Thursday, 25 March 2010

The Death of Queen Elizabeth

"No oblivion shall ever bury the glory of her name; for her happy and renowned memory shall liveth and shall for ever live in the minds of men."

- William Camden, Elizabethan scholar (1551 - 1623)

On March 24th 1603, after a reign of almost forty-five years, Elizabeth I, Queen of England and Queen of Ireland, died at Richmond Palace at the age of sixty-nine, unmarried, childless, very probably a virgin and certainly one of the most successful rulers in English history. Personally, Elizabeth I is probably one of my favourite historical characters and I find the account of her death from Sir John Nottingham's diary very moving. It isn't quoted very often, so I thought it was worth digging up.

The Queen's decline had begun at the end of February, when she began complaining of insomnia, a dry throat and a heat in her chest. Robert Cecil, her chief minister, attempted to get the Queen to go to bed on March 9th, saying she must do so at once. Elizabeth replied with the (I think) magnificent statement: "Little man, the word 'must' is not used to Princes." Nine days later, the Queen was so ill that she had to be propped-up on cushions on the floor of her audience chamber and finally, on March 21st, she took to her bed of her own free will, to die there, and the Archbishop of Canterbury was summoned.

A few days later, a courtier, Sir John Nottingham (who I mentioned above), would write a very moving account in his diary of Elizabeth's final hours, which he had witnessed personally: -

"She hath been in manner speechless for two days, very pensive and silent; since Shrovetide, sitting sometimes with her eyes fixed upon one object many hours together, yet she always had her perfect sense and memory, and yesterday signified by the lifting of her hand and eyes to Heaven, a sign which Dr. Parry entreated of her, that she believed that Faith which she had caused to be professed, and looked faithfully to be saved by Christ's merits and mercy only, and by no other means. She took great delight in hearing prayers, would often at the name of Jesus lift up her hands and eyes to heaven. She would not hear the Archbishop speak of hope of her longer life, but when he prayed or spoke of Heaven, and those joys, she would hug his hand... It seems she might have lived if she would have used means; but she would not be persuaded, and princes must not be forced."

The Queen slipped quietly away during the night and was succeeded by her third cousin, James VI, King of Scots. James's succession to the throne as King James I of England and Ireland helped lay the foundation of Great Britain, with England, Ireland and Scotland all now ruled by one monarch for the first time in their history.


  1. Did Elizabeth persecute Catholics? Or did she love everyone?

  2. Left to her own devices, she almost certainly wouldn't have, but, yes, her government did persecute English Catholics. For the first 12 years of her reign, there was little that could be called "persecution" by 16th century standards, certainly not compared to what Catholics had undergone during the reign of her brother Edward VI or Protestants under her sister, Mary I. However, Pope Pius V was a fairly militant champion of the Counter-Reformation and when he excommunicated Elizabeth in 1570, he also lifted the ties of obedience English Catholics had to her and basically allowed them to consider murdering her. Now, in the defence of English Catholics, it's worth pointing out that the vast majority of them wished to be left to practise their religion in peace and remained loyal to their Queen, even after 1570. Had it been possible, I think Elizabeth would've liked that too - she once said "There is but one Christ Jesus, all the rest is a dispute over trifles." And, there's her famous declaration that she had no desire to make windows into men's souls. However, after 1570 leaving Catholicism alone, politically, was no longer an option for the English government. Elizabeth was under pressure from an increasingly Puritan Parliament and also hardline Protestants within her own Court, including her chief minister, spymaster and her favourite, the Earl of Leicester. The crisis caused by the presence in England of Elizabeth's heiress-apparent and Catholic cousin, the ex-Queen of Scots, meant that there were also numerous Catholic plots (both real and imagined) to murder Elizabeth and put Mary on the throne in her place, so by the mid-1580s England was basically a powder-keg of sectarian paranoia. Massacres of Protestants in their thousands in France and the spectre of the Inquisition in Spain meant that by 1580 most young English Protestants had gone eight kinds of crazy about Catholicism, equating it with the Devil, more or less.

    The Elizabethan government's treatment of Catholics Sam may therefore be understandable in the historical context, but equally it was also one of the more tragic and bloody parts of Elizabeth's otherwise excellent record as a leader and the fact that the Queen herself undoubtedly wished such measures weren't being taken against her Catholic subjects was probably of little consequence to those who were being torn to pieces by the hangman. I mean, it's absurd when some modern-day Catholics try to make Elizabeth out to be some kind of she-devil for what she did and blithely act as if a Catholic Sovereign would NEVER have done the same thing to Protestant subjects, but like I said after 1570 Catholics generally had a pretty tough time in Elizabeth's England, particularly in the 1580s and it was a tough time the vast majority didn't deserve but endured with great dignity.

  3. Great article and a brilliant answer to the question re Elizabeth "persecuting" Catholics. I too believe that she was genuine when she said that she did not want to open windows into men's souls and that it was circumstances that made her act against the Catholics. She had no choice but to act against Mary Queen of Scots, something that I think haunted her for the rest of her life, and no choice but to act against the Catholic threat to her throne.

    Although I don't attempt to justify Mary I's treatment of the Protestants and Elizabeth's treatment of the Catholics, I think they were doing what they thought was right for their country, for themselves and being true to their beliefs, and acting to stabilise the country and their thrones. I hate that religion was and is used an an excuse for atrocities but I can't see how Elizabeth could have acted differently and had the successful reign she had.

  4. I have just found your blog and have started reading. It is very refreshing to read such a clear eyed view of history that takes it seriously. It has been very tiresome to read in Catholic blogs and other writings how Elizabeth I was "evil" a "murderer" etc while not looking at the politics and other situations of history.

    Just to be clear, I am Anglican and I take history and the truth of it seriously. I look forward to reading more of your posts.


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