This is part three of my series on Elizabeth I and Mary I and the relationship they had as half-sisters. Please read Part1 and Part 2 to find out about their relationship in childhood and in the early years of Mary I’s reign.
Today, I will examine their volatile relationship and how it deteriorated even more with Elizabeth becoming the figurehead of rebellions and uprisings.
Plots and Prison
As I wrote in Part 2, there were many at court who disliked Elizabeth and who openly showed their hostility. Elizabeth became fed up of the hostility towards her at court and the plots and intrigues that she kept being implicated in, so, with Mary’s permission, she left court to go to her own household at Ashridge. She left with Mary’s blessing and Mary even gave her a beautiful sable hood, to keep her warm on her chilly December journey, and two strands of pearls. Was this Mary making an effort with her half-sister? Were these gifts an olive branch? Perhaps so, but things were soon to take a dramtatic turn.
As Tracy Borman points out, it was only natural that Elizabeth was going to be the focus of plots and rebellions, having a claim to the throne, being fully English, rather than half-Spanish like Mary, and being of Protestant persuasion. It wasn’t long (1554) before a group of disillusioned and well-connected men decided to do something about Mary and her imminent marriage to Philip of Spain, which would surely put England under the control of the foreign King. This group of rebels included Sir Thomas Wyatt (the Younger), Sir James Croft, William Thomas, Sir Peter Carew, Sir Edward Rogers, Edward Courtenay and the Duke of Suffolk, Lady Jane Grey’s father. The rebels’ plan was for simultaneous uprisings to take place in Devon, the Midlands, the Welsh Borders and Kent, followed by a march on London. Their hopes were to depose Mary and put Elizabeth on the throne along with Edward Courtenay as her husband.
To cut a long story short, this rebellion, known as Wyatt’s Rebellion, which could have been a real threat to the Queen, having around 3,000 men, was defeated by Mary and the rebels rounded up and dealt with. Around 90 rebels, including Wyatt, were arrested and executed, but what of Elizabeth?
Elizabeth was implicated in this uprising, whether she knew about it or not, and there were many on the Queen’s council who were just waiting for an opportunity to get rid of her. After much persuading from her council, Mary had Elizabeth arrested and taken to Whitehall Palace to await her imprisonment in the Tower of London.
Elizabeth was understandably terrified and actually collapsed from nervous exhaustion when she heard that she was going to be arrested. In terror, she wrote her famous “Tide Letter” (so called because while she was writing it the tide turned so that she could not be taken to the Tower until the next day) to the Queen, pleading her ignorance of the plot and her innocence, and begging for an audience with Mary. Mary did not reply and, instead, had her half-sister thrown into the Tower, the place where Elizabeth’s mother had been imprisoned and executed.
Wyatt’s Rebellion sealed the fate of Lady Jane Grey, who was executed in February 1554 and, as Linda Porter writes:
“The axe had fallen on Lady Jane and now its shadow now hung over Elizabeth herself.”
Elizabeth must surely have thought that she was going to die, just like Lady Jane and her own mother before her. However, there was just no evidence to prove her involvement in the rebellion and Wyatt, even under the pressure of interrogation and probable torture, never claimed that she was involved in any way. Elizabeth herself was interrogated many times at the Tower but she showed the spirit of her late mother, defending herself eloquently and proclaiming her innocence. What I didn’t know until I read Tracy Borman’s book “Elizabeth’s Women” was how close Elizabeth actually came to being executed. Apparently, Master Bridges, the Lieutenant of the Tower, received a warrant for Elizabeth’s execution and this could well have gone ahead if he had not gone to the Queen to question its validity. Mary denied issuing the warrant, which was found to have been issued by Lord Chancellor Gardiner, who was keen to get rid of Elizabeth.
Although Mary knew she had to act against Elizabeth, she couldn’t bring herself to execute her. Whether this was because she knew there would be trouble if she executed an heir to the throne or whether it was because she still loved Elizabeth, we can only speculate, but, whatever the reason, Elizabeth’s life was saved. Elizabeth was spared the axe, or the sword as Elizabeth had decided on,and on May 19th (the anniversary of her mother’s execution) Elizabeth was released from the Tower and placed under house arrest at Woodstock, with only Blanche Parry to comfort her, the rest of her servants having been replaced by ones chosen by Mary’s council.
House arrest and supervision did not prevent Elizabeth from being implicated in further plots, such as Henry Dudley’s in 1555, but again Elizabeth denied all knowledge and wrote to Mary protesting her innocence. Once again, Elizabeth escaped but her good friend and servant Kat Ashley was arrested and taken to the Tower because of “seditious” pamphlets which were found in her belongings. She was later released but was prohibited from being Elizabeth’s governess. Losing the companionship of such a trusted friend, and a woman who had known her since childhood, was a big blow to Elizabeth and we can only imagine the resentment she must have felt towards Mary.
Back at Court
The Venetian ambassador credits Philip of Spain with Elizabeth’s eventual presence back at court and it does seem that he persuaded Mary to invite her half-sister back to court, probably pointing out that Mary would be risking alienating her already unhappy subjects further if she did not reconcile with Elizabeth. Philip’s defence of her half-sister probably made Mary even more jealous of her younger, and more beautiful, half-sister, but she chose to invite Elizabeth to attend her during her confinement at Hampton Court. Borman wonders if her new found “benevolence” was a result of her happiness at her pregnancy or her belief that Elizabeth was less of a threat now that she, Mary, was pregnant with an heir to the throne.
After a year of pregnancy, Mary sadly had to admit to herself and to everyone else that she had suffered from a false pregnancy. This must have been heartbreaking for her, particularly when she was being attended by Elizabeth who was younger, possibly more fertile and who exuded the same sex appeal that Anne Boleyn had. Elizabeth and Philip had also become close during Mary’s confinement because they spent such a lot of time together and we can imagine Mary’s jealousy when Philip asked for Elizabeth to be present when he set sail for the Netherlands. However, the two women did become closer after Philip’s departure and Mary gave Elizabeth permission to leave court and return to her home at Hatfield.
The reconciliation after Philip’s departure seems to have been brief and the sisters’ relationship soon became as volatile as ever with Elizabeth refusing to marry the Catholic Duke of Savoy and upsetting and angering Mary. The fact that Elizabeth’s cousin and good friend Katherine Knollys had to flee abroad with her husband to escape Mary’s religious purges and the threat of being burned at the stake as heretics must have angered Elizabeth but she was sensible enough to control her feelings and always treat Mary with politeness and respect.
In 1558, Mary suffered a second false pregnancy and was humoured by both her council and Elizabeth. After a failed confinement in February 1558, it soon became clear that Mary was actually gravely ill and not pregnant. The realisation that Mary was dying seems to have united the sisters once again, with Elizabeth arranging celebrations and entertainment at Hatfied and then Mary returning the favour by having a beautiful pavilion built for Elizabeth at Richmond, along with lots of wonderful entertainment. It would be nice to think that Mary’s illness and impending death made the sisters put the past behind them, forget their bitterness and resentment, and once again enjoy the affection of their youth. I hope so.
Mary’s last days must have been very lonely. She had been abandoned by her husband, who just did not see the point in returning to England to be with his dying wife, and her courtiers were flocking to Hatfield to try and win Elizabeth’s favour. As much as Mary had been reconciled to Elizabeth, she still found it difficult to think of Anne Boleyn’s daughter being her heir. How she must have struggled with this idea as she lay dying, but she finally named Elizabeth as heir on 8th November. Just over a week later, on the 17th November, Mary I died and Elizabeth I became Queen of England, the third of Henry VIII’s children to become monarch.
Elizabeth’s relationship with Mary had taught her many things, including:-
- How not to rule a country!
- Don’t marry an unpopular foreign king
- Avoid marriage and pregnancy
- Guard your reputation with your life
- Keep in control and do not defer to your council just because they are men
- Do all you can to have the support of your subjects
Mary’s example as queen helped Elizabeth become the successful and popular queen that she became, a queen who is still talked of with awe and affection today.
- “Mary Tudor: The First Queen” by Linda Porter –click here to read my review on this book.
- “Elizabeth’s Women: The Hidden Story of the Virgin Queen” by Tracy Borman