Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Pop History Moment: The Death of Elizabeth I


Her reign - coming as it did after a brief but vicious period of religious tyranny under her aptly nicknamed half-sister Bloody Mary - was greeted by the populace as nothing short of the start of a Golden Age; poets and playwrights sang her praises, and as her procession approached Westminster Abbey on the day of her coronation she met the cheering, exuberant crowds who lined the route with cheering and exuberance of her own. Given those initial high expectations, then, it's almost inevitable that her reign should close on a disappointing note; as exceptional a figure as she was, not even Elizabeth I could live up to that kind of hype.

The defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588 - without a doubt the apogee of the Elizabethan era - had come at a terrific cost; fifteen years later, as the queen who'd so bravely rallied her troops at Tilbury was dying in Richmond Palace the people were still paying for it. At the same time, some of the worst weather of the century had plagued the harvest during her final years. No doubt many of her subjects - still prone to superstition either of the heathen of Christian variety - blamed the queen herself, either for not marrying and providing an heir or for otherwise refusing to clarify the matter of the succession.

Of course, she was right to leave her thoughts on the matter private; given that the idea of a queen regnant - let alone the idea that one could be successful - was still a revolutionary one in much of Europe, she had every reason to believe that upon naming her successor she might find herself rather callously despatched. Having spent her entire reign as the subject of plots and conspiracies to separate her body from her throne (not to mention her life from her body) and having only recently succeeded in putting down a rebellion by the Earl of Essex - a former favourite - she'd come by her paranoia honestly; 45 years as a Queen will do that to a person.

As much for the good of the kingdom as for his own career, it was her secretary of state Robert Cecil who finally took matters into his own hands, conducting secret negotiations with Scotland's King James VI (son of Elizabeth's great rival Mary, Queen of Scots) to provide for a smooth succession when the time came. Having been well-schooled by his father - the great statesman Lord Burghley - in the ways of dealing with the recalcitrance of this particular monarch, Cecil was particularly diplomatic in his persistence; having also picked up a few pointers from the Queen's famous spymaster Sir Francis Walsingham likewise ensured he wouldn't be caught playing both ends against the middle and thus risk execution for treason.

Meanwhile, following the February 1603 death of her friend Catherine Carey, Countess of Nottingham - her once-handsome beauty ravaged by age, a near-fatal bout with smallpox in 1592, and tooth decay - the Queen sank into what was called a 'settled and unremovable melancholy'; for two weeks before she died she either sat propped up against cushions or stood all day, lost in contemplation, seemingly without sleep and taking very little food. Her last recorded words, on the day before her death, were 'I wish not to live any longer, but desire to die,' following which she allowed the Earl of Nottingham to carry her to her bed. When Robert Cecil approached her bedside and persisted in his enquiries concerning James VI she responded by holding her hands above her head in the shape of a crown.

Elizabeth I, who'd once breathed fire at her brother-in-law Philip II and his ill-fated flotilla, breathed her last shortly before 3 AM on this day in 1603, aged 69; she was discovered - still warm - by her attendant Lady Scrope. Although news of the Queen's death met with grief up and down the country, there was also a sense of relief that her moribund reign had come to an end. With the closing of her once-bright eyes, so closed the vivid chapter of English history that was known as the Tudor dynasty, born 117 years earlier with her grandfather Henry VII on the battlefield at Bosworth...
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