Elizabeth I: Life Story

Chapter 6 : Inheritance

Eventually, Elizabeth was permitted to return to her own home at Hatfield, where she quietly maintained her relationship with Cecil and with Robert Dudley, as well as employing the mathematician, alchemist and astrologer, Dr John Dee. By the summer of 1558, it was clear that Mary was in failing health and would never bear a child. The early autumn saw a procession of courtiers waiting upon Elizabeth at Hatfield. This was a depressing lesson in the speedy transfer of loyalty from a reigning monarch to a future one that Elizabeth learnt from to such an extent that for the whole of her life, she refused to name a successor. Mary herself had put off accepting the inevitable, but by 6th November she could no longer avoid the knowledge that she was dying. Two of her servants were sent to Elizabeth to inform her that the queen recognised her as her successor and hoped that she would maintain the Catholic faith. Influenza was sweeping the country, and it was probably that which finally carried Mary off in the early hours of 17th November. Immediately, her coronation ring was taken from her finger and carried to Hatfield as fast as a man could gallop. Elizabeth took it, then, sinking to her knees, cried out a verse from Psalm 118: ‘This is the Lord’s doing, and it is marvellous in our eyes’. Meanwhile, in London, she had been proclaimed queen at Westminster and at St Paul’s Cross. She was probably equally pleased to hear of the death the following day of Reginald Pole, the Archbishop of Canterbury. Not only had he reconciled England to Rome, but he was also one of the last men to carry the blood of the house of York. His demise would enable her to choose an archbishop whose views were closer to her own.

Elizabeth remained at Hatfield for a few days. Her first appointments were to the two men who were to remain her closest advisers until they died – Lord Robert Dudley was appointed her Master of the Horse, and Sir William Cecil took the role of Secretary. On 23rd November, Elizabeth entered London. Rather than going straight to her palace at Westminster, she stayed for a few days at the Charterhouse, with Lord North, before proceeding to the Tower on 28th November. Following discussion with Dr Dee, who had been a member of Elizabeth’s household for some time, 15th January 1559 was selected as the most propitious date for Elizabeth’s coronation. There was some difficulty in finding a priest to perform the ceremony. Archbishop Pole was dead, and the Archbishop of York, Nicholas Heath, and most of the other bishops were reluctant to crown her, because of her suspected Protestant views. Whilst the Catholic Mass, as required by law, continued in Elizabeth’s household in the immediate aftermath of her accession, she had ordered that the bread and wine were not be raised in the traditional manner, indicating the moment of transubstantiation. When the officiating priest on Christmas Day, Bishop Oglethorpe of Carlisle, did so, she walked out. Nevertheless, Oglethorpe agreed to perform the coronation.

To form her council and chief advisors, Elizabeth largely selected men with known Protestant sympathies. Heath was replaced as Lord Chancellor by Sir Nicholas Bacon as Lord Keeper (more on the roles here). Amongst the new recruits were some of the more ardent Protestants who had gone into exile under Mary, and returned from Frankfurt and Geneva with a radical religious agenda, such as Sir Francis Knollys and Edmund Grindal, who replaced Bonner as Bishop of London. Exceptions to this, were Sir John Mason, who retained his role as Master of Requests, Sir William Petre, and the Earl of Arundel, the latter two certainly religious conservatives.

The issues that faced the new queen were religion, marriage, and foreign relations. When Parliament opened in January, the first item of business brought forward by the Lord Keeper, as Elizabeth’s representative, was the necessity to make an order for uniformity in religion. This was a clear indication that Elizabeth would not be content with England remaining in the Catholic fold, despite her accession having initially been welcomed by the pope, who, ironically, was displeased with Mary. Already, orders had been issued for elements of the service to be performed in English, more-or-less replicating the state of public religion at the time of Henry VIII’s death.

The House of Commons was favourable to Protestantism, as instituted under Edward VI, but the Lords, which included a largely Catholic nobility, as well as the bishops, was not, preferring the Henrician Catholic, but non-papal settlement. However, the bench of bishops had been seriously depleted by illness, leaving some ten vacancies, which Bacon and Cecil exploited to the full. The Commons sent a bill to the Lords which abolished papal supremacy, vesting it in the Crown, and reinstated the Protestant Prayer Book of 1552, along with harsh penalties for non-conformity. The Lords mauled the bill – ending only with a proposition that Elizabeth might take the title of Head of the Church, but not reinstituting the Protestant service. This bill was modified further, to meet the objection that a woman could not be Supreme Head of the Church, by naming Elizabeth as ‘Governor’. Denying her this title would result, after a third offence, in a conviction for treason.

This still left the form of worship undecided. Most of the queen’s subjects were Catholic in doctrine, but, excepting the bishops, few were committed to papal obedience. Elizabeth herself, unwilling to alienate the Catholic majority in the Lords or amongst the mass of the population, probably leant towards the form of the moderate Book of Common Prayer of 1549 but her Protestant-led council, and her archbishop-elect, Matthew Parker supported the 1552 Prayer Book, with modifications to the sentences surrounding the eucharist, which would allow Catholics to conform to the law without excessive violation of their consciences. Many of the ceremonies and ornaments of the old faith were retained, including clerical vestments. Much to the queen’s personal distaste, clergy were permitted to marry. The bill passed the Commons. It might still have been rejected by the Lords, but an excuse had been found to keep two of the bishops in the Tower, and the bill passed by a majority of three, being enacted as the 1559 Act of Uniformity. This religious settlement, which the radicals hoped was just a staging post, was defended by Elizabeth to her dying day.