Happy Birthday Good Queen Bess!

On this day in history, our heroine Queen Elizabeth I of England was born at Greenwich Palace.

Although her parents were initially disappointed that she was not a longed for son and heir, they celebrated the birth of the little Princess Elizabeth, named after both of her grandmothers, and arranged a lavish christening for her.

Little did they know this little girl would grow up to be one of the finest English monarchs of all the time and that her birth on 7th September would actually change England dramatically.

But what was the background of this incredible woman?

The Beginnings of a Great Queen

If you ask the general public that question they probably don’t know. Some may know that she was the daughter of Anne Boleyn who was executed for treason and adultery, some may know from films and TV programmes that she spent time in the Tower of London, imprisoned by her own half-sister, but Elizabeth’s beginnings are pretty much a mystery to them. So here is a little information on the young Elizabeth.

Elizabeth I was conceived out of wedlock just prior to her parents’ secret marriage in January 1533 but was born a royal princess on 7th September 1533. We all know the story of Anne Boleyn and Henry VIII and how the King’s passion for Anne, a lady-in-waiting to his wife Catherine of Aragon, led to him breaking with Rome, annulling his marriage to Catherine and marrying the “goggle eyed whore”.

Anne Boleyn, Elizabeth’s mother

Not a great beginning for a royal princess. But Elizabeth was wanted and cherished. She may not have been a prince, and her parents were obviously disappointed, but she was lavished with gifts,  and Anne was a good mother to her, insisting on breastfeeding the royal baby herself for a time and spending time choosing pretty clothes and accessories for her daughter.

David Starkey writes of how Elizabeth started her life in a nursery suite at Greenwich, near to her parents, but was then moved to her own house at Hatfield, along with her household headed by Lady Margaret Bryan. A little later, she was moved to Eltham, Henry VIII’s childood home, which must have pleased her mother because it was closer to Greenwich. It does seem that Anne missed Elizabeth and wanted to be far more involved in her upbringing than was usual for a Queen, but then Anne wasn’t your run of the mill Queen, was she? If you don’t know about Anne, read about her at The Anne Boleyn Files.

Fastforward just a couple of years and Elizabeth’s story changes dramatically…

On 19th May 1536, when Elizabeth was just two years and eight months, her mother Anne Boleyn was executed by a French swordsman at the Tower of London. Anne Boleyn was executed for treason and adultery, charges which we now know were “cooked up”. She died an innocent woman.

How did Anne’s death affect her daughter?

Elizabeth was obviously too young to know what was going on but she surely must have noticed her change of treatment. All of a sudden the gifts of pretty new clothes dried up and the little girl was neglected – Henry did not want a reminder of Anne Boleyn. Elizabeth was also bastardised when the King’s marriage to Anne Boleyn was annulled shortly before Anne’s execution. From pampered princess to royal bastard in just over 2 years!

We just do not know the long-term psychological effect of her mother’s execution on Elizabeth. It seems that she rarely, if ever, spoke of her mother, yet she idolised her father, who when she was older did welcome her back to court and delighted in his daughter’s precocious nature. She did not say a bad word against the father who signed her mother’s death warrant, something which we today cannot understand. However, Elizabeth did carry a miniature of her mother in a special locket ring that she wore, along with a miniature of herself, and she was very close to her cousin Katherine Carey, Mary Boleyn’s daughter, giving her an expensive “state” funeral when she died.

One clue to how her mother’s demise may have affected Elizabeth, is a comment that she is said to have made to her friend Robert Dudley after the execution of Catherine Howard: “I will never marry”. This comment must surely have reflected Elizabeth’s feelings on her own mother’s death too. So, did the untimely demises of Anne and Catherine, lead to Elizabeth being “The Virgin Queen” and not allowing any man to have control over her? Perhaps so.

Elizabeth’s illegitimacy must also have affected her, although unlike her half-sister Mary she never took steps to change her status – best to let sleeping dogs lie, rather than remind the world of her mother! To be illegitimate in those days was quite a curse and it must have been something that was constantly thrown in her face by her enemies and also by Mary I, who looked on Elizabeth’s mother as a whore and concubine who usurped her own mother’s place.

Henry VIII
Henry VIII

Elizabeth’s illegitimacy was also a danger to her – Mary Queen of Scots felt that she had a stronger claim to the throne, being the legitimate granddaughter of Henry VIII’s sister Margaret Tudor, and there were many attempts to rise against Elizabeth and to replace her with Mary. But Elizabeth defeated these revolts and was firm in her faith that she was God’s appointed and chosen Queen and also firm in the belief that her father had loved and respected her. Henry VIII had ended his life having a good relationship with his children and his will confirmed Mary and Elizabeth’s places in the succession and gave them both a dowry and an annual income, showing how important their interests were to him. Although he may have been responsible for her mother’s death, he was a great role model as king and ruler, and Elizabeth learned much from him.

I have rambled far too much, but I think that Elizabeth’s background was key to the person and queen that she became. She not only looked like her parents, having her father’s red hair and hooked nose, and her mother’s high cheekbones, pointed chin and long face, she had also inherited their determination, their willingness to embrace change, their intelligence and wit. Like Henry VIII, she must have been a force to be reckoned with, a ruler that was difficult to defy, and her suffering in her childhood and formative years must have made her even more determined to prove herself to the world.

You can find out more about Elizabeth I by browsing through this site and you can also read an article on Elizabeth I trivia over at The Anne Boleyn Files which is dedicated to her mother. Please raise a glass to Elizabeth I today and wish her a happy birthday! Happy Birthday Bess!

4 thoughts on “Happy Birthday Good Queen Bess!

  1. Although she spoke only rarely (that we know of) about her mother, it is clear that she cherished her memory. Perhaps in private there was much more said.
    Because it was politically delicate to open old wounds, Elizabeth chose not to attempt a restoration of her mother’s reputation. Rather, for her it was probably more important to show religious tolerance towards Catholicism as much as was possible to maintain the peace. Another example of how Elizabeth often put the interests of the realm above those of her own feelings.

  2. I’m very interested in reading more about Anne breastfeeding Princess Elizabeth. What source did you find that in? That was just not ever done in those times, for a queen to nurse her baby. I often think that if Catherine had nursed her sons that they might have lived. Of course then there would never have been an Elizabeth!

  3. Hi Rochie,
    I agree, Elizabeth would have been opening a real can of worms if she tried to restore her mother’s reputation, sort out her own legitimacy or get her mother’s body moved to a more fitting and “queenly” resting place. Elizabeth was very sensible.

  4. Hi Ronda,

    David Starkey in his “Six Wives” book talks of Anne’s desire to breastfeed Elizabeth and Henry forbidding her to do so and Alison Weir on p12 of the paperback version of “Elizabeth the Queen” states:
    “She [Anne] was, in the brief time allowed her, a good mother incurring her husband’s displeasure by insisting on breastfeeding Elizabeth herself, which high-born mothers never did, and choosing pretty clothes for the child.”
    I’m not sure of Weir’s source for that particular story but in those days it was expected for a queen to hand their child over to a wet nurse.

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