Elizabeth I: Life Story

Chapter 4 : Scandal

What Katherine did not know, was that prior to the marriage, Seymour had sounded out the idea of his marrying either of the king’s sisters. Meeting with no encouragement to think along those lines, he turned back to his old love, and persuaded King Edward, by means of bribing Edward’s servants to plant the idea in the young king’s head, that the idea had been his own. Despite this, Katherine lost a great deal of respect. Mary was so disgusted at the slight to her father’s memory that she suggested Elizabeth should make a home with her, but Elizabeth rejected the offer, presumably finding Katherine and Seymour’s company more congenial, especially as the latter was making a determined effort to attract her. Nevertheless, Elizabeth was quite capable of exercising her own judgement. In early 1548, her tutor, Grindal, died unexpectedly. In one of the earliest signs of Elizabeth’s steely will, she opposed Katherine and Seymour’s selection for his replacement, and insisted that Roger Ascham be appointed.

Before long, Seymour was treating Elizabeth in a way that went beyond the teasing of an affectionate stepfather and began to look like sexual advances. Elizabeth, aged fourteen, became embroiled in a dangerous game of flirtation. Mrs Astley tried to intervene, complaining to Katherine that Seymour had entered Elizabeth’s bedchamber before she was up, and tickled her in bed. Katherine refused to see any harm in it and tried to defuse the situation by joining in the romps – even, on one occasion, holding Elizabeth’s arms, whilst Seymour cut off her dress with his dagger. But the matter went too far, and Katherine, now pregnant, came across the two in an embrace. Mindful of her duty towards her charge, Katherine decided that the best solution was to send Elizabeth to the household of Sir Anthony Denny, once a member of Henry’s household, whose wife, Joanna, was probably Katherine Astley’s sister or cousin. Mortified and repentant, Elizabeth wrote to her stepmother, thanking her for her care, and Katherine’s promise to warn her of any rumours about her.

Katherine herself retired to Sudeley Castle, to await the birth of her child. Sadly, after delivering a daughter in August 1548, the dowager queen died, without Elizabeth seeing her again.

Seymour, who had been envious of his brother’s, the Duke of Somerset’s, power as Lord Protector, began plotting against him, and wrote to Elizabeth’s household officers, suggesting they should influence her to marry him. Whatever her private feelings, Elizabeth was too astute to commit herself, being careful to do nothing that could savour of treason. Before long, Seymour's reckless behaviour resulted in his execution for treason. Katherine Astley, and Elizabeth’s cofferer, Sir Thomas Parry, were sent to the Tower and Elizabeth was closely questioned, amidst rumours that she was pregnant by Seymour. She indignantly refuted every accusation, and even wrote to Somerset demanding that she be be allowed to attend court to show that she was not pregnant by Seymour. She also requested that her servants be freed, making the argument that holding them in the Tower implied her guilt. Eventually, Astley and Parry were released.

For the remainder of Edward’s reign, keen to play down the Seymour scandal, Elizabeth presented herself as the ideal Protestant virgin – plainly dressed, carrying a prayer-book, spending her time at her studies, and embracing the religious changes introduced between 1549 and 1553, which turned English official worship from Catholic to Protestant. Her guide in this was her tutor, Ascham. He instituted a regime of study that Elizabeth thrived under. Mornings were devoted to Greek - the New Testament, Demosthenes, Isocrates and Sophocles. In the afternoons, it was religious instruction. The Bible again, together with the Church Fathers and, what would have been forbidden in Henry’s day, the writings of Luther’s fellow Reformer, Philip Melanchthon. In many ways Elizabeth’s own position on religion can be seen as influenced by Melanchthon – the dislike of arguments about peripheral matters, the desire to find common ground between conservatives and reformers, but ultimately adherence to the doctrine of justification by grace by faith alone that was at the core of Luther’s teachings. She appears (so far as can be ascertained, given that she never made a public pronouncement on it) to have agreed with Melanchthon in rejecting the doctrine of transubstantiation, the cornerstone of Catholicism which Luther himself never questioned.

As well as languages, Elizabeth studied the courtly arts of music, playing the virginals well, and dancing, at which she excelled. She also had beautiful handwriting, in the fashionable italic style. Her later prose style sounds to modern ears, unnatural, heavy, over-ornate and pedantic, with her letters so convoluted that it can be hard to ascertain their meaning, but it reflects the taste for ornate writing favoured at the time.

It is unclear how long Elizabeth spent under the watchful eye of the Dennys, but by the end of 1549, it appears she was head of her own household, largely based at Hatfield. Ascham had departed, but she continued her regime of study. That December, she was welcomed at her brother’s court.

1549 had been a year of turmoil – the Prayer Book Rebellion in the West, and Kett’s Rebellion in the East had fatally undermined the authority of the Lord Protector, Somerset. There was a new power in the land – John Dudley, Earl of Warwick, and soon to be Duke of Northumberland. Elizabeth knew the Dudleys. Northumberland’s wife, Jane, had been one of the circle around Katherine Parr, his son, Robert, was one of the boys being who had shared the schoolroom with the king and Elizabeth herself in the early 1540s, as had Henry Sidney, who was soon to be married to Robert’s sister, Mary Dudley. Northumberland’s close associate, William Parr, Marquis of Northampton, was also well-known to her – as the brother of Katherine Parr, Elizabeth looked on him as her uncle. Of less exalted status, but smoothly slipping from Somerset’s affinity to Northumberland’s, was Sir William Cecil.

In 1552, the Protestant Reformation advanced further, with the institution of a new Book of Common Prayer. Developed under the auspices of Archbishop Cranmer, it was more clearly a Protestant work than its 1549 predecessor, that had varied little from the Catholic liturgy, other than being in English. This 1552 work clearly denied the doctrine of transubstantiation. Elizabeth does not appear to have had any qualms about accepting it in her chapel, unlike her half-sister, who resolutely refused to worship in any way other than as prescribed by the laws of Henry VIII.

At the time, the 1552 book was criticised by more radical Reformers than Cranmer, including by John Knox, exiled from Scotland, and appointed as one of Edward’s chaplains.