Many volumes have been written about the long reign of Elizabeth I. Now, for the first time, comes a brilliant new work that focuses on the critical year her reign ended, a time in which England lost its childless queen and a Machiavellian struggle ensued to find her successor.
December 1602. After forty-four years on the throne, Queen Elizabeth is in decline. The formidable ruler whose motto is Semper eadem (I never change) has become a dithering old woman, missing teeth and wearing makeup half an inch thick. The kingdom has been weakened by the cost of war with Spain and the simmering discontent of both the rich and the poor. The stage has been set, at long last, for succession. But the Queen who famously never married has no heir.
Elizabeth’s senior relative is James VI of Scotland, Protestant son of Elizabeth’s cousin Mary Queen of Scots. But as a foreigner and a Stuart, he is excluded from the throne under English law. The road to and beyond his coronation will be filled with conspiracy and duplicity, personal betrayals and political upheavals.
Bringing history to thrilling life, Leanda de Lisle captures the time, place, and players as never before. As the Queen nears the end, we witness the scheming of her courtiers for the candidates of their choice; blood-soaked infighting among the Catholic clergy as they struggle to survive in the face of persecution; the widespread fear that civil war, invasion, or revolution will follow the monarch’s death; and the signs, portents, and ghosts that seem to mark her end.
Here, too, are the surprising and, to some, dismaying results of James’s ascension: his continuation of Elizabeth’s persecution of Catholics, his desire to unite his two kingdoms into a new country called Britain, and the painful contrast between the pomp and finery of Elizabeth’s court and the begrimed quality of his own.
Around the old queen and the new king, swirl a cast of unforgettable characters, including Arbella Stuart, James’s ambitious and lonely first cousin; his childish, spoiled rival for power, Sir Walter Raleigh, who plotted to overthrow the king; and Sir John Harrington, Elizabeth’s wily godson, who switched his loyalties to James long before the queen’s death.
Courtesy of Leanda de Lisle’s keenly modern view of this tumultuous time, we are given intimate insights into of political power plays and psychological portraits relevant to our own era. After Elizabeth is a unique look at a pivotal year–and a dazzling debut for an exciting new historian.
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Leanda de Lisle earned a master’s degree in history at Oxford University before embarking on a highly successful career as a journalist and writer. After having three sons, she went on to graduate school and received a master’s degree in business administration. She has since held positions as the first columnist for Country Life magazine and as a columnist for The Spectator magazine and The Guardian newspaper. She returned to her first love, history, to write After Elizabeth, her debut book.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
“The World Waxed Old”
The Twilight of the Tudor Dynasty
Sir John Harington arrived at Whitehall in December 1602 in time for the twelve-day Christmas celebrations at court. The coming winter season was expected to be a dull one, though the new Comptroller of the Household, Sir Edward Wotton, was trying his best to inject fresh life into it. Dressed from head to toe in white, he had laid on dances, bear baiting, plays and gambling. The Secretary of State, Sir Robert Cecil, lost up to £800 a night—an astonishing sum, even for one who, according to popular verse, ruled “court and crown.” Behind the scenes, however, courtiers gambled for still higher stakes. Harington observed that Elizabeth I, the last of the Tudors, was sixty-nine and although she appeared in sound health, “age itself is a sickness.” She could not live forever, and after her reign of forty-four years the country was on the eve of change.
To Elizabeth, Harington was “that witty fellow my godson.” Courtiers knew him for his invention of the water closet, his translations of classical works, his scurrilous writings on court figures and his mastery of the epigram, which was then the fashionable medium for comment on court life. In the competition for Elizabeth’s favor, however, courtiers were expected to reflect her greatness not only in learning and wit but also in their visual magnificence. They did so by dressing in clothes “more sumptuous than the proudest Persian.” A miniature depicts Harington as a smiling man in a cut silk doublet and ruff, his long hair brushed back to show off a jeweled earring that hangs to his shoulder. Even a courtier’s plainest suits were worn with beaver hats and the finest linen shirts, gilded daggers and swords, silk garters and show roses, silk stockings and cloaks.
This brilliant world was a small one, though riven by scheming and distrust. “Those who live in courts, must mark what they say,” one of Harington’s epigrams warned. “Who lives for ease had better live away.” Harington, typically, knew everyone at Whitehall that Christmas, either directly or through friends and relations. Elizabeth herself was particularly close to the grandchildren of her aunt Mary Boleyn, a group known enviously as “the tribe of Dan.” The eldest, Lord Hunsdon, was the Lord Chamberlain, responsible for the conduct of the court. His sisters, the Countess of Nottingham and Lady Scrope, were Elizabeth’s most favored Ladies of the Privy Chamber. But Harington also had royal connections, albeit at one remove. His estate at Kelston in Somerset had been granted to his father’s first wife, Ethelreda, an illegitimate daughter of Henry VIII. When Ethelreda died childless the land had passed to John Harington senior. He remained loyal to Elizabeth when she was imprisoned following a Protestant-backed revolt against her Catholic sister Mary I, named after one of its leaders as Wyatt’s revolt, and when Elizabeth became Queen she rewarded him with office and fortune, making his second wife, Harington’s mother, Isabella Markham, a Lady of the Privy Chamber. It was the hope of acquiring such wealth and honor that was the chief attraction of the court.
Harington once described the court as “ambition’s puffball”—a toadstool that fed on vanity and greed—but it was one that had been carefully cultivated by the Tudor monarchy. With no standing army or paid bureaucracy to enforce their will, the monarchy had to rely on persuasion. They used Arthurian mythology and courtly displays to capture hearts, while patronage appealed to the more down-to-earth instincts of personal ambition. Elizabeth could grant her powerful subjects the prestige that came with titles and orders, and the influence conferred by office in the Church, the military, the administration of government and the law; there were also posts at court or in the royal household. She could bestow wealth with leases on royal lands and palaces, offer special trading licenses and monopolies or bequeath the ownership of estates confiscated from traitors.Those who gained most from Elizabeth’s patronage were themselves patrons, acting as conduits for the Queen’s munificence.
Harington and his friends worked hard to ingratiate themselves with the great men at court, often spending years, as he complained, in “grinning scoff, watching nights and fawning days.”When a great patron fell from grace a decade of personal and financial investment could be lost. The precise standing of all senior courtiers was therefore tracked and discussed by gossips and intelligencers. Every tiny fluctuation in their fortunes stoked what one observer described as “the court fever of hope and fear that continuously torments those that depend upon great men and their promises.” The “fever” reached a pitch when the health of the monarch was a cause for concern since her death could mean a complete revolution in government.
Harington arrived at court having completed, on 18 December, his Tract on the Succession to the Crown—a subject on which the pulse of the nation was now said to “beat extremely” but which was strictly forbidden. As Harington had recorded in his tract, Elizabeth had “utterly suppressed the talk of an heir apparent” in the year of his birth, 1561, “saying she would not have her winding sheet set up before her face.” Her concern, he explained, was “that if she should allow and permit men to examine, discuss and publish whose was the best title after her, some would be ready to affirm that title to be good afore hers.”
Forty years earlier there had been those who had claimed that Elizabeth’s Catholic cousin, Mary, Queen of Scots, had a superior claim to the English throne; others asserted that it belonged to her Protestant cousin Catherine Grey. Both claimants had since died: Catherine in a country house prison in 1568, Mary on the executioner’s block in 1587. But their sons, James VI of Scotland and Lord Beauchamp, had succeeded them as rivals to her throne, together with more recent candidates such as James’s cousin Arbella Stuart and the Infanta Isabella of Spain. The dangers to Elizabeth were such that the publication of any discussion of the succession had been declared an act of treason by Parliament only the previous winter. Her advancing age meant, however, that an heir would soon have to be chosen, if not by her, then by others.
Harington had dedicated his tract to his preferred choice, James VI, the Protestant son of Mary, Queen of Scots. As the senior descendant of Henry VIII’s elder sister, Margaret, and her first husband, James IV, he was Elizabeth’s heir by the usual dynastic rules of primogeniture, but James was far from being the straightforward choice that this suggests.
The Stuart line of the Kings of Scots was barred from the succession under the will of Henry VIII, which was backed by Act of Parliament. James was also personally excluded under a law dating back to the reign of Edward III precluding those born outside “the allegiance of the realm of England.” His hopes rested on the fact that the claims of his rivals were equally problematic. Elizabeth had declared Catherine Grey’s son, Lord Beauchamp, illegitimate, and, as men had delved ever deeper into the complex question of the right to the throne, the numbers of potential heirs had proliferated. By 1600 the sometime writer, lawyer and spy Thomas Wilson had counted “twelve competitors that gape for the death of that good old princess, the now queen.” Spain, France and the Pope all had their preferred candidates, while the English were divided in their choice by religious belief and contesting ambitions.
Courtiers feared that the price of Elizabeth’s security during her life would be civil war and foreign invasion on her death—but the future was also replete with possibilities. A new monarch drawn from a weak field would need to acquire widespread support to secure his or her position against rivals. That meant opening up the royal purse: there would be gifts of land, office and title. Harington’s tract was a private gift to James made in the hope of future favor. The gamble was to invest in the winning candidate—for as Thomas Wilson observed, “this crown is not likely to fall for want of heads that claim to wear it, but upon whose head it will fall is by many doubted.”
The Palace of Whitehall, built by Cardinal Wolsey and extended by Henry VIII, sprawled on either side of King Street, the road linking Westminster and Charing Cross. On the western side were the buildings designed for recreation: four covered tennis courts, two bowling alleys, a cockpit, and a gallery for viewing tournaments in the great tiltyard. Up to 12,000 spectators would come to watch Elizabeth’s knights take part in the annual November jousts held to celebrate her accession. When the jousts were over the contestants’ shields were hung in a gallery, where that summer the visiting German Duke of Stettin-Pomerania had been directed to admire the insignia of Elizabeth’s last great favorite, Robert Devereux, the second Earl of Essex. He had broken fifty-seven lances in the course of fighting fifteen challengers during the Accession Tilts of 1594. There was, however, much more to Essex than his prowess at the tilt. He had represented the aspirations of Harington’s generation, born after Elizabeth became Queen and kept from office by her stifling conservatism.
Elizabeth is still remem...
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