The un­fath­omable queen

From an early age, El­iz­a­beth I was a mas­ter of hid­ing her true emo­tions. He­len Cas­tor at­tempts to de­ci­pher what the monarch was re­ally think­ing be­hind that in­scrutable vis­age

BBC History Magazine - - Contents - He­len Cas­tor is a his­to­rian, broad­caster and au­thor. She is co-pre­sen­ter of Mak­ing His­tory on Ra­dio 4 and has pre­sented sev­eral TV se­ries, most re­cently Eng­land’s For­got­ten Queen on BBC Four

El­iz­a­beth I learned to hide her feel­ings from a young age. He­len Cas­tor at­tempts to dis­cover what she was re­ally think­ing

El­iz­a­beth I is an icon. The Vir­gin Queen is more in­stantly recog­nis­able even than her mon­strously charis­matic fa­ther, Henry VIII. But she is also an enigma. The im­age of ‘Glo­ri­ana’ is a mask – lit­er­ally so, in the ‘mask of youth’ por­traits painted in the last two decades of her life. In th­ese paint­ings, El­iz­a­beth’s un­lined face re­mains age­less and change­less, un­like the sit­ter on which they were mod­elled. And it is a mask that was – and is – re­mark­ably dif­fi­cult to shift.

As Eng­land’s sov­er­eign, El­iz­a­beth said a great deal. She gave speeches, wrote let­ters, poems and prayers. Her com­ments, in public and pri­vate, were recorded by min­is­ters, courtiers and am­bas­sadors. But it is of­ten dif­fi­cult to be cer­tain of what she ac­tu­ally meant. Her in­tel­lect is clear in ev­ery word she ever wrote or spoke. In­fin­itely less clear are her in­ten­tions and emo­tions, the tone and the sin­cer­ity or oth­er­wise of what she said, hid­den as they al­ways were be­hind the cara­pace of a care­fully con­structed public self.

Her un­read­abil­ity is not a trick of the his­tor­i­cal light. El­iz­a­beth was as un­fath­omable to her con­tem­po­raries as she is to pos­ter­ity. As the Span­ish am­bas­sador in Lon­don wrote in 1566 – sig­nif­i­cantly, con­cern­ing the per­son­ally as well as po­lit­i­cally fraught ques­tion of whether El­iz­a­beth would choose to marry – “she is so nim­ble in her deal­ing and threads in and out of this busi­ness in such a way that her most in­ti­mate favourites fail to un­der­stand her, and her in­ten­tions are there­fore var­i­ously in­ter­preted”. And if it was hard to be sure of her in­ten­tions when she spoke, still more chal­leng­ingg is the task of in­ter­pret­ing her si­lence.

A ter­ri­ble blow?

One sub­ject on which El­iz­a­beth re­mained silent for the rest of her life was the death of her mother

One sub­ject on which she re­mained res­o­lutely silent was the foun­da­tional event of her life. In May 1536, when El­iz­a­beth was not yet three, her mother, Anne Bo­leyn, was killed on the or­ders of her fa­ther. Anne was the first English no­ble­woman, and the first anointed queen, to die at the ex­e­cu­tioner’s hand. It was a deeply shock­ing mo­ment, which left her only child fac­ing a fright­en­ingly un­pre­dictable fu­ture. And for the rest of her life, at least so far as the ex­tant sources can tell us, El­iz­a­beth never once ut­tered her mother’s name.

Ar­gu­ments from si­lence are no­to­ri­ously dif­fi­cult to make, and his­to­ri­ans have not found it easy to agree on the ef­fect of this early loss. David Loades sug­gests that, though El­iz­a­beth “was very aware of her mother’s fate”, she “seems not to have been af­fected by it”. David Starkey, on the other hand, sees Anne’s death as “a ter­ri­ble blow for El­iz­a­beth, and her fa­ther’s role in it more ter­ri­ble still. But how deep the wound went we do not know…”. The one im­me­di­ate im­pact to which he points is that “the shower of lovely clothes which Anne Bo­leyn had lav­ished on her daugh­ter sud­denly dried up” – and there­after sees El­iz­a­beth as a young woman who in­her­ited all “the over­ween­ing self-con­fi­dence and ego­tism of her house”.

But there are other ways of read­ing El­iz­a­beth’s in­scrutabil­ity in the face of her mother’s loss, and other scraps of ev­i­dence to weigh in the bal­ance. We know that she never spoke of Anne, and lionised the fa­ther who was re­spon­si­ble for her ex­e­cu­tion. Yet, when El­iz­a­beth se­cured the de­gree of con­trol over her en­vi­ron­ment to make it pos­si­ble, she chose to sur­round her­self with her mother’s rel­a­tives. And in her later years she owned an ex­quis­ite mother-of-pearl locket ring, which opened to re­veal minia­ture por­traits of her­self and Anne. The spe­cific sen­ti­ments be­hind th­ese silent ac­tions are im­pos­si­ble to elu­ci­date, but, how­ever we in­ter­pret them, they can hardly stand as ev­i­dence that the knowl­edge of her mother’s vi­o­lent death left no mark on El­iz­a­beth’s psy­che.

It is plau­si­ble, at least, to sug­gest that her in­ter­nal psy­cho­log­i­cal land­scape was shaped by the kind of trau­matic emo­tional dis­so­nance that can pro­duce not over­ween­ing con­fi­dence, but deep-seated in­se­cu­rity. El­iz­a­beth grew up know­ing that her mother had been found guilty on trumped-up charges of adul­tery with five men, one of them Anne’s own brother, and then be­headed – all on the au­thor­ity of her fa­ther. And yet her fa­ther was the one cer­tainty that re­mained, with­out whose ap­proval she could not hope to flour­ish. As the 12-year-old El­iz­a­beth said in the only sur­viv­ing let­ter she wrote to Henry: “I am bound unto you as lord by the law of royal au­thor­ity, as lord and fa­ther by the law of na­ture, and as great­est lord and match­less and most benev­o­lent fa­ther by the divine law, and by all laws and du­ties I am bound unto your majesty in var­i­ous and man­i­fold ways…”

The bas­tard daugh­ter

What is cer­tain is that El­iz­a­beth was too young when her mother died to re­mem­ber a time when her own po­si­tion in the world was any­thing other than pre­car­i­ous. Be­fore she was three she was de­clared il­le­git­i­mate as a re­sult of the an­nul­ment of her par­ents’ mar­riage – no longer the heir to the throne, or a princess, but sim­ply the ‘Lady El­iz­a­beth’. And there was noth­ing straight­for­ward about her re­vised po­si­tion as the king’s bas­tard daugh­ter. The Act of Suc­ces­sion of 1544 named El­iz­a­beth and her older half-sis­ter Mary as royal heirs to their younger half­brother Ed­ward, while at the same time Henry con­tin­ued to in­sist, in all other con­texts, on their il­le­git­i­macy.

It was a con­tra­dic­tion that trou­bled their fa­ther lit­tle, but it left El­iz­a­beth’s fu­ture in po­lit­i­cal limbo. The lives of most royal women were shaped by mar­riage to hus­bands whose iden­ti­ties were de­cided by the ma­noeu­vrings of na­tional and in­ter­na­tional diplo­macy. El­iz­a­beth and her half-sis­ter were pawns in this mat­ri­mo­nial game, but pawns whose value was hugely dif­fi­cult to as­sess, as royal bas­tards who, how­ever un­likely it seemed, might one day be­come queens.

Po­lit­i­cally, El­iz­a­beth could not an­tic­i­pate the life that lay ahead of her with any de­gree of con­fi­dence. Mean­while – lest her mother’s fate had left her in any doubt of the phys­i­cal and po­lit­i­cal dan­gers mar­riage might present – she gained and lost three step­moth­ers be­fore her ninth birth­day. The first, Jane Sey­mour, died of an in­fec­tion less than a fort­night af­ter giv­ing birth to Henry’s son. The sec­ond, Anne of Cleves, was re­jected by the king be­fore the

mar­riage had even taken ef­fect. And the third, Cather­ine Howard – a teenage cousin of El­iz­a­beth’s mother – was killed in the same way as Anne, as a re­sult of sim­i­lar charges of sex­ual mis­con­duct.

From the sum­mer of 1543 a fourth step­mother, Kather­ine Parr, fa­cil­i­tated a more work­able ap­prox­i­ma­tion of fam­ily life for the three royal sib­lings. But the vi­o­lent rip­tides of pol­i­tics at their fa­ther’s court were never far away, and El­iz­a­beth had nei­ther the unique sta­tus of her brother Ed­ward as heir to the throne to pro­tect her, nor, like half-Span­ish Mary, pow­er­ful rel­a­tives on the con­ti­nent to keep an eye on her wel­fare.

As a pris­oner, her health was not good, and she had dif­fi­culty sleep­ing. But un­der in­ter­ro­ga­tion, she was im­mov­able

Dan­ger­ous day­dreams

The un­cer­tain­ties of El­iz­a­beth’s po­si­tion only mul­ti­plied af­ter her fa­ther’s death in Jan­uary 1547. In Fe­bru­ary 1548 – now liv­ing with the wid­owed queen Kather­ine Parr and her new hus­band, Thomas Sey­mour – 14-year-old El­iz­a­beth noted in a let­ter to her brother, the young King Ed­ward, that “it is (as your majesty is not un­aware) rather char­ac­ter­is­tic of my na­ture… not to say in words as much as I think in my mind”. The sig­nif­i­cance of this in­stinct to­ward opac­ity was con­firmed a year later when Sey­mour was ar­rested on charges of trea­son. It emerged that he had not only flirted in­deco­rously with El­iz­a­beth but, af­ter Kather­ine’s death in child­birth in the au­tumn of 1548, planned to marry her.

El­iz­a­beth, it turned out, had not been re­sis­tant to Sey­mour’s ad­vances. If this was an ado­les­cent crush on a hand­some and at­ten­tive older man – a fa­ther-fig­ure who was not sex­u­ally out of bounds, should he ask for her hand – it is only likely to have been in­ten­si­fied by the fact that the prospect of mar­ry­ing Sey­mour would spare El­iz­a­beth the usual fate of royal daugh­ters: to be sent abroad, in per­ma­nent ex­ile from all that was fa­mil­iar, to make a new life with a stranger for a hus­band. Now, how­ever, it was sud­denly ev­i­dent just how dan­ger­ous such day­dreams might be.

And in re­sponse, El­iz­a­beth, at only 15, brought a public mask into po­lit­i­cal play for the first time. Un­der in­ter­ro­ga­tion, with her clos­est ser­vants in cus­tody, she re­mained im­mov­able, in­sist­ing that she had not been in­volved in Sey­mour’s plans, and there had been no dis­cus­sion of mar­riage with­out the ex­plicit pro­viso that the con­sent of the privy coun­cil was para­mount. “She has a very good wit,” wrote the ha­rassed Sir Robert Tir­whit, charged with ex­tract­ing her con­fes­sion, “and noth­ing is got­ten off her but by great pol­icy.” In March 1549 Sey­mour was sent to the block; El­iz­a­beth was left to re­treat into the calm of her books. It was a for­ma­tive les­son: her de­ci­sion to adopt a de­fen­si­ble po­si­tion and re­sist all pres­sure to shift her ground had saved her from clear and present dan­ger.

Pro­found and en­dur­ing in­se­cu­rity, both per­sonal and po­lit­i­cal, had de­fined El­iz­a­beth’s en­vi­ron­ment and her ex­pe­ri­ence even be­fore she be­came the Protes­tant heir to her Catholic sis­ter’s throne af­ter Ed­ward’s death in 1553. Within months, she found her­self in the Tower – a pris­oner, sus­pected of trea­son, in the same apart­ments where her mother had spent her last days. Psy­cho­log­i­cal pres­sure found phys­i­cal ex­pres­sion – her health was not good, and she had dif­fi­culty sleep­ing – but her com­po­sure, just as it had been dur­ing the Sey­mour af­fair, was im­pen­e­tra­ble. She was in­no­cent of con­spir­acy. If Mary be­lieved oth­er­wise, she must prove it. And the truth was that, as the Span­ish am­bas­sador ad­mit­ted through grit­ted teeth, “there is not suf­fi­cient ev­i­dence to con­demn El­iz­a­beth”.

Hid­den in plain sight

How, then, are we to un­der­stand El­iz­a­beth as queen? Her ac­ces­sion to the throne in 1558, at the age of 25, brought au­thor­ity and au­ton­omy, but it did not bring safety. Al­ready, her sharp in­tel­lect had been forged into a cau­tious and sub­tle in­tel­li­gence, and her in­ter­ac­tion with the world into a masked re­ac­tiv­ity. Those same in­stincts – to watch and wait, to choose her friends care­fully, and her en­e­mies more care­fully still – con­tin­ued to guide the new queen as the threats to her per­son and her king­dom mu­tated and mul­ti­plied.

Mer­cu­rial as she could be, dif­fi­cult to read as she was, she hid in plain sight. She took up po­si­tions – on re­li­gion, mar­riage, coun­sel, diplo­macy – at the start of her reign, and, wher­ever she could, how­ever she could, re­buffed at­tempts tomake her move. Her min­is­ters ques­tioned her meth­ods – her re­sis­tance to change, to war, to mar­riage, to nam­ing an heir – but El­iz­a­beth’s am­bi­tion as monarch was con­sis­tent and co­her­ent: to seek se­cu­rity through still­ness; to man­age the known risks of cur­rent cir­cum­stances, rather than pre­cip­i­tate un­known dan­gers through ir­re­versible ac­tion.

The ex­pe­ri­ence of in­se­cu­rity, it turned out, would shape one of the most re­mark­able mon­archs in English his­tory.

El­iz­a­beth’s mother- of­pearl locket ring, which bears por­traits of her­self and her mother, Anne Bo­leyn

A por­trait of El­iz­a­beth, prob­a­bly com­mis­sioned by her fa­ther, Henry VIII. Hav­ing been de­clared the il­le­git­i­mate daugh­ter of a dis­graced queen, the young princess faced an un­cer­tain fu­ture

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