Friday, June 6, 2014

'God gave me here to sit, and placed me over you' -Contemporary evidence of Elizabeth I's belief in her Divine Right to rule

A detail of the Coronation Portrait of Queen Elizabeth I. Image public domain through Creative Commons licensing, NPG, London.

While state papers, edicts, petitions, and other official and legal documents tell us a great deal about historical events and policies, it is the diaries, personal letters, and speeches left behind that inform our understanding of a historical individual. Queen Elizabeth I of England, like the other Tudor monarchs before her, did not employ a speech writer (Perry 1990) and managed her own personal correspondence. But, unlike the other Tudors, she was a prolific writer of letters, and she left behind a body of work that, upon close examination, demystifies many of the puzzling aspects of the woman who became known as the semi-divine Gloriana, the Virgin Queen. 

The copious documents authored by the last Tudor can be gleaned for valuable information that can be applied to a wide variety of studies. In this examination, The Tide Letter, The Tilbury Speech, and The Golden Speech will be considered. There are several central themes present throughout the entirety of Elizabeth’s body of work, spanning from her childhood until her death. These recurring themes include her gratitude and love for the English people, her acknowledgment of being preserved through danger by God himself, and her divine right to rule.

The belief held by 16th century monarchs was that, due to their unique nature, they existed somewhere between the realms of the mortal and the divine. As such, they were not subject to the laws of the land or of one another, but were expected to answer only to God. This theory was known as the Divine Right of Kings, and it was invoked by monarchs to explain to their subjects why they were to be obeyed without question. Elizabeth Tudor’s belief that she had been pre-destined to rule England by God was exceptionally strong; why else would she, the last in line to inherit the throne, have survived being legally bastardized by her own father, only to be legitimized before his death, then subsequently slandered, imprisoned, interrogated and nearly executed during the reigns of her brother and her sister? After effectively ruling for many years, Elizabeth’s conviction that she had been preserved by God to rule was amplified after her triumphant defeat of the invading Spanish Armada in 1588 (Perry 1990).
The first of Henry VIII’s children to inherit the throne was Elizabeth’s half-brother, Edward VI. Still in his minority, Edward, a Protestant, reigned with the help of his equally Protestant council. However, Edward lived to be only 16, dying of what was probably tuberculosis. Henry VIII had clearly stated that, were his son to die without issue, his daughter Mary would succeed, and, in the event that she failed to produce an heir, would be followed by Elizabeth. However, Edward VI could not stomach the idea of his fervently Catholic older half-sister inheriting the throne, so he took action to strike his father’s wishes from the record. Edward’s ‘Devise for the Succession’, drafted as early as 1553, declared that his sisters Mary and Elizabeth were bastards, due to the fact that Henry VIII had divorced both of their mothers before their deaths. Therefore, they were unfit to inherit the throne of England. Edward selected Lady Jane Grey, a Protestant cousin of the Tudors, ‘and her heir(s) male’ as his successor. 

A posthumous portrait of Lady Jane Grey from the 1590s, after a now-lost original painted between 1550-55. Picture acquired through Wikimedia Commons. Image public domain.

While Edward’s exclusion of his sister Mary makes sense, his writing Elizabeth out of the line to inherit is much more puzzling. William Cecil, Secretary of State under Edward VI and later Elizabeth I, would one day tell Antiquarian William Camden, author of The Annals of Queen Elizabeth, why Edward had excluded Elizabeth along with Mary. According to Camden’s account of what Cecil told him, when Edward shared the original draft of his ‘Devise’ with Elizabeth, revealing his plan to disinherit their sister Mary, Elizabeth expressed her disgust that Edward sought to upset the natural order of succession. She told Edward that the existence of their father’s will gave her ‘no claim or title to reign as long as her sister lived (Perry 1990). If this story that Camden recorded is true, it suggests that, though Elizabeth was certainly perceptive enough to know what would happen when the Catholic Mary inherited the throne of Protestant England, divine right and the original line of succession was more important than the threat of a Marian Counter-Reformation. However, Elizabeth could not have even begun to imagine that Mary would one day have her imprisoned, interrogated, and even contemplated having her disposed of through execution (Perry 1990).

Edward VI's 'Devise for the Succession'. Image public domain.
Mary’s right to rule was supported not only by Elizabeth but by the English people, who helped Mary restore the natural order by usurping Lady Jane Grey and her husband, Guildford Dudley; both of whom were eventually executed. While Elizabeth had been bastardized and legitimized twice between 1533-1553, her real trials and tribulations were about to begin.
Once crowned, Mary I became intensely suspicion of her Protestant half-sister, and her persecution of her was almost immediate. In an effort to rehabilitate their strained relationship, and in order to preserve her own standing at court, Elizabeth wrote letters in an effort to gain Mary’s trust and remain in good favor, even when they were apart. However, in 1554, things for Elizabeth took a disastrous turn. Sir Thomas Wyatt’s rebellion sought to depose Mary I, who had become increasingly unpopular since her announcement that she would marry the foreign Catholic Prince, Philip II of Spain. Once Mary was removed, Wyatt and his supporters aimed to place Elizabeth on the throne. As the unwilling figurehead of Wyatt’s plot, Elizabeth was considered guilty by association, though Wyatt denied that she had ever been directly involved in the planning or execution of the attempted coup. Mary had long been looking for a way to rid herself of her defiantly Protestant sister; Elizabeth was the focus of all the hopes and dreams of those who opposed her Catholic reign. Much later, Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots would become the focus of the plots of the English Catholic minority during the reign of Elizabeth I. But, unlike Mary, Queen of Scots, Elizabeth was most likely innocent of the charges laid against her. Mary gave orders that she was to be arrested and brought to the Tower of London, but Elizabeth was determined to stall the journey as long as possible. She insisted on a meeting with her sister, believing that if she were able to speak to Mary, she would be able to convince her of her innocence (Perry 1990). Elizabeth requested materials in order to write to Mary before she was removed to the Tower. 
Princess Elizabeth pleading to Queen Mary. From a Woodcut in the British Library, via
In her letter, hastily and passionately penned, Elizabeth implored Mary to remember her promise to her that she would not be ‘condemned without answer and due proof’. She pointed out that the Tower was a place for a ‘false traitor’, not a loyal subject.  Elizabeth professed to Mary that God knew her truth, writing, ‘’And to this present hour I protest afore God (who shall Know my truth, whatsoever malice shall devise), that I never practiced, counselled, nor consented to anything that might be prejudicial to your person any way, or dangerous to the state by any means.’ (Tudor, 1554)
The letter she penned is now known as The Tide Letter, because in the time that it took Elizabeth to write it, the tide of the Thames River had changed so that she could not be brought to the Tower until the following day. Fearful that the messengers entrusted to bring the letter to Mary would add an incriminating post-script, Elizabeth added diagonal lines across the back of the letter to prevent additions (Tudor, 1554).

Princess Elizabeth in the Tower of London. From a woodcut in the British Library, via
Once released after imprisonment and interrogation, Elizabeth’s position remained precarious and she was kept under house arrest and constant surveillance. Elizabeth bided her time, keeping a low profile and living beyond reproach. She was only truly safe once her sister was dead, joyful news that she received in seclusion at her childhood residence of Hatfield House on November 17, 1558. Upon learning that she was now Queen, Elizabeth invoked the Lord, reciting Psalm 118 in Latin, saying, ‘This is the doing of the Lord, and it is marvelous in our eyes’.
Elizabeth clearly stated that imprisonment in the Tower during the reign of her sister was the most traumatic experience of her life.  She told Parliament ‘I stood in danger of my life, my sister was so incensed against me’ (Perry 1990). The fact that, unlike her mother and her other relations before her, she was actually released from the Tower unharmed was, in her opinion, no less than a miracle. Her experiences at the mercy of her sister further ingrained her with a belief that God was preserving her for a purpose.  Elizabeth would thank God publicly on many occasions throughout her life for, as she said, ‘pulling me from the prison to the palace’. According to ancient tradition, Elizabeth stayed at the Tower on the eve of her coronation, and though it was a happy occasion, the location no doubt reminded her of how close she had come to death. During her coronation procession, she compared her escape from the Tower to that of the Biblical Daniel’s escape from the lion’s den, saying God had rescued her from the ‘mouths of the greedy and raging lions’.  The lions were, of course, her sister and her sister’s council, who had sought to destroy her. This allusion was particularly effective, given the fact that there were actual lions kept on display in the Tower of London’s zoo (Perry 1990).

A view of the apartments where Princess Elizabeth was kept while she was imprisoned in the Tower of London. As I learned upon my visit there several years ago, the apartments are only open to the public per request, due to the fact that they are now part of the head Beefeater's lodgings.
Throughout her life, Elizabeth Tudor remembered everything and everyone, and forgot no betrayal, no matter how small. After she became Queen, she was pressured to name her own successor, something she never actually did, even on her deathbed. She referenced Edward VI’s ‘Devise’ to her bishops, saying of the lawyers and clerics who supported the document, ‘…after my brother’s death they openly preached and set forth that my sister and I were bastards.’ Elizabeth never forgot that she had been, as she believed, delivered by God through many perils and near-death experiences. On one occasion during her reign, she publicly remarked, ‘I know no creature that breatheth whose life standeth hourly in more peril for it than mine own; who entered not into my state without sight of manifold dangers of life and crown, as one that had the mightiest and the greatest to wrestle with.’ (Perry 1990)
In the latter half of her reign, on the eve of the invasion of the Spanish Armada in 1588, Queen Elizabeth I took her friend the Earl of Leicester’s advice and made up her mind to visit her troops at Tilbury Fort. Elizabeth insisted on having no armed guards to surround her; she saw no need to fear the men who were committed to die in her service if necessary. Besides, she had survived far greater perils. Elizabeth spent two days conversing and dining with the soldiers. It was at the end of the visit that she delivered her iconic Tilbury Speech. The speech was written by Elizabeth, and recorded, printed, and distributed throughout the realm. In the speech, she cited the two forces that had never forsaken her: God, and the English people, proclaiming, ‘I have always so behaved myself that, under God, I have placed my chiefest strength and safeguard in the loyal hearts and goodwill of my subjects’ (Tudor, 1588). Elizabeth promised to, if necessary, lay down her life for her God, her people, and her kingdom in the ensuing conflict. Elizabeth was willing to give her life for her people if this was the purpose that God had preserved her for. Luckily for England, God had preserved her to crush the Spanish invaders.

A painting of Queen Elizabeth I at Tilbury, via

The men stationed at Tilbury never had to fight, as the Spanish were engaged and defeated entirely at sea. None of the English ships were damaged or lost, but most of the Armada was destroyed by a combination of cannon-fire and bad weather. This astounding, crushing defeat was so extraordinary that it was deemed by Elizabeth and by her people to be a victory owed to divine intervention. The winds that helped to scatter some of the Spanish ships became known as the “Protestant winds”, signifying that God, who the Elizabethans believed determined the weather, was on Elizabeth and England’s side. Elizabeth had the “Protestant winds” included on some of the commemorative medals given out to veterans of the war with Spain. 

One of the Armada Medals given by Queen Elizabeth I to the veterans of the war with Spain. The aforementioned "Protestant winds" are shown on the backside of the medal (right). Picture acquired through Wikimedia Commons. Image public domain.

Elizabeth I’s greatest speech is arguably The Golden Speech, delivered in 1601 to her final Parliament. Like The Tilbury Speech, the content was recorded and printed to be distributed throughout the kingdom. Once again, a sentimental Elizabeth expressed her belief that God had made her a queen over so thankful a people, and that she was  ‘the mean under God to conserve [them] in safety, and preserve [them] from danger,’ and ‘ to be the instrument to deliver [them] from dishonor, from shame, and from infamy; to keep [them] from out of servitude, and from slavery under [their] Enemies; and cruel tyranny, and wild oppression intended against [them]’.

The Tide Letter, The Tilbury Speech, and The Golden Speech are just three of many examples in Elizabeth Tudor’s own words that demonstrate her belief that God had preserved her because he intended for her to rule. The fact that Elizabeth chose to time and again recall in public how close she had come to death at the hands of her sister, and to reiterate that God had delivered her through great adversity to be Queen of England, shows us how important these beliefs were to her. This, along with her unquestionable love of her people, formed the very foundation of her celebrated reign, which has become known as The Golden Age.


Perry, Maria. The Word of a Prince: A Life of Elizabeth I. Woodbridge: The Boydell Press, 1990.

Tudor, Princess Elizabeth to Queen Mary I, 16 March 1554. In The Word of a Prince: A Life of      Elizabeth I, Maria Perry. Woodbridge: The Boydell Press, 1990.

Tudor, Queen Elizabeth I. “The Tilbury Speech,” in The Word of a Prince: A Life of Elizabeth I, Maria Perry, 208-209. Woodbridge: The Boydell Press, 1990.

Tudor, Queen Elizabeth I. “The Golden Speech,” in The Word of a Prince: A Life of Elizabeth I, Maria Perry, 232-233. Woodbridge: The Boydell Press, 1990.