was valued rather lowly on the scale of marital barter.

Just as in his first abortive negotiations over his daughter Elizabeth’s prospective betrothal, Henry’s conditions for the marriage of Mary Queen of Scots to his son were self-defeatingly excessive and heavy-handed. One of the main areas of disagreement was over the immediate possession of the baby queen. Henry, hoping to be supported by his recently released Scottish lords, had demanded that she be put into his hands, to be brought up in England until she was old enough to marry. The Scottish Parliament had met in March 1543 and passed a set of articles agreeing in principle to the marriage, but insisting that Mary should remain in Scotland until she was ten years old, ‘that hir personne be kepit and nurist principallie be hir moder’.

(#litres_trial_promo) The same Parliament gave a nod in the direction of the reformed religion by authorizing the reading of the Bible in the vernacular, an activity which previously had been widespread but discreetly done.

On 1 July the Treaty of Greenwich allowing for the marriage of Prince Edward and Queen Mary of Scotland was drawn up. But Henry’s influence in Scotland was already on the wane. With a Guise as queen mother and dowager queen, France’s importance, on the other hand, had never been in much doubt. Towards the end of June a fleet of French ships was tracked making their way to the offshore waters of Scotland, lying off Aberdeen and then Arbroath. Rumours abounded; there were 4000 men of war on board, 1000 of them at least were hackbuteers, armed with the fearsome firearm, the harquebus: ‘they come to convoy away the young Queen, and also the old’.

(#litres_trial_promo) Sadler was much concerned by this threat as he reported back to the Privy Council, but his fears were partly allayed by Arran who assured him that the Palace of Linlithgow was properly guarded, and anyway the young queen could not be moved ‘because she is a little troubled with the breeding of teeth’. This seemed to be accepted at face value by Sadler who added, ‘by my truth I cannot but see that [governor Arran] tendreth as much her health, preservation, and surety, as if she were his own natural child’.

(#litres_trial_promo) As the tenuous thread of the infant Mary’s life was all that stood between Arran and his ambitions as next heir to the kingdom, this observation may have been more an expression of Sadler’s honourable credulity and his own paternal affections than Arran’s careful concern.

Under armed escort of more than three thousand men, the seven-month-old queen was moved to safer ground that summer. But she went not to Edinburgh as Henry had demanded but to Stirling Castle, the great medieval stronghold much beautified and domesticated by Mary’s father James. This castle, with its lovely new French-inspired palace building, belonged to Mary’s mother through her marriage contract. Now ensconced there with her daughter, Mary of Guise’s own power was greatly increased. She was keen to appear conciliatory to their powerful neighbour and requested Sadler’s presence at Stirling where she asked him to assure his king ‘that as nothing could be more honourable for her and her daughter than this marriage, so she desired the perfection thereof with all her heart’.

(#litres_trial_promo) Again, she wished to show off her daughter, this time with evident maternal pride at how tall she was growing and how advanced she seemed, declaring, ‘that her daughter did grow apace; and soon,’ she said, ‘she would be a woman, if she took of her mother’.
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