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Elizabeth I’s letter

Image of Elizabeth I's letter

Princess Elizabeth's letter
British Library Harley MS 6986, f.23
Copyright © The British Library Board
A high-quality version of this image can be purchased from British Library Images Online. For more information email imagesonline@bl.uk

Probably written in 1553, when the future Queen of England was 20 years old, Elizabeth’s letter reveals the personal costs behind the power struggles of the troubled Tudor dynasty. She tells her young half-brother, Edward VI how she had tried to visit him during what would prove his final illness but had been turned away. The two had spent much of their early childhood together. Her disappointment is evident - as is the climate of fear prevailing at the Tudor court.

What does the letter say?

In modernised spelling, Elizabeth’s letter begins: “Like as a shipman in stormy weather plucks down the sails turning for better winds, so did I, most noble King, in my unfortunate chance on Thursday pluck down the high sails of my joy and comfort and do trust one day that as troublesome waves have repulsed me backward, so a gentle wind will bring me forward to my haven.”

Why was Elizabeth prevented from seeing her brother?

Always a sickly child, Edward VI had become king at the age of nine. By 1553 he had contracted tuberculosis and his declining health made it clear to all that the 16-year-old king would die without producing an heir of his own.

The succession was unclear. His father, Henry VIII, married six times, producing three children with different mothers. Being the only son, Edward had inherited the crown even though he was the youngest of the children. On his death, his elder sisters Mary and Elizabeth would be chief claimants to the throne.

Because of the king’s youth, the real reins of power were held by a Lord Protector, his uncle, Edward Seymour. Seymour would almost certainly have supported Elizabeth’s claim, despite the fact Henry VIII’s will explicitly stated that Mary was to succeed if Edward died childless. But Seymour fell from favour and the young king came under the influence of the Duke of Northumberland, John Dudley, who had plans of his own.

Dudley wanted Lady Jane Grey to be declared heir to the throne. As a great-niece of Henry VIII, Jane did have a genuine, if remote, claim to the throne. More importantly from Dudley’s point of view, he had engineered her marriage to his son in May, 1553. If Jane Grey succeeded Edward, Dudley would become the most powerful man in England.

To further this ambition, Dudley secretly persuaded Edward to disinherit both his sisters and ensured the king was isolated from contact with them. It was almost certainly his order that prevented Elizabeth from meeting with her brother at Greenwich Palace after her journey from Hatfield.

Why was the succession so important?

It was more than a matter of personalities. An explosive mix of politics and religion had been ignited by Henry VIII’s decision to take the English Church outside the governance of the pope in Rome – a mixture that would blow up regularly for generations.

Henry led the country into Protestantism in order to annul his first marriage, to Mary’s mother, Catherine of Aragon. His second wife, Anne Boleyn, was already pregnant with Elizabeth when they married. Edward was the son of Henry’s third wife, Jane Seymour.

As king, Edward proved a staunch Protestant, endorsing religious reforms that went far beyond his father’s, including the destruction of church altars, shrines, statues and other monuments to Catholic ‘superstition’.

His elder sister, Mary held fast to her Catholicism and refused to concede to Edward’s reforms. Elizabeth was nearer in age to Edward and shared lessons with him as a child. Her views were close to his, though her Protestantism was more moderate. If Mary became queen, the country was certain to return to Catholicism. If Elizabeth succeeded, it would remain Protestant, but with a less fanatic complexion.

The monarch’s religion was not just a domestic issue. As queen, Mary or Elizabeth would be expected to marry a foreign prince to forge a strong alliance with his country. Her religion would limit the choice of royal suitors in a Europe now divided into Catholic and Protestant nations. That choice would have serious and permanent political consequences: through the queen’s husband a foreign country would gain major influence in the governance of England.

By making Jane Grey his heir, Edward’s self-interested advisers argued, the king would set the country securely on the path of radical Protestantism. Moreover, Jane was already married – and to an Englishman.

So what happened when Edward died?

John Dudley contrived to conceal the king’s death on 6 July 1553 until he was sure Jane Grey could be safely proclaimed as queen three days later. Mary was determined to assert her right to the throne and gathered an army, which in the end had no need to fight. Jane, a pawn of her father-in-law, had little public support and was abandoned by those who had raised her up. Her short reign ended after just nine days.

Mary was crowned on 1 October. At first she spared the lives of Jane and her husband, but she soon realised the danger of their becoming the focus of conspiracies. Both were executed early in 1554. In July, Mary consolidated her position by marrying the Catholic Prince Philip of Spain.

Her early popularity turned sour as England’s return to Catholicism grew harsh and repressive. Some 275 Protestants were burned at the stake, earning the queen her nickname, ‘Bloody Mary’. Like her brother, Mary died without heirs, robbed of children by a series of ‘phantom’ pregnancies or miscarriages. On her deathbed she named Elizabeth her successor. The order of succession in Henry VIII’s will was finally played out: Edward, Mary, then Elizabeth.

Elizabeth was crowned queen on 15 January 1558, beginning a remarkable reign of 45 years. Protestantism was restored in more moderate form, Elizabeth declaring she would neither “animate Romanists” nor “tolerate new-fangledness” in religion.

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