Elizabeth The First, Before She Was Queen


Announcer: Welcome to Stuff You Missed in History Class, from HowStuffWorks.com.

Katie: Hello, and welcome to the podcast. I'm Katie Lambert.

Sara: And I'm Sara Dowdy.

Katie: And Sara, I have a question for you today. What do Cate Blanchet, Judi Dench, and Helen Mirren have in common?

Sara: I think I know the answer to this one. They've all played Queen Elizabeth I. Actually, Helen Mirren has the distinction of playing Elizabeth I and Elizabeth II.

Katie: Right, so you don't need to send us any correction emails for that one. But it's not just Hollywood that has a fascination with Elizabeth I. She was a very interesting person who had a very long reign during contentious times.

Sara: Yeah, she's brilliant. She's incredibly intelligent. She balances her country in a very contentious time. And what she's probably most famous for though is for being the virgin Queen.

Katie: Right. But was she really the virgin Queen?

Sara: Well, we're not going to get too much into that today, but she does use a kind of coquettish deflection that she probably inherits from her mother to keep suitors on their toes well into her old age. So you know, whether it's an English Lord or a foreign Prince, they think that they might have a chance with Elizabeth.

Katie: Well, she was the original game player, and they did not have a chance.

Sara: No, they didn't. Because this same Queen, as a young girl, vowed that she would never marry, and that's what we're going to find out about today.

Katie: And that might make sense if you know that Elizabeth I was the daughter of Henry VIII, who was notorious for cutting off his wife's heads and/or divorcing them. Henry had of course famously defied the pope to divorce his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, with whom he had a daughter, Mary, to marry Anne Boleyn.

Sara: And Anne Boleyn was only the second commoner elevated to the consorts throne. She was very unpopular with a lot of people, considered just a courtesan who had worked her way to the throne. But in 1533, Anne Boleyn is pregnant with her and Henry's first child, and around this same time, there's also the first signs of trouble in the marriage between Henry and Anne Boleyn. Henry, up until now, has been completely infatuated with his wife. But he's starting to stray, and he's surprised that Anne is actually angry about this.

Katie: Imagine. Well, Catherine of Aragon was sort of the quietly suffering Queen, but Anne is upset, and Henry wants a son very badly, as does Anne, because this will cement her place in Henry's life. He needs an Heir.

Sara: That's largely why he casts aside Catherine of Aragon in the first place because they didn't have a living son.

Katie: And everyone thinks it will be a boy. It's only the famous astrologer William Glover that says Anne will have "a woman child" and a prince of the land.

Sara: But surprise, on September 7th, 1533, a daughter is born in a bedchamber decorated with tapestries of St. Ursula and 11,000 virgins. And Henry is not the most supportive husband after the birth of his daughter.

Katie: To say the least.

Sara: He tells Anne, "You and I are both young, and by God's grace, boys will follow." But there's still been all of these celebrations planned for the arrival of a prince, and they go on with most of them. They have to add an "s" to the birth announcements, altering prince to princess. Elizabeth does get a tay daium for the celebration of a new heir and a really fancy christening. She's wrapped in purple and fur. But she doesn't get the attendant ceremonies that would be fit for an heir. Henry cancels the tournaments th at have been planned, the fireworks. London doesn't celebrate the birth with bonfires. So it's kind of played down.

Katie: At least from Henry's side. But Anne is just infatuated with the new baby, and she really wants to breastfeed, which was considered a big no-no.

Sara: Not okay. A Queen cannot breastfeed in this time.

Katie: No.

Sara: And they treat Elizabeth very seriously and very grown up. At three months, she's given her own household, which is kind of funny, isn't it?

Katie: More than a play kitchen.

Sara: Hatfield Palace. And meanwhile, her older half-sister Princess Mary is being horribly degraded. She's deprived of her title, her household is disbanded. Anne Boleyn is very jealous of Henry and his older daughter and won't let them see each other. Even tries to urge Henry to put Catherine, his ex-wife, and Mary to death or have them dispatched some way. But Henry's antagonizing his old family, but he's not going to go as far as actually killing them.

Katie: No, and unfortunately, Anne Boleyn doesn't have a lot of luck after this as far as pregnancies go. She does not produce a male heir. She has a lot of stillbirths and miscarriages, which some people say she may have been RH negative, which now we have things to help you with that.

Sara: And that would make sense, having the first birth of a healthy baby, followed by miscarriages and stillbirths. And that would mean that Anne never would have been able to give birth to a boy. But Anne really knows that it's getting down to the write about delivering an heir. When Catherine dies in 1536, she's starting to realize her power of the king is waning. He doesn't like her as much anymore. He's realized she's not a very adept Queen, and she knows that if she doesn't deliver him an heir, she could be put aside just as easily. And kind of the chief consolation during this time of miscarriages and worry for Anne is the little Elizabeth, and she visits her a lot. And Henry's actually really proud of his young daughter too. He shows her off to ambassadors, sometimes all dressed up, but sometimes naked to show how well made she is.

Katie: Oh, God. Imagine Henry VIII on Facebook,; it would be all over that place.

Sara: Oh, he'd have the naked baby pictures.

Katie: But it ends up not working out, and to say the very, very least, he accuses Anne of adultery and treason among other trumped up charges, and also has their marriage declared invalid, which makes no sense because how could it be invalid and she could also be committing adultery?

Sara: Oh, well, he slept with her sister before they were married, and that's too close for comfort.

Katie: So she is executed. Elizabeth isn't even three yet, and because the marriage was declared invalid, Elizabeth is also now illegitimate.

Sara: So this is obviously an incredibly traumatic event in young Elizabeth's life, and she's precocious enough that she probably realized pretty quickly what had happened. She asked why she's gone from Lady Princess to Lady Elizabeth, and we don't know how she was actually told of the death, but it probably happened pretty soon.

Katie: And I'm assuming it wasn't in the most sensitive way. Henry gets remarried very quickly. It's a week after the execution.

Sara: Yeah, a little more than a week.

Katie: To Jane Seymour, and this new wife wants Henry and Mary, his daughter from his first marriage, to make up.

Sara: Who's been so insulted and cast aside and neglected.

Katie: Right, so their relationship improves, and Mary is Catholic, which will become impo rtant a little bit later. So she now has people looking out for her, but no one is looking after little Elizabeth!

Sara: Yeah, she's considered a bastard and the daughter of a traitor, so she doesn't have many supporters. But fortunately, her older sister Mary is fond of her and visits her, and even persuades the King to invite her to court for Christmas.

Katie: Right, because she'd been sent away and not allowed to be around everybody anymore.

Sara: So there's this really brief window of happy family time for the Tudors in the early part of Henry's marriage to Jane. And finally, Henry gets what he's been after for decades; a male heir.

Katie: Welcome Edward VI.

Sara: Yeah, Edward is born. Unfortunately, this little happy period does not last long, because Jane dies shortly after childbirth, and Elizabeth goes into Mary's care.

Katie: And Henry of course, marries again, Anne of Cleves. And little six year old Elizabeth writes a very precious letter to her new step-mother asking if she can come to court.

Sara: And Anne is very charmed by this letter. Elizabeth is so smart and it's very polite, and Henry gives a very rude response forbidding her to come. But we're king of glossing over these marriages here, but briefly, Anne concedes annulment to Henry because Henry says that he can't sleep with her. He's un-attracted to her. And Anne actually retires and lives a pretty comfortable life. She's lucky she escapes the axe because she's so willing to give in to any of Henry's demands. And she's really still fond of Elizabeth and knows that she, Anne, probably won't remarry and have kids of her own, and takes a maternal interest in her, and even asks if Elizabeth can visit her sometimes, and Henry's actually okay with that.

Katie: But with his short marriage to Anne of Cleves set aside, Henry finds a new wife, and she's a teenager, Catherine Howard.

Sara: And he's so happy with her for a little while and they have so much fun together. HE's kind of the Henry you think of in portraits by this point. He's grossly overweight and he has an abscess on his leg that oozes and smells bad. So he's not the dashing young man he used to be, so we have to kind of wonder what things were like for Catherine Howard. But they get along very nice and things are fine until it comes out that she's not a virgin. She's been employing her former lovers in her household and she's accused of treason and executed. And this is a very traumatic event in the young Elizabeth's life.

Katie: Right. At this time she's eight or nine, so she's old enough to know what's really going on.

Sara: And you have to kind of think, she sees this happening, and she realizes, "Oh, this is what happened to my mother." And so yeah, by this point she's lost several step-mothers, seen several people beheaded. It's pretty traumatic. And she tells her friend that she will never marry, because to her, marriage equals death.

Katie: But Henry, being Henry, marries again, and this time it is the widow Catherine Parr, and she really wants to be a good step-mother and let these three children have a normal life. So she invites them all to come to court, so Edward and Mary and Elizabeth are all together again.

Sara: And this is another sort of short window of happiness for the Tudors. They all come in and out of court and spend time together, and Catherine Parr supervises their education. And there's also a new act of succession. It goes Prince Edward, the son and heir, any new offspring - but by this point it's extremely likely that Henry couldn't have children - and then Mary, and then Elizabeth. But Henry doesn't fix the issue of Elizabeth being illegitimate which comes up against her later.

Katie: And in early 1544 Henry banishes Elizabeth from court, and we're still not sure why that happened.

Sara: She's just a child.

Katie: Exactly, what could she have done? But Catherine convinces him to forgive her and let her come back.

Sara: And Catherine really has even more than just that maternal in terest in these poor orphaned, abandoned children who have gone in and out of their fathers favor and had really rough childhoods. She's also really interested in their education. We mentioned earlier that she was going to supervise Elizabeth's education, but she makes her whole court a center of feminine learning, to quote Alison Weir, who's written a great biography on Elizabeth and a history of all of Henry's wives, if you want to go from number one to six. And Elizabeth and Edward both turn into these intellectual prodigies because of this really strict education they have, and really high expectations that Henry has for them.

Katie: Right. One of Elizabeth's tutors said, "Her mind has no womanly weakness. Her perseverance is equal to that of a man, and her memory long keeps what it quickly picks up." She's really smart. She knows Greek, Latin, French, Italian, and what, Welsh? Spanish?

Sara: Welsh. And she plays music, she composes, she's good at more feminine pursuits like needlework. She's really good at book binding. She's got a lovely hand in calligraphy, and she's interested in writing and hunting and shooting crossbows. Some of these are adult pursuits, but she's a very talented woman, and as a child she spends almost every waking hour with books or religious exercises.

Katie: So Elizabeth is prepared for a future that would require some diplomacy, education, and intelligence, and that's a good thing because Henry dies, and this makes Catherine the dowager Queen and it makes little Edward who's nine or ten at the time his heir.

Sara: Yeah, and Elizabeth is actually with her younger brother when they're told that their father has died, and when the men of the court pay her brother homage, which must have been a pretty emotional site for her. But Edward is no longer allowed by his council to see his step-mother or his sisters, and Edward is a very quiet child. He's obviously had a difficult childhood as well, and he misses these women who are the only people who he really loves.

Katie: Right and he's only ten. So I have a lot of sympathy for little Edward.

Sara: He writes to them a lot and its generally kind of a sad time again.

Katie: And again, since Edward is so young, there are other people who are taking positions of power, and a man named Edward Seymour becomes Lord Protector of England, and his brother, Tomas Seymour, doesn't have a place on the council. And he's a very ambitious man who doesn't like feeling left out.

Sara: These are both Edward's maternal uncles, so Jane Seymour's brothers.

Katie: And Tomas Seymour decides that perhaps the best way to finagle his way into power is to propose to 13 year old Elizabeth.

Sara: He knows Mary is Catholic so she's not going to be a good match, but Elizabeth seems a pretty good deal. So he starts flirting with her and courting her, and she's only 13, but she knows it's about his ambition. Still, she's 13, so she's kind of flattered, but she still turns him down, says, "Neither my age nor my inclination allows me to think of marriage." So he goes back to an earlier love, Catherine Parr, who is the dowager Queen.

Katie: And Catherine had loved Tomas before, but -

Sara: Before marrying Henry VIII.

Katie: right, but once the king decides he wants to marry you, you marry the king, especially if the King is prone to beheading people. So she ended up with Henry, of course, but now she has her chance. The only problem is that she marries him with what is called indecent haste at the time. It's just a few weeks after Henry died, and something that quick would have to be approved by the council because it's so soon, she could potentially, let's say, have had a baby with Henry, and then you would never know.

Sara: Who's baby would it be?

Katie: Exactly, the line of succession is muddled once again. So, she marries him. They're in trouble. But they're forgiven because little Edward really likes her.

Sara: Yeah, so her young step-son likes her, he likes his uncle, so he's fine with the marriage. He doesn't see the political implications of his very ambitious uncle getting a little bit closer to him and to his affairs.

Katie: And Elizabeth goes to live in this household with Catherine Parr and Tomas Seymour, and people are a little bit scandalized, or at least Mary is.

Sara: Mary is scandalized that Catherine accepted the proposal only six weeks after becoming a widow. But Elizabeth is basically just like, "I'm going to do whatever I want, or I'm at least going to wait until this scandal dies down." She says that they don't want to offend the Seymour's. They should play it cool, because the Seymour's have so much power now. And she also says that her step-mother has been so kind to her, it's not really her place to offend her.

Katie: Right. But things at this household get a little creepy, would maybe be a good word, because Tomas still has that interest in the very young Elizabeth, and it's definitely of a sexual nature.

Sara: Yes. They start romping together, and that's the word that's always used. They chase each other and have tickle fights, and it's all pretty unseemly from our perspective, but to Catherine, Elizabeth is just a child and Tomas actually jokingly kind of calls himself her step-father. And it all seems okay. It just seems like a family fun.

Katie: Well, especially he makes sure that he does it in front of other people because there's the implication then that if it were inappropriate, surely he wouldn't want to do it in front of -

Sara: In front of his wife or Elizabeth's governess.

Katie: Right, but since he's tickling this young girl in her nightgown in front of his wife, it must be fine. But things get even more inappropriate when Catherine gets pregnant, and so I assume they were no longer having relations with each other, and Tomas focuses his sexual energy even more strongly on little Elizabeth.

Sara: Yeah, he would bust into Elizabeth's bedchamber in his nightgown and slippers and he would only stay though if she was in bed where he would tickle her or mess with her. And once he even tried to kiss her, and Mrs. Catherine Ashley, Elizabeth's lady in waiting, cried, "For shame!" Be careful!" And he would even smack her on the bottom too. So he's pretty wreckless.

Katie: And she again is about 14, so for her, this is a little bit of a youthful infatuation. She's flattered by this older man's attentions, and she's a bit too naive maybe and innocent to understand what's really going on. He's a manipulative predator, and she's too young to see it.

Sara: And Catherine Parr is so oblivious she even joins in sometimes with these romps. Just everyone having a grand old time apparently! But Tomas is worried because Elizabeth can't quite conceal her infatuation, so he's worried he's going to get into trouble. So he tells Catherine that he saw Elizabeth with her arms around a man's neck, and of course, the dowager Queen is horrified by this, and asks Mrs. Ashley about, "Do you know anything about this?" And Mrs. Ashley doesn't want to get involved, so she refers her to Elizabeth.

Katie: Passing the buck.

Sara: And Elizabeth of course says, "That's not true. I don't even know any men outside of your household." And that's when Catherine gets her first inkling that something is amiss, because if Elizabeth isn't lying, why is her husband?

Katie: And so some accounts have her finding Elizabeth in Tomas' arms in that April. They come apart, they are ashamed, and no one thinks the relationship was consummated but clearly that was the track they were on.

Sara: It was going in that direction.

Katie: So Elizabeth leaves the household. I believe she's asked to leave by Catherine.

Sara: Yeah and there's a really awkward meeting between Catherine and Elizabeth right before she goes where Catherine tells her, "God has given you great qualities. Cultivate them always, and labor to improve them, for I believe you are destined by Heaven to be Queen of England." And Elizabeth is so ashamed she can't even look at her.

Katie: No, and of course at this time she realizes that she hurt Catherine, and the ladies part, maybe not on the best terms, but they do make up later because Catherine realizes she's only 14, she had no idea.

Sara: Yeah, and Elizabeth is never so foolish again about her honor and her place in the succession. She realizes that she jeopardized it all.

Katie: And Elizabeth takes care after this to appear as the perfect protestant woman. She's dressed very plainly, she's modest in demeanor, she's very sober in general, and she wants to give off this image of being "not that kind of girl."

Sara: And this essentially saves her life later, but we won't skip ahead to there quite yet. Catherine and Tomas do have their child. Catherine dies in childbirth and it's sort of the beginning of a rift between Elizabeth and her older sister Mary, who had gotten along pretty well before then. About seven months after the baby is born, Tomas is executed for treason. This is - his ambitions really throw him to the wind, don't they?

Katie: You have to roll your eyes a little bit. He's caught with a knife outside of Edward's bedchamber, and some people think Elizabeth is involved too. They're both questioned extremely thoroughly, but she holds up much better than you would think a 14 year old would to that kind of questioning, and she's perfectly calm, cool, and composed.

Sara: Yeah, she acts like the ideal woman for her brothers court. And her little brother Edward likes her a lot, but he wouldn't have had any power to save her should she be implicated with Tomas' treason.

Katie: And speaking of Edward, about this same time, he comes down with either tuberculosis or some other sort of respiratory infection, we're not sure, but it's very clear that his health is in grave danger, and he is about to die. And this is when all the succession stuff just blows up.

Sara: So back to that line of succession we were talking about earlier, then one that Henry decreed when he married Catherine Parr, it made Edward, of course, his heir, followed by any other babies that might be born, followed by Mary, followed by Elizabeth, followed by the descendants of his youngest sister. Not his eldest sister, because we should say his eldest sisters descendants, that's Mary, Queen of Scots, and Henry's great enemy is Scotland of course. So his younger sisters heirs are kind of low down on this line of succession, but they jump to the top right after Edward dies.

Katie: And their interests put forth the teenage Lady Jane Grey, which again is a descendant of Henry VIII's youngest sister Mary. And Gilford Dudley marries Lady Jane, thinking that the political power of his family combined with her somewhat dubious blood claim together will make them a stronger candidate than Mary.

Sara: So she's this sad puppet Queen for a few days before she's executed as well. And kind of an interesting connection, Lady Jane Grey is actually educated for a time in the same household as Elizabeth, and the cousins are very much alike. They look similar, they're both incredibly intelligent. But Elizabeth takes no part in this coup which is pretty smart, because it doesn't work.

Katie: Right and Mary gets the crown. And she initially has a lot of support. People like her despite the fact that she's Catholic, but she loses that very quickly when she marries the very Catholic Phillip of Spain.

Sara: And then of course she sanctions the burning of three hundred Protestants over her reign, getting the name "Bloody Mary," so that doesn't really endear a queen to her people.

Katie: No, and the people decide they want their Protestant Elizabeth instead to get the Catholics out of their country. And so they institute various uprisings and Elizabeth gets caught up in them a little bit, not by her own doing, just because she's the figure head.

Sara: Yeah, so one of these is Sir Tomas Wyatt's rebellion in 1554, which began as a protest against Mary's marriage to Phillip. And Elizabeth is accused of being involved in this and spends three months in the tower in fear of her life, but there's no strong evidence against her, even though Mary is very suspicious and thinks that she's secretly a Protestant and Elizabeth does get out of the tower though.

Katie: Because Mary is pregnant, and therefore Elizabeth is not as much of a threat to her. You know, if Mary has her own heir. But it turns out that she wasn't really pregnant. And this happens again in Mary's reign. She has two false pregnancies and no one knows if it was - there was, say, a physical cause for it, perhaps an ovarian cyst or some sort of cancer, because she had all the symptoms of pregnancy, or if it was psuedocyesis, which is a hysterical pregnancy that's more of a psychological issue, because there was so much pressure on every Queen to produce an heir.

Sara: But this stint in the tower is another one of those really traumatic events for Elizabeth's life, and she's thankful for her escape for her entire life. As late as 1579, she's still composing private prayers to thank God for "pulling me from the prison to the palace."

Katie: And Elizabeth plays the game during Mary's reign very much. Again, she's doing that outward obedience, perhaps inner disobedience thing. Mary is positive that Elizabeth is secretly Protestant, but in deference to her sister, Elizabeth practices the Catholic rites and rituals and outwardly -

Sara: She goes to London for her coronation and she place it cool during these years. So Mary's horrible childhood growing up with Henry VIII and the dishonor of her mother and her inability to have a child, her horrible reign killing all of these people, and Phillip, her husband's abandonment of her - he moves back to Spain, so she's really not going to have a child now - leaves her a broken woman in middle age, and she dies.

Katie: On November 17th, 1558. And when Elizabeth is told, the story goes that she's outside at Hatfield, the estate, reading under a tree, and she's rendered speechless initially, and she sinks to her knees, and says in Latin, "This is the Lord's doing; it is marvelous in our eyes." From the 118th Psalm! And I think she's provided us with the perfect ending words to our podcast. Elizabeth goes on to be a wonderful Queen, but that is a story for another day.

Sara: But if you'd like to learn more about Elizabeth's father and her childhood, you should check out The Top 10 Heads that Rolled During the Reign of Henry VIII on our homepage, at www.howstuffworks.com.Announcer: For more on this, and thousands of other topics, visit HowStuffWorks.com. Let us know what you think. Send an email to podcast@howstuffworks.com and be sure to check out The Stuff You Missed in History Class blog on the How Stuff Works homepage.