Saturday, January 14, 2012

On This Day in Elizabethan History: The Coronation of Elizabeth I at Westminster Abbey

On this day in Elizabethan history in 1559, Elizabeth Tudor was crowned Queen Elizabeth I of England at Westminster Abbey.
The Western facade of Westminster Abbey. Picture acquired through Wikimedia Commons. Image public domain.

 To celebrate one of the most significant days in Queen Elizabeth's life, I thought I would share with you what transpired in the busy weeks between Elizabeth learning at Hatfield that her sister had died, and that glorious ceremony in Westminster Abbey. Elizabeth had to do a lot of preparation before she could enjoy her coronation!

Even though Elizabeth Tudor officially succeeded to the throne on November 17th, 1558, the preparations for a royal coronation understandably took a considerable amount of time. While a ceremony was being organized for January 15th, a date that astrologer Master John Dee had determined would bring good luck to the new queen and her reign, Elizabeth made good use of her time. Immediately following her sister’s death, Elizabeth had been flooded with visitors from all corners of the realm and abroad, paying her tribute and hoping to gain positions in her new regime. Elizabeth’s ability to read people and their true intentions, a skill honed in her tumultuous childhood, served her well; She was able to discern who was genuine toward her and who was merely looking to profit. 

The Old Palace at Hatfield. Picture acquired through Wikimedia Commons, courtesy of Pam Fry. Image public domain.

On November 20th, The Privy Council and members of the peerage gathered at Hatfield to hear Elizabeth’s first public speech, and to discover whom she would appoint to her government. One of first positions to be filled was Secretary of State; this position was bestowed upon the wise William Cecil, who had given Elizabeth good council in the past few years, when she had been in grave danger. The familiarity these two shared gave them a shorthand, which was to be essential for developing the productive government Elizabeth is now so famous for. She publicly addressed Cecil, saying,

            “I give you this charge that you shall be of my Privy Council and content to take pains for me and my realm. This judgment I have made of you: that you will not be corrupted with any manner of gifts, and that you will be faithful to the state; and that without respect of my private will, you will give me that council which you think best, and if you shall know anything necessary to be declared to me of secrecy, you shall show it to myself only. And assure yourself, I will not fail to keep taciturnity therein.”

            While these expectations were stated first to Cecil, it was understood that Elizabeth expected all of her ministers to adhere to the same code of honor, and, for the most part, they complied. Elizabeth would soon earn the genuine respect and admiration of her council; unlike her father, King Henry VIII, she would suffer no sycophancy.

William Cecil, First Baron Burghly, Lord High Treasurer of England c. 1570. Bodleian Library, Oxford. Picture acquired through Wikimedia Commons. Image public domain.

On that same day, the lawyer Sir Nicholas Bacon was sworn in as Lord Keeper of the Privy Seal, and Sir Nicholas Throckmorton was made Chamberlain of the Exchequer. Sir Francis Knollys, related to the queen by his marriage to her cousin, Katherine Carey, was made Vice Chamberlain of the Household, and also a Privy Councilor. And William Parr, the brother of the late Queen Katherine Parr, Elizabeth’s beloved stepmother, was restored as Marquess of Northampton. Parr has suffered during Queen Mary’s reign, but Elizabeth held him in high esteem. While Parr would prove a good subject of the Queen, his personal life would be wrought with controversy.
A sketch by Hans Holbein of William Parr, Marquess of Northampton. Picture acquired through Wikimedia Commons. Image public domain.

            Seated on her dais, under the canopy of state, Elizabeth addressed those assembled around her:
            “The law of nature moves me to sorrow for my sister. The burthen that us fallen upon me maketh me amazed; and yet, considering that I am God’s creature, ordained to obey His appointment, I will yield thereto, desiring from the bottom of my heart that I may have assistance of His grace to be the minister of His heavenly will in this office now committed to me. And as I am but one body, so I shall require you all, my lords, to be assistant to me, that I with my ruling, and you all with your service, may make a good account to Almighty God, and leave some comfort to our posterity on Earth. I mean to direct all mine actions by good advice and counsel. My meaning is to require of you all nothing more but faithful hearts, and of my good will you shall have no doubt, using yourselves as good and loving subjects.”
            Elizabeth may not have been officially crowned yet, but life had prepared her for this moment, and she was already conducting herself as queen.

            In the days ahead, Elizabeth rewarded those servants who had lovingly cared for her as a child and adolescent, and promoted her maternal relatives. Kat Ashley was made Mistress of Robes, (this would be a daunting job, considering that Elizabeth would own over 3,000 dresses by the time she died!) as well as being given the prestigious post of First Lady of the Bedchamber. This put Mistress Ashley in charge of the Queen's maids of honor, delegating their tasks and cultivating their moral character. Kat’s husband John Ashley was made Master of the Jewel House, and Thomas Parry, Elizabeth’s former treasurer, was knighted and made Comptroller of the Household. Blanche Parry, Elizabeth’s former cradle-rocker, was promoted to Keeper of the Queen’s Books.

Detail from a portrait in the collection of Lord Hastings, purported to be of Katherine Champernowne-Ashley. Picture acquired through Wikimedia Commons. Image public domain.

A sketch by Hans Holbein of Sir Thomas Parry, c. 1538-40. Picture acquired through Wikimedia Commons. Image public domain.

            Lettice Knollys, daughter of Francis and Katherine (Carey) Knollys, joined Queen Elizabeth's household. This is the same Lettice who would one day become infamous for her secret marriage to Elizabeth’s beloved, the Earl of Leicester. And Henry Carey, a beloved cousin,  (and brother to Katherine Carey-Knollys) was raised to the peerage as Baron Hunsdon.

Portrait of Henry Carey, First Baron Hunsdon c. 1561-63. By Steven van Herwijck. Picture acquired through Wikimedia Commons. Image public domain.

            Soon thereafter, Elizabeth and her retinue of over 1000 departed from Hatfield to London. Throngs of people lined the roads, cheering for their new queen. After being received into the city, Elizabeth, as was customary, took up residence in the royal apartments at the Tower of London, in preparation for her coronation. Clad all in purple, the color of royalty, Elizabeth stopped frequently during her progress to the Tower to greet both the commoners and well-to-do alike. In fact, many contemporaries were startled at how often she was “…stately stooping to the meanest sort.” 

The coronation procession of Elizabeth I, circa 1559. From a document in the College of Arms. Image public domain.

     Elizabeth was already demonstrating what was to be a lifelong fondness for the “true English”-the common people. The low-born had raised her when her own father had rejected her, preserved her in trying times, and invested in her their hopes and dreams for the future of the kingdom, after they had experienced so much strife; Elizabeth would reward them for their love ever-after. On the annual progresses she would come to enjoy as queen, Elizabeth would frequently stop to interact with the country folk, particularly children. 

            Sir John Hayward wrote of the triumphant Elizabeth:

            “If ever any person had either the gift or the style to win the hearts of the people, it was this queen. All her faculties were in motion, and every motion seemed a well-guided action; her eye was set upon one, her ear listened to another, her judgment ran upon a third, to a fourth she addressed her speech; her spirit seemed to be everywhere. Some she pitied, others she commended, some she thanked, at others she pleasantly and wittily jested, condemning no person, neglecting no office, and distributing her smiles, looks and graces so artfully that thereupon the people again redoubled the testimony of their joys, and afterwards, raising everything to the highest strain filled the ears of all men with the immoderate extolling of their prince.”

The Coronation Portrait of Elizabeth I. The National Portrait Gallery dates the painting c.1600, though it is probably a copy after an earlier painting that has since been lost.Image public domain through Creative Commons licensing, NPG, London.

            At noon on January 15th, 1559 Elizabeth was crowned in Westminster Abbey. Elizabeth truly believed that God had preserved her through all the dangers of her young life in order to reach this moment. What relief, and what joy she must have felt as Owen Oglethorpe, the Bishop of Carlisle, anointed her as God’s representative on Earth. She understood that hard work lay ahead, but she knew that she was up to the task. After a 44 year reign, Good Queen Bess would be laid to rest in 1603 in the same place where she had started her journey as queen.