Elizabeth “Bess” Throckmorton was born the 16th of April 1565, to Sir Nicholas Throckmorton and Anne Carew. Nicholas Throckmorton was a diplomat and politician during the reign of Queen Elizabeth and was instrumental in the relationship between Elizabeth and her cousin Mary, Queen of Scots. He had befriended both queens, which must have put him in several awkward situations. One of those situations happened in 1565, when Queen Elizabeth sent Throckmorton to Scotland (as an ambassador) to stop the marriage of the Scottish Queen to Henry Stuart, Lord Darnely. As many of you know – he failed at his cause.
In February 1571, when Bess was nearly six years old her father passed away.
We have lost on Monday our good friend Sir Nicholas Throckmorton, who died in my house, being there taken suddenly in great extremity on Tuesday before; his lungs were perished, but a sudden cold he had taken was the cause of his sudden death. God hath his soul, and we his friends great loss of his body.
In 1584, at the age of 19, Bess went to court and became a lady-in-waiting to Queen Elizabeth. Eventually she became Gentlewoman of the Privy Chamber. She was responsible for dressing the Queen. A very intimate job, indeed.
Bess and her younger brother, Arthur were both courtiers during the reign of Queen Elizabeth. Bess was described by her contemporaries as ” intelligent, forthright, passionate, and courageous”.
After six years at court (roughly 25 years old) the still single Bess met Walter Raleigh who was quickly becoming one of the Queen Elizabeth’s favorites. As a lady to the Queen it was necessary to get permission to be courted. The Queen must give her approval of any man wishing to court one of her ladies as they were supposed to be seen as extremely virtuous women. Bess Throckmorton and Walter Raleigh had a secret and intimate relationship without the permission of the Queen.
Sir Walter Raleigh
By July 1591, Bess Throckmorton was pregnant – she secretly wed the father of her child, Sir Walter Raleigh. Bess understood the seriousness of getting married without permission from Elizabeth, but what was she supposed to do? She was pregnant with the child of the man she loved. She most certainly would have been aware of Elizabeth’s reaction to her secretly marrying one of her court favorites. As we’ve learned in the past (ex. Lettice Knollys and Robert Dudley) Elizabeth did not handle these situation well. Bess must have been aware of this. She left court to stay at her brother Arthur’s home in London and gave birth to a son there in March 1592 – he was named, Damerei.
Damerei Raleigh was baptized on 10th April 1592, with Robert Devereux, earl of Essex, Bess’ brother Arthur Throckmorton, and his wife, Anna Lucas as godparents. Damerei was then sent to Enfield to a Throckmorton relative while Elizabeth returned to court on the 12th April. (Source: Family Search – Elizabeth Throckmorton)
Not long after her return to court Bess’ marriage to Sir Walter Raleigh and the birth of their child was discovered by Queen Elizabeth. They were both thrown into the Tower of London. In October 1592, young Damerei died from the plague. After the death of their son the Queen chose to release the couple. Queen Elizabeth never forgave Bess for her betrayal and Raleigh was ordered not to be seen at court for one year. Bess never returned to favor. This is a similar tale to the one we heard about Lettice Knollys. She also never returned into the favor of her dear cousin, the Queen. It appears that a woman who was closest to the Queen must not fall for anyone the Queen dearly loved, or she would lose the love of her Queen.
The couple remained devoted to each other, although, according to Weir, Bess proved to be a domineering wife. Anna Beer, Lady Raleigh’s biographer, offers a different perspective, pointing out that due to Raleigh’s frequent absences, whether on expeditions, diplomatic duties, or in prison, Bess had to shoulder an unusual level of responsibility for a woman of her time. (Wikipedia: Elizabeth Raleigh)
In 1593, Throckmorton and Raleigh had another son, this one they named Walter. In 1605, Bess gave birth to another son named, Carew – after her mother’s side of the family. At the time when Bess gave birth to their son Walter Raleigh was in the Tower of London. After the ascension of King James I of England/James VI of Scotland, Raleigh’s enemies had found a way to convince the King that he was a threat and that is the reason he was imprisoned.
After many appeals by Bess, her husband was executed on the 29th of October 1618. Bess is said to have kept her husband’s embalmed head with her until the day she died. At which point it was reunited with its body.
It was mid-morning on Palm Sunday in the year of Our Lord 1554. A young woman of 20 sat in a barge at the Watergate of the Tower of London. Under this dark, forbidding, stone portal so many had passed to end their lives on Tower Green at the executioner’s block. Her own mother had made the same journey some 18 years before. At first she refused to alight on the landing-stage but was informed by the Marquess of Winchester that she had no choice in the matter. As she stepped ashore she stated, “Here landeth a subject, being a prisoner, as ever landed at these stairs, and before Thee, O God, I speak it, having none other friend but Thee alone.” She turned to the assembled Tower Wardens and said, “O Lord, I never thought to have come in here a prisoner, and I pray you all, good friends and fellows, bear me witness that I come in no traitor, but as true a woman to the Queen’s majesty as any is now living; and thereon will I take my death.” Some of the Wardens broke rank and knelt before her saying, “God preserve your Grace!”
The evening before, Princess Elizabeth had managed to delay her journey down the Thames by writing to her sister, Queen Mary. By the time she had completed the letter the tide had risen to a height that made it impossible to go under London Bridge. She was pleading for her life.
The previous year had seen the death of her Protestant half-brother, Edward VI and Mary’s accession to the throne. Being half Spanish and the first female ruler of England, Mary turned for advice and support to Charles V, King of Spain and Holy Roman Emperor. She had received the Emperor’s ambassador, Simon Renard, and installed him as one of her closest advisors. Charles proposed a match between Mary and his recently widowed son, Philip. This would bring England into the orbit of Spain and sink any prospect of an alliance with France. The marriage was very attractive to Mary as it provided her with a partner in the burden of rule and the hope of producing a Catholic heir to the throne. The visage of Spanish rule in England was far from popular with its people.
As a Catholic monarch, Mary re-established the Catholic Mass at Court. Conscious of her unwelcome position as a figurehead for Protestant hopes, and therefore the danger of her situation, Elizabeth complied with her sister’s wish that she attend Mass. Renard was skeptical of Elizabeth’s sudden change in religious sentiment and urged that she be confined to the Tower. Parliament was persuaded to reverse the statute that made Mary illegitimate (passed at the time of Henry VIII’s divorce from her mother). Although, by law, Elizabeth was also illegitimate, she was, by statute, next in succession to the throne should Mary die childless. Mary was tempted to have the line of succession changed to exclude Elizabeth but Sir William Paget advised her that Parliament would refuse. The House was relatively compliant, but not that compliant. The only other legitimate candidate to take Elizabeth’s place would be Mary, the child Queen of Scots. Spain was whole-heartedly against such a move as the child was betrothed to the heir of the French throne. Mary was stuck with Elizabeth, the only alternatives being the production of an heir or Elizabeth’s death.
Elizabeth was staying at Ashridge at the time. Mary ordered her to Court, presumably to keep a closer eye on her. Elizabeth replied on about the 23 January 1554 declaring ill-health as excuse not to attend. Two days later Sir Thomas Wyatt, with a small force from Kent, raised rebellion against the Spanish marriage. The London militia were sent to oppose them but promptly joined the rebels, taking Southwick on the south bank of the Thames. London Bridge was closed and Wyatt’s men were forced to march to Richmond Bridge to cross the river; by which time a force, loyal to Mary, had been organised and the rebels were easily defeated. It was this action that so endangered Elizabeth’s life for Wyatt had intended to place her on the throne. The prejudice against Elizabeth made it impossible, in the eyes of Mary’s councillors, for her not to have had knowledge of the plot. Despite Wyatt’s denial that she was innocent of any involvement, Mary was determined to bring her sister to book. She sent physicians to Ashridge to ascertain Elizabeth’s state of health. She had indeed been ill, her body all swollen – a complaint she suffered throughout her life at times of extreme stress. Despite her condition, Elizabeth was brought to London by litter and lodged at Whitehall behind guarded doors. Her household and anyone connected with her were examined in an effort to incriminate her. Elizabeth, herself, was interrogated by the Council and Bishop Gardiner encouraged her to place herself at the mercy of Queen Mary and ask for pardon. She replied that to do so would be a confession of crime – let them prove her guilty, then she would seek a pardon! No direct link could be established between her and Wyatt, or none that stood up to close scrutiny. Despite a lack of firm evidence both Mary and Renard were convinced of her complicity. The Queen felt she had no alternative but to confine her sister to the Tower.
Elizabeth’s incarceration failed to alleviate Mary’s problems. London, ever the Protestant city, began to voice its protest in favour of their martyred Princess. There is the strange story of the “Spirit in the Wall.” Thousands flocked to a particular wall where they cried “God save Queen Mary,” to which it replied nothing. They then cried, “God save the Lady Elizabeth,” to which it said in reply, “So be it.” When Parliament met on 3 April, the streets were strewn with handbills and pamphlets in support of Elizabeth. Three days later Wyatt was executed, protesting Elizabeth’s innocence from the gallows. On 17 April a London jury acquitted Sir Nicholas Throckmorton, an associate of Wyatt’s, of treason and on the same day, Wyatt’s head was stolen from the gallows on which it had been staked. A few days later a paper was discovered in the Queen’s kitchen threatening both Mary and Bishop Gardiner, and stating that Philip of Spain must look to his life when he landed in England for the proposed marriage.
Mary was at her wit’s end. She could not keep her sister locked in the Tower indefinitely nor could she set her free. The only course of action was to place her under house arrest outside London. It was decided to keep her at the royal manor of Woodstock under the custodianship of Sir Henry Bedingfield. On Saturday, May 19, after two months imprisonment in the Tower, Elizabeth left by boat for Richmond and her journey north. As she traveled under escort, crowds gathered to cry, “God save your Grace.” Cakes and tokens of affection and support were handed to her and at Wheatley and Stanton St. John the whole village turned out to cheer her.
Woodstock was well guarded and no one had access to her without the express permission of Bedingfield. Elizabeth’s servant, Thomas Parry, was given the duties of feeding and paying the household staff, though he was not permitted to stay in the house. He established himself at the Bull Inn at Woodstock and the place became a miniature Court – adding to Bedingfield’s problems. Sir Henry, a conscientious though slow-witted man, found his duties a great burden. He eventually found it safer to refer all matters to the Council; even to the extent of what books Elizabeth should be allowed to read.
Philip of Spain landed at Southampton in July 1554 and he and Mary were married at Winchester five days later. With the new king came a vast retinue. One Londoner noted, “At this time there was so many Spaniards in London that a man should have met in the streets for one Englishman above four Spaniards, to the great discomfort of the English nation.” Tempers were short and affrays frequent and there was even a rumour that the archbishopric of Canterbury was to be given to a Spanish friar.
With the Queen and her new King established in London, the full force of a counter-reformation began. Heresy laws were passed and the stake and faggots were soon in use. This holocaust of religious fervour soon brought the Queen the epithet “bloody” and even disgusted the Imperial, Venetian and French ambassadors – Catholics all.
November saw the return of Mary’s religious mentor, Cardinal Reginald Pole, and she took the opportunity to announce her pregnancy. All was going in Mary’s favour – a husband, the hoped for Catholic heir and a compliant Council to reinstate the True Faith. She felt safe enough to allow her sister to be moved to Hampton Court. The two of them met, Elizabeth protesting her innocence, Mary ever suspicious.
Months passed and the time came for Mary to give birth. At one point rumours circulated in London that the child had been born and the church bells were set ringing. April became May, and May, June and still nothing happened. The “pregnancy” became a sick joke. The Polish ambassador arrived in London, complete with a speech of congratulations on the new child. Unfortunately nobody warned him and he read the speech out at Court, adding to the comic farce. At the end of August 1555 Mary and Philip traveled down river to Greenwich, Mary’s favourite palace. In early September Philip left England for Flanders on Spanish affairs.
In the meantime, Elizabeth had also been moved to Greenwich. She was now in a much stronger position. With Mary’s phantom pregnancy and the religious persecution, Elizabeth’s enemies knew of her popularity. Her greatest danger now was being married off to serve Spanish interests. In October Mary returned to London for a meeting of Parliament and Elizabeth moved her household to her manor at Hatfield.
In the course of the winter Elizabeth had to face a new danger. A party was founded in the House of Commons to resist all Catholic legislation. The Council placed a bill before Parliament against Protestant refugees abroad.
The Protestant hot-heads, who met at an eating-house in London called Arundel’s, managed to gain the keys to the House, locked the Catholic supporters of the bill out, forced a vote and defeated the measure. A number of Elizabeth’s servants and supporters were arrested and placed in the Tower but no evidence was found to connect her to the action and no charges were brought. For three months Elizabeth was kept under house arrest in the congenial care of Sir Thomas Pope. Sir Thomas was the opposite of Bedingfield in that he was a man of intelligence and wit and the founder of Trinity College, Oxford. Elizabeth and Sir Thomas, prisoner and jailer, became friends and passed the time discussing plans for the development of the college.
Mary longed for the return of her husband for her biological clock was in overdrive and hopes of an heir were fast disappearing. Philip was in no hurry to occupy the bed of his prematurely aged wife.
By the spring of 1557 Elizabeth was released from restriction and visited her sister at Whitehall. The two women seem to have declared a truce and there was a brief period of reconciliation. Meanwhile Elizabeth’s greatest fear was being realised. Philip was actively trying to find her a husband. The prime candidate was his kinsman, Emmanuel Philibert, heir to the Duke of Savoy. Elizabeth refused. Others were suggested and all refused. There was even a proposal that she marry Philip’s 11-year-old son, Don Carlos.
In March 1557, after an absence of nineteen months, Philip returned to his wife. He stayed long enough to get England involved in a war with France that ended with the loss of Calais.
The beginning of 1558 saw Mary failing in health, probably from cancer of the ovaries. Once more she thought herself pregnant, but it was wishful thinking. By the end of the summer her time was fast running out. The country was divided over religion, the treasury was empty and England’s only overseas possession had been lost. At Hatfield Elizabeth was quietly building her own Court. Men of skill and intellect gravitated to her, among them a man of thirty-eight named Sir William Cecil. He was to prove her anchor through much of her reign – a true servant of his beloved Queen.
On November 6th Mary bowed to the inevitable and recognised Elizabeth as her successor. At seven in the morning on 17 November Queen Mary died, with few tears shed at her passing..
According to tradition, Elizabeth was at Hatfield, walking in the park. The members of the Privy Council found her sitting under an oak tree. They knelt on the grass before her and presented her with Mary’s coronation ring. She cast her eyes to heaven and spoke the words, “A domino factum est et mirabile in oculis nostris” (“God has done it and it is marvelous in our eyes.”). Thus the reign of Gloriana began.
Elizabeth became Queen of an impoverished, divided minor kingdom on the northern edge of Europe; she left it, forty-five years later, a world power and on the edge of greatness!
About the Author:
I am Alan Freer and live in the small village of Byfleet, Surrey, England. Edward, the Black Prince, spent much of his final years in Byfleet. I have been an amateur “historian” since the age of seven, when I purchased my first history book in 1955. Indeed, it was anticipated that I would become a history teacher, but a brief conversation just before I was due to go to university directed me to the banking industry – more lucrative but, perhaps, not so satisfying! History lead me into genealogy and I have my own website detailing the Descendents of William the Conqueror (www.william1.co.uk ). A never-ending project! When I retired from the bank in 1999 I started to write and have had a number of articles published in US history magazines or on magazine websites. Primarily I wrote for the amusement of my colleagues in my second occupation as a civil servant. I count myself most fortunate to have been born in England and would not wish it otherwise – except, possibly, Italy!!