Women's History Wednesday

A Queen in Training

Elizabeth I was a great queen because she knew what it was like to be nothing. Only for a short time at the beginning of life was she treated as the heir to the throne. After her mother’s beheading she was cast away, delegitimized, and forgotten until her early teen years. Elizabeth learned throughout her childhood and up until the crown was placed on her head how to survive. Elizabeth learned the art of compromise, the art of asking, the art of listening, the art of when to speak, and when to stay silent. David Starkey author of Elizabeth: The Struggle for the Throne says that these years of apprenticeship before her reign are “what makes Elizabeth human, and, as I have already suggested, humane. They are what made her great.”

Elizabeth had three main lessons in her apprenticeship that she carried with her. She learned how to deal with religion, men, and public opinion. These are lessons life taught Elizabeth before she sat upon the throne. The lessons her Tudor family taught her about how to navigate the court were more valuable than her tutors’ lessons of French and Latin.

            Elizabeth was born because Henry VIII had broken with the Catholic church in Rome. He wanted a son and was convinced Anne Boleyn could give him one. Instead of a prince, Anne delivered a princess. The birth of Elizabeth marked the start of a new generation that would grow up solely in the Anglican church. Henry VIII was not a radical protestant and preferred the version of the church he created, which was pretty much the Catholic church without the Pope. Anne’s mother was more of a radical, but she did not live long enough to pass on her ideas to her daughter. Instead Elizabeth’s main tutor of religion was Catherine Parr, her fathers sixth wife. “In religion, at least, Elizabeth was the pupil and Catherine the tutor.” (pg. 43) Catherine became more radical than Henry in his ideas of Protestantism, but she never pushed him too far. Catherine Parr certainly confirmed and helped form Elizabeth’s Protestant faith, but the model for the church Elizabeth would establish would be like the church of her father. “Her father’s ideal of union and concord, of a Church broad enough to accommodate everybody of good will, was to be the key to Elizabeth’s own settlement of the Church” (pg. 55)

By the time Elizabeth took the throne she had lived through both her brothers and sisters reign who took the country in opposite extremes in terms of religion. Edward and the Seymour’s took the country further down the path of radical Protestantism. Mary, like her mother, had refused to convert to Protestantism, which put her at odds with her brother during his reign. When Mary took the throne, it was her mission to restore England to the true church. “The pressure for Elizabeth to convert to Catholicism became intense”. (pg. 120) To pacify her sister “she begged for books and a priest” (pg. 120) to aid in her conversion, but never said she had converted, she just let Mary think she had.

Elizabeth saw the division and bloodshed that was caused by forcing these religious ideas upon the English people. She returned to a church very much like her fathers. She enjoyed the pop and circumstance that the Anglican church carried over from its Catholic days. She called for her country to be protestant and Anglican in name, but for the most part she turned a blind eye to those who celebrated mass as long as it was done peacefully and quietly. This shows Elizabeth’s humanity.

From the time she was born, Elizabeth had a complicated relationship with men. Everyone wished she had been a boy. The fact that she was not a boy, helped lead to her mother’s demise. “Anne Boleyn’s death was a terrible blow for Elizabeth, and her father’s role in it more terrible still.” (pg. 23) Elizabeth’s relationship with her father did not start out well. When Henry VIII married Jane Seymour and the two had a son Edward, Elizabeth was delegitimized and frankly forgotten about. A few weeks after her mother’s death Elizabeth had “literally nothing to wear.” (pg. 23) It was not until 1544 that “Mary and Elizabeth, in that order, were formally restored to place in the succession after Edward.” (pg. 31) At this time Elizabeth began to reconcile with her father. At this point, Henry “was not a wife-murdering monsters, but a loving parent, a formidable ruler and model to which she aspired.” (pg. 32) But her father’s actions undoubtably influenced her opinion on marriage and men.

Another marriage that was influential to Elizabeth was that of Catherine Parr to Thomas Seymour after the death of her father. Elizabeth was still young and went to live with them. Thomas Seymour “abused his trust and may have even sexually abused her.” (pg. 67) There is one recorded episode where Thomas Seymour “cut her dress into a hundred pieces” (pg. 69) while Catherine Parr held her. In 1548 Catherine Parr sent Elizabeth off to live Sir Anthony Denny and his wife, perhaps she was jealous for her husband’s attention. “Elizabeth had been abused by Seymour. Like many abused children, she had fallen in love with her abuser.” (pg. 76) But she never made mention of marrying him, even when asked point blank about the subject.

Elizabeth’s attitudes towards men and marriage effected much of her reign. She never married and is known as the Virgin Queen. She never had a family of her own. Instead she devoted herself to the welfare of her country. She was married to England and all of her subjects were her children. Perhaps her experience with men in her early years made her view them with more caution, but that did not stop her from flirting. “She played with her suitor like an angler with a fish; and she enforced a reluctant celibacy on her favorites and maids.” (pg.76) While many views this as strict and odd that she enforced celibacy on those close to her, but perhaps she was just trying to protect them, because no one had protected her.

Elizabeth loved to be loved by her people and was very aware of public opinion. She would stop rumors flying about her, but she could not stop the gossip that still circulated when the name Anne Boleyn was mentioned. Unlike Mary who “had nailed herself to the cross of her mother’s memory. Elizabeth did not make the same mistake.” (pg. 30) Her mother had been less popular than Catherine of Aragon and was rightfully blamed for Catherine’s demise. Anne Boleyn had been called all sorts of nasty and vile things after her death and Elizabeth distanced herself from that. Elizabeth did not speak of her mother. “Instead she was her father’s daughter and he came to reciprocate by taking a warm, fatherly pride in her.” (pg. 30)

Elizabeth was also aware of public as well as royal opinion. She showed her amazing skills at diplomacy during Thomas Seymour’s trial and Wyatt’s Rebellion. “Elizabeth’s wits were tough as well as sharp” (pg. 26) She knew just what to say, and what not to say. She was able to talk her way out of a number of sticky situations and keep her head planted firmly on her shoulders, even when her sister threatened to take it off.

Elizabeth knew what it was like to be on the receiving end of a monarch’s power. She knew what it was like to displease a monarch. This must have created a kind of empathy within her that aloud her to think about what the power she was yielding would do to another human’s life. As Starkey says, “like her father, she would bite men’s heads off; unlike him she would rarely cut them off.” (pg. 32) Elizabeth had the Tudor temper, but she did not allow her temper to control her when making life and death decisions. Elizabeth understood the magnitude of her power, and decided to use it as humanely as possible without being a pushover. This was one of the reasons she was a great Queen, perhaps the greatest England or the world has ever seen. ffffffffff

2 thoughts on “A Queen in Training”

  1. I was reading about her recently and was amazed at the kindness she showed to some of the villains who had ruled with terror during the reign of ‘bloody’ Mary.
    Queen Elizabeth really was a wonderful leader.

    Liked by 1 person

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