Wednesday, January 15, 2014

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

The Coronation Portrait of Elizabeth I. Image public domain through Creative Commons licensing, NPG, London.

On this day in Elizabethan history in 1559, Elizabeth Tudor was crowned at Westminster Abbey at the age of twenty-five. Elizabeth had officially succeeded to the throne of England on November 17th of the previous year, upon the death of her sister, Mary I, who had left no issue. Elizabeth consulted her astrologer, Master John Dee, to determine the ideal date for her coronation (Resh Thomas, 77).

The ceremonies that took place in the weeks leading up to the coronation were planned by Elizabeth's childhood friend and Master of the Horse, Robert Dudley. As was customary, Elizabeth stayed for several nights in the Tower of London before she was crowned. With her entourage in tow, Elizabeth processed through the decorated streets of London, stopping periodically to enjoy elaborate entertainments, and to receive gifts and praises from her subjects. One gift that we know Elizabeth accepted was a bouquet of rosemary, given to her by a poor woman. She kept the sprigs of the sweet-smelling herb at her side all day (Resh Thomas, 78). 

The coronation procession of Queen Elizabeth I, circa 1559. Picture acquired through Wikimedia Commons. Image public domain.

Elizabeth's gratitude towards her subjects was genuine; she understood that she owed her preservation throughout the reign of her sister to the people of England. The weeks that proceeded Elizabeth's coronation were the first of many instances during her reign in which she she spent time with the common people. An observer documented Elizabeth's natural ability to attend to her subjects, writing,

"If ever any person had either the gift or the style to win the hearts of the people, it was their Queen. All her faculties were in motion and every motion seemed well guided action: her eye was set upon one, her ear listened to another, her judgement ran upon a third, to a fourth she addressed her speech; her spirit seemed to be everywhere and yet so entire in herself, as it seemed to be nowhere else."

Indeed, we have many charming accounts from Elizabeth's progress through London. In one, we learn that Elizabeth spied the brother of her late stepmother, Queen Katherine Parr, watching her  from a window; the Marquess of Northampton was sick and therefore indisposed. Elizabeth immediately stopped her palfrey to talk with the Marquess about his health, a conversation which lasted for quite some time (Neale, 58). 

A sketch of William Parr, Marquess of Northampton. By Hans Holbein the Younger. Picture acquired through Wikimedia Commons. Image public domain.

It had been very difficult to secure a bishop to perform the coronation ceremony due to an incident that had transpired in December in Elizabeth's private chapel; the bishop performing the service had defied Elizabeth's request by raising the host for adoration, which was a Catholic practice. Elizabeth, as a Protestant, rejected the belief of transubstantiation, in which the sacrament was literally transformed into the blood and body of Christ. For Elizabeth and other Protestants, the act was symbolic, not literal. Enraged, Elizabeth had stormed out of the service. Her rash action greatly angered the Catholic clergy (Resh Thomas, 79). Owen Oglethorpe, Bishop of Carlisle, was the only bishop who would (reluctantly) agree to officiate the ceremony.

On January 15th, Elizabeth was crowned wearing a cloth-of-gold gown*, immortalized in The Coronation Portrait, and a cape made of crimson velvet, which was lined with ermine, the fur of royalty. To emphasize her virginity and purity, Elizabeth wore her auburn hair loose around her shoulders, like all other English queens before her had at their coronations. 

A detail of The Coronation Portrait of Elizabeth I, showing her free-flowing hair. Image public domain through Creative Commons licensing, NPG, London.

The Bishop of Carlisle recited the rites in Latin. Thus, Elizabeth refused to take the sacrament, and she insisted that the bishop read the oath from a Bible written in English, which was held by William Cecil. Reportedly, when the bishop anointed Elizabeth's forehead with holy oil, she sneered, "thy ointment stinks". 

After the tense ceremony, the Queen left Westminster, and her adoring subjects cut up seven hundred yards of blue carpet, on which the Queen of England had walked, to keep as souvenirs (Resh Thomas, 80). Despite England's grim financial state upon the death of Queen Mary, more than sixteen thousand pounds were spent on Queen Elizabeth's coronation; it was critical that she demonstrate power and majesty to those who questioned her legitimacy and right to rule.

Though Elizabeth had caught a cold during her travels through London, she attended her coronation banquet at Westminster Hall before retiring late in the evening (Neale, 63). After she left, the banquet continued until one o'clock in the morning.

Queen Elizabeth I would go on to arguably become the greatest monarch in English history.

*Recently, I have noticed an alarming amount of pins on Pinterest claiming that a replica movie dress from a costume website is the original coronation dress of Elizabeth I, ( I assume the pinners didn't actually read the website the image is from) so I find it necessary to set the record straight here that Queen Elizabeth I's coronation dress, unfortunately, does not survive.


Neale, J.E. Queen Elizabeth I. Chicago: Academy Chicago Publishers, 2001. Print.

Resh Thomas, Jane. Behind the Mask: The Life of Queen Elizabeth I. New York: Clarion Books, 1998. Print.