Elizabeth I – Letters

The three letters present Elizabeth at her angriest, her most gracious and her most disingenuous. The first letter is to her favourite, Robert Dudley earl of Leicester, who has been fighting the Spanish in the Netherlands and has just accepted the post of the Governor General from the grateful Dutch against Elizabeth’s wishes. She is furious with him, perceives his behaviour as most ungrateful (since he owes most of his fortune to her) and commands him to do whatever the bearer of this letter, Sir Thomas Heneage, will command him to do. One of the commands was apparently to have this letter read aloud in presence of the Dutch States General, while Leicester had to stand by. Of course he had to resign the post as well.

The second letter is to Sir Amyas Paulet, Mary Stuart’s last keeper. Elizabeth thanks him effusively and promises him great rewards, even though no material reward can repay such faithful service as his. She also asks him to tell Mary to beg God forgiveness lest she loses her soul, and she says she is going to pray for her repentance as well. I guess at this point Elizabeth realizes Mary is doomed even though she may not acknowledge it even to herself.

The third letter is written to James VI, Mary’s son, a few days after Mary’s execution. The circumstances are generally well-known, so I won’t go into them. The letter is one of the many steps in Elizabeth’s campaign to convince everybody (including perhaps herself first of all) that she had nothing to do with it. She shies away from putting all her self-justifications in writing, instead saying that the bearer of this letter will explain everything to James. So it fell to the young Robert Carey (the grandson of Mary Boleyn) to put on a brave face and make the best of a bad situation. Elizabeth just assures James that if she had done it, she would have acknowledged it, but she also wouldn’t lay the blame wrongly on anybody else’s shoulders, so why should she on hers? She ends with the most profuse declarations of her love and support, signing off with “your sister and cousin”. James probably didn’t care much, since he didn’t know his mother and his tutors did his best to prejudice him against her, so apart from a few face-saving statements he did nothing. Elizabeth I (The Ermine Portrait). Attributed to William Segar [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons


Elizabeth I – A Letter to Mary Queen of Scots, two poems

The excerpted letter was written by Elizabeth to Mary after the news about the death of Darnley reached her. It is remarkably frank – Elizabeth calls Darnley “your mad husband” and admits that even though he was her relative, she is more concerned about Mary than about him. She writes she cannot be silent about the fact that it is widely gossiped Mary may have been complicit in her husband’s murder and gives her (pretty good) advice to make sure that those responsible for his death are going to be punished, even those “whom you have nearest to you” (i.e. Bothwell). She adds she really doesn’t want to believe this slander and hopes Mary will do her best not to make her believe it. It’s a kind of cultural tradition to portray Elizabeth as a shrivelled spinster, envious of Mary’s youth, beauty and husbands (although, in truth, they were the least enviable part of Mary’s life). But I think that at this point Elizabeth really bore Mary no malice and was more exasperated than angry with her. The dynamic between them, as shown in this letter, is like between two sisters*, the responsible one and the reckless one, with the former watching how the latter is about to make a trainwreck of her life, hoping that something would make her stop but kind of knowing it won’t happen.

*although, remarkably, Elizabeth addresses Mary only as “Madam”, in contrast to Mary’s “Madam my good sister” in her later letter begging for help.

The poems show Elizabeth as being no Thomas Wyatt (at some point she uses twice “it” instead of finding a rhyming word), but they are serviceable. “The doubt of future foes”, written in couplets, refers to the intrigue being spun around and/or by Mary Stuart, now in Elizabeth’s custody (the poem was written probably somewhere around the time of the Ridolfi Plot. BTW, Thomas Howard, who lost his head for his involvement with the Ridolfi Plot was the son of Henry Howard the poet, which forms an interesting parallel with the earlier rebellion by Thomas Wyatt the younger). The poem is a bit clunky and ponderous and can be summed up as “I am surrounded by my foes, but they are going to be vanquished soon”.

“On Monsieur’s departure” is apparently a poem written by Elizabeth when her marriage negotiations with her last suitor, the Duke of Anjou, fell through. I say “apparently”, because the title is not written with her own hand, but comes from a seventeenth-century manuscript. Was Elizabeth really seriously considering to marry the Duke, twenty years her junior? Or was she just enjoying the game of courtly love they were playing, realizing he would be her last suitor? Was she just faking sadness when he left? Or was she sad rather because of her midlife crisis than because of the Duke? We will never know. I am not even sure if she herself knew at this point. The poem is a kind of wannabe Petrarchan exercise: I grieve but I have to appear happy, I love and yet I can’t show it etc. My sorrow follows me like my shadow and it flees from me when I try to catch it. “Be more cruel, love, and so be kind”, she writes, interestingly foreshadowing Hamlet. Let me live as a happier person or let me die and forget all this.

Marcus Gheeraerts the Elder [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Elizabeth I – A Speech of November 5, 1566 (excerpts)

Another speech under a very long heading (which I didn’t feel like typing) about the topic of marriage. Three years after the previous speech, Mary Stuart, Elizabeth’s successor if English rules were applied consistently, has just given birth to a baby boy (future James VI & I) and her claim to throne becomes even stronger. A joint delegation of the Lords and Commons submit yet another petition urging Elizabeth to marry and also to announce officially her successor in case of her dying childless. The tone of this speech is remarkably more testy. “Do you think I don’t care?”, she demands angrily. “I have already told you I am going to marry, how dare you offend me by asking the same question over and over again. I’ve given you my word of honour, and that should be enough.”

As for the order of succession, she says she knows very well what it means to be a heartbeat away from the crown and how she was the object of various intrigues, many of which by the people who are still the members of the Parliament and she won’t name them only out the goodness of her heart. So she doesn’t want to expose any other human being to this fate. Her advisers want her to name at least twelve potential successors, the more the better, but these successors would have to be angels, not people, not to start squabbling immediately and dreaming about going one step up in the order of succession. Elizabeth studied politics and history and knows very well how these situations end. She would like very much to let the Parliament hash out the matter of succession and enjoy the show of partisan in-fighting, except that she is too reasonable and responsible to do it. “I am not going to judge you too harshly, because I’m sure it’s just your lack of foresight. But I’m not surprised the Bishops signed the petition”, she snaps, “seeing that they were ready to declare me and my sisters bastards” (referring to the Jane Grey affair). “I hope they are going to repent of it before they die.” The excerpt ends with her saying that she is not afraid of anything, she will not be forced to do anything, and with her abilities she would be able to live comfortably in any Christian country even if she were thrown out of her kingdom with nothing but her petticoat.

Elizabeth I – Speech to the House of Commons, January 28 1563

The speeches of Queen Elizabeth, as noted in the NAEL, were extemporized, and only later written down and published. So even when the gap between the speech and its publication was very small, there remains a question of how much it reflects her actual words, and how much, let’s say, the speaker’s idiolect, which could even unconsciously creep in. After this disclaimer, I can discuss this speech, made in answer to the House of Commons, which was acting with regard to QE like everybody’s least favourite aunt, pointing out that she is not getting any younger and should better start having children pronto. Of course the Parliament had better reasons to be meddling with Queen’s private affairs, because the Queen did not really have a private life – her hypothetical husband and children were the matters of the gravest state importance. Besides, life is fragile, and in the 16th century even more so. Elizabeth has lost already two siblings, one younger than her and just a few months ago she almost dies of smallpox. If she had died, Mary Stuart would have been the legitimate heir and I can’t even imagine the mess it would have caused.

Elizabeth is in her answer, as her poem on the glass indicated, very evasive. She thanks effusively the Commons for their concern. She plays her favourite card: “me, a feeble woman, wanting both memory and wit, and besides I am so shy,  oh dear”, justifying that she cannot answer them straight away, but has to reflect upon that matter. She quotes the example of a certain philosopher who, before answering any scholarly question, refreshed his alphabet in order reinvigorate his wit. If he took such care for academic questions, she must exercise even greater care in the matters of state. She says “I know it is an important question, I know that the safety of the state and all its citizens depends on it. I know that as a monarch I have these obligations and that the salvation of my soul depends on my fulfilling these obligations. I don’t forget them, as I hope you don’t forget that I saved you from falling into some deep shit (meaning Mary’s reign) and that you swore to be loyal to me. I am not offended by your petition, and I am going to answer it after seeking some advice. And be assured (playing her second favourite card), after my death you may have other stepmothers, but you are not going to have another mother like me.”

A miniature of Elizabeth I by Levina Teerlinc (1510/1520–1576) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The Passage of Queen Elizabeth

The narrative, whose full title is much longer, was written by Richard Mulcaster and describes the passage of Queen Elizabeth from the Tower, where English monarchs traditionally stayed before their coronation, to Westminster through the joyful London. The author emphasizes that Elizabeth is very gracious to everyone who approaches her litter, whether to give her some flowers or present a plea. The sixteenth century was apparently not so obsessed about security of the heads of states. In the Cheapside she is greeted by the representative of the City of London who hands her a crimson bag full of golden coins and makes some speeches praising her. Mulcaster also emphasizes Elizabeth’s Protestant piety: when she leaves the Tower, she makes a prayer, thanking God for delivering her like Daniel out of the mouth of lions. The prayer is quoted in its entirety, although I am not sure if Mulcaster had such a phonographic memory or improvised a bit (probably the latter, as putting speeches in the mouths of famous figures was a generally accepted practice). When another delegation hands her the English Bible (I wonder which translation? The Geneva Bible, most probably), she kisses it and lays it reverently upon her breast, thus signifying her allegiance to Protestantism.

Elizabeth in her coronation robes, via Wikimedia Commons

Elizabeth I – Verses written with a diamond

This post is going to be super-short, because today’s reading was very short – I read the intro to the section on Queen Elizabeth I and a short verse, written by her with her diamond ring on a window glass in the Woodstock Palace, where she was kept in quasi-imprisonment as a suspect after the Wyatt rebellion. “Much suspected by [about]me/Nothing proved can be/Quoth Elizabeth prisoner”. This is a brilliant [ha!] introduction, describing Elizabeth’s life not only at this particular moment in time (permanently suspected of heresy and harbouring seditious thoughts as next in line to the throne), but also to her life in general. Her life is probably one of the best documented female lives in 16th – c. England, and yet she remains elusive.

On another note, I find this custom of writing short missives on a glass interesting. The only other example I can think of is Casanova’s beloved Henrietta – perhaps beloved because she was “the one who got away”. She scratched on his window “you will forget Henrietta too”. It denotes a certain social class (you need to be rich enough to have a diamond), it requires terseness, it is at the same time more durable than paper letter and less durable, taking into account the fragile nature of glass.

Narrative of the Execution of the Queen of Scots – the end

Mary implores her guards to let her servants accompany her, promising they will behave themselves, and even bursts into tears. They finally let her to choose six servants, and she selects four men and two women. Then she enters the hall where the scaffold is set up. She sits down on a stool and listens with a cheerful indifference to her sentence. Then she has to listen to the sermon of the Dean of Peterborough, trying to convince her to convert in these last moments of her life to Protestantism, which of course she refuses. An interesting tidbit – the Dean uses Psalm 45: 10 – 11 to tell Mary she should forget her past glory, which is the gloomiest use of this verse I have ever seen. All the gathered then pray to God for her to make her see the light of true faith. She prays in Latin and then in English for her soul, her son, Queen Elizabeth and forgives her enemies. When she ends, she is calm, and even cheerful. She forgives her executioners, as the custom was, and when they disrobe her, she even jokes she is not used to being disrobed by such a bridegroom, or in such a big company. Her women start to wail, but she tells them in French “Don’t cry, I promised you wouldn’t”. One of the executioners wants to take away her “Agnus Dei”, but she says she wanted to give it to one of her servants and promises him to get paid instead. (Executioners usually got all the personal belongings of the people they killed, that is why they were so keen of disrobing the victims themselves).  One of her women ties her eyes with a cloth used to cover the Eucharist chalice. Mary says one final Psalm in Latin, puts her head on the block and while one executioner is holding her tight, the other dispatches her. He must have been inexperienced, because it took him two blows, and even after that there was still “a little gristle”.

This is not the only gruesome detail. When the executioner lifts her head up, her head covering and wig fall off, revealing short grey hair. Her lips were trembling a quarter of an hour after the decapitation. Another executioner, burrowing in her skirts to pluck off her garters (yuck), finds there her pet dog who was hiding there and then the poor animal (the tradition has it that it was a Skye terrier) lies down in the space between her head and shoulders, until he is taken by force to be washed. All Mary’s other belongings are also either washed or burnt and the executioners are only allowed to take their fees. Mary’s body is carried upstairs to be embalmed.

Wingfield ends his narrative with the assurances that he tried to note down everything as faithfully as he could, and if the speeches are not exact transcriptions of the words spoken, they are substantially true.