Elizabeth I: Life Story

Chapter 1: The King's Heir

On 26th August 1533, Anne Boleyn, second wife of Henry VIII, retired to the royal manor of Greenwich for her first childbirth. Henry and Anne were certain that the baby would be a boy, and vindicate their long struggle to have Henry’s first marriage to Katharine of Aragon annulled. The customary letters had been prepared for the queen to send out, announcing the birth of a prince. The protocol surrounding royal childbirth was complex, and, in modern terms, unhealthy. Nevertheless, on 7th September, around three in the afternoon, Anne was safely delivered. As soon as the news was heard, a Te Deum was sung at St Paul’s. Unfortunately, from the perspective of the parents, Anne had borne a daughter, rather than a son. The announcement letters were quickly amended and, since the child was healthy, the disappointment of her sex was quickly overcome – at least for public consumption.

The christening took place three days later. The procession formed up in the Great Hall of the palace, and walked along a carpet of rushes, between tapestry hangings, to the adjacent church of the Friars Observant, also hung with arras. The attendees consisted of the king’s council, the members of his chapel, dressed in their copes, and a panoply of barons, bishops and noblemen as well as the Lord Mayor, the aldermen and forty of the chief citizens of London. The king’s cousin, Henry, Marquis of Exeter, carried a taper of wax; another cousin, the Marquis of Dorset, held the salt and the Earl of Essex bore the gilt basins whilst Anne’s cousin, Lady Mary Howard, daughter of the Duke of Norfolk, carried the chrism. The baby, wrapped in a long mantle of purple velvet, was in the arms of Agnes, Dowager-Duchess of Norfolk, who was to be one of the godmothers, alongside the Marchioness of Dorset. Anne’s father, the Earl of Wiltshire, along with two other nobles, followed Agnes, holding up the velvet train. Four men, including Anne’s brother, Lord Rochford, supported a canopy over the infant. Inside the church, a cloth was draped over the silver christening font, and above it was suspended a canopy of crimson satin, fringed with gold. The ceremony was led by the Bishop of London. Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury, was godfather, and the baby was named Elizabeth – after both of her grandmothers. Immediately after the christening, Elizabeth was confirmed – her godmother for this ceremony being the Marchioness of Exeter. Trumpets were blown and the procession, lit by five hundred torches, returned to the palace.

It being considered unhealthy for small children to be too close to London, a formal nursery establishment was set up for Elizabeth soon after her birth, headed by Margaret, Lady Bryan, who had previously taken charge of Elizabeth’s elder half-sister, Mary, who was now humiliatingly demoted form her rank of de facto Princess of Wales, and forced to live in Elizabeth’s household as an illegitimate daughter of the king. Other household members included Lady Herbert of Troy, and her niece, Blanche Parry, both of whom were to serve Elizabeth for many years. In overall charge of the household was Sir John Shelton, whose wife, Anne, was Elizabeth’s great-aunt. During these early years, Elizabeth spent much of her time at Hatfield, punctuated with visits to Eltham and other royal residences. From time to time, her parents visited her, and they were in close touch over the details of Elizabeth’s life. When Lady Bryan thought the time had come for Elizabeth to be weaned from her wet-nurse, the king was informed and gave the final sanction.

At the time of Elizabeth’s birth, the Church in England was still within the obedience of Rome. Henry, a dedicated amateur theologian, had roundly rejected the doctrines of Luther, but Pope Clement VII’s failure (largely for political reasons) to grant Henry his annulment, coupled with threats that Henry would be excommunicated if he did not abandon Anne and Elizabeth and return to Katharine, precipitated a crisis. Despite Elizabeth not being the desired male heir, Henry was determined that she should be acknowledged as his heir in place of Mary, until, of course, a boy was born. Since this was to fly in face of papal authority, the time had come for Parliament to declare that the power of the pope (or the bishop of Rome, as he was termed in the enabling legislation) was usurped, and that neither the Church nor the people of England owed obedience to anyone other than the king.

Two Acts were passed by Parliament, drafted and steered through largely through the efforts of the king’s new right-hand-men, Thomas Cromwell and Thomas Audley. These were the Act of Supremacy, which separated the English Church from Rome (although it did not make England a Protestant country – traditional Catholic doctrine was not changed at this time) and the Act of Succession. According to the latter, Elizabeth was the true and undoubted heir to the kingdom. The king’s subjects were required to swear an oath to uphold both acts, with failure to do so drawing penalties for treason. Not everyone was prepared to swear the oaths, notable hold-outs being Sir Thomas More and Bishop John Fisher of Rochester.

Rejecting papal authority had the potential for damaging consequences – England might be isolated from its European trading partners, although it is apparent with knowledge we now have from archives of letters that Henry and his government were not privy to, that there was never any serious possibility of Emperor Charles V invading England to reinstate his aunt Katharine or cousin Mary. Nevertheless, Henry sought to encourage François I of France to take a similar independent line with Rome, and put forward proposals for a betrothal between Elizabeth and one of his sons. François sent envoys to inspect her in April 1534, and were impressed by her health and strength – although not that impressed with her as a marriage prospect.