This article is an edited transcript of Elizabeth I with Helen Castor, available on History Hit TV.
We know Elizabeth I very well – or we think we do. But because we know how everything turns out in her life, we don’t necessarily spend enough time thinking about the human reality of living through it.
In particular, we don’t always think enough about that moment when her mother was killed on the orders of her father before she was three years old. Anne Boleyn was the first anointed queen – if not the first noble woman altogether – to be judicially murdered in England, and so her death was absolutely shocking, absolutely unprecedented.
It ushered in a new kind of politics – the kind that became a bit of a bloodbath – under Henry VIII.
To try to work out what it was like to grow up as all of that was going on can help us to understand the insecurity that Elizabeth lived with.
Not a kind of waking-up-in-the-morning-full-of-self-doubt insecurity. Elizabeth was not full of self doubt.
But she was trying to negotiate a world that was full of threat from her very earliest days.
Was her apparent passivity a deliberate strategy?
And it’s that context within which she developed her fondness for deciding where to stand and then standing still in that position and resisting the attempts of others to make her move. When you consider the wider context, such behaviour becomes very interesting and can be viewed as an active strategy of Elizabeth’s rather than just her being indecisive. On the contrary, she was very decisive.
Some of her early writings and poems give us insight into a very young Elizabeth who was confronted with extraordinary danger. One particular line leaps out in a letter that she wrote to her brother, Edward, the then king, when she was 14; it seems so much an encapsulation of what was already becoming her character, her instinct, her way of dealing with the world. She said something like:
“It is in my nature, as Your Majesty already knows, not to say in words as much as I think in my mind.”
It reveals her sense of guardedness, of opacity – there is such a lot going on inside her head, such a lot of strategic thinking. It also helps us to understand the difficulty that the people around her had in reading what she was thinking and saying and doing.
At the same time, however, although this gives us a sense of how difficult she was to read and why her contemporaries said that the people didn’t know why she was doing what she was doing or how to interpret what she said, at other times it feels as though she was absolutely standing in plain sight, saying exactly what she meant but that no one was listening or, certainly, taking her seriously.
The issue of marriage being a wonderful example of that.
Her father’s legacy
When it came to the reigns of her brother and sister, Elizabeth had to navigate the political situation with very great care. Though she was broadly speaking okay during her brother’s reign, mostly keeping her head down in her books, her father’s actions had left her in a very vulnerable position.
Henry VIII is one of the greatest examples in history of a man who always wanted to have his cake and eat it too.
But that only worked for as long as he was calling the shots – for as long as he was alive, essentially. Indeed, all this approach really did was store up problems for when he was dead.
Saying that both of his daughters were illegitimate, and yet still putting them in the line of succession, meant there were questions to ask that no one was brave enough to ask while he was alive but which, of course, broke out into the open as soon as he wasn’t there.