After eleven years under the rule of Queen Elizabeth, the England of 1569 found itself prospering, due mainly to the peace brought by the queen’s foreign policies. Through cunning use of her status as an eligible young woman seemingly eager to be wed, the queen had been able to walk a thin line between maidenhood and marriage, leading to the security and, for the most part, happiness of her people. When France threatened, she pretended to entertain the possibility of marriage to the Duke of Anjou. When Spain became menacing, she turned her romantic attentions to her former brother-in-law, King Philip. She pleased the Protestants by flirting with the royalty of the German states. By balancing her numerous suitors, Queen Elizabeth kept the rich jewel that England had become from the entanglements of war. As a result, she was able to refill the coffers of the crown, which had been emptied by her sister’s previous reign when Queen Mary I had supported her foreign husband’s fruitless war efforts. Elizabeth took great care not to fall into a similar trap. She refused to make war and she refused to make a domestic match.
Though she had kept her country safe from foreign entanglements, there were still problems on English soil. The religious struggles between the Catholics, who lived mostly in the rural, northern parts of the land, and the stronghold of Protestants around London continued, though the queen was lenient in her dealings with recusants as long as they kept quiet and obeyed English law. However, this delicate balance was now beginning to teeter because Mary, Queen of Scots, had been deposed by her Scottish lords due to the mysterious death of her husband, Lord Darnley, a death in which Mary herself had been implicated. Then Mary had been carried away by the Earl of Bothwell, who, it was said, kidnapped and raped her. In response to this gross insult to her person and dignity, and much to Elizabeth’s horror, the Scottish queen married the man.
Such events proved too much for the lords of Scotland to endure, and Queen Mary lost her crown. In desperation, she turned to her cousin Elizabeth for shelter. Elizabeth quickly recognized the threat posed by this Catholic queen, who had as much right to the English throne as did Elizabeth, in the minds of many. Elizabeth immediately placed Mary under guard and limited her access to the outside world. However, this did nothing to stop Catholic conspiracies from springing up, intricate plans to place Mary on the throne, thereby returning the country to the rule of Rome. These plots gave Elizabeth and her guardians many sleepless nights. But few were aware of the threat, except the queen herself, Master Cecil, and Robert Dudley.
For Mistress Mary Shelton, now fifteen, the world seemed safe and secure; she attended to her studies, danced and played the virginals, embroidered clothing for the poor, chattered with the queen in the royal bedchamber, and ate as many gooseberry tarts as she could sneak past Mistress Blanche Parry.
Mary had lived at court since her parents’ deaths within a fortnight of each other in November 1558. Elizabeth had become queen that very month, a young, vibrant woman of twenty-five. At that moment, she had met the three-year-old orphan and taken the child into her care. Because Mary’s father had received his knighthood from King Henry VIII, any of his offspring underage at the time of his death would become royal wards. But Mary was the only one of his children under the age of fourteen; the rest had reached their majority. Mary’s future was at the queen’s disposal.
Mary was not only a ward, she was also Elizabeth’s cousin. Mary’s grandfather, Sir John Shelton, had married Anne Boleyn, sister of Sir Thomas Boleyn, Elizabeth’s grandfather. They were tied by bonds of kinship and, because of their long association, bonds of love.
Mary had not yet blossomed into the promised prettiness of her childhood. Her dark hair, thick and lustrous, was her best feature, along with her eyes, the same shade. Her mouth was set too primly and her nose was too long and sharp to make her breathtakingly beautiful. Though she had not fulfilled the high hopes the queen had had for her looks, she had that fresh allure reserved for the young. With her deep brown eyes and the smile that played around her mouth, she was beginning to feel her power as a woman. Her figure was shapely and she saw how the courtiers watched her taking delicate steps in the galliard on the rare occasions she consented to dance. She could see how her smile brought the same, answering response to the lips of even stodgy old men like Master Cecil.
Being brought up as the queen’s favorite had given Mary an imperious air, and when she spoke, it was to command. She was the queen’s cousin and royal ward. She was no shy flower waiting to be plucked. Rather, she was almost as forceful as the queen and often at odds with Her Majesty—they argued about the low cut of Mary’s gowns, the bit of rouge she put on her cheeks, and the way she flounced into a room. Few people at court had the courage to disagree with the queen. Mary Shelton was one who dared.
Copyright © 2014 by Anne Clinard Barnhill