So much of what we become depends on luck. What country we’re born into, who our parents are, what events occur in our immediate environment, what opportunities are available to us. Even when circumstances are similar between two people — like say, two siblings — those little random twists of fate so often set them on separate courses. And beyond all of that, the happenstance and circumstance and luck, there is that innate something that we all have inside of us. A person born into the ideal situation with luck on their side can still fail in their chosen path; and someone born into an unlucky situation with everything stacked against them can succeed. Which brings us to Queen Elizabeth I, a woman whose life could have really gone in numerous different ways, but because of that something inside of her — combined with luck, and privilege — wound up just about as successfully as she could have wanted it to. Which is not to say she didn’t face challenges along the way.
Her childhood was similar in many ways to that of her much-older half-sister, Queen Mary I. Both were the redheaded, fair-skinned, temperamental daughters of King Henry VIII. Both were considered heir to the throne until Henry tired of their respective mothers, at which point both girls were downgraded from Princesses to Ladies. Both wound up becoming Queen and, although Elizabeth had the luck of taking on the role at a younger age (meaning she would live longer as Queen), that something inside of them was truly part of what set their legacies apart. And maybe this is where some crucial differences in their ostensibly similar childhoods may hold a clue to the women each would become.
Princess Elizabeth was born September 7, 1533, the first child of King Henry VIII and his second wife, Anne Boleyn. Famously both Anne and Henry really, no like REALLY, had anticipated and wanted a son. Birth announcements had already been prepared saying that a Prince had been born, which had to be hastily re-written to show that the new heir was a girl. She was named in honour of her two grandmothers, both of whom had been Elizabeths. Upon her birth, she became the new heir to the throne, but everyone sort of considered her a placeholder until Anne and Henry could have another child, this time a son. It wasn’t just that they didn’t want a daughter, the King and Queen more or less required a son. A woman or girl had never inherited the throne of England before, and with Henry just the second in the Tudor dynasty, he really no like REALLY wanted a son to take over from him. Because girls ain’t nothing but trouble, particularly when you’re living in a time and place when primogeniture was the thing.
Of course, infamously, Anne Boleyn never had a son and Henry had her beheaded. Elizabeth was just under three years old when her mother was executed, and like Mary before her, Elizabeth went from being an adored Princess to a mostly-just-tolerated Lady. When Henry’s third wife, Jane Seymour, gave birth to a son, Elizabeth was sent to live in her baby brother’s household as a sort of guest of honour. As a girl, Elizabeth was apparently sweet and kind. She was given a better education that most young women of the time, becoming fluent in languages including Flemish, French, Italian, Spanish, Latin, and Greek. She was also instructed in religious education, and was a follower of her father and brother’s new Protestant religion. One major influence in the early part of her life was that of her third stepmother, Henry’s sixth wife, Kathryn Parr.
When Henry VIII died in 1547, Elizabeth (then twelve years old) was sent to live with Kathryn Parr. Now, Kathryn had sort of scandalously married almost right away to a man named Thomas Seymour who was a terrible person, so just like, prepare yourselves for this to get bad. Thomas was not only Kathryn’s new husband but also the uncle of Elizabeth’s brother, the nine-year-old King Edward. Yes, these family trees are wildly intertwined and I promise at some point I’ll draw out a literal tree to make sense of this all. But basically, Elizabeth was living with her stepmother and her stepmother’s husband, who was also her step-uncle. Kathryn was well educated and loved nothing more than debating religious philosophy with other learned scholars, so Elizabeth (and her cousin, Lady Jane Grey) were coming of age surrounded by lots of smart, interesting people. And also, Thomas Seymour.
So, Thomas was about 40 years old and was the worst. It’s a matter of record that he was very handsy with his young sort-of-stepdaughter Elizabeth, doing things like tickling her and wrestling and just like things he should not have been doing. For example, on at least one occasion, he came into her bedroom while wearing a nightgown (he wore the nightgown, not sure what Elizabeth was wearing but who cares because she was twelve years old) and spanking her. Kathryn, in maybe a sort of proto-Stockholm Syndrome sort of thing, or maybe this is just how things were then (???) didn’t seem bothered by this, and in fact, on some occasions joined in the jolly tickling fun. One time, she held Elizabeth while Thomas cut her gown into a thousand pieces. Why was he doing this? Was Elizabeth wearing the dress while this happened? I PREFER NOT TO KNOW. Whatever any of this was all about — and some historians and biographers theorize that Thomas molested Elizabeth beyond tickling and “horseplay” in the sense of, he may have raped or otherwise sexually assaulted her — it ended in May 1548 when Kathryn found Elizabeth and Thomas in “an embrace” and sent Elizabeth away.
But this was not the end of Thomas Seymour’s terrible terribleness. Kathryn died in childbirth in September 1548, and Thomas turned his gross attention back to his former sort-of-stepdaughter Elizabeth. But this time, Elizabeth’s brother King Edward — who used to have Thomas as one of his advisors, so perhaps know how gross he was — was paying attention. Thomas seemed intent on marrying Elizabeth, almost definitely as a power play because of her family connections, but his past behaviour became a matter of public record. Thomas was arrested for scheming to marry Elizabeth, which is I guess against the law because Edward would have had to approve anyone courting her. Elizabeth was questioned as part of the investigation into Thomas’s misdeeds, and she refused to speak out against him. Not because she loved him or cared about him, but perhaps because she wanted to protect her own reputation. Stubbornness, it seemed, was one of the defining Tudor family traits. Thankfully for all of the human race, Thomas was found guilty and was put to death in March 1549.
Elizabeth had a few, in retrospect, quiet years between then and 1553, when Edward died young. The whole Jane Grey thing happened, followed by the whole Mary wresting control of the throne thing, and Elizabeth mostly stayed out of the way and did her best to not bring attention to herself. Notably, Elizabeth rode into town with Mary in a grand parade where Mary was declared Queen of England. Because Mary was Catholic, she insisted that everyone else should be too, and so Elizabeth — at least outwardly — practiced the Catholic faith. But secretly, her true beliefs were Protestant, and everybody sort of knew that. When Mary started to really go off the rails vis-a-vis burning Protestants at the stake, more and more people started sort of eyeing Elizabeth as a potential replacement Queen with bonus Protestant beliefs. Mary caught wind of this, and tried to nip this in the bud by throwing Elizabeth in jail where nobody could see her or think about how much of a better Queen she’d be.
Now, there is nothing showing that Elizabeth had anything personally to do with any of these schemes, or that she even knew about them. And if she had, I think we’ve already seen she was stubborn and close-lipped enough she’d never tell anyone. And in fact, Elizabeth claimed very passionately to be innocent. But despite having zero proof, Mary threw Elizabeth in the Tower of London on suspicion of treason. Both sisters had advocates in high places, and ultimately Mary was convinced to let Elizabeth go without putting her through a trial. But having Elizabeth — younger than Mary, more Protestant than Mary — hanging around was still dangerous to the Queen. So Elizabeth was sent to live in sort of house arrest at an estate in the country. Sort of foreshadowing where this was all headed, crowds cheered the redheaded young woman as she travelled out of town and to her new home.
Elizabeth came back to court in April 1555 when Mary was due to deliver her first child. Her role there was to be back-up monarch in case both Mary and the baby died; but of course, there was no baby. And in the chaos and weirdness that came out of that whole situation, Elizabeth just sort of stuck around and nobody asked her to leave. She was, yet again, heir to the throne, as it seemed now unlikely that her sister would have a baby at this point. And really, Elizabeth was the one and only choice of person to inherit from Mary, as the only other possibility was Mary, Queen of Scots, who was not only Catholic but also married to the French King. And the question of succession was, for the fourth (?) time in about ten years of the utmost importance because Queen Mary I had fallen ill and didn’t seem to be getting any better.
Now, Queen Mary I’s husband, King Philip, was also terrible. He began making moves to maybe marry her before Mary was even dead. Elizabeth, for her part, was also making plans — plans to become Queen of England, in the sense of, she was planning who she’d appoint in which jobs when she took over. Again, Mary wasn’t dead yet. But by the time Mary did die, Elizabeth was more than ready to take over. Oh, and you know Philip tried to arrange a marriage between them. Elizabeth did not even pause to consider this offer, because she’d lived long enough in Tudor England to realize that there were a lot of gross, terrible men out there, and knew she’d be better off single than married to that piece of sleaze.
And so, at age 25, Elizabeth became Queen Elizabeth I. There was yet another parade, like the people of London must have been either so excited or so over parades at this time from the revolving door of Queens. This one was special, though, because Elizabeth was super-popular… and Protestant. Coming off of five years of Protestants being literally burned by the previous Queen, the people of England were cautiously optimistic about this new monarch. Elizabeth spoke to the crowds, winning them over even more. On January 15, 1559, she was crowned and presented to the people as their new Queen. A joyous cacophony of drums, trumpets, organs, and bells rang out to celebrate her ascension to the role. And the thing is, she could have been any sort of Queen. Her reign could be short, or long, or troubled, or amazing. Nobody yet knew how this was all going to go. We, in hindsight, can see this all as hopeful omens for the long and successful reign she was going to enjoy.
But she had, of course, inherited the throne of a country still in the midst of a brutal civil war, a small country surrounded by larger kingdoms who wanted to take over, and surrounded by scheming courtiers who would stop at nothing to gain more power. And perhaps the biggest question weighing over all of them was who would she choose to marry.
Next time: The Virgin Queen!