Tuesday 17 November 2015

Happy Elizabeth Day!

Happy Elizabeth Day!

On this day, 17th November, 1558 Elizabeth I, the great Virgin Queen of England, ascended the throne on the death of her half sister, Mary. Good queen Bess was totally my sort of girl: a gritty, witty survivor.

Elizabeths' old palace at Hatfield on a sunny day in May

They say that they broke the news to her here at Hatfield under an oak tree (what else?) that still stands in the grounds. And I’m prepared to believe that she heaved a huge sigh of relief and did a little queenly victory dance round the trunk of that old tree, punching the air and hollering yeehaw (or the Shakespearean equivalent). 

I’m in awe of Elizabeth for simply having made it into adulthood with all her faculties intact. Let's face it she came from the most dysfunctional of family backgrounds. At the tender age of 3 her mother had been beheaded on trumped up charges of adultery – which conveniently transmuted into treason, a capital offence, given that the cuckolded party was Henry VIII, King of England. All of this was orchestrated for old Henry's connubial convenience: he'd got eye set on a new love-interest. That little chapter, of itself, would have been enough to turn any lesser mortal into a dribbling, gibbering wreck, condemning them to a lifetime’s worth of therapy, but it was just the opening scene, the curtain raiser, in a roller-coaster life fraught with peril and the ever-present risk of assassination.

Once Henry had married wife number 3 and got her pregnant with the male heir that he’d been hankering after, he had a new Act of Succession drawn up, which declared that the children of this third marriage would succeed their father. In the flash of her father's eye Elizabeth went from being his anointed heir to being regarded as just another illegitimate also-ran. 

 But through it all she held her nerve and maintained her household here at Hatfield. She’d first been given the palace as her home when she was only three months’ old, and it was to remain her favourite residence throughout her long life.

Henry VIII died, and was succeeded by Elizabeth's half brother Edward VI, whilst she went to live with her stepmother, the widowed Catherine Parr and her new husband, the Lord Admiral, Thomas Seymour. Having married the Dowager Queen, Seymour appears to have had it in mind to manipulate events so that he could dispose of the Dowager and next take a reigning Queen for his wife and no doubt rule in her name, but the fifteen year-old Elizabeth was wily enough to keep her distance. She was arrested and interrogated when Seymour was implicated in a plot to kidnap her half-brother, the young king, but she had the cool-headed wit to convince her captors of her innocence, and return to take refuge here at Hatfield.

Edward died and a Protestant faction, led by the Duke of Northumberland, touted his cousin Lady Jane Grey as his heir. Throughout Lady Jane's nine day reign, Elizabeth stayed away from the Court and managed to neither renounce her own claim to the throne nor compromise her position with her half-sister, Mary, the rightful heiress to Edward VI.  When she was summoned to London by the Duke of Northumberland, Elizabeth took to her bed here at Hatfield, pleading infirmity. Her doctor certified her too ill to travel, and so she managed to stay out of the eye of the storm, only emerging when Mary had been proclaimed the rightful Queen of England.

As the fires of the Protestant Reformation were quenched by those of Mary’s Catholic Counter-Reformation Elizabeth continued to live quietly at Hatfield keeping her own religious practices safely out of the public eye. By dent of living modestly and inconspicuously she kept her head, whilst Protestant plots to assassinate Bloody Mary, as her sister had come to be known, swirled around her. At the end of it all she wisely observed that all this theological wrangling was a fuss over trifles, and she remained a religious moderate, even when the Pope declared that it would be no sin for any Catholic to assassinate her.

Instead of getting drawn into religious pedantry she steered England towards a golden age that was fondly remembered long after she’d gone. England continued to celebrate the date of her accession well into the eighteenth century with sermons, bonfires and bell ringing. 

Charles I was said to have been decidedly grumpy about all this affection and nostalgia for Good Queen Bess. He complained that the dates of his birthday and that of his queen, Henrietta Maria, on 19th and 16th November, respectively, were but grudgingly and weakly marked by comparison. Who knows, if only he'd sought to emulate her pragmatism and good sense, he might even have held onto his head.

So here's to Elizabeth the Great, a true survivor.

All the best for now,

Bonny x

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