The New Deborah
A princess who can act any part she pleases.
—Lord Burghley, of Elizabeth
The reign of Mary I ended on November 17, 1558, and that of Lady Elizabeth began. No longer disinherited and demoted, Elizabeth had miraculously survived to become queen. By the time of Elizabeth’s coronation in January 1559, life in Mary’s reign was decidedly another country.
As the procession for Elizabeth’s coronation began, snowflakes danced on the air, bowing and sweeping as if upon a stage in deference to the earsplitting cheers from their adoring audience. The cries of joy were not for the flakes or their thin white blanket that spread itself like a gossamer veil over the city. All those who huddled together by the quayside rejoiced for the tall, slender woman with red-gold hair.
Queen Elizabeth had suddenly appeared on the privy stairs of Whitehall Palace in a flurry of activity, cocooned by her entire court of barons, knights, and ladies. As she stepped forward, she nodded slowly, perhaps knowingly, at her people in the distance. To all eyes, the new queen made her way down to the awaiting barges with a regal grace not seen since the times of her father, King Harry. To all fluttering hearts, the rekindled joy was palpable.
It was two o’clock in the afternoon, and the flood tide had turned. The River Thames waited for no one, not even kings or queens. Still, Elizabeth paused before taking the boatman’s outstretched hand. She raised her chin skyward, allowing the snowflakes to fall upon her upturned face, and smiled. Did she silently rehearse the prayer she would utter aloud two days later, “O Lord, Almighty and Everlasting God, I give Thee most hearty thanks that Thou has been so merciful unto me as to spare me to behold this joyful day”?
Perhaps not. Still, she was evidently savoring the moment, as she would each of the unfettered moments in the days to come. The years since her mother’s execution had been fraught with hardship, disillusionment, and downright abuse from those closest to her. In the twelve years since Henry VIII’s death, Elizabeth had danced on many a high wire, with countless onlookers praying she would fall and break that handsome neck of hers. Though she had come close on two occasions, Elizabeth had survived.
Perhaps that was in part due to her father’s last queen, Catherine Parr, who had made certain that Elizabeth received a first-rate education. This, along with the friendship of key individuals, the instincts of a survivor, and the genetic makeup of the daughter of Anne Boleyn and Henry VIII, had ensured that she would reach this day. Yet Elizabeth, as a fervent follower of the new religion, took no credit for “God’s work.”
On this day—Thursday, January 12, 1559—she would reenter the Tower of London precinct as England’s queen. More than any other royal palace, the Tower held terrible memories for the last of the Tudors. Of course, it was there that her mother, Anne Boleyn, and her cousin Catherine Howard were beheaded for their “treason” against her father, the king. It was at the Tower, too, that only four years earlier she had been held prisoner by Mary, fearing for her very life. Yet it was the way of the kings of England that they would sojourn at the Tower for two nights before their coronations, and Elizabeth Tudor was not about to break with tradition.
As the galleys and barges glided eastward down the Thames, the queen’s barge with its rich cochineal red Flemish tapestries could be clearly seen. Elizabeth herself glittered with jewels and was warmed by her rich furs. She sat cosseted at the rear of her long galley rowed by forty men. There was no doubt that she was the main reveler in the spectacle, sparkling at her own good fortune. A band of musicians swathed in the queen’s crimson and black livery played their shawm, sackbut, and drums with “a great and pleasant melody playing most sweet and in a heavenly manner.”1 She was England’s angel in her gilded galley slicing crisply through the water, oars rising and falling to the rhythm of the drums and the awe of her people.
Meanwhile, the Lord Mayor and his aldermen followed closely behind in their highly decorated vessels. The court and the city fathers accompanying her fanned out across the Thames, like hundreds of peacocks in great array, aboard their silver galleys and brigantines, their colorful banners streaming, proclaiming their ancient mysteries, or crafts. The procession made a choreographed spectacle quite unlike any other along London’s busy waterway, with hundreds of barges in the royal entourage rowing in unison toward a single and singular purpose.
Il Shifanoya, the Venetian observer in London, reported to the doge that it reminded him of Ascension Day at Venice, when the Signory goes to espouse the Sea.2 There was no mistaking the queen’s naval progress from the other ships plying their trade along the Thames. Wherries crowded in as near as they dared while their occupants waved, throwing their hats in the air, hailing Elizabeth, and wishing her “God speed!”
When the royal barges emerged through the treacherous eddies at London Bridge and came into sight of the Tower, the captain of the guard ordered the artillery to be fired in honor of their lady. The roar of the guns echoed above the waterway, a signal to the entire capital that Her Majesty had neared the first stop on her journey to become the country’s anointed monarch. A few moments later, the royal barge docked at the sovereign’s private stairs. In keeping with tradition, Elizabeth crossed into the Tower by a small bridge and disappeared into her royal apartments. Naturally, these were far removed from those that had once been her royal prison. It was only much later that Elizabeth would reveal that her enforced stay in the Tower at the hands of her sister remained an ever present memory.
* * *
Though Friday the thirteenth had been upheld as an unlucky day since the Lord Jesus dined at his Last Supper with his twelve apostles, England’s queen celebrated it all the same in the great tradition of her ancestors. Her Knights of the Bath were created on that day at the Tower in preparation for the coronation ceremony. Elizabeth was making a point of disregarding superstition: Religion—whether Protestant or Catholic—abhorred superstition, and as England’s temporal leader (for Catholics) or putative head of the church (for Protestants), she would guide all her people by example. It was a beautifully understated piece of spin to demonstrate her leadership and bravery to her predominantly illiterate subjects. Besides, Dr. John Dee had cast her horoscope, with royal consent, of course, and had determined not only the most propitious date for the queen’s coronation but also the schedule of events leading up to the day. In another finely tuned act of symbolism, her father’s own Master of the Revels, Sir Thomas Cawarden, was appointed to supervise the coronation celebrations.3
Even the death of Cardinal Pole, the papal legate, on the same day as that of Queen Mary had played in Elizabeth’s favor, or so it seemed. Ten Catholic bishops had died since October 1558, leaving an unprecedented opportunity for the head of the church in England to name their replacements. It had already been whispered that the queen planned to take on the role of Supreme Governor, leaving the Marian religious settlement and the return to Rome in tatters.
Fearing what was to come, the remaining bishops made a pact of solidarity, declining to officiate at the coronation ceremonies in the vain hope that Elizabeth would see that they still wielded power both as the religious figureheads in their bishoprics and as the Lords Spiritual in the House of Lords. Notwithstanding this, through the assiduously applied coercion of her privy councillors, the archbishop of York, Owen Oglethorpe, was at last persuaded to do the honorable thing. Though the disobedient bishops had nearly succeeded in making a sham of the coronation ceremony, the issue of disciplining them would be best left for the forthcoming Parliament.
* * *
While Elizabeth’s court prepared for the state entry into London, the city sprang into action. Scaffolds had been built and strategically placed throughout the city since Christmas week. The streets where the queen would pass were quickly covered in fresh gravel and tamped down. The light snow had made the way muddy, so the gravel was laid to ease Elizabeth’s passage with her royal entourage. It also made it easier to roll the pageant carts into position.
Saturday, January 14, 1559, would be the City’s day to revel. Coronation Day would be celebrated in Westminster at its abbey on Sunday. Across the country, London’s activity was mirrored by great celebrations and outpourings of thanksgiving. Queen Elizabeth craved the love of her people, and without their sharing equally in her joy, the coronation ceremony would have been like an actor performing to an empty theatre.
That morning, as if by royal command, the snow stopped. At two o’clock in the afternoon, the spectacle of coronation began. As the Most Dread Sovereign, Lady Elizabeth, by the grace of God Queen of England, France, and Ireland, Defender of the Faith, et cetera, marched forth from the Tower, she raised her eyes to heaven in much the same way she had done at Whitehall and proclaimed,
O Lord, Almighty and Everlasting God, I give Thee most hearty thanks that Thou has been so merciful unto me as to spare me to behold this joyful day. And I acknowledge that Thou has dealt as wonderfully and as mercifully with me, as Thou didst with Thy true and faithful servant Daniel, Thy Prophet, whom Thou delivered out of the den from the cruelty of the greedy and raging lions: even so was I overwhelmed, and only by Thee delivered. To Thee therefore only be thanks, honour, and praise, forever. Amen.4
Then, as suddenly as the sun peeks out from behind a cloud, the solemnity of the moment passed, and Elizabeth climbed gracefully onto her litter. The dazzling court, accompanied by a thousand jeweled horses, wended its way through Blackfriars to St. Paul’s and on toward Westminster. All the houses lining the way were hung with brightly colored banners, their inhabitants leaning precariously out of the penthouses to glimpse their queen. Merchants and traders pressed against the wooden barricades and crowded into the narrow streets. Each was dressed in his long black and crimson cloak; each sported the ensign of his own trade and carried his trade’s standard high. They made, so everyone said, a fine show. The blindingly bright ray of hope that Elizabeth symbolized after the dark final eighteen months of Queen Mary’s reign shone from every house, each shop, and all faces. Elizabeth owed her very popularity to their hope for a better life and, in her mind, a return to the reformed church. Not only had 282 “heretics” been burned at the stake in those dark eighteen months in 1556–57, but England had been led into a fruitless war against France at King Philip’s behest, lost its ill-defended staple town of Calais, and emptied its coffers.
* * *
When the queen’s trumpeters blasted their great fanfare to proclaim the approach of Queen Elizabeth, the crowd threw their hats in the air for joy. Many bystanders craned their necks to see beyond the heralds so they could glimpse their young and handsome queen. When, at last, Elizabeth passed in her open litter trimmed down to the ground in gold brocade with a raised pile, all those who lined the roads let out cries of sheer joy. Surely if ever there was a glorious queen, it was she, the last of King Harry’s children.
Official accounts record that the handsome mules that carried Elizabeth were also clothed in gold brocade and wore jeweled harnesses. They speak of a veritable sea of footmen in crimson velvet jerkins studded with the queen’s initials, ER, in raised gilt silver, a white and a red rose on their breasts and no hats upon their heads. These men heralded the queen’s arrival. At Elizabeth’s side walked her Gentlemen-Pensioners of the Axe, all clad in crimson damask, also without hats, despite the cold. Elizabeth’s devilishly handsome Master of the Horse, Sir Robert Dudley, was mounted on a magnificent charger. He led a white hackney covered in a cloth of gold followed by the queen’s Lords of her Privy Chamber.5 Yet the most significant part of the procession went unrecorded. When Elizabeth passed through London’s streets, spectacle and spectator had become one.
* * *
The Passage of our Most Dread Sovereign Lady, Queen Elizabeth, through the City of London to Westminster, the day before her Coronation, dated January 23 “cum privilegio,” records with the reporter’s eye how Elizabeth Tudor made her entrance as England’s queen that day in a costume of a royal robe of very rich cloth of gold with a double-raised stiff pile, a coif of cloth of gold, and a plain gold lace crown upon her reddish-gold hair, which hung loose. She was bedecked with jewels in her hair and wore necklaces but had no jewels on her long, slender white fingers, which held her jeweled gloves. It exclaims at length that when the queen entered the City of London, surrounded by the nobility of her realm, the “people received [them] marvelous entirely, as appeared by the assembly, prayers, wishes, welcomings, cries, tender words, and all other signs, which argue a wonderful earnest love and most obedient subjects toward their sovereign.” Elizabeth declared in return that she was “no less thankful to receive her people’s good will, than they lovingly offered it unto her.”6
These were more than mere words. Elizabeth wanted to confirm to her people with a gesture, a word, and later with many good deeds that she held their love above all others. When commoners pressed themselves forward to hand Elizabeth flowers, she showed her most gentle deference to them by pausing to listen to their requests, then blessing them with her royal touch before she moved on. To the journalist’s eye, “he could not better term the City of London that time, than a stage wherein was showed the wonderful spectacle, of a noble-hearted Princess toward her most loving people, and the people’s exceeding comfort in beholding so worthy a sovereign, and hearing so prince-like a voice.”7
After so many years in the wilderness, alienated from the royal household, Elizabeth Tudor had at last taken her rightful place center stage. She had used those years wisely to fine-tune her performance. While still a princess-in-waiting, Elizabeth had resolved to hold her subjects in awe with her majesty and delight them with her common touch. On this day, she succeeded.
Similarly, her people had clear and concise—if religiously allegorical—messages for their new sovereign. These took the physical form of triumphal arches strategically placed on pageant wagons along the queen’s route toward Westminster. At Fenchurch, a “scaffold richly furnished, whereon stood a noise of instruments, and a child in costly apparel,” welcomed the Queen’s Majesty on behalf of the city.
At Gracechurch Street, in front of the sign of the Eagle Inn, the city had erected a sumptuous three-story triumphal arch depicting Elizabeth’s right to the throne. On the lowest stage were King Henry VII—the first Tudor monarch—and his wife, Elizabeth of York, daughter of Edward IV. Henry’s descent and right to the throne were depicted in the Red Rose of Lancaster. Elizabeth of York, the queen’s paternal grandmother, clutched her White Rose of York in one hand with her scepter, while the other rested on Henry VII’s hand. Out of the roses sprang a branch that led the eye upward to the second story, where a richly clad King Henry VIII bestrode the platform with his queen Anne Boleyn seated at his side. Another branch wound its way upward to the third story, where a likeness of Queen Elizabeth sat on her royal throne. The queen hardly needed anyone to interpret the meaning behind the triumphal arch or its stated desire for “quietness to increase.”
They processed to the far end of Cornhill, where the pageant devised by the city depicted the queen seated in the “seat of worthy governance” with the virtues of “Pure Religion, Love of Subjects, Wisdom, and Justice” seated beside her. Under their feet, “Pure Religion treads upon Superstition and Ignorance; Love of Subjects did tread upon Rebellion and Insolence; Wisdom did tread upon Folly and Vainglory; and Justice did tread upon Adulation and Bribery.”8 This pageant above all others during her reign was highly representative of the medieval style of drama and allegory Elizabeth had inherited from her sister’s short years on the throne. It was a realm brimming over with spiritual messages.
The pageant at Soper Lane was again like the medieval mysteries, with the eight Beatitudes sending their message from innocent children’s mouths to the queen. Elizabeth listened to a child’s soliloquy and thanked her people with great sincerity. Every moment among them was joyful, and each moment was stored away as a reminder not only of their love for her but also of their need to be governed with her love.
When the litter stopped at the Standard in the Cheap to great fanfare of trumpets, Master Ranulph Cholmeley, recorder of London, presented a purse of crimson richly wrought with gold filigree filled with a thousand marks in gold. Taking it as a most generous and valuable gift with both hands, Elizabeth said:
I thank my Lord Mayor, his Brethern and you all. And whereas your request is that I should continue your good Lady and Queen, be ye assured, that I will be as good unto you as ever Queen was to her People. No will in me can lack, neither do I trust shall there lack any power. And persuade yourselves, that for the safety and quietness of you all, I will not spare, if need be, to spend my blood. God thank you all.9
Had the City known that the crown had been virtually bankrupted by Queen Mary and her Spanish husband in fighting his French wars? The city fathers certainly knew that war was bad for trade, and the loss of Calais devastating. Elizabeth may have pondered this question, though she had already set in place a means to cure her relative penury. Still, it is more likely that she simply enjoyed her moment of triumph and brushed aside the business of the realm that would crash down upon her soon enough.
As the royal procession pressed forward through the throng to Little Conduit in the Cheap, the trumpeters fell silent, and the roar of the crowd became a whisper. There the aldermen and the recorder of London readied themselves for their personal message to their new sovereign. When the northern side of the fourth pageant, entitled “Ruinosa Respublica” or “A decayed Commonwealth,” came into view, complete with cave, withered and dead trees, and craggy, barren rocks, the queen deduced long before she was told that this represented the past. This was the realm bequeathed to Elizabeth by her sister, Mary, Mary’s husband, Philip, and the papal legate, the archbishop of Canterbury, Reginald Pole.
The southern side of the pageant, entitled “Respublica bene instituta” or “A flourishing Commonwealth,” was depicted with green grass, fresh, beautiful flowers, and a rich, luscious tree. An old man with a scythe and wings, said to be “Father Time,” came out of a hollow on the pageant wagon, leading his beautiful daughter, “Truth,” clad in white silk. Elizabeth could be in no doubt as to their message. In the child’s hand was a book on which was written in Latin Verbum Veritatis, or “The Word of Truth.” The book was taken through the crowd and given to Elizabeth. As soon as she saw that it was the Bible written in English—the same Bible written by the martyred John Rogers to speak God’s Word to the masses—she kissed it and held it up to her people with both hands before clutching it back to her breast. Elizabeth gave thanks to them and said “she would often read over that book.”10 Her gesture was clear: The new Queen of England wanted Christ’s Word to reach them in English. Their Elizabeth would preside over a Protestant realm, and a veritable swoon of adoration flowed from the crowd in response.
At last, the royal procession came to the boundary between the City of London and Westminster at the River Fleet and Fleet Street. Upon the pageant stage there was a great palm tree under which sat a “meet personage” in “Parliament robes” with a scepter in her hand and a golden crown upon her head. Above her head was inscribed “Deborah the judge and restorer of the House of Israel, Judic. iv.” Again, Elizabeth could be in no doubt as to her subjects’ message: She was the new Deborah, responsible for judging wisely while rebuilding her House of Tudor and the commonwealth over which she reigned.
The message in each pageant built upon those that had passed before. The people had spoken. As Albion’s Deborah, Elizabeth would rebuild their common house, bend it to her will, and rule with the love of her people. Yet to do that, she would need to dissimulate—to act as a player upon a stage. It was the only way she could marry the disparate religious and political wills of her court to her people, confused by twelve years of religious extremism inflicted on the realm by her royal siblings. It was the only way she could assuage the French, the Spanish, and the pope into believing that she meant them no harm. It was how she would remain mistress of her own and her people’s destinies.
It was the task that Elizabeth Tudor was born to undertake.
Copyright © 2012 by Susan Ronald