Guest article by Pamela A. Marks, PhD
“My Selfe Most Tru”:
Subtext and Survival in Two Early Letters of Elizabeth Tudor
When examining the reign of Elizabeth I, and in particular her path to the throne, the student of literature and its history finds ample evidence that Elizabeth nearly lost her chance at the monarchy. In fact, she was in danger of losing her life during the reign of her half-sister Mary, the sad queen who has come down to us through the centuries as “Bloody Mary.” Elizabeth’s seemingly inborn shrewdness in dealing with people carried the day for her, but her related gift for manipulating words with wonderful agility saved her on many occasions, both political and personal. Though other factors intervened as well, it was Elizabeth’s superb use of rhetoric in her personal correspondence, which did much to redeem her chances at the throne, as well as to save her life. In two crises of her early life, her talent for choosing appropriate words, and using them in concert with her extensive learning and well-developed appreciation for human sensibilities, altered the course of her own destiny and–unquestionably–of history.
An atmosphere of uncertain expectation surrounded the deathbed of Henry VIII. In 1547 the sick and smelly old king, his triumphs and cruelties at last at an end, lay in the center of a whirlwind of intrigue and machination. Henry’s Act of Succession had provided for the appointment of a Lord Protector for his heir, the nine-year-old Edward VI, and that Protector was Edward Seymour, Lord Somerset, Edward’s late mother’s brother. Thomas Seymour, his ambitious and flamboyant other uncle, was thirty-eight at the time. The young king’s half-sister, Elizabeth Tudor, fourteen and living in the household at Chelsea of her stepmother, Catherine Parr, was considered to be of a marriageable age. Seymour formally proposed to marry Elizabeth, but was turned down by the Royal Council. He then began to court Catherine Parr, the Queen Dowager, and after their marriage, moved into her house.
In the ensuing months, until Elizabeth left in the spring of 1548, a relationship developed which cast doubts upon Elizabeth’s chastity, and which has been the subject of gossip and innuendo for 450 years. It began with Seymour’s bursting half-dressed into Elizabeth’s bedroom in the mornings and “striking her upon the buttocks familiarly.”
Further, “[one] bizarre episode appears to have involved Catherine also, when Catherine held Elizabeth while Seymour ‘cut her gown, being black cloth, into a hundred pieces’ (Bassnet, Susan. Elizabeth I: A Feminist Perspective. New York: Berg Publishers Limited, 1988, p.24).
Elizabeth’s beloved servant and guardian, Kat Ashley, was deeply concerned about the propriety of Seymour’s behavior; malicious gossip spread that Seymour was having an affair with Elizabeth and that he planned to marry her after Catherine Parr was dead or put aside. Worst of all were the rumors that Elizabeth was pregnant, and even more repugnant, that a midwife had reportedly attended Elizabeth as she gave birth to Seymour’s child, which was then “miserably destroyed” (Clifford, Henry. The Life of Jane Dormer, Duchess of Feria. Joseph Stevenson. London: Burns and Oates, 1887. pp. 86-87.)
These rumors would seem, in our time, to be self-limiting; after all, if a woman is or is not pregnant, time will tell. But the Tudor concept of womanly honor decreed that a lady be above even the slightest suspicion: “Women preserved their honor not only through chastity, but also by maintaining a reputation for chaste behavior. For a woman to be thought unchaste, even falsely, jeopardized her honor (Levin, Carole. “Power, Politics, and Sexuality: Images of Elizabeth I.” Sixteenth Century Essays and Studies. Gen. Ed. Charles G. Nauert, Jr. Vol. XII. Ann Arbor, Michigan: Edwards Brothers, 1989. p. 101). If this were true for ordinary women, how much more so for a princess of the Blood Royal.
Elizabeth left Catherine Parr’s household in May of 1548. Up to that time, the wife of Thomas Seymour cannot have been comfortable in any sense: she was pregnant for the first time at the age of thirty-five, a dangerous condition in those times; additionally, the presence in the house of a lively and attractive young woman, whose hand in marriage had been sought previously by her husband, must have been galling. Whether Elizabeth’s leaving was a sign of some crisis in the relationship between the two women has been debated often by biographers; “Catherine appears to have believed that Elizabeth was emotionally involved with Seymour, and claimed to have seen her in the arms of a man, possibly Seymour . . .” (Bassnet p. 25; my emphasis).
The following month, Elizabeth wrote a letter of thanks to her stepmother, but contained within it are hints that not all is well between them: ” . . . if your Grace had not a good opinion of me, you would not have offered friendship to me that way at all, meaning the contrary.” She signed herself “Your Highness’ humble daughter.” Her place in Catherine’s household was taken by Lady Jane Grey, Seymour’s niece.
A month after this she wrote a brief, tense letter to Thomas Seymour: “I am a friend not won with trifles, nor lost with the like” (Letter from Elizabeth to Thomas Seymour, July 1548, reprinted in G. B. Harrison, The Letters of Queen Elizabeth. London: Cassell, 1935).
If we are to believe the gossips, we may interpret this to mean that Seymour’s advances were not “trifles,” but possibly held some deep meaning for a girl wise beyond her years. Or we may perceive in these words the rhetoric of a future queen, whose true friendship could someday prove a valuable asset.
In any case, the question is moot, for on September 5, 1548, after having given birth to a daughter, Catherine Parr died of puerperal fever. Thomas Seymour now saw a number of glittering opportunities unveiled before him, all of them guaranteed to place him in ever more powerful positions. He again pressed his suit to marry Elizabeth himself, and began to devise ways to bring about the marriage of Lady Jane Grey to young King Edward.
Elizabeth immediately refused his proposal. Her status as sister to the king meant that any contract of marriage would require formal state approval: anything other than that could be construed as a subversive act. In January 1549, Seymour was arrested, by order of his own brother, Edward Seymour, and charged with treason.
Elizabeth’s household now came under close surveillance. Kat Ashley and Thomas Parry, another long-time servant, were sent to the Tower four days after Seymour. At this time, Sir Robert Tyrwhit, a special Council commissioner, went to Hatfield to question Elizabeth: according to Tyrwhit, Elizabeth was “marvellously abashed, and did “weep tenderly a long time” (Bassnet 26). Despite her tears, she was cool and self-assured. Tyrwhit was surprised at her capacity for rhetorical maneuvering, noting in a letter to the Protector that two governesses ought to be employed to control “this tough-minded teenager who could sulk for days, wear people down with complaints and outclass a skilled interrogator by refusing to be pinned down” (27). She denied any involvement with Thomas Seymour, and she vigorously refused to accuse Kat Ashley of encouraging Seymour’s attentions.
Her aims were specific, and she pressed hard for them: the restoration of her good name, the sullying of which she felt very keenly; and most clearly important to her, the release of her servants from the Tower. To this end she wrote a letter to Edward Seymour, the Lord Protector, ostensibly pleading for mercy for Kat Ashley (Elizabeth’s spelling has been modernized):
To my very good Lord my Lord Protector
My Lord I have a request to make unto your grace which fear has made me omit till this time for two causes, the one because I saw that my request for the rumors which were spread abroad of me took so little place which thing when I considered I thought I should little profit in any other suit, howbeit now I understand that there is a proclamation for them (for the which I give your grace and the rest of the counsel most humble thanks) I am the bolder to speak for another thing. And the other was because paraventure your Lordship, and the rest of the council will think that I favor her evildoing for whom I shall speak for, which is for Katheryn Ashley, that it would please your grace and the rest of the council to be good unto her which thing I do not favor her in any evil (for that I would be sorry to do) but for these considerations which follow the which hope doth teach me in saying that I ought not to doubt but that your grace and the rest of the council will think that I do it for other considerations, first because that she hath been with me a long time, and many years, and hath taken great labor, and pain in bringing me up in learning and honesty, and therefore I ought of very duty speak for her, for Saint Gregory sayeth that we are more bound to them that bringeth us up well than to our parents, for our parents do that which is natural for them, that is bringeth us into the world but our bringers up are a cause to make us live well in it. The second is because I think that whatsoever she hath done in my Lord Admiral’s matter as concerning the marrying of me she did it because knowing him to be one of the counsel she thought he would not go about any such thing without he had the council’s consent thereunto, for I have heard her many times say that she would never have me marry in any place without your Graces and the councils consent. The third cause is because that it shall and doth make men think that I am not clear of the deed myself, but that it is pardoned in me because of my youth, because that she I loved so well is in such a place. Thus hope prevailing more with me than fear hath won the battle, and I have at this time gone forth with it. Which I pray God be taken no other way than it is meant. Written in haste Frome Hatfield this 1 day of March.
Also if I may be so bold not offending I beseech your grace and the rest of the council be good to master Ashley her husband which because he is my kinsman I would be glad he should do well.
Your assured friend to my little power
At the very opening of the letter, Elizabeth salutes the Protector Edward Seymour, Lord Somerset: the brother of the man who is at the bottom of all this trouble. It must be remembered that Somerset held her fate, as well as that of his brother, in his hands. He is addressed three times in the first few lines of her letter in terms suitable for a superior: my very good Lord; My Lord; your grace. This was a common form of address to a man such as the Lord Protector, but it appears that Elizabeth is deliberately reminding him, and often, of his position.
Moving directly to the point, she states that she has not written before because of two things. The first is her previous anxiety that the scurrilous rumors about her and the Lord Admiral would have taken “little place” in the routine of the Council. If this had been true, she says, it would have done her no good to ask for anything else. Now, however, the Council has proclaimed Elizabeth’s innocence; she gives them “humble thanks,” and now feels confident enough to ask for something else. “I am the bolder,” she says; and bold she must be, for the other “cause” she states as her reason for not
writing–and it is a tricky one indeed–is that “your Lordship and the rest of the council” will think that Elizabeth is tarred with the same brush as Kat Ashley: that is, she will be thought to have encouraged the amorous attentions of Thomas Seymour, if indeed the encouragement was a fact.
In a subtextual sense, she is careful to reiterate that there is no agreement among herself, Ashley, and Thomas Parry to tell the same story to all interrogators: a charge that Tyrwhit had made (Bassnet 26). “I do not favor her in any evil,” she says, adding that she would be sorry–either full of sorrow, or, more likely, inferior in worth–to do so. She then notes that she “ought not to doubt” the thought of the Council–good men that you are is the unstated implication–that Elizabeth’s true considerations in asking for Kat Ashley’s release are three in number and wholly innocent in design.
First, Ashley has brought her up from childhood, and because of this, Elizabeth is bound to speak for her. To prove this point, she quotes St. Gregory the Great, who sent St. Augustine to England, and with whose numerous works she would have been familiar: we are more bound to those who take the pains to correctly raise us to adulthood than to our biological parents. By conceiving us, they were only following their natural urges; those who raise us take on a greater responsibility, and must work harder.
Her use of first and second person plural in this passage has a threefold effect: it softens what might otherwise be perceived as a slightly didactic tone which would probably have been unwelcome to these powerful men, coming as it does from a fifteen-year-old girl; it reminds the Council of her already established reputation for wide learning; and it allows the Council members to think of their own bringers-up. Further, in the reference to natural parents, there is an unmistakable, if unspoken, reminder to the Council of her royal lineage. I am innocent, and now stand vindicated of the calumny of
unchastity, she is saying, and I owe this innocence to Kat Ashley.
In her second given reason, her rhetorical survival skills are applied directly to Kat Ashley. Having repeatedly denied to Tyrwhit that Ashley ever encouraged Thomas Seymour’s attentions, she now insinuates that her servant may have said something in his favor. But in any case, Elizabeth says, any encouragement that Ashley may have given to Seymour–or to Elizabeth–was based on Seymour’s position as a Council member. Theoretically, he would never have suggested such a thing to Ashley if he had not had the Council’s consent; and if he did not have its consent, Elizabeth’s subtext suggests, then Seymour himself was the villain, lying and deceiving Elizabeth’s faithful retainer.
Her final reason gives some confusion to the reader, and it is the only place in the letter where Elizabeth’s ironclad logic appears to falter. Elizabeth seems once again to proclaim her innocence in the Seymour affair, and to assure the Council members that she is truly guiltless, not simply proclaimed innocent “because of my youth.” No, she says; it is because “she that I loved so well is in such a place.” This may be yet another device for survival, as she now seems to throw herself upon the mercy of the Council. But not as a feeble and ineffective woman (in the opinions of these 16th century men), for she now regains her rhetorical footing and turns to military metaphors: in her mind, hope for the Council’s mercy has done battle with fear of their power and anger, and hope has won; and Elizabeth, as the unstated field commander of her own spirit, has “gone forth with it.”
“I pray God,” she now says, that this missive not be interpreted in any way other than it is meant: that is, merely as a plea for her servant’s release. She also adds, “Written in haste[,]” possibly as extra insurance that her words not are taken any other way than they are meant; the subtext here may imply that a person bent on some sort of intrigue would take much time with a letter.
As a postscript, she asks for the release of Ashley’s husband, because he is a relative of Elizabeth’s; as family, she “would be glad he should do well.” This short statement, seemingly an afterthought, is interesting for what it does say: Edward Seymour, the Lord Protector, had had his own brother arrested for treason, and less than three weeks after this letter was written, Thomas Seymour was executed.
She signs the letter “Your assured friend to my little power.” It is the same closing that she sent to Thomas Seymour in her short note of the previous July, and one she would use frequently before she came to the safety of the throne (Harrison 8). I do not yet have much control over events, the message seems to say; but when and if I do–if we are friends–I will somehow repay you for your help.
The letter is masterfully composed, yet paradoxical; its subtextual implications neither indict, confess, attack, nor promise. Its surface ambiguity adds to its power, in a rhetorical sense; the reader is able to gain much insight, even now, into the strategies and motivation of the young woman who composed the words. How they then spoke to the members of the Royal Council may only be imagined today, but we do have some measure of the letter’s effect, and by extension that of its writer: Elizabeth’s reputation for chastity was regained and remained intact; she gained further note as an accomplished young academic, and within a few months she was back in prominent favor at court as the devoted “sweet sister Temperance” to her brother Edward. Among the public, her popularity as “a Protestant princess of striking appearance and notable accomplishments” (Johnson, Paul. Elizabeth I: A Study in Power and Intellect. London: Weidenfield & Nicolson, 1974. p. 34) increased at the same time. Perhaps most gratifyingly for Elizabeth, her old servants were soon back in her household. As a young adult, the future queen had survived the first major peril on her tortuous journey to the throne. But more importantly, she had honed her rhetorical skills and strategies to a finer point, and one, which would perhaps save her life.
Elizabeth’s second great crisis bore the potential for consequences much more ominous than the ruination of a young woman’s reputation, but like the earlier situation, it had its roots in the lingering death of a king. In the summer of 1553, the young Edward VI lay in the ghastly throes of end-stage tuberculosis. His half-sister Mary Tudor, the daughter of Katherine of Aragon and Henry VIII, was heir-apparent according to Henry’s Act of Succession. But Mary’s devout and ardent Catholicism was disturbing to the Protestant faction, led by the Duke of Northumberland. This faction altered the
Succession in favor of Northumberland’s daughter-in-law, the sixteen-year-old Lady Jane Grey, who had once taken Elizabeth’s place in Catherine Parr’s household. Elizabeth refused to cooperate with Lady Jane Grey’s supporters, and remained shut up at Hatfield House during Jane’s nine-day reign.
Northumberland’s faction deserted him at last, and he was sent to the Tower. Elizabeth rode out to hail her sister Mary as Queen; whatever their differences, they were both the daughters of Henry VIII. “The only logical move for Elizabeth to make was to offer wholehearted support to the new Queen, regardless of religious differences” (Bassnet 27). Mary had clung to her Catholic faith through some terrible times: she had watched as her father divorced her mother, causing Catherine deep sorrow and suffering, and declared his oldest daughter illegitimate, displacing her in favor of another daughter by her mother’s detested rival. Her faith, never wavering, had seen her through all her trials, and had brought her to the throne of England; therefore, the movement away from Roman Catholicism toward a Protestant state appeared threatening not only to her, but also to the souls of all Englishmen. She felt divinely inspired to bring England back to the true Church, to restore her mother’s good name, to marry a Catholic, and to provide the nation with a Catholic heir: “She seems to have been a serious woman, gentle with those around her, and studious, and it is a bitter irony that she should be remembered across the centuries as ‘Bloody Mary,’ whose mass burnings of those whose souls she wanted to save caused such revulsion that it only fueled resistance instead of crushing it” (28).
After the coronation, relations between the sisters were cordial, but soon Mary began to insist upon Elizabeth’s presence at Mass, as well as a public declaration of her Catholic faith. Elizabeth began to use tactics of avoidance: she weepingly asked for guidance and instruction in the old religion, which she claimed she did not understand; she begged out of attendance at Mass by complaining of headaches.
She was in a difficult position. In the public view, she was the Protestant Princess, next in line to the throne after a sickly woman in her late thirties for whom childbirth might prove fatal; only four years before, her stepmother Catherine Parr had suffered that fate. “To agree to Mary’s demands [that she proclaim adherence to Roman Catholicism] . . . would have meant losing the supportive base which was necessary to her future ambitions; not to agree meant that she ran the risk of being imprisoned or even executed for heresy” (29).
Relations between the sisters deteriorated until none of the ladies at court were allowed to speak to Elizabeth without the Queen’s permission, and at last Elizabeth left the royal household, in early December of 1553, for her house at Ashridge. The suspicion and hostility between the two half-sisters was by now evident to all.
The first uprising against Mary took place a few weeks later, early in 1554. It was led by a group of Protestant noblemen, among them Sir Thomas Wyatt the Younger, son of the poet. The plan was to depose Mary and replace her with Elizabeth, who would then be married to Edward Courtenay, a direct descendant of the Plantagenet King Edward IV. The rebellion was quickly crushed, but the important question for Mary was What, if any, part had Elizabeth played in the conspiracy?
Elizabeth, ill with probable nervous exhaustion, was ordered to return to London. She arrived there on February 22, 1554, and was held at Whitehall. Three weeks later, she was ordered to the Tower.
This was a terrifying turn of events. Elizabeth knew the place as the final stop for traitors on the way to the block. Lady Jane Grey had gone to her pathetic death on Tower Hill only a few weeks before; Elizabeth’s own mother, as well as her cousin Catherine Howard, had spent their last hours here. In this place Thomas Seymour, and later his brother the Lord Protector, had last seen the light of day. Elizabeth sat down to compose the second and most important letter of her young life, taking such time doing it that the tide turned and her boat trip to the Tower had to be moved back to the following day.
The letter reveals her extreme fear and loathing of this potentially deadly situation; her handwriting, once praised by her tutor Roger Ascham, is wavering and scrawled when compared to her earlier letter to Edward Seymour. More to the point is her approach: there is no overt boldness in Elizabeth Tudor’s entreaty to her distrustful sister; rather there is, on the very surface, a cry for justice and mercy from a prisoner who knows only too well the price of even the breath of suspicion. But if her words are not openly bold, her style and approach are; this is a young and vital human being fighting for her life:
If any ever did try this old saying that a king’s word was more than another man’s oath, I most humbly beseech your Majesty to verify it in me and to remember your last promise and my last demand that I be not condemned without answer and due proof which it seems that now I am for that without cause proved I am by your council from you commanded to go unto the tower a place more wonted for a false traitor, than a true subject which though I know I deserve it not, yet in the face of all this realm appears that it is proved which I pray God I may die the shamefullest death that ever any died afore I may mean any such thing, and to this present hour I protest afore God (who shall judge my truth) whatsoever malice shal devise that I never practiced counciled nor consented to anything that might be prejudicial to your person any way or dangerous to the state by any means. And therefore I humbly beseech your majesty to let me answer afore yourself and not suffer me to trust your counselors yea and that afore I go to the tower (if it be possible) if not afor I be further condemned; howbeit I trust assuredly your highness will give me leave to do it afore I go for that thus shamefully I may not be cried out on as now I shall be yea and without cause let conscience move your highness to take some better way with me than to make me be condemned in all means sith afore my desert known. Also I most humbly beseech your highness to pardon this my boldness which innocency procures me to do together with hope of your natural kindness which I trust will not see me cast away without deserving which what it is I would desire no more of God but that you truly knew. Which thing I think and believe you shall never by report know unless by yourself you hear. I have heard in my time of many cast away for want of coming to the presence of their prince and in late days I heard my lord of Somerset say that if his brother had been suffered to speak with him he had never suffered but the persuasions were made to him so great that he was brought in belief that he could not live safely if the admiral lived and that made him give his consent to the death though these persons are not to be compared to your majesty yet I pray God as evil persuasions persuade not one sister against the other and all for that they have heard false report and not hearken to the truth known therefore once again with humbleness of my heart, because I am not suffered to bow the knees of my body I humble crave to speak with your highness which I would not be so bold to desire if I knew not myself as I know myself most true and as for the traitor Wyatt, he might paradventure write me a letter but on my faith I never received any from him and as for the copy of my letter sent to the French king I pray God confound me eternally if ever I sent him word, message, token or letter by any means, and to this my truth I will stand to my death
[diagonal lines drawn to prevent forgery]
I humbly crave but only one word of answer from yourself.
Your highness’ most faithful subject that hath been from the beginning and will be to
Despite the letter’s surface tone of supplication, Elizabeth opens forcefully, addressing Mary, indirectly, in masculine terminology: it must be remembered that Mary was the first female monarch in England in some hundreds of years, and the oblique reference to her as a king may have been meant to be reassuring. Here, also, Elizabeth makes use of a proverb–identifying it as such in order to emphasize the unspoken fact that, therefore, all people must know it to be true–which states that an anointed king is different from common men: his simple word is more valuable than an ordinary man’s sworn oath. Prove this “old saying” to me, Elizabeth “humbly” begs. Further, she makes immediate reference to a previous conversation with her sister, in which Elizabeth clearly required that she not be condemned without full proof, and more important, that she be allowed the right to answer any charges for herself.
But now, she says, it appears that she is being condemned, and that Mary is responsible for this turn of events, having “commanded” the Council to order Elizabeth to the Tower. This approach places Mary on the defensive, as Elizabeth continues without a break, her words pouring out in a torrent: Since I am no traitor, I do not belong there, Elizabeth says, but now everyone in the kingdom will believe I am guilty of conspiracy and treason. She invokes the Deity, praying that she may die the most degrading death in history (drawing and quartering then being the worst she could most likely imagine) if she is lying about any part she may have played in the plot to unseat Mary.
Now, in a smoothly organized transition, Elizabeth moves from the general to the specific. Having attacked the overall charge of conspiracy implicit in her being ordered to the Tower, she now goes on to the particulars, again swearing before God: an oath that the deeply religious Mary would not have considered empty. Regardless of any reports malicious rumormongers may fabricate, Elizabeth assertively states, she has
never participated in, advised upon, or consented to any treasonous activity.
She repeats again the request–“humbly”–to see her sister face to face, rather than to have to confide in Mary’s counselors, who might twist her words to suit their own ends; Elizabeth, herself the possessor of seemingly innate rhetorical finesse, knew only too well the uses to which even an innocently spoken word might be put. And she further requests that this meeting take place before she is sent to the Tower, or if this is not possible–for the boat was now waiting–then certainly before any trial takes place.
Now Elizabeth’s tone is pleading: she trusts in Mary’s sense of royal fairness; she desperately wants to speak with her sister before she goes to the Tower, so that she may avoid being shouted down “shamefully” as a conspirator against the Crown. “Yea,” she adds with emphasis, “and without cause.”
Having addressed Mary’s sense of fairness, she moves to her sister’s conscience. Use some way other than sending me to the Tower, she says, rather than to cause me to be condemned before you even know of what I am accused. In this passage, Elizabeth has subtly shifted the ball to Mary’s court. The Princess is no longer the falsely accused; now the Queen is the false accuser.
Next, Elizabeth moves to an appeal to Mary’s sense of herself as a compassionate and sensible woman, as well as a kind and Christian ruler. She “humbly” begs her sister to pardon her boldness in writing; it is because she is innocent, and fighting for her life. If Mary only knew the truth! But, says Elizabeth, no one but I, your sister, will tell you that truth.
Elizabeth next provides a chilling example of missed chances at communication, tied in a curious way to the letter that she had written to Edward Seymour five years earlier. Again she moves from the general to the specific: Mary must now accompany her sister on a descent into a particularly nasty and nightmarish parallel with their situation: she has heard, Elizabeth says, of many who were “cast away”–a euphemism for a violent end, doubtless by the axe–because they never had the chance to speak personally with the prince who held over them the power of life and death. She then cites the case
of Thomas Seymour, reporting that she personally heard his brother, the Lord Protector, remark that if Thomas had only been allowed to speak with him face to face, he would never have condemned him to death, but that the persuasion of the Protector’s counselors was so great that he finally believed that Thomas Seymour was conspiring to have him assassinated. That persuasion was what caused him to order his own brother to the block.
These people cannot be compared to Mary’s “majesty,” Elizabeth goes on; yet she prays that evil and false gossip fails to turn “one sister against the other,” particularly if the known truth is not heeded. The unstated message, unquestionably and perhaps uncomfortably received by Mary, was that Edward Seymour himself was disgraced and
beheaded a year after he ordered his brother’s execution.
Now Elizabeth moves to the heart of the matter: the “false reports” which are resulting in her journey to the Tower. With “humbleness” of heart, because she is not physically before Mary to bow before her, She “humbly crave[s]”–in the sense of imploring–to speak with Mary; she would not be brave enough to ask this if she did not know herself so well; and she knows herself “most true”–both in the sense of her steadfast faithfulness to Mary, and her self-knowledge. As for the “traitor” Thomas Wyatt the Younger, she goes on: if he ever did write her a conspiratorial letter, she swears on her faith (which meant her immortal soul) that she never received it. Further, any other conspiratorial letter, purportedly written by her to the King of France, was false. She prays that, if she ever sent such a word, message, token or letter, God may “confound” her for all time, and in these words may be the most searing truth of her absolute innocence: confound in its archaic sense–to cause to fail, to defeat, to utterly destroy. To the truth of these words Elizabeth will swear even to her dying breath.
Diagonal lines are drawn across the paper, to prevent any added forgeries. Elizabeth starts from the upper right, beneath the text, where the lines are placed approximately 1/2 inch apart. As she proceeds across the page to the left, the lines become farther apart, until they reach the lower left corner, where she adds a postscript: “I humbly crave but only one word of answer from yourself.” This is not an afterthought: the lines, seeming to move from small steps to leaps, guide the reader to the plea. Then the eye is drawn across the page to the closing, in which Elizabeth describes herself as being her sister’s most faithful subject from “the beginning” and will continue to be “to my end.” It is noteworthy that she does not count her faithfulness to Mary’s sovereignty as commencing from her beginning; given the changes in and disputes over Henry’s Act of Succession, and the two sisters’ precarious hold on legitimacy over the years, that would hardly seem believable to Mary. What this short statement does reveal is that Elizabeth, though sorely pressed for time and in a desperate rhetorical battle for her life, kept her wits about her; though clearly frightened, she does not panic. She deliberately places herself in a position of humility before her powerful sister–she uses the word
humble six times in the letter–which will serve to remind Mary of her own authority, while emphasizing Elizabeth’s submissiveness.
The day after she wrote this letter was Palm Sunday. No reply came back from the Queen; in a raw early spring downpour, Elizabeth was carried by barge down the Thames to the Traitors’ Gate. According to John Foxe, she refused to go in, sitting down in the rain on a dank step. To her jailer, who begged her to come out of the wet, she replied, “Better sit here than in a worse place, for God knoweth, not I, where you will bring me.” She spent two months in the cold and airless Bell Tower, fearful for her life and aware of the ongoing executions of other prisoners on Tower Hill. But according to Susan Bassnet, Elizabeth was safer in the Tower than she could have been anywhere else: “. . . Protestant resistance to Mary’s policies was intensifying. . . . as it became clear to Mary that [Elizabeth’s] execution would [lead] to full-scale rebellion” (30-31).
The immediate impact of Elizabeth’s letter upon Mary will probably never be known, but we do know that on a splendid spring day Elizabeth was sent from the Tower to what amounted to a house arrest at Woodstock. As she departed from London cheering crowds assembled, ringing bells, throwing flowers, and showering her with assurances of the public’s affection and regard for her. Their love and support was rewarded at last on November 17, 1558.
Mary had held out to the end before naming Elizabeth as her successor. But after three and one-half years of coming and going at the court of Mary and her husband, Philip of Spain, falling in and out of favor, holding out against marriage to various princes, and enduring–even at a distance–the defamation of her mother, and by extension her own legitimacy, by her increasingly ill and desperately unhappy half-sister, Elizabeth was Queen of England.
When the news was brought to her at Hatfield, she fell to her knees and declared in Latin, “This is the Lord’s doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes.” This declamation is as intriguing as any of her letters, for again, what is important is that which is left unsaid. The words are from Psalm 118, and preceding them is the metaphorical verse that captures Elizabeth’s very essence: “The stone the builders rejected has become the capstone.”
In even her most desperate or joyful correspondence, she reveals to the reader that she knows herself most truly, and most truly royal. At last, that self-knowledge preserved her for this: her moment of triumph.