Elizabeth I: Life Story

Chapter 3 : Education

From about the age of six, Elizabeth’s lessons moved beyond Kat Ashley’s remit to become more formal. Languages, for which she appears to have had a natural aptitude, were at the core of the humanist curriculum. She studied Latin, French and Italian, and also Greek, newly fashionable in scholarly circles. Initially, she shared some of the tutors appointed to her brother when he was six in 1543, including Richard Cox and later John Cheke, Regius Professor of Greek at Cambridge. Their French tutor was the French emigré, Jean Balmain. By 1544, Cheke was so impressed by Elizabeth’s skills that he recommended she have her own tutor, and William Grindal was appointed.

Why men whose religious orthodoxy was suspect, in terms of the traditional doctrines espoused by Henry, and reinforced in the 1539 Act of Six Articles, were appointed as tutors to his younger children is a question that has never been satisfactorily answered. Nevertheless, both Edward and Elizabeth were taught by men who were diverging from the evangelical movement to reform the Catholic Church, towards doctrines that would soon be characterised as Protestant. One explanation often given is that the tutors were selected by Queen Katherine Parr, who had agreed to marry Henry, in part because she was persuaded by Archbishop Cranmer and her own family that by doing so, she could promote the religious reform they espoused.

Elizabeth quickly became attached to Katherine who undoubtedly influenced her strongly. Valerie Schutte, in her book Princesses Mary and Elizabeth Tudor and the gift book exchange, argues convincingly that Elizabeth’s translations and her presentation of them to Henry and Katherine in covers embroidered by her own skilful hands were Elizabeth’s way of showing herself as a worthy daughter, who deserved the place in the royal succession that was restored to her by the Act of Succession of 1544. The works she translated were Katherine’s own Prayers and Meditations, given to Henry in three languages, Marguerite of Angoulême’s Le miroir de l’âme pecheresse for Katherine, and in 1545, also for Katherine, Calvin’s Institution de la Religione Chrestienne.

The 1544 Act of Succession confirmed that if Edward, the heir to the throne under common law, were to die childless, he would be succeeded by Mary, who would, in turn, if she died childless, be succeeded by Elizabeth although the Act did not restore the sisters’ legitimacy. Because their right to inherit was based on the Act, Henry limited the sisters further, by stipulating that they would only be eligible to inherit if the council which he had left to govern during Edward’s minority, had approved any marriage they made.

The Act further provided that Henry could make arrangements for who was to succeed Elizabeth, in the case of her also dying childless, by his signed will. This was a highly unusual proceeding – matters of inheritance were governed by common law, and strictly, if the sisters were illegitimate, Edward should have been succeeded by his next legitimate heir, the children of his aunt Margaret, Queen of Scots. However, at the time of the Act, that heir was the infant Mary, Queen of Scots, or, if she were to be discounted as of foreign birth, the Lady Margaret Douglas, Countess of Lennox, who had a son, Henry, Lord Darnley. But Lady Margaret’s legitimacy was not unimpeachable, either meaning the next legitimate heir might be Frances Brandon, Marchioness of Dorset, daughter of Edward’s younger aunt, Mary, the French Queen.

It is not surprising that Parliament preferred Henry to negotiate this minefield of family politics, and make a nomination, bearing in mind that it seemed unlikely that all three of Henry’s children would die childless. In Henry’s will, he passed over the children of Margaret, preferring the descendants of Mary, the French Queen. However, there was some dispute over the legality of Henry’s will. (Explored in Suzannah Lipscombe’s The King is Dead, reviewed here).

Consequently, at Henry’s death in January 1547, Elizabeth became second in line to the throne, after Mary. Since she was still only thirteen, and not old enough to run an independent household, it was decided that Elizabeth would remain under the guardianship of the dowager queen, Katherine, who set up her household in her dower properties of Chelsea and Hanworth. Released from the restrictions of her role as the king’s wife, Katherine succumbed to love, in the person of Sir Thomas Seymour, who had been her suitor before Henry had chosen her for his queen. Throwing caution to the wind, Katherine secretly married Seymour before her period of mourning for Henry was up – a risky move, for had she proved pregnant, the clarity of the succession might have been further muddied.