287 Enter Good Queen Bess

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Let me take you to London on a January morning in 1559. It’s cold, and there had been a light dusting of snow, and in January London 1559 let me tell you that means mud and misery. But not today, Zurg, not today. On this day, London was decked out in her finest livery. Preparations had been going on since Christmas for the event to follow, and it was a team effort. So, if you owned a house in certain parts of London you had made careful preparation by placing sand and gravel in front of your house to ease the path of the expected visitors.

And that’s not all; the event organisers would have been round your way with their robes and their serious faces and their notes, probably sent by the printer Richard Grafton, so that by Saturday 14th January the houses along a route through London from the tower of London all the way to the edge of the city were decorated with tapestries and banners and paintings.

London, in short, was preparing for a hooley. All along the streets on both sides were wooden barricades, and on the day behind those barricades London was absolutely rammed, and I mean rammed. London had reached the massive population of 120,000 by this stage, so that our small damp island had a city of truly European proportions at last, and which in comparison made every other English city something of a pimple on the national buttock. All the livery companies had joined the party in hanging out their banners and decking themselves out in their livery robes; a 3 line whip had been exercised centuries before the phrase would be invented so all the Apprentices had been turned out in their best. Though by early afternoon I would imagine that in the finest tradition of London Apprentices, a few beers had been sneaked in, no doubt adding to the carnival atmosphere. Next to them on the barricades an observer tells us, that

‘merchants and artisans of every trade leant in long black gowns lined with hoods of red and black cloth, such as are usually worn by the rectors of universities in Italy, with all their ensigns, banners, and standards, which were innumerable, and made a very fine show’.

And of course, next to, among, and all around them was everyone else. By 2 O’Clock the noise, hubbub and sense of excitement would have been intense and then along the crowd came the ripple of excitement that something had been seen, that she was coming, necks would have been craned tip toes stood on, shouts raised.

The object of all this excitement was a 25 year old woman, moderately tall, red haired and fair skinned. She is sharp, intelligent, speaks multiple languages, and had led a dangerous life so far, but whatever we can say about her what would be evident today was that she had all the charisma of her Dad, and she knew it. One of those that was close to her  said of her

When she smiled it was pure sunshine that everyone did choose to bask in if they could[1]

And so indeed out from the Tower came a vast procession of 1,000 of the greatest and the good dressed in all their finery and accompanied by magnificently dressed servants and companions, and together in a long line they trotted and marched, a glittering cavalcade through the London streets. But in the end they were nubbut the soup before the main course.

The main course came near the end, and finally came the moment everyone was waiting for – for the new queen, Elizabeth, for we are  of course talking of Elizabeth Tudor. She was seated in an open carriage, and dressed to impress in a robe of very rich cloth of gold, a plain crown over a coif made again of cloth of gold. Her hair was loose as befits the unmarried a queen, but laced with jewels. Behind her came Lord Robert Dudley, her master of the horse, who she’d known since childhood. Everyone of course went potty, yelling and cheering and waving.

Now London was used to seeing glorious processions travel through the city, and used to turning out to wave and cheer. Here were special considerations; three let’s say. London was as protestant as any place in England, and had seen more than its fair share of burning and persecution under Mary and Henry. While their new Queen had carefully kept her religious preferences under wraps, there were hopes, and hopes more than fears; rumours that in her private chapel she had withdrawn from the chapel when the host was elevated by her chaplain – which since said  elevation was something of a bugbear for the protestants this was hopeful news. And the burnings had immediately stopped on Mary’s death, and the condemned released from prison. So, there was a thrill of hope that Elizabeth would favour the reformed religion. Secondly, the last time there’d been a major procession it had been for the marriage of their queen to a Spanish king and the procession flooded with foreign merchants and courtiers which had not been popular and which were less of a feature here.

But the third was down to Elizabeth herself, and her apparent genius for connecting with people to her charm, energy and charisma. Normally these events were magnificent displays where the potentate passed and waved, and the people cheered and then went back to whatever they were doing. Actual intereraction was minimal – you went to see the show. This event was different, unique even; this was a conversation. A contemporary report gushed that Elizabeth, on

‘entering the city was of the people received marvelously entirely, as appeared by the assembly, prayers, wishes, welcomings, cries, tender words and all other signs, which argue a wonderful earnest love of most obedient subjects toward their sovereign. And on the other side, her Grace, by holding up her hands and merry countenance to such as stood far off, and most tender and gentle language to those that stood nigh to her Grace, did declare herself no less thankfully to receive her people’s good will than they lovingly offered it unto her to all that wished her Grace well, she gave hearty thanks.’[2]

Here was the queen on the top of her game, not just showing herself to the people, not just doing what needed to be done, but loving every minute of it, and flourishing, joking and laughing with the crowd. As she passed the tower menageries she saw an old man weep and turn his face away. ‘I’m sure these were tears of joy she joked’; Someone cried out from the crowd ‘Remember old king Henry‘  and she was seen to smile broadly. As she passed now some of the poorer women of the city pushed their way through the crowd with nosegays, or branches of rosemary and flowers, and offered them to the young queen, saying ‘God save your Grace’’. So she stopped, and took them; “I thank you with all my heart’ she said before commanding the procession to move on again. It’s not just that this was exceptionally personal, Elizabeth was in control – she would not be hurried by the waiting grandees, she was with her people and they she would let them know that at this moment at least they would come first, and she would match love with love. She’d already shown this quality when first coming into London back in November soon after Queen Mary had died she’d stopped the procession outside the house of the Earl of Northampton and talked to the family hanging out of the window. The Spanish Ambassador Count Feria acidly remarked that she’d only done it because he was a heretic. But he noted too, Elizabeth’s easy command of the situation and all around her.

By now they’d reached Fenchurch Street and amidst the cheering of the crowd came to the first of 5 pageants, telling the story of her descent from the houses of Lancaster and York, with her mother Anne Boleyn proudly and finally rehabilitated, and visualised seated next to Henry VIII. A poem was read out as she passed by the display. But the noise from the cheering was too great. So again she called a halt, and Elizabeth turned back to hear the words again and acknowledge them.

More pageants and displays until they came to Cheapside, the main market for the city of London, broad and wide, with trumpets blowing as they arrived. And there stood the worthies of the city corporation itself with the traditional gift of money – 1,000 marks in gold in this case

‘I thank my Lord Mayor, his brethren, and you all whereas your request is that I should continue your good Lady and Queen, be ye assured that I will be as good unto you as ever queen was to her people.’

On to another display, with a image of time with his scythe. ‘Time’ exclaimed the queen, ‘and it is time that has brought us here’ until she noticed Time’s daughter, Truth who carried a bible, ostentatiously label ‘The word of Truth’. You might remember that the bible in English had made a snarky appearance at one of Mary’s pageants and Stephen Gardiner had made a fuss. Well, there was none of that for Elizabeth, who demanded a bible be brought. Hurriedly queries were made, a bible found and

She…kissed it, and with both her hands held up the same and so laid it on her breast, with great thanks to the city therefore

And so onwards to the last pageant, where her image appeared, rather prophetically as it happens. As the new Deborah, the biblical queen who rescued Israel from the king of Canaan and then ruled for 40 years. Finally, Elizabeth had reached the Temple Bar, from where she’d leave the city, down the Strand and to Westminster. Before she passed through she gave one more declaration to the crowd

Be ye well assured I will stand you good queen.

And a good time was had by all! Since the purpose of this episode was to talk about Elizabeth’s historiography, I suppose I should offer you all an apology, since I have maybe rather over done it, but it’s a lot of fun if you take it as face value; the arrival of a new, popular, vital and charismatic queen who would  be a mother to her people, maybe heal a few wounds.

You may have noticed the ‘if’ in my sentence, there which suggests naughtiness. Because there is something of an ‘if’, on the story of the procession, although the majority of histories are happy to take it at face value. There are three main accounts of the procession that tend to be used; Il Schifanoya was the Venetian Ambassador who wrote a letter to the Castellan of Mantua at the time and gave very detailed accounts of the procession; then there’s a two page entry in the diary of London by a Londoner called Henry Machyn. And then there is a 21 page pamphlet produced probably by a school teacher called Richard Mulcaster. This is the official account as it happens. Now there are some differences, but to be honest the main events, the procession the pageants, the handing over of 1,000 marks all these bits are pretty much corroborated, so that’s great. But the nice little touches – the Queen’s interactions with the crowd all the magic fairy dust stuff – that’s not mentioned by Machin and Il Schifanoya at all. Now you can look at this is two ways; you can say, as most do, that this is because Mulcaster was right there recording stuff, and hey the vast majority of what he says is verified, so fair dos we can trust the lad; or you can say this is a piece of government propaganda, and it never happened. The conclusion you like to take probably depends on the view you take of Elizabeth, but I would say that Elizabeth was capable of any scenarios; she was perfectly capable of playing with the crowd; perfectly capable of preparing a few choice words before the event rather than being all spontaneous – and perfectly capable of encouraging Mulcaster to tell the story that really should have been true. I’ll make one more point; that even if it wasn’t true – the fact that this was the way Elizabeth wanted to be presented is almost as significant, and reaffirms the point that popularity with her people was important to Elizabeth.

All of which is going to lead us into a discussion of how historians have made those interpretations about Elizabeth, the kind of person she was and the events of her reign. But sticking to this particular incident for the moment although it would be very easy to dismiss the record of Elizabeth’s procession as propaganda, there are a few comments about Elizabeth that suggest that well, no actually, you were wrong to be cynical, quite apart from the fact that cynicism makes nobody happy and is one of the most corrosive of attitudes,, although it can minimise disappointment I suppose. Elizabeth might just very well have been this person that fed off the love of a crowd and had a talent for pleasing it, this monarch who had a particular feeling for her people.

So, you might remember the Count of Feria, effectively Philip’s right hand man in England while he was absent, and of course also therefore seated on the right hand of Queen Mary. As soon as the seriousness of Mary’s illness became apparent in 1558, he was off to Elizabeth’s place at Ashbridge like a rat up a drain, hoping to have the same privileges as he had enjoyed with Mary. He was to be firmly disappointed. After his meeting he wrote to Philip

She puts great store by the people and is very confident that they are all on her side, which is certainly true[3]

Then let me take you all the way to a cold and dark December evening in 1588, on the Strand in London. A law student called Geoffrey Goodman wrote about how he and many others, filled with excitement, pride and probably relief at the defeat of the Armada, waited for an hour and a half to see the Queen appear. At last she did so, and the crowd reacted with flag waving delight, and cried ‘God save your Majesty’, and then again ‘God save your majesty’. Both times, Elizabeth responded, the second time saying warmly

‘Ye may well have a greater prince, but ye shall never have a more loving prince’.[4]

Hate it or loathe it, Elizabeth not only had charisma, but did identify strongly with her people. I am not for the moment suggesting there was any egalitarianism about any of this, God forbid, Elizabeth was entirely traditional and if you stepped out of line you would soon know it. Here is one of the many comments told by her Godson and disappointed courtier John Harrington

She would say her state did require her to command that which she knew her people would willingly do from their own love to her [5]

So that’s great, I won’t ask of my people what they don’t want to give. Again, not suggesting that she did not frequently demand plenty that some of her subjects in particular did not want to give, Catholics and Irish in particular, but her people are in her mind and the relationship important. However, Harrington goes on to say

When obedience was lacking as [she] left no doubtings whose daughter she was

So you know, all love and that sort of thing until it came down to her way or no way. My point holds though; Elizabeth did feel she had a special bond with all her people, and it was important to her. And here was a person prepared to break the rules. It’s your choice as to whether or not you believe Mulcaster’s vision of the queen and her people – I choose to believe it.


[1] Guy, J: Tudor England, 1988 p 251

[2] The Quenes Majesties Passage Through The Citie Of London To Westminster The Day Before Her Coronacion, retrieved from Early English Books online

[3] Loades, D: Elizabeth I (2003), p126

[4] Eales, J: How glorious was Gloriana? Elizabeth I and her historians in Teaching History, v.47, no.4, Dec 2013, p.4-11

[5] Doran, S, and Freeman, T Eds: The Myth of Elizabeth (2003), p222




26 thoughts on “287 Enter Good Queen Bess

  1. I just got up, Easter morning, turned the puter on, and found this episode in my feed. Thanks for the Easter gift, David.

  2. A great welcome-back episode. Thanks David! Really looking forward to the Queen Bess historiography episode in 2 weeks. Always like those a lot.

  3. Absolutely wonderful to hear your voice, sir! Hope you’re doing well, give or take whatever’s reasonable.

  4. Great to hear your voice once again David! You have been sorely missed and I hope you are now fully recovered and taking each day on its merits in these challenging times. Trust you and your family stay safe.

  5. It was fantastic to hear your voice again David. I hope you are feeling stronger and your family are all safe.

  6. Wonderful episode, what a great Easter gift, especially welcome during this scary time. I hope you and your family stay safe and well. Looking forward to the historiography episode in 2 weeks, “the Lord willing and the crick don’t rise”.

  7. What a thrill to hear you back in action, David. Best wishes for your continuing good health.
    Looking forward to listening to your Elizabethan commentary.

  8. Wonderful to hear your voice again……even though I seem to listen to your old episodes every other day…..at the sacrifice of the Yes music podcast no less! Please take it easy, don’t push yourself by doing a Boris – we’re all happy to wait. Best wishes!

  9. As good as it was to hear about Bess, it was good to know that you were back in the shed and out from being under the effects of illness

  10. So wonderful to hear your voice again in a new episode, David! I feel like I could hear extra energy and excitement in your voice. I can only imagine that getting behind the mic makes you almost as happy as listening to you makes us.

  11. You’re back! Have resorted to starting from the beginning again – though I must admit, third time around, I am listening as I go to sleep… I promise not to fall asleep to your new episodes!

  12. Hello Mr Crowther,
    I found your podcast a month or two ago and have often considered writing with questions and comments like why did the Anglians get naming rights but I was/am aware that I exist a few years in your past.
    I won’t bore you with detail but I have been through a very difficult time in my life and your podcast has been an island of enjoyment and good mental health during this time. So, thank you.
    I am writing now because i have now, a couple of years late, discovered that you have gone through a bit of a health issue. I retroactively wish you a full and peaceful recovery.
    I have not yet been able to become a member (see above about my life) but thank you thank you and I am saving up to provide a membership to myself as a reward for some sort of good deed in my future.
    All the best to you

    1. Hi Bob, and it is lovely to hear from you. I am glad to have helped, however unwittingly, during your health problems; and I hope, like me, that it feels good when you come out the other other side.

      I don’t know why the Angles got bragging rights on the naming thing – nor why the poor old Jutes lost out so badly!

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