Family and Survival: The Early Years




The child who would become ‘Gloriana’ was born at Greenwich Palace on 7 September 1533, the daughter of Henry VIII and his charismatic second wife, Anne Boleyn. She was named Elizabeth after both her grandmothers, and her gender was a bitter disappointment. Planned celebrations for Henry’s long-awaited son were cancelled and the letters prepared to announce the birth of the ‘Prince’ were hastily changed by the addition of a scribbled letter ‘s’. The King had broken from the Church of Rome to marry Anne and secure his dynasty with a male heir, who was expected to become a great king in years to come. In an age when the hand of God was seen in everything, this birth was a terrible reversal of fortune. Nobody would have predicted that Henry’s true heir had indeed been born that day in Greenwich and that Anne Boleyn’s daughter would one day reign over an English ‘Golden Age’.


Before Elizabeth reached 3 years old her mother was executed on charges of adultery with five men, and her father, Henry VIII, signed the death warrant. In spite of this, she grew up admiring her father, while also acknowledging the mother she could not remember. As Queen, she would adopt Anne’s falcon badge and she wore a mother-of-pearl locket ring, set with gold and rubies, which bore both her own and her mother’s portrait inside.

From babyhood, Elizabeth was established in her own household and lived at several royal properties north of London. The most well-known is the red brick fifteenth-century palace of Hatfield and it was here that her nursery years began. Her sister Mary, who was seventeen years older, lived at Hatfield until after the fall of Anne Boleyn and then had separate establishments at Beaulieu (also called Newhall), Richmond and Hunsdon.

The tiny princess, now known as ‘the Lady Elizabeth’, was entrusted to the care of Margaret Bryan, her Lady Governess, who thought her ‘as toward a child … as ever I knew any in my life’ (meaning that the infant was remarkably advanced for her age). There was some lack of funds in the household, following Anne’s fall, as Elizabeth began to outgrow the rich clothes lavished upon her by her mother. Lady Bryan reported to Secretary Cromwell that she ‘has neither gown nor kirtle nor petticoat nor linen for smock’. The following year, Margaret Bryan was transferred to the service of a more important infant: the baby Prince Edward, who arrived in October 1537. Elizabeth had lost her first foster mother but her care was taken over by two surrogate mothers who would be part of her life for decades. Blanche Parry was Elizabeth’s former cradle-rocker and Kat Ashley joined the household as her governess. Both would love and protect the girl through her formative years and beyond.

The children of Henry VIII lived mostly in separate establishments but records show that both sisters were attentive to their little brother, visiting when they could and bestowing gifts. Edward looked like Elizabeth, they were close in age and they shared a love of books but, according to Lady Bryan, he ‘took special content’ in Mary’s company. It’s possible that his mind was more like Mary’s. They both held a fanatical belief in their one preferred form of Christian worship, which they would try to impose on their country, while Elizabeth occupied the middle ground.

The rise of humanism had helped the cause of education for upper-class females and Henry VIII wanted all his children to have the learning of a good Christian prince. Elizabeth was a natural academic and, like her brother, she benefited from the teaching of distinguished tutors. The best known is the Cambridge scholar Roger Ascham. He said, ‘Her mind has no womanly weakness … her perseverance is equal to that of a man, and her memory long keeps what it quickly picks up.’ The princess received schooling in history, philosophy and the tenets of her father’s new Church of England – a subject that would ultimately shape her country. She also had a fascination and aptitude for languages. She was well tutored and excelled in both Greek and Latin, the two major languages of learning and philosophy. In addition, she became fluent in French, Spanish and Italian, attainments of which she was very proud. In years to come, on formal visits to Oxford or Cambridge, Elizabeth spoke casually in Latin and she used Erasmus’s Latin version of Petrarch as a source text for her translation of the Italian poet’s poems. Her earliest surviving letter is written in Italian, in 1544, to Henry’s sixth wife, Katherine Parr. At New Year, when it was traditional to exchange presents, the 11-year-old Elizabeth sent Katherine her own translation of the French devotional work The Mirror of the Sinful Soul, with an embroidered cover, worked by her own hand. Similarly, in 1545 she presented Henry VIII with an embroidered prayer book containing a copy of Katherine Parr’s Prayers or Meditations. In her own flourishing script, the child had translated it into Latin, French and Italian. It is conserved today in the British Library in London, where it remains the only surviving letter from Elizabeth to her father.

Queen Katherine was an affectionate stepmother who did much to reconcile the King with his daughters. It’s also possible that by the time of his last marriage the ageing King had given up hope of fathering another son. In July 1543 Parliament passed the third Act of Succession of Henry VIII’s reign, which restored both Mary and Elizabeth to the throne, behind their half-brother. On the slight shoulders of Edward rested Henry’s hopes for the Tudor dynasty but, in the unthinkable event that the boy should die, Henry’s daughters could now also inherit the crown. Perhaps it was due to Henry’s overwhelming authority that this contradiction between his daughters’ bastardy and their standing as his heirs was never challenged in his lifetime.

An anonymous painting, entitled The Family of Henry VIII, marks Henry’s dynastic vision. It was probably commissioned in 1545 and shows Henry with Edward and the boy’s deceased mother, Jane Seymour, occupying a central space, traditionally reserved for the Holy Family. His two daughters are relegated to the outer sections of the painting and are dressed alike in French hoods and lavish damask gowns with long trains. They look almost identical in both face and dress but their jewellery is different: Mary wears a cross while Elizabeth has a necklace forming the initial ‘A’. It is almost certain that Elizabeth inherited this jewel from her mother, Anne Boleyn, who owned an ‘A’ as well as the famous ‘B’ necklace. There is a theory that Henry would have disapproved of the necklace and that it was added to the painting in Elizabeth’s own reign. (The picture is recorded as hanging in the presence chamber at Whitehall Palace when Elizabeth was Queen.)

We can see Elizabeth again, aged 13, in an accomplished work by Guillaume Scrots, which can be viewed in the Royal Collection at Windsor Castle. She stands in a sumptuous gown of crimson damask, a book clasped in her elegant white hands, intimating that her reading has been interrupted for the painting to be created.


Attributed to: Guillaume Scrots, c. 1546, oil on panel, Royal Collection Trust

This is the earliest known individual portrait of Elizabeth, painted when she was a teenager. It is unusual because it was probably intended as a private image and, by contrast, Henry VIII employed art to glorify his reputation with his court and public.

The young princess looks apprehensively at the viewer with a sideways glance. The long and slightly hooked nose, which will remain the dominant feature in all future portraits, is strongly evident, along with her distinctive gold-red hair and almost imperceptible eyelashes and brows. Her colouring, nose and mouth favour her father, Henry VIII, while her dark eyes are the legacy of her mother.

She is wearing a vivid crimson silk gown that the artist has flecked with yellow to indicate costly gold thread. The rich fabric was most likely woven in Italy and purchased from Italian merchants, such as Antonio Corsi or Lorenzo Bonvisi, who traded directly with the Great Wardrobe. The undersleeves and forepart of the petticoat are made from cloth of silver, patterned with loops of metal thread. It was a Florentine speciality known as tissued fabric and it was far more expensive than the crimson silk of her gown. Sumptuary laws restricted the wearing of tissued fabric to the royal family and so Elizabeth’s apparel asserts her royal blood. For Mary and Elizabeth, portraits like this date from periods when they were in favour with their father. This meant that they would have money for clothes and would also have received items ordered on the King’s warrants. Their stepmothers further provided them with gifts of clothing.

Elizabeth’s finger is placed inside the book she is holding, where a piece of paper or perhaps white ribbon is used to mark a page. There is a larger tome on the table to her right which may be the Old Testament, although to date there has been no satisfactory explanation for the blank pages. The volume in her hand is perhaps the New Testament, but it could also be a religious text in Greek or Latin that was intended to hint at her learning. The Venetian ambassador, Giovanni Michiel, said of Elizabeth, ‘She is a young woman whose mind is considered no less excellent than her person.’


The earliest known individual portrait of Elizabeth, painted c. 1546 when she was a young teenager and probably intended as a private image.

Elizabeth’s pride in her education is likely the theme of this painting. Originally, the portrait referenced the classics; the wall behind the large open book was composed of elegant architectural features that continued behind Elizabeth’s left shoulder. The decoration contained carved rams’ heads, an important motif in Roman ritual and religion, and there was a recess to the right, perhaps intended to contain a statue. Close inspection of Elizabeth’s girdle (belt) is rewarded by the meticulously painted classical vases that make up its length and flow down from the book she is holding. Early changes to the picture were made before the painting was completed and the architectural details were overpainted with wood panelling and a curtain. Some of the original details are today visible through the thinning paint. During the latter part of Henry VIII’s reign, artists in England continued to be viewed as craftsmen and so it was generally the patron who dictated the iconographical details – or signs and symbols – that were to appear within a portrait. Frustratingly, due to a lack of contemporary documentation, there is no explanation as to why, or on whose orders, the alterations were carried out.

The princess’s jewellery is striking and beautifully painted, with pearls predominating. For the rest of her life, pearls remained the decoration of choice for Elizabeth because they represented purity and wisdom. Their round shape and white lustre associated pearls with the moon and the virgin goddess Cynthia, to whom Elizabeth was allegorically compared. It is hard to imagine from the standpoint of today, with faux pearls available at modest prices, that all the pearls painted in portraits of Elizabeth I are genuine, most likely from the Americas, and of enormous value. As Queen, Elizabeth was able to source and display huge numbers of pearls as a sign of high status because, unlike today, few of her subjects could afford to do so.

Elizabeth enjoyed wearing rings on her fingers to accentuate the beauty of her hands. Her fingers are exaggeratedly long and slim to emphasise her royal lineage, and porcelain white to confirm her high status and gentility. This is a hand that does no manual work. Elizabeth’s pride in the slender beauty of her hands was to last a lifetime. In 1557, the Venetian ambassador described Elizabeth as having ‘above all, a beautiful hand of which she makes a display’. The artist has slightly changed the position of her right hand and altered the position of the book she is holding, perhaps to depict it more elegantly. As with the architectural alterations, the paint has become more transparent with time, allowing the artist’s modifications to become visible.

This portrait seems likely to have been intended as one of a pair, along with a painting of Prince Edward, also painted in 1546. Dendrochronology (dating growth rings in the wooden panel to the place and year they were formed) has proved that the wooden panels of the two portraits came from the same oak. They are almost identical in size and both panels were used soon after the tree was felled, with only a short time allowed for seasoning. Similar painted features appear in both portraits: for example, the tissued cloth of Elizabeth’s petticoat appears in the curtains in the portrait of Prince Edward.

Both paintings have been attributed to the Flemish artist Guillaume Scrots. In 1537, he was appointed painter to Mary of Hungary, Regent of the Netherlands, and in 1545, he became painter to Henry VIII. Hans Holbein had died only two years before and yet Scrots was paid £62 10s pa, more than twice the salary Holbein had received. He remained at the English court during the reign of Edward VI but, after the young King’s death in 1553, he disappears from the records, probably leaving England to return to his native Belgium.

If attributing the portraits as a pair to the same artist is acceptably conclusive, the identity of a patron has not been established and remains open to conjecture. The paintings could have been commissioned by Henry VIII, as they are listed in Edward VI’s collection following his father’s death in January 1547. It is also possible that Edward VI asked his sister for a portrait of herself, or Elizabeth could have commissioned it as a gift to her brother. A letter exists from Elizabeth, sent from Hatfield House, to accompany such a gesture. It is dated 12 May but, tantalisingly, there is no mention of a year nor description of content that could link it definitively to this picture. The letter reveals an interesting awareness by the princess of artistic philosophical debate. Elizabeth makes the distinction between a picture of her face, which she ‘might wel blusche to offer’, and that of her mind, which she will ‘never be ashamed to present’. Renaissance artists and patrons heavily debated whether an artist was ever capable of capturing the mind of the sitter as well as their physical appearance and Elizabeth appears to be aware of this. She continues in her letter to her brother, separating the ‘outwarde shadow of the body’ from the ‘inwarde mind’.

In 1546, when this likeness was painted, Elizabeth was unsure what lay ahead. Her legitimacy had been denied in the past and she would no doubt have struggled with deep insecurities concerning her future. As a young princess in this picture, Elizabeth had no idea that her brother Edward would die as a young king, nor that her sister Mary would rule for just five years, or that in only twelve years she would be crowned Queen of England. For all its secrets yet to be discovered, this portrait perfectly depicts the apprehension of a young girl facing uncertainty.


Queen Katherine continued her care of Elizabeth after the death of Henry VIII in 1547, taking the teenage girl to live with her and her new husband, Thomas Seymour (brother of Jane). However, this arrangement would soon threaten the reputation of the princess, for Seymour was handsome and he flattered her with his attentions. Elizabeth’s new stepfather paid morning visits to her bedchamber, before she was dressed, where a great deal of playfulness seems to have occurred, involving romping and tickling. The flirtation went beyond what was seemly and ended only after Katherine Parr discovered the pair in an embrace and sent Elizabeth away.

Thomas Seymour’s interest in Elizabeth was powerfully renewed after the death of the Dowager Queen in childbirth, in September 1548, and he hoped to marry her. His suit was rejected by Edward VI’s Privy Council and the ambitious Seymour was later arrested for treason after plotting to overthrow his brother, the Lord Protector. At this point details of his former dalliance with Elizabeth emerged and she now found herself embroiled in a scandal, with rumours that she was pregnant by Seymour. It was so serious that two of her servants, Kat Ashley and Thomas Parry, were arrested and questioned in the Tower of London. The Council sent Sir Robert Tyrwhitt to Hatfield to examine Elizabeth but she answered with such confidence that he reported, ‘She hath a very good wit and nothing is gotten of her but by great policy.’

At just 16, Elizabeth had survived her first crisis. It taught her a valuable lesson but may also have affected her for the rest of her life. She would never allow her heart to rule her head again. Now feeling vulnerable to slurs on her virtue, she began to dress in a sombre fashion and to guard her reputation. Perhaps she reflected on her previous flirtatious behaviour and the salacious charges levelled against her mother back in 1536. The swaggering, reckless Thomas Seymour went to the block in March 1549 and Elizabeth wrote, ‘This day died a man with much wit and very little judgment.’ Five years later, she would come close to execution herself as one of the most famous prisoners of the Tower of London.

The Protestant boy king, Edward VI, died of tuberculosis in 1553, having commanded (against the wishes of his father) that Mary and Elizabeth be excluded from the succession. He considered both his sisters to be illegitimate, and Mary was a Catholic. Having just approved religious reform that went far beyond the Henrician changes, he was determined to prevent a Counter-Reformation. In a will, written by his own hand, Edward left the crown to his cousin Jane Grey. Nonetheless, in a courageous gamble, the Lady Mary, now aged 37, raised her standard and gathered overwhelming support. She was proclaimed Queen in London on 19 July 1553 and, accompanied by Elizabeth, entered the city soon after to widespread joy. Mary was the first woman to successfully claim the throne of England and, if she had not fought for her right to rule, her sister might also have been excluded for ever. The question of whether a woman could wear the crown in England was settled, at last.

However, the mutual support of the sisters did not last long, due to their religious differences and tension over Elizabeth’s position as her sister’s heir. When Mary ordered that everyone attend Catholic Mass, the Protestant Elizabeth had to reluctantly conform. The Queen’s popularity diminished the following year when she announced plans to marry Philip of Spain.

It was taken for granted that a female sovereign needed a husband and that he should be of very high status. Philip was a Catholic prince and Spain was a long-time ally of England, so the match made good sense to Mary. But the English people feared being put under the dominion of Spain, just as a wife was naturally under the control of her husband. Marrying an Englishman would have been equally difficult because of the jealousy and resentment it would cause. Either way, a husband caused political problems for a sixteenth-century female monarch, as Mary Queen of Scots, was also to discover. Elizabeth would learn much from the marital disasters of her sister and her cousin.

Seditious pamphlets inflamed hatred against Spaniards and Parliament even petitioned Queen Mary against the union, but she was determined to go ahead. In January 1554 a serious rebellion broke out that was named after its main leader, Thomas Wyatt the Younger. The aim of the uprising was to prevent the Spanish marriage but the Queen’s overthrow was also implied and her sister, as next in line, was implicated. Many had looked to Elizabeth as a focus for their opposition to Mary’s Catholicism. It was a perilous position to be in.

Elizabeth was first questioned at Whitehall Palace, then told she would be removed by boat to the Tower of London. Now, in abject fear, she sat down and wrote one of the most famous letters of her life, in a desperate attempt to reach her sister, pleading, ‘Remember your last promise and my last demand that I be not condemned without answer and due proof.’

The document, which is held today in the National Archives, runs on to the top of a second page. Fearing that her enemies might add false text at the end of her letter, Elizabeth struck lines through the blank space and placed her signature at the end. It is known as the ‘Tide Letter’. She wrote it very slowly so that the low tide that enabled boats to pass under the arches of London Bridge had turned, sparing her from the Tower for an extra day.

On 17 March 1554 the Lady Elizabeth entered the Tower of London as a prisoner, but she did not enter through Traitors’ Gate. She walked over a drawbridge at the Byward Tower as her mother, Anne, had done eighteen years earlier. It was customary for the royal family to use this private entrance and legend has it that Elizabeth fell to her knees, afraid to enter the fortress, saying, ‘Oh Lord, I never thought to have come in here as a prisoner, and I pray you all bear me witness that I come in as no traitor but as true a woman to the Queen’s Majesty.’

Elizabeth was held in the royal apartments (now demolished) and, although she was kept in comfort, the strain was intolerable and she often felt convinced she would die. At the same time, Robert Dudley was held in the Beauchamp Tower with his brothers, condemned for their part in the short-lived Jane Grey regime. There is a romantic story that the two young people were permitted to meet on one of the Tower walkways but there is no historical evidence to support the tale. However, it seems likely that in years to come the shared experience of imprisonment formed a bond between them.

Elizabeth was afraid but defended herself calmly under every interrogation. Her enemies, including the Chancellor, Stephen Gardiner, urged Mary to put her on trial and Simon Renard, ambassador of Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor, told the Queen her throne would never be safe while Elizabeth lived. However, Wyatt refused to implicate Elizabeth in his rebellion, despite being tortured, and he asserted her innocence in his speech on the scaffold. Eventually she was moved into house arrest and the day chosen for her release from the Tower was 19 May: the anniversary of Anne Boleyn’s execution.

Elizabeth’s physical and emotional survival, in the adult world of danger and intrigue, is a testament to her natural intelligence, but it may be due in no small part to the devotion of her attendants, particularly Kate Ashley and Blanche Parry, who would prove lifelong friends. They gave uncritical and whole-hearted affection to a precocious and sensitive girl, taking the place of the exalted, dysfunctional family she had lost. Later, as Queen, Elizabeth would favour her Boleyn relations and give them places at court. She chose her ladies from among her mother’s relations – the Knollys, Howard and Carey families – but she was never close to her cousins of the Tudor bloodline. There is an important panel, from the middle of her reign, which makes a powerful statement about how she saw her immediate family.


Attributed to Lucas de Heere, c. 1572, oil on panel, Sudeley Castle, Gloucestershire

This painting celebrates the harmony Elizabeth believed she established as Queen. In contrast to Henry’s dynastic painting of 1545, which saw his daughter relegated to the wings, here is Elizabeth as his true heir. Mixing portraiture and allegory, it anachronistically shows Henry VIII, his three children and Queen Mary’s husband, Philip of Spain, alongside figures from mythology. Henry, founder of the Church of England, sits on his throne in the centre, with the Protestant Edward VI kneeling beside him receiving the sword of justice. Henry died in 1547, but on the left of the picture his daughter Mary is shown next to Philip, whom she didn’t marry until 1554 when she was queen, with Mars, god of war, behind them, symbolising the battles they fought in France. Elizabeth, by contrast, stands on the right of the picture holding the hand of Peace, who treads the sword of discord underfoot, as Plenty attends with her cornucopia. Henry shows, by the turn of his head, that Elizabeth will carry on the Protestant faith in England; her legitimate descent is stressed, along with her role as a bringer of peace and prosperity to the realm. Mary and Philip are both painted in darker colours, while Elizabeth, Henry and Edward are brighter, showing that they stood in the light of truth, and Elizabeth’s reign is contrasted with Mary’s in the same way.

Each figure is depicted wearing old-fashioned clothing that would have been appropriate to his or her reign, for example, Henry in the 1530s and Mary in the 1550s. They are also based on the works of other artists, such as the German-born Hans Holbein, and Antonis Mor from the Netherlands. All the figures are either mythical or deceased, apart from Elizabeth and King Philip of Spain, shown here wearing black Spanish dress. Philip inherited his father’s Spanish Empire in 1556 and, after Mary’s death, his reign in England ended.

The inscription shows that the work was a gift for Elizabeth’s ambassador and spymaster, Francis Walsingham, to whose family its provenance can be traced. It was commissioned around 1572 when Elizabeth, aged 39, was beginning to see herself as the culmination of the Tudor dynasty. This was also the year of the St Bartholomew’s Day massacre of Protestants, a shocking event in Paris which Walsingham witnessed. The picture may have been a gift to remind him of the rightness of the Protestant cause.


Mixing portraiture and allegory, this painting shows Henry VIII, his children and Philip of Spain. It celebrates the harmony Elizabeth believed she established as Queen.

Lucas de Heere came to London from Ghent in the 1560s, one of many Flemish Protestant artists and crafts-people to flee religious persecution. This attribution is based upon comparison with his signed Solomon and the Queen of Sheba of 1559 and other works that mingle allegorical and historical personages. De Heere’s fascination with costume has left an accurate glimpse into Tudor culture. The panel was purchased by former Sudeley Castle owner John Coucher Dent at the sale of the collection of Horace Walpole at Strawberry Hill in 1842 and, after being on loan to the National Museum of Wales since 1991, it has now been returned to Sudeley Castle.


Four years later, with an influenza epidemic raging, the short reign of Mary Tudor was drawing to an end and the Queen lay dying at St James’s Palace. Mary had been ill from at least May 1558, possibly from ovarian cysts or uterine cancer, and Elizabeth was next in the line of succession. She was prepared to fight for her throne, if the need arose, but she didn’t have to. By early November, a special envoy, the Count de Feria, arrived from Philip of Spain to tell the Privy Council how much his King desired the succession of Elizabeth. (The nearest Catholic claimant to the throne, Mary Queen of Scots, had recently married the Dauphin of France, and Philip could not permit the union of France, Scotland and England.)

Feria visited Elizabeth in the country but when he suggested that she would owe her throne to his master, she replied defiantly that the people had placed her where she was. He wrote, ‘She is very attached to the people … and very confident that they take her part … She is a woman of much vanity and acumen.’

Although still only 25 years old, Elizabeth – highly educated and schooled in adversity – was more than ready for the crown and her role in history.

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