A Moment of Time (1533)
The Mother Goose nursery rhyme, “Sing a Song of Sixpence,” holds the words, “The king was in the counting-house/Counting out his money/The queen was in her parlor/Eating bread and honey.” The children’s verse was far different from the non-fictional reign of a queen who steadfastly refused to let a king control her money, her country, or her heart.
In the opening of his novel, Anna Karenina, Russian novelist, Leo Tolstoy, wrote, “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Elizabeth Tudor’s family was dysfunctional: at age three, her father, King Henry VIII-a red-haired, rotund, rotter- ordered her mother, Anne Boleyn’s beheading on a trumped-up charge of adultery. In later life, Elizabeth wore a 1575 mother-of-pearl locket-ring that opened to reveal Elizabeth’s portrait paired with Anne’s. Proclaiming his marriage had not been legally binding conferred upon his daughter the stigma of illegitimacy. Eleven days after deposing of his inconvenient wife, Henry married Jane Seymour with whom he had Edward, his son and heir. An unwelcome reminder of Anne, Elizabeth lived in a different castle from her father. Nevertheless, the king allowed her an education usually conferred only upon males and distinguished scholars provided lessons in languages, history, and the classics. Impressed with his student, scholar Roger Ascham declared, “Her mind has no womanly weakness.”
After ordering wife number five, Catherine Howard, to the chopping block, Katharine Parr became Henry’s sixth spouse; she brought Elizabeth into the royal residence and proved a loving stepmother. The lecherous king died in 1547, a fact that must have brought sighs of relief from single ladies desirous of keeping their heads. Mourning for her husband was short-lived as six weeks after becoming a widow Katharine Parr married Edward’s uncle, Thomas Seymour, Queen Jane’s brother. Thomas became interested in the fourteen-year-old Elizabeth-and not in a paternal fashion. He showed up in her bedroom for friendly romps, and on one occasion slashed her dress with his sword. When Katharine died giving birth, Thomas approached Elizabeth with an offer of marriage that she deftly waved aside. His unwelcome attentions ended with his execution for treason against King Edward. Anxious to play down her association with her stepfather, Elizabeth dressed in plain clothes and carried a Protestant prayer-book rather than the banned rosary that her half-sister Mary embraced.
At age twenty, Elizabeth was once more in a precarious situation after Edward’s death at age fifteen, (most likely from tuberculosis). When Queen Mary announced her intention to marry King Philip of Spain, Protestants grew alarmed that her future children would supplant Elizabeth in the royal succession, forever cementing Catholicism. Sir Thomas Wyatt organized a rebellion to dethrone the queen that ended with his death. In the belief that her sister had been part of the rebellion, Mary ordered Elizabeth’s imprisonment in the Tower of London, a customary last stop before execution. After two months, Mary approved of Elizabeth’s release, perhaps in fear of a Protestant rebellion and perhaps because Wyatt had exonerated Elizabeth while on the scaffold. Able to walk the quivering political tightrope, Elizabeth managed to survive the bloody reigns of her Protestant half-brother and her Roman Catholic half- sister.
In 1558, when Mary died of cancer, the bells of London pealed with the news of Elizabeth’s coronation. She declared of her new role, “This is the doing of the Lord, and it is marvelous in our eyes.” The twenty-five-year-old queen slipped the coronation ring on her finger and announced she was marrying England. A brilliant self-promoter, she made the occasion the pinnacle of pageantry. As she walked down the aisle of Westminster Abbey, people tore up pieces of the carpet as souvenirs. Elizabeth always dressed for excess, and she glittered with jewels and power gowns designed to bedazzle. While her power and wealth might have made her an object of envy, Elizabeth understood the weight of the crown. She was the queen of an island nation wracked by warring religious factions. Under her direction, the Church of England restored the country to Protestantism, yet the queen allowed Catholics freedom of worship, thereby avoiding the religious strife that had proliferated under Bloody Mary’s tenure.
Another issue confronting Elizabeth was the intense pressure to marry as many found it abhorrent that a queen should reign without a king. When Parliament insisted she secure a spouse in order to secure the Tudor succession and to forge strategic alliances against Catholic Spain and the Pope, Elizabeth, every inch Henry’s daughter, responded, “A strange thing that the foot should direct the head in so weighty a cause.” The royal families of Spain, France, Sweden, and the Holy Roman Empire, casting a covetous eye on England and the titian-haired beauty, sent out their ambassadors with proposals, one from King Philip II, her former brother-in-law. Over the course of her lifetime, Elizabeth feigned interest in obtaining a spouse, but it was merely a ploy for her refusal to share her throne. Her single status led to her moniker “the Virgin Queen,” a title that led to the naming of Virginia and the Virgin Islands and introduced the name of Virginia. Popular poetry of the day celebrated the queen as Diana, the chaste goddess of the hunt. Elizabeth told her government, “This shall be for me sufficient, that a marble stone shall declare that a Queen, having reigned such a time, lived and died a virgin.”
If ever Elizabeth was in love, or had an affair, it was with the married Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, (“my sweet Robin,”) who she appointed Master of the Horse and thus the only man in England officially allowed to touch the queen. A Spanish ambassador reported that “Her Majesty visits him in his chamber day and night.” A divorce could have been arranged had Lady Dudley not died from a broken neck after tumbling down a flight of stairs. Although her death could have been the result of an accident or a suicide, rumors of murder kiboshed a royal wedding, as was Dudley’s father who had been executed as a traitor. Her philosophy was the perils of matrimony outweighed its benefits, “Beggar woman and single far rather than Queen and married.”
Although King Philip II had been her brother-in-law and suitor, in 1588 he assembled warships-the Armada-in order to conquer England and to return the country to the pope. In order to support her troops assembled at Tilbury, Elizabeth, dressed in a white gown and a silver breastplate, delivered a morale-boosting speech, “I know I have the body of a weak and feeble woman, but I have the heart and stomach of a king, and of a king of England too.” The defeat of the Armada was the apogee of Elizabeth’s reign, and her public persona was as Gloriana, heroine of England.
Under the reign of the Virgin Queen, Britain enjoyed nearly a half-century of political stability and transformed to a world power, a formidable foe to foreign powers. She encouraged explorers such as Sir Walter Raleigh to expand her commercial and colonial empire. The queen spawned the notion of a British empire whose sun was never to set, and chartered seven companies, including East India, to plunder in the guise of trade.
The peaceful interlude ushered in a golden age of the arts. Unlike her successor who shut down the theaters, Elizabeth was a patron of William Shakespeare and the text of his original play Love’s Labour’s Lost is inscribed with the words, “as it was presented before her Highness last Christmas.” So great was the queen’s appreciation of Falstaff in Henry IV that she ordered a play devoted to the portly knight. In compliance, Shakespeare wrote The Merry Wives of Windsor. The monumental stature of the monarch became apparent when the surveyor, Christopher Saxton, published his 1579 atlas of Britain, and an engraving of the queen on her throne filled the title page. Elizabeth was the embodiment of England. In her emotional “Golden Speech” to parliament, at age sixty-eight, she stated, “Though God hath raised me high, yet this I count the glory of my crown-that I have reigned with your loves.”
In her later years, the heroically flawed Elizabeth, then known as Good Queen Bess, did her utmost to defeat the ravages of age. In a ploy to cling to her mortal coil, she sent her adviser, John Dee, on a 1,500-mile quest with a flask of her urine, to the German alchemist, Leonard Thurneysser to forestall the inevitable. She took to concealing her receding hair with red wigs, and ever more elaborate clothes, (her wardrobe held 1900 elaborate gowns). To camouflage her pockmarked face-the result of a bout of smallpox contracted at age twenty-nine- Elizabeth applied pasty white makeup, and her smile revealed rotted teeth. However, the queen did not let go of her grip on her kingdom. When Robert Devereux, the stepson of Robert Dudley, tried to organize a revolt, he met his end through beheading. The queen’s post-mortem comment, “I warned him that he should not touch my scepter.” Nevertheless, even after a half-century as the head of England, a visitor to Hampton Court caught sight of the queen dancing in front of a mirror. Oblivious to the fact she was not alone, Elizabeth stomped her feet and tossed her head as if in defiance to the specter of death. However, in 1603, after the passing of her long-time friend, the Countess of Nottingham, Elizabeth sank into a depression, hardly sleeping or eating. Increasingly inform with rheumatism, the queen made a futile bargain with the Grim Reaper, “All my possessions for a moment of time.”