Modern history



Elizabeth was sitting under an oak tree in the grounds of Hatfield House on 17 November 1558 when the earls of Arundel and Pembroke arrived to inform her of her half-sister’s death and that she was queen. This news can hardly have been unexpected for Elizabeth, who appeared unable to speak for a moment before giving praise to God. Shortly afterwards a breathless Sir Nicholas Throckmorton arrived bearing Mary’s betrothal ring, which she would never willingly remove from her finger, as proof of her death. For Elizabeth and England it was the start of a long and largely prosperous reign. Volumes can be written on the life and reign of Anne Boleyn’s daughter.

Elizabeth appointed her household while at Hatfield and set about business requiring her immediate attention. A few days later she set off for London and was met by crowds.1 Since Catholics considered her to be illegitimate – and, following her accession, her Catholic cousin Mary, Queen of Scots, had been proclaimed Queen of England in France – it was necessary to arrange her Coronation as soon as practicable.2 According to the historian William Camden, Elizabeth encountered some difficulties with this. Mary’s Archbishop of Canterbury, Cardinal Pole, had recently died, and in any event would have been unlikely to have crowned Anne Boleyn’s daughter given that he had spent much of his life in exile for opposing Elizabeth’s parents’ marriage and the changes to religion it had brought. Elizabeth was finally crowned on 15 January 1559 by the Bishop of Carlisle, the only bishop who could be found to crown her:

For the Archbishop of York and the rest of the Bishops refused to perform the Office, out of a suspicion and jealous fear of the Romish Religion, which both her first breeding up in the Protestant religion had stricken them into, and also for that she had very lately forbidden the Bishop in saying Mass to lift up the Host to be adored, and permitted the litany, with Epistle and Gospel, to be read in the vulgar tongue; which they held for the most heinous sins.3

Ignoring this slight, Elizabeth was triumphant and showed her delight to the crowds that lined the route of her Coronation procession, laughing and speaking with those who wished her well.4 Her cousin Catherine Carey and her husband, Sir Francis Knollys, were also able to be present to wish her well.

Catherine returned to England with her family shortly after Elizabeth’s accession. The affection between the cousins was unaffected by their separation, with Elizabeth appointing Catherine as the chief lady of her Privy Chamber on 3 January 1559.5 On 19 January Francis was appointed to the Privy Council, whose role was to advise the queen, as well as becoming Vice-Chamberlain of the Royal Household. That same month the queen also appointed Catherine’s daughter, Lettice, as a gentlewoman of the Privy Chamber, while a younger daughter, Elizabeth, and Catherine’s niece and namesake, another Catherine Carey, were made maids of the court.6 Philadelphia, another daughter of Elizabeth’s cousin Henry Carey, also received an appointment as a maid of the queen early in the reign.7

On her accession, Elizabeth’s England was a Catholic country, something which she found unacceptable. While Elizabeth was no religious fanatic, she was committed to Protestantism, albeit seeking to create a Church that incorporated aspects of both Catholicism and Protestantism, something that would not have pleased the more staunch Sir Francis Knollys and, perhaps, also his wife. Francis’s letters display the formality of a puritan; he commonly addressed his children by both their Christian names and surnames, even in letters to his wife, for example, referring to ‘Henry Knollys’ when discussing his eldest son with Catherine.8 Elizabeth, on the other hand, was determined to tread a middle way, with her first parliament passing the Act of Supremacy on 29 April 1559, which confirmed the queen as the Supreme Governor of the Church of England.

Religion was not the only item of business in Elizabeth’s first parliament. At the time of her accession she was twenty-five years old and unmarried. It was unheard of for a woman to rule alone and it was believed that she would quickly marry, as her sister had done, and, hopefully, settle the succession. In February 1559 Parliament presented the queen with a formal petition, requesting that she choose a husband. To this, Elizabeth responded with a long speech setting out that she had no inclination to marry and that she wished to remain a virgin. She ended this speech saying, ‘Lastly, this may be sufficient, both for my memory and honour of my name, if when I have expired my last breath, this may be inscribed upon my tomb: Here lies interred Elizabeth, A virgin pure until her death.’9 This speech caused very little comment simply because nobody believed it.

Elizabeth’s reply to the petition of February 1559 was not, in fact, the first time that she had sworn never to marry. In 1558 she had turned down an offer of marriage from the Prince of Sweden, claiming that she wished to remain a virgin.10 Throughout her lifetime, Elizabeth flirted with the idea of marriage: she was clearly a woman who liked male company. However, she never wavered in her refusal to marry. There are probably a number of reasons for this. In the sixteenth century, wives were subject to their husbands, a rule that applied even when one spouse was a reigning queen.11 This was perhaps not the only reason for Elizabeth’s refusal to commit herself to marriage. There were few examples of happy marriages in her immediate family, with her own mother, as well as her stepmother, Catherine Howard, being put to death by their husband, while Catherine Parr suffered at the hands of her last husband. In fact, the only really happy examples of marriage in Elizabeth’s immediate family were those of her Carey cousins, with Catherine Carey’s being the most obvious to her. Elizabeth was prepared to entertain proposals of marriage from foreign suitors when politically necessary, with her brother-in-law, Philip of Spain, proposing in January 1559, for example, something that he saw as his duty given the need to maintain the Catholic religion in his deceased wife’s kingdom. Elizabeth was able to keep negotiations open until March 1559, by which time she had concluded a peace with France and Philip’s continuing friendship was no longer crucial.

Soon after she rejected Philip, Elizabeth received a proposal from his cousin, the Archduke Ferdinand.12 This match soon foundered, and Ferdinand’s younger brother, the Archduke Charles, proposed marriage himself. Without an empire of his own to inherit, Charles proved considerably more enthusiastic about the English queen than his brother, with his name mentioned in negotiations for over seven years, until he too finally lost patience with Elizabeth.13 Elizabeth always insisted that she could not marry a man that she had not seen. That this was a delaying tactic is clear from her alarm when she heard, in October 1559, that John of Finland had arrived in England to woo her. Elizabeth was always relieved when marriage negotiations failed, although she professed herself insulted when the Archduke Charles married another woman, after waiting for her for the best part of a decade. Elizabeth persisted with her courtships with foreign princes until well into her fifties.

It was not only foreign princes who sought Elizabeth’s hand in marriage. She received proposals from several English candidates, including the elderly Earl of Arundel, who optimistically showered her with gifts.14 No one but the earl himself took his candidacy seriously. The queen also did not countenance the wealthy Sir William Pickering, who was pleased to offer his hand.15 Instead, her affection was mostly directed towards Robert Dudley, a close friend of her cousin, Catherine Carey, for whom Catherine’s youngest child was named in 1562.16

Robert Dudley was almost exactly the same age as Elizabeth and she had known him since childhood. As the son of the Duke of Northumberland, he was a prisoner in the Tower while Elizabeth was there, and this served to forge a common bond between them. On her accession, the queen appointed Dudley as both her master of horse and a Knight of the Garter. Dudley was far from being universally popular and Elizabeth’s preference for him mystified her contemporaries, with her biographer, William Camden, summing up the general confusion when he wrote that people asked ‘whether this [favour] proceeded from any virtue of his, whereof he gave some shadowed tokens, or from their common conditions of imprisonment under Queen Mary, or from his Nativity, and the hidden consent of the stars at the hour of his birth, and thereby a most strait conjunction of their minds, a man cannot easily say’.17 Dudley was tall and handsome and Elizabeth found him very attractive. He was not, however, a true suitor in the early years of her reign as he had, by 1558, been married for some years. This unavailability may have been part of his charm for Elizabeth, ensuring that here at least was one man who did not hope to persuade her to marry him. By early 1559 there were rumours that the queen and her handsome master of horse were lovers, something that was dangerous to a queen. Elizabeth’s conduct towards Dudley only served to inflame the rumours, with foreign ambassadors openly courting him as a future king, in spite of his wife. Dudley is reputed to have asked the Spanish ambassador to assist him in persuading the queen to marry him, for example.18

Dudley’s wife, Amy, was not encouraged to come to court by the jealous queen and she stayed with friends near Abingdon during her husband’s long absences. On the morning of 8 September 1560, Amy, who was in ill health, insisted that all her servants visit a fair, leaving only her and two other women in the house. When everyone returned that evening, they were horrified to find Amy Dudley dead with a broken neck at the foot of a shallow flight of steps.

When news of Amy Dudley’s death was brought to Elizabeth, she was so shocked that she was almost speechless. She immediately ordered Dudley to leave court while the death was investigated. Elizabeth knew that unless she fully investigated the circumstances of the death, both she and Dudley would be tainted with suspicion of murder. The enquiry returned a verdict of accidental death, holding that Amy had fallen down the stairs, but most people believed that Dudley arranged her murder. Amy Dudley’s death has never been satisfactorily explained, but the evidence of her ladies and her own conduct points towards suicide. It has also been suggested that she may have suffered a spontaneous fracture due to breast cancer. Whatever the cause, the suspicion under which Dudley was held meant it was impossible for the queen to ever contemplate marrying him, even if she wished to.

Dudley was not Elizabeth’s only favourite and she continued to attract male attention until the end of her life. She was never a beauty, but she knew how to make the most of herself and was considered pretty early in the reign, with one contemporary recording that

she was a lady, upon whom nature had bestowed, and well placed, many of her fairest favours; of stature mean, slender, straight, and amiably composed; of such state in her carriage, as ever motion of her seemed to bear majesty; her hair was inclined to pale yellow, her forehead large and fair, a seeming set for princely grace; her eyes lively and sweet, but short-sighted, her nose somewhat rising in the midst; the whole compass of her countenance somewhat long, but yet of admirable beauty.19

In her colouring, Elizabeth resembled her father, but facially she was her mother’s daughter. As she grew older she became acutely aware of her fading appearance and took to wearing wigs and heavy make-up in a bid to maintain the appearance of youth. She continued to enjoy the fiction that her suitors were in love with her well into her old age.

With her failure to marry, the English succession was uncertain throughout Elizabeth’s reign. Under the terms of Henry VIII’s will, in which he gave priority to the heirs of his younger sister, Mary, over his eldest, Margaret, Catherine Grey, the younger sister of Lady Jane Grey, was heir to the throne. Alternatively, by strict heredity, Mary, Queen of Scots, the only child of Margaret Tudor’s only son, was heir. Since she was born outside of England, there were others who considered that Mary’s Catholic aunt, Lady Margaret Douglas, who was Queen Margaret’s younger, English-born child, should be Elizabeth’s successor. Still others, who sought a male candidate, looked towards the Earl of Huntingdon, who was descended from the Plantagenets. Elizabeth’s lack of an heir was dangerously demonstrated in October 1562 when, one evening, she felt unwell and decided to have a bath.20 It was soon clear that the queen was suffering from smallpox and, after falling unconscious, she was thought to be dying. In a brief moment of lucidity, she begged her council to make Robert Dudley Protector of England, swearing that, although she loved him, nothing improper had ever passed between them. With no clear successor Elizabeth’s council were divided, with some seeking to send for Catherine Grey, who was currently in disgrace for contracting a secret marriage, while others favoured the Earl of Huntingdon.

The uncertainty over the succession was further complicated by the return of Mary, Queen of Scots, to Scotland in 1560 following the death of her husband, Francis II of France. Against Elizabeth’s wishes, the Scottish queen took Henry, Lord Darnley as her second husband, a teenager who had a strong claim to the throne himself as the eldest son of Lady Margaret Douglas. The marriage proved to be a disaster, with events coming to a head on 9 March 1566 when Darnley accused Mary of having an affair with her secretary, David Rizzio. Darnley and his accomplices then stabbed Rizzio to death in Mary’s presence. Mary did not take any action at first and, on 19 June 1566, bore a son whom she named James, news that Elizabeth reacted to in grief, declaring that while the Scottish queen was the mother of a son, she remained barren. The members of Elizabeth’s court may have privately thought that it was within the queen’s power to do something about this. Elizabeth was, however, soon justified in her wariness to marry. A few months after the birth of her son, Mary and the rest of Edinburgh were awoken by a large explosion. Upon investigation, the house in which Darnley was staying was discovered to have been blown up with gunpowder. Darnley was found in the orchard next to the house, strangled rather than killed by the explosion.

A few days after the murder, Elizabeth wrote to Mary expressing her condolences. Remembering the death of Amy Dudley, she also counselled Mary on how best to protect her reputation, telling her that she must be seen to avenge the murder:

My ears have been so deafened and my understanding so grieved and my hear so affrighted to hear the dreadful news of the abominable murder of your mad husband and my killed cousin that I scarcely yet have the wits to write about it. And inasmuch as my nature compels me to take his death in the extreme, he being so close in blood, so it is that I will boldly tell you what I think of it. I cannot dissemble that I am more sorrowful for you than for him. O madame, I would not do the office of faithful cousin or affectionate friend if I studied rather to please your ears than employed myself in preserving your honour. However, I will not at all dissemble what most people are talking about: which is that you will look through your fingers at the revenging of this deed, and that you do not take measures that touch those who have done as you wished, as if the thing had been entrusted in a way that the murderers felt assurance in ding it. Among the thoughts in my heart I beseech you to want no such thought to stick at this point.21

Elizabeth’s letter contained good advice and genuinely seems to have been full of concern and empathy for her fellow monarch. Mary failed to heed her English cousin’s words and, on 15 May 1567, she married the Earl of Bothwell, who was widely reputed to have been responsible for the murder.

Soon after her marriage, Mary was captured by rebel Scottish lords and imprisoned.22 Elizabeth was furious about this treatment of a fellow queen and sent ambassadors to try to secure Mary’s release. The Scottish lords were determined to remove Mary, and she was forced to abdicate in favour of her infant son, who was crowned as James VI of Scotland. Elizabeth refused to recognise the new king and raged at the Scottish lords, but she was not prepared to reinstate Mary by force. She was nonplussed when the Scottish queen, who had escaped from her imprisonment, arrived in England on 17 May 1568. Elizabeth promised her protection, but she refused to meet her while she was suspected of Darnley’s murder.23 Mary was immediately placed under house arrest, with Catherine Carey’s husband, Sir Francis Knollys, despatched north to Carlisle to take custody of her, very much against his wishes. The Scottish queen was evidently an irksome burden, with Francis writing to Elizabeth’s chief minister, William Cecil, on his arrival with Mary at Bolton that ‘since her departure from Carlisle hither unto she hath been very quiet, very tractable, and void of displeasant countenance’, something that suggests that this was not usually the case.24 He also later wrote to Catherine to confess that ‘I have been driven to many contentions’ with the Queen of Scots, although he considered her bark worse than her bite, uttering the first thing that came to her mind and often later seeking to make amends ‘in pleasant sort and manner’.25 Elizabeth was always suspicious of her royal relatives. For her, part of the continuing attraction of her maternal family must always have been that they were no threat to her throne, unlike her paternal cousins. She was therefore loath to dispense with Francis’s services in the North, with him writing plaintively to Catherine that ‘I pray you help that I may be revoked and return again, for I have little to do here and I may be spared hence very well’.26

Elizabeth remained close to Catherine Carey and Francis Knollys, making use of their services at court. For example, in November 1566 she sent Francis with her answer to parliament when they petitioned her to marry.27 The couple’s daughter, Lettice, in particular flourished at court, marrying Walter Devereux, Viscount Hereford, who would later become the Earl of Essex, when she was aged around nineteen.28 Lettice, who later married a second earl and survived into her nineties, was the most prominent member of the family until her brother, William, was created Earl of Banbury in 1626. As a result of this she was displayed prominently in ermine and a coronet on the family monument at Rotherfield Greys. Certainly, her mother would have been proud of the marriage her daughter made, although Devereux was not created earl until after his mother-in-law’s death.

Catherine was careless in relation to her health, with her friend (and later son-in-law) Robert Dudley writing in August 1568 that ‘I fear her diet and order’.29 Only the month before, Francis had addressed a similar complaint to his wife, worrying that she ‘do often forget to prevent sickness by due & precise order’. He felt that his presence was required to ensure that she did what the doctors commanded, declaring that ‘I am very sorry to hear that you are fallen into a fever, I would to God I were so dispatched hence that I might only attend and care for your good recovery’.30 It may be that Catherine was too taken up with her royal duties to take notice of her health, particularly since anyone who had successfully given birth to sixteen children must have been used to a robust constitution. Her husband stated in a letter written during one illness that ‘I trust you shall shortly overcome this fever and recover good health again’, suggesting usually strong health.31 She had recovered from her July 1568 fever by the following month, implying that it was of no great consequence, with Robert Dudley writing in August to assure Francis that ‘your wife is well again’.32 It has been suggested that she was someone who refused to listen to medical advice, instead seeking her own remedies, something which suggests that she was as strong-willed as her mother and other Boleyn family members.

The separation of Catherine and Francis that his absence in the North necessitated deeply grieved the couple. A letter survives from Francis to his wife dated 30 December 1568 in which he worried again about her health, having received news from William Cecil that she was again unwell.33 The relationship between Elizabeth and her favourite cousin had evidently been somewhat strained due to the queen’s refusal to allow Francis to return, with Francis complaining to Catherine of ‘her majesty’s ungrateful denial of my coming to the court this Christmas’, as well as her refusal to support the couple in a suit that they had. Francis was further concerned that there had been ‘other misconstruings of me and mine’ with the queen, something which again suggests that the couple and their royal kinswoman had quarrelled. That the source of this quarrel was their separation is clear from Francis’s last letter to Catherine, when he confided ‘that in my last letter to the queen’s majesty I was about (aft that I had written somewhat plainly to her majesty in her own matters) to have written these words following; that as touching mine own particularity, among all my griefs of mind, it was is not the least to understand that my wife is ready to die in discomfort and in miserable state towards her children even in your majesty’s court’. It was only a further letter from Cecil, stating that Catherine was beginning to recover, which stopped her husband writing to Elizabeth in such an accusatory tone. Francis was right to be concerned and he was never able to see his beloved wife again.

Catherine was deeply saddened by her separation from her husband, which did not help her health.34 While at court late in 1568 she developed a fever which, together with her sorrow, ‘did greatly further her end’. The queen was alarmed by Catherine’s sickness, ordering that she be well attended and visiting her regularly. Elizabeth stopped short of ordering Francis’s return, however, suggesting that she had not believed the sickness to be mortal. In his last letter, written at the end of December, this was also Francis’s opinion from the news he had received, ending his letter by saying, ‘I trust you have not forgotten to join my New Year’s gifts with yours and to deliver it accordingly’ – hardly something with which a dying woman would be expected the concern herself.35Catherine died suddenly on 15 January 1569 while still at court, to the great grief of her royal kinswoman. There appear to have been some whisperings of blame directed at Elizabeth, with one royal agent, in conversation with Mary, Queen of Scots, mentioning that ‘although her Grace [Elizabeth] was not culpable of this accident, yet she was the cause without which their being asunder [Catherine and Francis] had happened’.36 Catherine was sincerely loved, being grieved for by her husband and children. Elizabeth also grieved deeply for her, arranging a splendid funeral in Westminster Abbey for the woman to whom she was closest. From her own pocket Elizabeth, who was notoriously parsimonious, paid over £640 to ensure that her cousin Catherine, the daughter of a Boleyn, was royally buried. The queen almost shut down for a time with her grief, with Mary, Queen of Scots, being informed that

the Queen’s Majesty [Elizabeth] (God be praised) did very well, saving that all her felicities gave place to some natural passions of grief, which she conceived for the death of her kinswoman, and good servant the Lady Knollys; and how by that occasion her Highness fell for a while, from a Prince wanting nothing in this world, to private mourning, in which solitary estate being forgetful of her own health, she took cold, wherewith she was much troubled, and whereof she was well delivered.37

Elizabeth’s grief at Catherine’s death was greater than that which she displayed for any other family member: a testament to the cousins’ closeness. It may also have been remorse that finally persuaded her to recall Francis Knollys from ‘his long and painful service’, sending the Earl of Shrewsbury instead to act as the Scottish queen’s gaoler on 26 January 1569.38 She did not entirely dispense with the family’s services, however, requesting that Catherine’s eldest son, Henry, remain with the Queen of Scots.

With Catherine Carey’s death the main Boleyn line was represented mainly by the queen herself. In addition to this, Catherine’s six daughters and, later, her granddaughters, could lay some claim to being Boleyn women, as could the daughters of her brother, Henry Carey, who made up some of his twelve children.

Although Sir Francis Knollys was allowed to return south following his wife’s death, the problem of Mary, Queen of Scots, remained a very real threat for Elizabeth. The Scottish queen, who was both young and very beautiful, was a romantic figure and attracted interest among the nobility, most notably from Elizabeth’s kinsman, Thomas Howard, Duke of Norfolk, the son of the executed Earl of Surrey. In late 1569 a rumour reached court that Norfolk wished to marry Mary in order to become king and return the English church to Catholicism.39 Elizabeth summoned Norfolk, whom she had always recognised as a kinsman, hoping to encourage him to confess.40 The peer denied everything, but, failing to heed the danger, became involved in 1571 in a plot to depose Elizabeth and replace her with Mary. While Elizabeth was prepared to sentence Norfolk to death, she could not bring herself to sign the death warrant. She was always squeamish about ordering the deaths of her kin and she spent several weeks wracked with uncertainty. According to a letter from John Lee to Lord Burghley, ‘they say on 26 February last, was a warrant directed to the lieutenant for the execution of Norfolk on the following morning, but the queen, after she had signed the warrant, was so greatly disquieted in mind and conscience that she could not rest until she had sent to the lieutenant to return it’.41 Finally, Elizabeth was prevailed upon to sign and Norfolk was executed on 2 June 1572.42 This decision caused Elizabeth a great deal of emotional turmoil and many people shared the view of the Earl of Sussex that she needed a husband to keep her safe.43

As time went by, Elizabeth came under increasing pressure to marry and settle the succession. In 1571, she received an offer of marriage from the Duke of Anjou, the brother of the King of France. Anjou was over twenty years younger than Elizabeth and a fervent Catholic but the queen, needing a French alliance, informed her council in March that she intended to marry him. Neither Anjou nor Elizabeth were enthusiastic and she employed her usual delaying tactics, insisting that the prince visit her before she would commit herself. Anjou disparagingly called Elizabeth an old woman with a sore leg, and by September negotiations had stalled. The French queen mother, Catherine de Medici, then offered her youngest son, Francis, Duke of Alençon.44 Elizabeth allowed her ambassadors to open negotiations and, as usual, insisted on meeting him.

Alençon proved a more ardent suitor than Elizabeth’s earlier admirers and, on 5 August 1579, he arrived in England. His arrival was a shock to Elizabeth and although she insisted on meeting her suitors she had never imagined that a foreign prince would actually arrive. Elizabeth was charmed by her guest and the couple spent two weeks together, giving every indication that they intended to marry.

That Elizabeth did have genuine feelings for Alençon is clear from the poem, ‘On Monsieur’s Departure’, which she composed when he returned to France:

I grieve and dare not show my discontent;
I love, and yet am forced to seem to hate;
I do, yet dare not say I ever meant;
I seem stark mute, but inwardly do prate
I am, and not, I freeze and yet am scorned,
Since from myself another self I turned

My care is like my shadow in the sun –
Follows me flying, flies when I pursue it,
Stands, and lies by me, doth what I have done;
His too familiar care doth make me rue it.
No means I find to rid him from my breast,
Till by the end of things it be suppressed.

Some gentler passion slide into my mind,
For I am soft, and made of melting snow;
Or be more cruel, Love, and so be kind.
Let me float or sink, be high or low;
Or let me live with some more sweet content,
Or die, and so forget what love e’er meant.45

Elizabeth and Alençon corresponded passionately and the attraction between them was genuine. In one letter, Elizabeth wrote, ‘For my part, I confess that there is no prince in the world to whom I would more willingly yield to be his, than to yourself.’46Alençon’s courtship was the most intense that she experienced and he was the man she came closest to marrying. She may, at least in part, have attempted to make Robert Dudley, whom she had created Earl of Leicester, jealous as Alençon’s representative had earlier informed her that Dudley had secretly married her cousin, Catherine Carey’s daughter, the widowed Lettice Knollys. Elizabeth was devastated at the news and banished Lettice from court, although she was eventually able to forgive Dudley. She never forgave Lettice, who appears to have been as strong-willed as her royal cousin, her mother and their Boleyn women forebears. Lettice bore Dudley a son, who was named for his father, although he died in childhood. She was subject to the queen’s anger for the rest of her life, being forbidden from joining her husband in the Netherlands while he was serving there, among other slights.47 Her two daughters by her first husband, Dorothy and Penelope Devereux, were however welcome at court with their royal cousin.

Alençon returned to England in late 1581. He continued to press Elizabeth for marriage and, finally, while they were walking together, ‘discourse carried her so far, that she drew off a ring from her finger, and put it upon the Duke of Anjou’s [Alençon], upon certain conditions betwixt the two the standers-by took it, that the marriage was now contracted by promise’. Elizabeth agreed to marry Alençon but she still had doubts, and, that night,

the Queen’s gentlewomen, with whom she used to be familiar, lamented and bewailed, and did so terrify and vex her mind, that she spent the night in doubts and cares without sleep amongst those weeping and wailing females. The next day she sent for the Duke of Anjou [Alençon], and they two, all by-standers being removed, had a long discourse together. He at length withdrew himself to his chamber, and throwing the ring from him, a while after took it again, taxing the lightness of women, and the inconsistency of islanders.48

Alençon’s pursuit of Elizabeth was her last courtship and, when he died only three years after leaving England, she was bereft.

Following Alençon’s departure, it was clear that Elizabeth would never bear children to secure the succession. This left the Catholic Mary, Queen of Scots, as her most likely successor, a fact that worried her council. Mary had remained Elizabeth’s prisoner since her arrival in England in 1568, with Elizabeth always refusing to meet with her. In May 1586, a young Catholic nobleman called Anthony Babbington was contacted by John Ballad, a Catholic priest, who had obtained Spanish support for a plot to murder Elizabeth.49 Babbington became involved in the conspiracy and wrote to Mary asking for her support. Mary wrote agreeing to Elizabeth’s murder, unaware that the correspondence was monitored.50 Faced with the proof of her cousin’s involvement, Elizabeth ordered that she be tried for treason and Mary was, accordingly, sentenced to death, with Sir Francis Knollys one of the peers sitting in judgement. As with the Duke of Norfolk’s earlier condemnation, this sentence sent Elizabeth into turmoil and she pleaded with her council to find a way by which she might spare her cousin and fellow queen. She was angered when everyone insisted that the Scottish queen must die.51

Elizabeth prevaricated for several months before finally signing the death warrant and handing it to her secretary, William Davison.52 Her council acted quickly, fearing that she would recall the warrant on further thought. Elizabeth did indeed send for it to be returned to her the following morning. She was disconcerted to hear that it had already been dispatched to Fotheringay, where Mary was imprisoned. The Queen of Scots was beheaded on the morning of 8 February 1587. According to Camden,

as soon as the report was brought to Queen Elizabeth’s ears, who little thought of such a thing, that the Queen of Scots was put to death, she heard it with great indignation, her countenance altered, her speech faltered her, and through excessive sorrow she stood in a manner astonished; insomuch as she gave herself over to passionate grief, putting herself in mourning habit and shedding abundance of tears.53

Elizabeth wrote to James VI of Scotland, denying her guilt in the death of his mother.54 She always maintained that she had signed the warrant only for use in an emergency and that Davison had deliberately disobeyed her orders. In the days following Mary’s execution, Elizabeth raged about Davison, threatening to have him hanged. She was restrained by her council but did order that he be fined and imprisoned. The truth of Elizabeth’s feelings on the death of Mary, Queen of Scots, cannot be known. The fact remains, however, that she did sign the warrant and that Davison provided a useful scapegoat in mitigating her guilt.

Mary’s fellow Catholic monarch, Philip of Spain, was not convinced by Elizabeth’s protestations of innocence. He had grown increasingly angry at her promotion of Protestantism and had begun building an invasion fleet even before Mary’s execution. Elizabeth anxiously monitored progress in Spain and began preparing for war, placing the English fleet under the control of Lord Howard of Effingham and Francis Drake.55 On 29 May 1588, 130 ships holding 20,000 troops set sail to invade England. The Spanish Armada made slow progress but, on 19 June, it was sighted off Cornwall and warning beacons were lit along the coast of England. Howard and Drake had assembled a large fleet and they engaged the Spanish in the Channel. These encounters made little impact on the Armada and it anchored off Calais, waiting for further troops from the Netherlands. The English fleet seized their chance by sending in fire ships during the night.56 This caused panic and the Spanish ships cut their anchors and sailed out to sea to escape the flames. On 29 July they were attacked by the English again and the weakened Armada was scattered, the remnant of the fleet being chased as far north as the Firth of Forth.

This proved to be the final defeat of the Armada but news of the scale of the English victory did not reach Elizabeth for some time. The Armada was merely the fleet that conveyed Spanish troops to England and Elizabeth expected a land-based invasion. She was determined to play a part in the defence of her kingdom and, on 9 August 1588, she reviewed her troops at Tilbury, making one of the most famous speeches of her reign. Elizabeth’s speech was stirring and she declared, ‘I know I have the body but of a weak and feeble woman, but I have the heart and stomach of a king and of a king of England too – and take foul scorn that Parma [the Armada’s commander] or any other prince of Europe should dare to invade the borders of my realm.’57 Elizabeth was overjoyed to hear the news of the Armada’s defeat and she ordered public thanksgiving across England and went in procession through London in a chariot.58 For the queen, the celebrations ended with the death of Robert Dudley on 4 September 1588.

Elizabeth grieved deeply for Dudley, who had been the love of her life, and, on hearing the news, shut herself in her chamber, refusing to see anyone or come out. Finally, her council ordered her door to be broken open. Dudley’s widow, Lettice Knollys, also grieved for him, although she did find consolation in his master of horse not long after his death.

Lettice Knollys was indirectly responsible for further grief to her royal cousin towards the end of the queen’s long reign. Following Robert Dudley’s death in 1588 she did what many aristocratic widows did and married a young member of her household, Christopher Blount of Kidderminster, who was thirteen years her junior.59 Blount had distant royal connections as a second cousin of Henry VIII’s long-dead mistress, Bessie Blount. He was distantly related to the Dudley family through Robert’s mother, Jane Guildford.60 He was also well educated, having studied at Oxford before being tutored by a Jesuit priest, and future cardinal, on the Continent. He was devoutly Catholic and had been involved with Mary, Queen of Scots, when he was discovered sending letters to her agents confirming his readiness to espouse her cause. He appears, however, to have served as a double agent, although this failed to save him when he next became involved in treason against the queen. Blount served Robert Dudley as his master of horse, something that brought him to Lettice’s attention. He was tall and handsome and the couple made a love match, with Blount soon prospering in the service of his stepson, the Earl of Essex, who instigated a quarrel with Elizabeth when she refused to allow Blount to join her Privy Council.

Elizabeth never had as close a relationship with any man as she did with Robert Dudley. She did however find some consolation in his stepson, the Earl of Essex, who had first come to court in 1585. Essex was young and handsome and Elizabeth adored him, talking of him continually when he was away from court.61 She ignored the fact that he was also vain, arrogant and ambitious and appointed him to prominent posts, such as placing him in command of her army in Ireland.

As the years went by, the favourite’s behaviour became increasingly outrageous. On 28 September 1598, Essex, who had returned to England from Ireland without Elizabeth’s permission, arrived at court and burst into her chamber as she was dressing.62Essex’s intrusion shattered the myth that the passage of time had not touched Elizabeth and he saw her wrinkled face and thin grey hair. She kept her composure and had a private interview with him, but was furious and never forgave him for his insolence.

Essex’s behaviour continued to be erratic and he gathered a party of disaffected lords around him. He and his followers conceived a plot to imprison Elizabeth, with Essex to rule in her place as lord protector. By February 1601, the conspirators, who included Christopher Blount, were ready and Essex imprisoned several of Elizabeth’s council in his house in London.63 The earl and 150 armed men then left his house, hoping to gain support from the people of London.64 He had badly overestimated his own popularity, and was unable to persuade the Mayor of London or the people to join his coup. This lack of support finally showed him the folly of his actions and his followers returned to Essex House to plan their next move.

On hearing of Essex’s conduct, Elizabeth was furious and, according to reports, ‘the queen was so far from fear that she would have gone out in person to see what any rebel of them all durst do against her, had not the councillors with much ado stayed her’.65She refused to sleep until Essex and his supporters had been arrested and ordered that cannon be brought from the Tower to force him from his house.66 Essex, fearing that his house would be blown up, surrendered and was sent to the Tower. He was tried and sentenced to death and Elizabeth showed him no mercy, ordering his execution on 25 February 1601.67 His stepfather, Christopher Blount, who had been wounded during the rebellion and, by all accounts, fought bravely, was also executed. The loss of her third husband and son must have been devastating for Lettice, who survived them by more than thirty years. Essex’s treachery was also a great blow to the queen, who suddenly began to feel her age.

By the early 1600s Elizabeth’s health was failing and nobody in England expected her to live much longer. On 30 November 1601, she addressed Parliament for the last time, declaring,

There will never queen sit in my seat with more zeal to my country, care to my subjects, and that will soon with willingness venture her life for your good and safety, than myself. For it is not my desire to live nor reign longer than my life and reign shall be for your good. And though you have had and may have many princes more mighty and wise sitting in this seat, yet you never had or shall have any that will be more careful and loving.68

Elizabeth’s speech was recognised as the passing of an era and few could really remember a time before she had been queen.

Elizabeth had first appointed Henry Carey’s daughter, another Catherine Carey, as a maid of the court back in January 1559 when the girl was aged twelve. The queen remained close to Mary Boleyn’s granddaughter throughout her reign, regularly visiting her and her husband, who was created Earl of Nottingham. In early 1603, Catherine Carey, Countess of Nottingham, died, causing the queen to become depressed.69 Elizabeth seemed suddenly to age and her memory deteriorated, meaning that she could no longer concentrate on political affairs. By March 1603, she was very ill and unable to either eat or sleep.70 She remained lucid to the end, dying on 24 March 1603 after finally falling asleep. As soon as she died, Lady Scrope took a ring from Elizabeth’s finger and threw it out of the window to Robert Carey, who was waiting on horseback below. Carey rode to Scotland and, later that same day, James VI of Scotland was proclaimed King of England.

The death of Elizabeth I was the end of an era in England. It was also the end of a line that can be stretched back into the fourteenth century: the Boleyn women. The Boleyn family rose from humble origins to become one of the grandest in the land, counting two queens among its members. While the Boleyn men rose steadily through society and often found themselves in positions of trust and honour, it was the women of the family who were often the driving force behind their advancement. Never has there been a family as ambitious as the Boleyns, or who have achieved so much. The story of the Boleyn women is a story of family loyalty and of ambition. They were rarely simply wives and mothers; sometimes they made history.

2. Blickling Hall, Norfolk. Blickling became the seat of the Boleyns in the fifteenth century. A later house now stands on the site of the Boleyn family residence.

3. Blickling church. The parish church, sited next to the manor, would have been familiar to the early Boleyn women.

4. The Boleyn chantry chapel in Norwich Cathedral. William Boleyn asked to be buried here, close to his mother, Anne Hoo Boleyn.

5. Isabel Cheyne Boleyn from her memorial brass at Blickling church. Isabel, who was the daughter of William Boleyn and Anne Hoo, was buried at her family home following her early death.

6. Anne Boleyn, eldest daughter of William Boleyn and Margaret Butler, from her memorial brass at Blickling church. Anne died in childhood and a younger sister, Anne Boleyn, Lady Shelton, was later named after her.

7. The remains of the funeral monument to Anne Hoo Boleyn in Norwich Cathedral. Sadly, the memorial brass for the first Anne Boleyn has long since disappeared.

8. Cecily Boleyn from her memorial brass at Blickling church. The sister of Geoffrey Boleyn, Lord Mayor of London, joined him at Blickling following his purchase of the manor.

9. Hever Castle, Kent. Margaret Butler Boleyn spent her last years at Hever, which was also the family home of her son, Sir Thomas Boleyn.

10, 11, 12, 13, 14. Anne Boleyn, Lady Shelton, and her husband, Sir John Shelton, depicted at various stages of their lives in stained glass at Shelton church, Norfolk.

15. Thomas Boleyn, Earl of Wiltshire and Ormond, from his memorial brass at Hever. Thomas was an ambitious courtier who promoted the court careers of his two daughters, Mary and Anne Boleyn.

16. A portrait commonly identified as Thomas Boleyn. Thomas made a socially advantageous marriage to Elizabeth Howard, whose father later became the 2nd Duke of Norfolk.

17. The tomb of Anne Boleyn, Lady Shelton, and her husband, Sir John Shelton, from Shelton church, Norfolk.

18. The Howard family arms displayed over the gates of Framlingham Castle. Elizabeth Howard Boleyn was proud of her Howard lineage.

19. Thomas Howard, 3rd Duke of Norfolk, from his tomb at Framlingham. Elizabeth Howard Boleyn’s brother sat in judgement on her son and daughter at their trials in May 1536.

20. Francis I of France. The French king is reputed to have been Mary Boleyn’s lover, referring to her as a great whore and infamous above all others.

21. Sir Thomas Wyatt, who wanted to be the lover of both Anne Boleyn and her cousin, Mary Shelton.

22. Henry VIII in his youth. The king was renowned as the most handsome prince in Europe, although there is no truth in the rumours that Elizabeth Howard Boleyn served as one of his mistresses.

23. Mary Boleyn was the mistress first of Francis I and then Henry VIII.

24. Anne Boleyn’s dark eyes captivated the king when he had tired of her sister, Mary.

25. The Clouds that Gather Round the Setting Sun. Anne Boleyn was instrumental in bringing about the fall of Thomas Wolsey, with the cardinal referring to her as a ‘serpentine enemy’.

26. Henry VIII gave Anne a fine clock during the years of their courtship.

27. Thomas Cranmer, from his memorial in Oxford. The Archbishop of Canterbury annulled the marriage of Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon and crowned Anne Boleyn.

28. Hans Holbein’s design for a Coronation pageant for Anne Boleyn, with her falcon badge prominently displayed.

29. Anne Boleyn’s falcon badge without its crown, carved as graffiti at the Tower of London.

30. A rare survival of the entwined initials of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn from King’s College Chapel, Cambridge.

31. The entwined initials of Henry VIII and his third wife, Jane Seymour, from Hampton Court. Henry tried to erase all memory of his second wife, Anne Boleyn.

32. A romantic depiction of the execution of Anne Boleyn. The queen was beheaded with a sword – a kinder death than a clumsy axe.

33. Princess Mary. Anne Boleyn, Lady Shelton, found her young charge a troublesome burden when she was appointed as her governess.

34. Catherine Howard, the queen whose indiscretions led Jane Boleyn to the block.

35. Traitor’s Gate. Anne Boleyn was taken to the Tower of London by water and reputedly passed through this gate.

36. The Tower of London. Anne Boleyn, her sister-in-law, Jane Boleyn, and daughter, Princess Elizabeth, were all imprisoned in the ancient fortress.

37. A memorial marking the supposed site of the scaffold on Tower Green where both Anne and Jane Boleyn died.

38. The Bishop’s Palace at Lincoln, where Jane Boleyn led Thomas Culpepper to a secret nocturnal meeting with the queen.

39. Mary Shelton. The daughter of Lady Shelton was a poet with remarkably modern views about love, becoming a mistress of Henry VIII in her youth.

40. Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, who was reputed to have been romantically involved with his friend, Mary Shelton.

41. Catherine Carey and her husband, Sir Francis Knollys, from their memorial at Rotherfield Greys in Oxfordshire.

42. The six daughters of Catherine Carey (and one daughterin-law). Lettice Knollys, the second daughter, is first in the line depicted at Rotherfield Greys.

43. Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, from his tomb in Warwick. Dudley was Elizabeth I’s greatest favourite, with speculation that the pair would marry.

44. Lettice Knollys from her tomb in Warwick. Lettice’s royal cousin never forgave her for secretly marrying Robert Dudley.

45. Robert Dudley, the only child of Lettice Knollys’ second marriage, who died young.

46. Hatfield House. Elizabeth I was resident at the palace when she discovered that she had become queen.

47. Princess Elizabeth as a child.

48. Elizabeth I as queen. Anne Boleyn’s daughter was the greatest, and the last, of the Boleyn women.

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