Thursday, August 3, 2017

The Evidence Against Elizabeth

by Samantha Wilcoxson

Elizabeth I: The Coronation Portrait
Queen Elizabeth I has become fabulously more popular in our time than she was in her own, and she is often held up as a shining example of feminism or listed as one of England's greatest monarchs. Whether she was or not is an interesting subject for debate, but we would not be able to have it if Elizabeth's sister, Queen Mary I, had not refused to execute the girl for treason.

What evidence was there against the Lady Elizabeth? More than you might think and certainly more than had doomed many others.

When Mary became queen, many influential people, Bishop Steven Gardiner and Spanish ambassador Simon Renard chief among them, discouraged Queen Mary's naive trust in her younger sister. Mary did not completely ignore their advice, not keeping a close guard on Elizabeth but also not giving her the type of court position enjoyed by others, such as Margaret Douglas and Jane Dormer. Elizabeth was her heir after all, though Mary hoped to soon remedy that situation by having a child of her own.

Elizabeth was in greater danger of losing her position due to charges of treason than by being replaced by a young niece or nephew.

The strongest evidence against Lady Elizabeth was Wyatt's Rebellion. In December 1553, Elizabeth requested to leave her sister's court, and that permission was granted, though many advised Mary to keep Elizabeth close enough to monitor her activity. By January, information about the multi-pronged rebellion were being quickly uncovered. Edward Courtenay was involved in the plot with the goal of stopping Queen Mary's marriage to Prince Philip at minimum, with a higher goal of placing himself on the throne as Elizabeth's husband.

Entry of Queen Mary I with Princess Elizabeth
into London in 1553
by John Byam Liston Shaw, 1910
When Elizabeth was summoned to return to court and give testimony regarding her knowledge and possible involvement in the plot, she claimed poor health made it impossible for her to travel. To make matters worse for Elizabeth, a copy of a letter she had written to the queen was found in the possession of a French spy just as Nicholas Carew, a leader in the rebellion, fled to France to avoid arrest.

The truth of Elizabeth's involvement in Wyatt's Rebellion is one of history's great mysteries, but there is little doubt that she had knowledge that she did not share with her sister, the queen. For her part, Mary rallied the people of London to stand in her defense against the rebels in a speech that proved she was her father's daughter. It was a resounding success, and Wyatt's forces found that their entrance to the city was denied.

The rebellion quelled, several executions took place, including that of Wyatt himself along with Henry Grey and his daughter the 'nine day queen', but Mary hesitated to take such a severe step against her sister and heir. Elizabeth continued to ignore summons to London, and Wyatt testified that he had communicated with Elizabeth through servant William St Loe, though he admitted that Elizabeth's reply had been characteristically noncommittal. Elizabeth denied any connection with Wyatt or the French, but Mary sent an escort to put an end to her sister's excuses to avoid court.

When questioned, Elizabeth gave the sort of evasive and clever responses she has become well known for, at one point even claiming she could not recall if she owned a certain estate. Yet, more concrete evidence of her involvement could not be established, and Mary could not be persuaded to bring charges against her without greater certainty. Mary would not continue the sorts of executions that her predecessors had signed off on against the likes of Edward of Warwick, Edward Stafford, and Margaret Pole. Instead, Elizabeth was left in gilded captivity for two months before being moved to house arrest at Woodstock until she was brought to Hampton Court to wait upon the queen in April 1555.

Mary I of England
by Hans Eworth, 1554
In 1556, Elizabeth's name was tied to rebellion once again. This time, it was Sir Henry Dudley who led the scheming to place Elizabeth and Edward Courtenay on the throne in Mary's place. The conspiracy was found out before it could come to fruition, and servants of Elizabeth were arrested for having knowledge of it. But did Elizabeth herself know of the plot and support it? Once again, Mary could not be convinced with certainty, so Elizabeth remained free though the relationship between the sisters was more strained than ever.

Not only could Elizabeth easily have been charged with treason, she also left herself open to conviction for heresy. In Henry VIII's England, the two crimes were closely tied, but Mary chose to have patience with her sister in this arena as well. Hoping that Elizabeth could be converted to the Catholic faith, the queen brought her sister to mass only to hear her "complain loudly all the way" and make no commitments beyond exploring the faith to determine "if her conscience could allow her to be persuaded" to convert.

Any one of these incidents would have been enough for charges of treason to be brought up against a subject of King Henry VIII. Therefore, we have the mercy of Queen Mary to thank for the reign of Queen Elizabeth.

Additional Reading
Mary Tudor: Princess, Bastard, Queen by Anna Whitelock
The First Queen of England by Linda Porter
The Children of Henry VIII by Alison Weir

All images in the public domain through Wikimedia Commons
~~~~~~~~~~

Samantha Wilcoxson is the author of the Plantagenet Embers Trilogy featuring women of Tudor England.

An incurable bibliophile and sufferer of wanderlust, Samantha lives in Michigan with her husband and three teenagers. You can connect with her on her blog or on FacebookTwitter, Instagram, and Goodreads.

5 comments:

  1. Finally someone who realized that Elizabeth I had very dirty hands!
    I f I were Mary I , I would have relieved Elizabeth of her head long ago!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Mary certainly demonstrated more patience and mercy than she is often credited with.

      Delete
  2. They all had dirty hands... if Mary had killed Elizabeth the reformation movement would have failed. The Catholic rulers in Europe would have made sure of that. As those who oppost their reign and only one-church no freedom of religion would have had no island to escape to. And that meant no Pilgrims going to the New World - no Levellers preaching eqaulity among men. We would indeed live in a very different world if Mary had chopped her sister's head off... just saying

    ReplyDelete
  3. They all had dirty hands... if Mary had killed Elizabeth the reformation movement would have failed. The Catholic rulers in Europe would have made sure of that. As those who oppost their reign and only one-church no freedom of religion would have had no island to escape to. And that meant no Pilgrims going to the New World - no Levellers preaching eqaulity among men. We would indeed live in a very different world if Mary had chopped her sister's head off... just saying

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I'm not sure the Reformation was successful only due to Elizabeth, but history would certainly look different without her.

      Delete