The Early years of Elizabeth 1, Queen of England
Born in the wrong sex
Princess Elizabeth was born in 1533 but was a great disappointment to her parents and the whole of the country as she was not the much wished for Prince, but a girl. Conceived out of wedlock her father, King Henry had married her mother Anne and then declared his own marriage to his first wife invalid, to accommodate the birth of the prince, now princess.
As was the custom of the time, the baby princess was sent to the country to be brought up in good fresh air, whilst her mother tried to conceive the long awaited prince. The princess was given the title of Princess of Wales, taken from her elder sister Lady Mary who was now forced to pay court to her baby sister as a member of her household. Henry took delight in his daughter as he had done with Mary and brought her to court for ceremonial occasions, showing her off as any proud parent would. In 1536 Elizabeth’s mother, Anne, was executed under accusations of adultery, witchcraft and plotting against the King. This made little different to the Princess as she had hardly known her mother and her frequent pregnancies and lying ins made little time for socialising with her one child of the wrong sex. Her father’s remarriage to Jane Seymour and the subsequent birth of her half brother, Edward led to a happy childhood where the two children shared a household and created a bond between them, two motherless children with an absent father, seeking comfort from their staff- both destined to hold important positions in the country.
A good education
The princess was given a classical but renaissance education. She was allowed to dance, rode and practised archery as well as quieter pursuits such as embroidery or playing cards with her elder sister Mary, often for a small wager. Elizabeth was kept away from court and in so doing was not used as a pawn to gain power such as poor Lady Jane Grey. She was safe and secure and whilst step mothers came and went, her father, by now fat and grotesque with sores on his legs, was a true constant in her life. At the age of ten with her father now married to the homely Catherine Parr, the children were brought to live at court. Catherine wanted to be a mother and it is unlikely that the King could oblige in that area, so she sought to mother the Kings children. Catherine enjoyed Elizabeth’s company and persuaded the King to increase her education as the child was interested in study and seemed to have a flair for languages. Accordingly the princess was allowed to share her brother’s tutors, being taught Greek, Latin and Italian. This early education proved useful for the future queen as she was able to converse with ambassadors from other countries without the use of interpreters- where words could be dissembled from the original intention.
The amorous attentions of Lord Thomas Seymour
These quiet, calm years under the care of her step mother came to an end with the death of King Henry in 1547, Elizabeth remained with her step mother but was unsure what would happen now that her brother Edward was King in a minority, protected by the Duke of Somerset. Lord Thomas Seymour the Duke’s brother, quickly married Catherine Parr and welcomed the young Elizabeth into his household. Thomas Seymour’s behaviour to the young princess was always flirtatious but once his wife was pregnant it began to get almost seductive. He would come into the young princesses room without warning, hug her and kiss her passionately- something that some 14 year old young girls may have give in to. Elizabeth had a mature attitude to these overtures and managed to always be with someone so that she would never be alone with him and certainly never in a state of undress. She found him a rather huge joke and his pathetic attempts to win her love were regarded as such, pathetic. However, Catherine Parr was becoming jealous of the princess, she was heavily pregnant and not receiving any attention from her husband. At Whitsun in 1548 despite Elizabeth’s attempts never to be alone with Lord Thomas, Catherine came upon him with Elizabeth in his arms and the very next day Elizabeth was sent to live in Cheshunt in the home of Sir Anthony Denny, to continue her education. Unfortunately Catherine Parr died in childbirth and advances were made to arrange the marriage between Princess Elizabeth and Lord Thomas Seymour. Elizabeth would not have him as her husband which was sensible as his position in the country worsened when it was known that he had plotted to kidnap the King in order to marry him to Lady Jane Grey! In January 1549 he was sent to the tower whilst evidence was obtained against him. The princesses faithful servants, Kate Ashley and Thomas Parry were incarcerated and questioned in the Tower where they gave details of the flatteries and flirtatious behaviour that Seymour had demonstrated in front of the princess and gave details of some of the rumours surrounding their relationship. Elizabeth faced these accusations with her father’s strength of character, saying that there was no truth that she had any relationship with Seymour and anger that her trusted servants had been forced to sign confessions simply because they had been so badly treated. The princesses honesty convinced the Lord Protector that the princess was innocent and her servants were allowed to return to her household; Seymour, his brother, was beheaded.- the charge was one of High Treason in attempting by crafty means to marry a princess. Although declared innocent Elizabeth was not received at court and at 15 years old she learned how dangerous life could be for a royal personage.
Safety at Hertforshire
Elizabeth spent the rest of her brother’s short reign in Hertfordshire, avoiding the court although she missed the company of her younger brother. She wrote many letters to him , telling him what she was doing and how much she loved him , rather like the way young people send text messages these days. The protectorate role moved to the Northumberland family and Elizabeth was summoned to the bedside of her brother who was dying. Putting her wishes aside to see her brother she realised that if she went to court she would be a pawn for the Northumberland’s who were advancing the cause of Lady Jane Grey. Wisely Elizabeth wrote and told the protector that she was ill, enclosing a letter from a doctor who had been encouraged to lie to preserve the princesses safety. Again once her brother was dead, the princess wrote to her sister Mary and asked how she could serve her as queen,. Elizabeth knew the way the court worked and knew she needed to be strong to preserve her life and take the throne if her time came.
Mary Tudor reigned for five years and during these five years the Princess Elizabeth, now heir to the throne practised all the skills of diplomacy she had learnt. She lived quietly avoiding any discussions or plots against her sister who was trying to turn the country back to Catholicism and with her marriage to another Spaniard was felt by some to be diluting the Royal Blood. Mary’s aim was to convert her sister to Catholicism and Elizabeth walked on a tightrope, attending the Catholic mass rarely enough to stop her sister from taking action against her but not enough to confirm her change to Catholicism. Just before her sisters marriage to Phillip of Spain Elizabeth managed to gain permission to return to the safety of her home in the country.
The Wyatt Rebellion
Elizabeth was nearly undone by the Wyatt rebellion, led by Sir Thomas Wyatt in January 1554 where the only condition was that the Queen did not marry Phillip of Spain. Under torture Wyatt implicated Elizabeth and she was summoned to court; she answered that summons stating that she was too ill to attend. Court physicians were sent to the princess and indeed found her unwell but she was taken to London in short stages. Pale and wan she arrived to answer charges but her sister Mary would not see her. She was ordered to be detained in the Tower of London, but Elizabeth requested permission to write to her sister Mary , a letter in which she protested her innocence. Elizabeth knew how dangerous her position was as soon as her sister became Queen and it is probably certain that Elizabeth was completely innocent of any complicity in the matter. The letter did not move Queen Mary and Elizabeth was sent to the Tower where she stayed for two months whilst her sister decided what to do with her as there was insufficient evidence to take her to trial. The princess received support from Londoners whilst in the tower, they did not support the marriage of Mary and Phillip and it was the King’s beautiful and proud daughter, who echoed so many of his characteristics , who was in the Tower. Mary sent Elizabeth to Woodstock in Oxfordshire where she lived for ten months. Elizabeth was briefly recalled to court when her sister Mary thought she might be pregnant. Realising that her age would complicate the birth procedure the Queen wished to be reconciled with her sister in case she died in childbirth. The long awaited for event never happened and Elizabeth was allowed to return to her own home in Hertfordshire.
In 1557 Mary turned to her sister for support. Her husband had drawn the country into a war against the pope and was absent; she realised that she would never be a mother and produce an heir. As her sister weakened Elizabeth spent her time seeking out support and identifying anyone who was against her, finally receiving the support of her sister Mary, who may have been hoodwinked into thinking that her sister would keep the catholic faith. When Queen Mary died on 17th November 1558 the bells rang out to welcome the new queen, young and vigorous like her father and ready to take the throne of England.