Elizabeth I died 400 years ago in her seventieth year, the first English ruler to live to that age. She was still unmarried. And she had refused to identify her successor, at least officially. The myth that she named James VI of Scotland as her successor on her deathbed is unsupported by solid evidence. As she had by then lost the power of speech, the most she might have done was to signal her assent by a gesture. And even that is guesswork.
All the same, James was a King in waiting. He was male, Protestant and available, proclaimed James I of England and Ireland with beguiling ease. Elizabeth died shortly before three o’clock in the morning of 24 March 1603, and at ten o’clock a group of nobles and privy councillors appeared with the heralds at the gates of Whitehall palace and in the City of London to declare his accession.
James was a Scot and a foreigner. He spoke in an alien tongue and was a published author with ideas about monarchy and Anglo-Scottish union that were increasingly suspect in England. His Scottish courtiers were said to have disgusting habits. But the crux is that by the time Elizabeth died, she was herself unpopular. Her time had passed. As Godfrey Goodman observed: ‘The people were very generally weary of an old woman’s government’. Only later, he said, ‘when we had experience of the Scottish government, then – in disparagement of the Scots and in the detestation of them – the Queen did seem to revive. Then was her memory much magnified…’
Elizabeth I is one of the legendary personalities of history, but her image was shaped as much in death as in life. Her final years, when the Rainbow portrait was painted in all its symbolic splendour, were marked by war, revolt in Ireland, severe taxation, price inflation, harvest failure, plague and mortality. Court culture entered a deeply intense and introspective phase. If there ever was a ‘golden age of Gloriana’, it existed in art and literature more than in real life. It was a triumph of the imagination: an ideal, above all a foil to the social and economic disorders of the age.
And to grasp the degree to which her image is distorted, we need to glimpse the ways in which the politics of her reign have been redescribed. Did Elizabeth I really rule? Our abiding impression of her seems uncontroversial. She knew her own mind, her instinct to power – we are told – was infallible. We will never know the extent to which she was a conscious agent in the process whereby her legend was manufactured in her lifetime. We do know the end to which the myth was directed. It is that she alone ruled, winning the love of her people and legitimizing female monarchy in the process. She discovered power in her singularity: she was ‘exceptional’ as a Queen and a woman. Her courtiers and privy councillors (exclusively male) were her subordinates.
Sir Robert Naunton, whose classic vignettes were devised in the reigns of James I and Charles I, said that she was ‘absolute and sovereign mistress of her graces.’ She had ‘a stately and majestic comportment’, ruling ‘much by faction and parties, which she herself both made, upheld and weakened, as her own great judgement advised.’ Although ‘very capable of counsel’, she was ‘absolute enough in her own resolution, which was ever apparent even to her last.’
Naunton’s aphorisms were far from the first. The laurels go to William Camden, whose Annals, or History of Queen Elizabeth, was begun in 1608, and largely finished – at least in manuscript – by 1613. Books 1-3 (up to the Armada year) were published in 1615. Book 4 was still under review in 1618-20, and not published until two years after Camden’s own death in 1623. He had been urged to write by William Cecil, Lord Burghley, in 1597. His history shaped the mould of all ‘traditional’ interpretations of Elizabeth’s reign. The theme, ostensibly, is monarchical triumphalism. Elizabeth, at least on a superficial reading of Camden, was great and glorious, able to deal decisively with court factionalism, and generally in control.
Camden loathed puritans and those he called ‘effervescent Protestants’; such ‘zealots’ were nimbly handled by Elizabeth. At a conceptual level, Camden exploited the theme of factionalism to deflect attention from monarchical accountability and to permit triumphalism. Elizabeth was balancing and controlling the factions in a strong and far-sighted way.
A closer look reveals how Camden is far less eulogistic of Elizabeth than he appears to be. The devil is in the detail, and for Tudor historians the detail is in the archives. Camden, a serious and independent-minded scholar, also found it there. As Patrick Collinson has remarked, it was not Elizabeth Tudor, but Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots, whom Camden eulogized: to the point where an abridged English edition of his Annals could be published in 1624 as a History of the Life and Death of Mary Stuart, Queen of Scotland and not as a History of Elizabeth at all. The reason was that Camden’s interpretation of Mary’s rule in Scotland flatly contradicted the vilification of her by his Scottish counterpart, George Buchanan, in his History of Scotland and elsewhere.
According to Camden, Mary was ‘fixed and constant in her religion, of singular piety towards God, invincible magnanimity of mind, wisdom above her sex, and admirable beauty.’ Her political catastrophe could not be discounted. She had to be ranked among those rulers ‘which have changed their felicity for misery and calamity’, but that was not through her own defects of character, but because she was a princess ‘tossed and disquieted’ by fortune. She was a victim of her ‘ungrateful and ambitious subjects’, chiefly her half-brother and leading councillor, James Stuart, Earl of Moray, who was the villain of the piece.
That Camden dealt deftly with Mary by complimenting her personal rule in Scotland is well known. Since she was the mother of James VI and I, who reigned when Camden went into print, it lies at the heart of questions about the aims and impartiality of Elizabeth’s first and foremost historian.
What has only recently come into focus is how Camden’s treatment of Mary laid down a pattern for his account of female rule in general. The gist is, when things went right, it was to the glory and credit of the ruler. When they went wrong, it was less the fault of the Queen than of her factious (male) councillors who tossed about the ship of state. Where Elizabeth’s troubles were concerned, it was her favourite, Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, and his puritan friends whom Camden accused. They were the men who had rocked the boat. And in respect of Mary, Camden turned Leicester into the instigator of an arch-conspiracy against her and her claim to the English throne. It was Leicester, as Camden maintained, who had plotted ‘to divert the legitimate line of succession’, whereas Burghley, Camden’s patron and Elizabeth’s chief minister until his death in 1598 – I shall mainly call him by his real name of William Cecil – was barely touched by these criticisms.
We are already in deep waters. When Camden defended Mary Stuart, he swiped at Buchanan, whom he accused by name. Camden was particularly sceptical of the received history of Mary’s personal rule in Scotland. As recounted in Buchanan’s own writings and in the revised and expanded edition of Holinshed’s Chronicles, this received history was the version that had been presented in a dossier that Buchanan had written for the Earl of Moray, that Moray conveniently supplied to Cecil after Mary’s flight to England in 1568. It was none other than this same dossier that had underscored the accusations of the Casket Letters, the so-called adulterous letters from Mary to the Earl of Bothwell in which the murder of Mary’s second husband, Henry Lord Darnley, had allegedly been plotted. These eight letters, or most of them – devastating if they were genuine and detestable if they were forgeries – were physically in Buchanan’s possession at the time he wrote his dossier.
And the dossier, in turn, was the template for the most infamous diatribe of all against Mary. Because it was Cecil, not Buchanan himself and least of all Leicester, who commissioned from the brilliant classical scholar and rhetorician, Thomas Wilson, a vernacular edition of Buchanan’s dossier for the press, telling Moray’s side of the story and translating Buchanan’s account of Mary’s alleged transgressions with Bothwell from Latin into imitation Scots, in order to create the false impression that the tract was authorized by the government of Scotland and not by anyone in England.
A proof copy of the fake Scots edition was ready by late November or early December 1571, to which Wilson added a damning ‘oration’ against Mary and translations of the Casket Letters. Cecil had the book rushed out by his ‘tame’ printer, John Day, on the eve of the 1572 Parliament, under the tortuous but highly informative title: A Detection of the doings of Mary Queen of Scots, touching the murder of her husband, and her conspiracy, adultery, and pretended marriage with the Earl of Bothwell. The book, I believe, was far too controversial and sensational to put on public sale, and was printed for private distribution to those members of Cecil’s Protestant network whom he knew would be members of the Parliament at which, he shortly hoped, Mary would be attainted of treason by an Act of Parliament and killed without ‘further ado’.
But we are getting ahead of ourselves. For the moment, we are with Camden, who said trenchantly, ‘What Buchanan hath written, there is no man but knoweth by the books themselves printed.’ This was far more insulting than it sounds today. Camden was saying he could find nothing in his archival sources to justify Buchanan’s accusations. His remarks were stinging, because his knowledge of Cecil’s and Walsingham’s papers – to which he and his collaborator Sir Robert Cotton enjoyed a uniquely privileged access – was known to be encyclopaedic. And yet, Camden must have realized from Cecil’s papers that it was neither Buchanan nor Leicester, but Cecil, who had first put the Detection of the doings of Mary Queen of Scots into print. Buchanan had himself complained about the ‘over-officiousness of my friends’ who had ‘precipitated the publication of what was yet unfit to see the light.’ The editors of the Detection, he said, in a remark meant to strike a chord with any scholar who has attempted to go into print, had ‘altered many things and corrupted others according to their several humours.’
The deeper the modern scholar digs into the Elizabethan State Papers, the more it is Cecil – not Leicester or the ‘puritans’ – who is under the lens. This dovetails with an earlier, actually the earliest of all the models of Elizabethan politics, set forth in A Treatise of Treasons against Queen Elizabeth (in late 1571, or more likely 1572). The author’s argument is that Elizabeth’s monarchy had been usurped by a ‘Machiavellian’ clique of Protestant councillors, a faction led by William Cecil and his brother-in-law, Nicholas Bacon. The exact authorship of the Treatise of Treasons is still to be discovered, but its information emanated from the aristocratic and religiously conservative, if not largely Catholic, circle of Mary’s English friends and supporters in the aftermath of the failed attempt in 1569 to marry her to the fourth Duke of Norfolk. This is the circle of Henry Howard, John Lesley Bishop of Ross, and their friends. The immediate purpose of the Treatise was to defend Mary and Norfolk from the charges against them. It was most likely compiled in Louvain, linked to the wider circle of English Catholic exiles in the Netherlands. The punch line is that ‘two Catalines’ – they are not actually named, but enough is said to identify them as Cecil and Bacon – had turned Elizabeth into a puppet Queen. Cecil was less the Queen’s chief minister than the Queen’s puppeteer – he and his clique pulled the strings to Elizabeth’s shame and dishonour.
I want now to move on. So far two points are central to my argument. One is that even when the historiography of Elizabeth’s reign was in its infancy, interpretations were shaped using Mary Queen of Scots as a prism. The other is that William Cecil was far from being the epitome of an ‘establishment’ bureaucrat.
More than anyone except her half-brother the Earl of Moray, Cecil was Mary’s nemesis. The kaleidoscopic factionalism of the Scottish nobles inexorably wore her down; their refusal to put the needs of the nation above their private interests seriously weakened the monarchy. But it was Cecil who financed and encouraged their revolts, beginning in 1559-60, when Mary’s mother, the regent Mary of Guise was deposed. Cecil stood four-square behind Moray and his two chief Protestant allies: William Maitland of Lethington and the Earl of Morton.
Moray had met Cecil many times in Scotland in the summer of 1560 and twice in London in 1561. Cecil noted that as the bastard son of James V, Moray had a bluff but distinctly regal manner, which can also be discerned in his surviving letters. He believed he had been born to rule and bitterly resented his illegitimacy.
Maitland – better known as the ‘Scottish Cecil’ and as ‘Mekle Wylie’ (meaning Much Wily), a pun on ‘Machiavelli’ – was the cleverest of the three. He had been Mary of Guise’s secretary, but defected to the Lords, who sent him to England as their mouthpiece. A staunch Protestant, he did more than anyone to steer the official Scottish Reformation through Parliament. He formed a close personal bond with Cecil, and several times stayed at his house.
The Earl of Morton was the most dangerous and least complicated of these Lords. Vindictive, harsh and cruel, he was a fiscal and sexual predator, the technocrat of assassinations and the invisible man who always got the job done but could never be found when it was time to settle the account.
Cecil was in regular communication with these men, who became Mary’s chief councillors when she returned from France to Scotland as an eighteen-year old widow. There were differences between them, even minor clashes. But all were united in their desire to remould the British Isles as a shared Protestant community. And without Cecil’s backing from London, these Lords would have made slow progress and little headway. To give just three examples, Moray and Cecil colluded to try and dictate Mary’s marriage and, in particular, stop her marrying Darnley in 1565. Cecil then did what he could for Moray when his second rebellion failed. There followed the murder of David Rizzio, Mary’s French secretary, an assassination orchestrated from start to finish by Maitland and Morton with Cecil’s foreknowledge and consent. Nothing suited Cecil better at that moment than for Mary’s government to be destabilized. Lastly, Cecil was up to his neck in the diplomacy at the baptism of Mary’s baby, Prince James, in 1566, whereby her arm was twisted to pardon the exiled Earl of Morton and allow his return to Scotland to cause fresh trouble.
Cecil was out to get Mary. He was plotting from the start with her Protestant councillors in Scotland. The aim of these Scots – at least until she married Bothwell – was less to destroy Mary than to dominate her. Cecil was different. He had an apocalyptic, almost a messianic vision of England as a Protestant state. And he treated Scotland as a ‘satellite state’ of England just as much as Henry VIII had before him. He had little room for an independent Scottish monarchy, hence his intermittent clashes with his Scottish counterparts over the extent of English domination.
But such interludes hardly mattered, because Moray, Maitland and Morton were overwhelmingly pro-English. The role of the Scottish nationalist fell most conspicuously, if ironically, to the swashbuckling adventurer, the Earl of Bothwell. It was not solely for this reason that Mary fell for him, but his hatred of Moray was a contributory cause. Bothwell had been Moray (and Cecil’s) mortal enemy from the moment he stole the first instalment of untraceable gold coins smuggled across the border on their way to the rebel Lords in 1559, thereby putting Moray’s first revolt in jeopardy.
Cecil took his stand for religious and dynastic reasons. He feared the colonising project of the Catholic Guise family, who sought to subsume England and Scotland as part of a ‘Franco-British’ empire. Mary Stuart, who was born and brought up as a Guise, had married the Dauphin, later Francis II of France, in 1558. As Queen-Dauphine and briefly Queen consort of France, she was the cornerstone of the Guise dynastic project. Cecil demonized her as his – and Protestant England’s – most dangerous adversary. He took this line from the moment Mary’s uncle, Charles of Guise, the Cardinal of Lorraine, ordered the royal arms of England to be quartered with those of Scotland and France on his niece’s badges and escutcheons. When her ushers cried ‘Make way for the Queen of England’ as she walked to church at Paris and Fontainebleau, Cecil’s mantra became Elizabeth’s ‘safety.’ Although Mary was then still a teenager, he saw her as the instigator and main beneficiary of an international Catholic conspiracy to depose and kill Elizabeth.
The collapse of Mary’s personal rule in Scotland was not an accident. All along, Cecil had written a script. It is one of the most remarkable documents in British history, because it was a template for unfolding events. He had written it in August 1559, almost two years to the day before Mary came home.
Scotland, said Cecil, was not to be administered by a Governor or regent in the case of an absentee ruler such as Mary then was, but by a council of nobles appointed ‘to govern the whole realm.’ And if she ‘shall be unwilling to this’, then quite simply, said Cecil, she should be deposed. ‘Then is it apparent’, he wrote portentously, ‘that Almighty God is pleased to transfer from her the rule of that kingdom for the weal of it.’
Cecil had taken his first tentative steps towards Mary’s forced abdication. His ideal, as his secretary later noted in indexing the Scottish State Papers for filing, was for the Protestant Lords to call themselves by the name of the ‘States of Scotland’ to supplant her. Cecil, in common with John Knox, the doyen of the Calvinist preachers at St Giles Kirk in Edinburgh, portrayed Mary in the language of Biblical prophecy. Knox was the author of The First Blast of the Trumpet against the Monstrous Regiment of Women, a diatribe aimed specifically against the English Mary Tudor and less directly Mary of Guise. But the book referred to Catholic (female) rulers in general. They were ‘idolatresses’ like ‘Jezebel’ and ‘Athalia’ in the Old Testament, moved by ‘passion’ rather than ‘reason’ – as Knox was so anxious to prove in Mary Stuart’s own case. Such women rulers might be deposed: if so, what was done took on the colour of legitimate regicide.
Cecil’s memo of 1559 has been edited by Stephen Alford. What has been overlooked is that for Cecil as much as Knox, Mary was cast in the role of ‘Athalia.’ In June 1567, a month after her fatal marriage to Bothwell, she was forced to surrender to her rebel Lords, who were set on deposing her or forcing her to abdicate. Elizabeth was outraged. She instinctively aligned herself with her fellow monarch, cousin and close kinswoman. She believed what the Lords had done was abhorrent. They had imprisoned and deposed an anointed Queen, a crime against God himself that was still more heinous than Lord Darnley’s assassination a few months earlier, whoever had been behind it.
Elizabeth sent Sir Nicholas Throckmorton as her crisis ambassador to Scotland. He, like his former protégé, Leicester, and quite unlike Cecil, was one of Mary’s lesser champions and, pace Camden, a supporter of her claim to the English succession under the right conditions. Throckmorton was not welcome in Scotland. From the rebel Lords’ standpoint, he had to be neutralized. For this, they turned to Cecil, who wrote a page of instructions for Throckmorton breathtaking in their audacity. Cecil laid down the only terms on which Mary might be freed from her prison. She was to be stripped of her authority, which would be vested in a council of nobles. She might be styled Queen, but only nominally. In all other respects, Cecil planned to restore the quasi-republican ‘States of Scotland’ that had governed after the deposition of Mary’s mother during the Lords’ first revolt.
At the end of the document, Cecil jotted down these words: ‘Athalia interempta per Joas[h] regem’ – ‘Athalia was killed so that Joash could be King’. It is one of the most revealing comments he ever made. A quotation from the Second Book of Chronicles in the Old Testament, it is the very same text that Knox used to justify the use of armed resistance against ‘idolatrous’ female rulers. Athalia was the perfect exemplar. She (like Mary) ruled in person as Queen of Israel for six years, but because of her moral turpitude, the high priest joined with the nobles to depose and kill her along with her idol-worshipping acolytes. The nobles made a covenant with God, installing the young Prince Joash, then seven years old (for whom read Mary’s own son, James VI, then two years old) in her place. Athalia was murdered, and the nobles ruled in the name of King Joash until he reached the age of majority, exactly as successive regents and their allies attempted to rule in Scotland.
When Cecil made that jotting, he had seen the hand of God in history. He read the biblical text (as Knox had done) as a prophecy applying to Mary.
With Cecil’s position now firmly under the lens, we can properly return to Elizabeth. Her own thinking was a world apart. Almost from the moment Mary came home, Elizabeth – if left to her own devices – was prepared to negotiate a settlement with her cousin that would have allowed the more dishonourable clauses of the treaty of Edinburgh to be replaced by a fresh accord. The treaty of Edinburgh was a bugbear. Cecil had agreed it with France and the Scottish Lords at the end of Moray’s first revolt. By its terms, the French garrisons were to leave Scotland for ever, and Elizabeth was to be recognized as the lawful Queen of England.
But it was a clandestine bargain, sealed not with the lawful Queen of Scotland but with Moray and the rebels. Mary had not even been consulted. She refused to ratify a treaty whose clauses were both insulting and detrimental to her rights.
Elizabeth was well aware of the treaty’s defects. She admitted it was dishonourable, and on at least three occasions indicated her willingness to renegotiate the offending clauses in exchange for a new treaty: one in which Mary would renounce her immediate Catholic claim to the English throne and recognize the Protestant Elizabeth as England’s lawful Queen during her own lifetime. It was to be a more or less straightforward trade: surrender of Mary’s immediate claim in exchange for confirmation of her reversionary interest.
I have to emphasize that to the Catholics, Mary Stuart was Mary Tudor’s rightful successor. In their eyes, Elizabeth was illegitimate. She was the daughter of Anne Boleyn, whom Henry VIII had married while his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, was still alive. The Pope and the Catholic Church did not recognize Anne Boleyn as Henry’s lawful Queen, nicknaming her ‘the concubine.’ Henry had himself repudiated her, divorcing and then executing her, and declaring Elizabeth to be illegitimate by Act of Parliament using a clause that had never been repealed. This opened the way for Mary Stuart’s claim, even though Henry VIII had always sought to block it.
Henry believed that by his will he could determine the order of the succession and eliminate the Stuart claim. But his settlement, although sanctioned in advance by Parliament, set aside the strict rules of hereditary descent. If his children died without heirs, then the throne was to pass to the offspring of the Duchess of Suffolk. By the 1560s, this meant Lady Catherine Grey or her younger sister Mary Grey. They were Protestants, and Catherine’s claim was strongly supported by Cecil who did whatever he could behind the scenes to promote it.
Elizabeth, however, loathed the Grey sisters. She did what she could to humble them, and when Catherine secretly married the Earl of Hertford and became pregnant, the scandal benefitted Mary Stuart. In Elizabeth’s eyes, the Queen of Scots was undeniably a proper Queen, unmarried until the Darnley match, and although privately a Catholic, in public she had accepted the official Protestant Reformation in Scotland, where her star was rising fast.
Elizabeth was a Protestant, but not as Protestant as Cecil wanted her to be. She put the values of hereditary descent ahead of religion, and found it utterly repugnant that in determining the succession, hereditary rights should be overruled by religious preconditions. It was for this reason also that she rejected the Protestants’ claims that she was ‘exceptional’ as a Queen and a woman. She found this formulation repellent, because it rested on the idea that she was called by God to be a Protestant heroine or second ‘Deborah’.
Elizabeth never accepted that she was Queen by a ‘miracle’ or an ‘extraordinary dispensation’ of God. Her reasons were less gender-based than dynastic. Her views were recorded in 1563 or 1566 by Thomas Norton in a manuscript setting out the arguments in capsule form. As Norton summarised Elizabeth’s case: if her title were to be established ‘by God’s special and immediate ordinance’ without due regard to hereditary right, it ‘setteth all her subjects at liberty, who acknowledge no such extraordinary calling.’ A title established by an ‘extraordinary miracle’ of God left the validity of the dynastic claim open for grabs, exposing Elizabeth to danger.
Of course, what had most annoyed Elizabeth were John Knox’s claims in his First Blast of the Trumpet against the Monstrous Regiment of Women. When challenged to explain himself, Knox tried to wriggle out of a corner by arguing that a woman might lawfully be Queen, but only if she ‘shall confess’ that it was the outcome of an ‘extraordinary dispensation’ of God’s mercy. This served to compound his offence. He had invoked the very defence that Elizabeth abominated, based on Calvin’s opinion that female monarchy deviated from the ‘proper order of nature’, but exceptionally there were special women who were ‘raised up by divine authority’ to rule in order to be the ‘nursing mothers’ of the church.
Elizabeth became so vexed during the Protestant succession debates of the 1560s that her gut instinct was to reach a settlement with Mary, whose dynastic claim as a great-granddaughter of Henry VII through Margaret Tudor, Henry VIII’s elder sister, was second to none. Elizabeth was hesitant about agreeing to a personal interview with Mary, but was prepared to negotiate at the level of Queen to Queen.
What terrified Cecil was that Elizabeth might assert herself and take charge of this diplomacy. Because in his eyes, a majority of the English people were not yet Protestants. The English Reformation Settlement of 1559 had barely scratched the surface, especially in the north of England. Cecil set out his thoughts in a memo written in 1565, shortly before Mary rejected Elizabeth’s advice to marry the Earl of Leicester and married Darnley instead.
In his memo, Cecil noted that a majority of Elizabeth’s subjects – he spoke repeatedly of ‘the people of England’ – favoured Mary. The ‘people of England’, he said, would flock to a Queen who, unlike their own Queen, was prepared to marry and have children. The sixteenth century was an age of gender stereotypes. By marrying, Mary would do what Cecil and every other male councillor and head of household wanted a female monarch to do. She would put a man at the head of the royal family. She would recreate a truly regal monarchy, and prove (said Cecil) that it would be her heirs, and not Elizabeth’s, who would finally unite the thrones of England and Scotland.
The ‘people of England’, he said, whether Protestants or Catholics, would be so won over by this, they would be ‘drawn away from their allegiance’ to Elizabeth and transfer it to Mary.
The memo is a genuine eye-opener. We know of Cecil’s private gender assumptions from an unguarded remark he made in 1561 to Throckmorton. ‘Well,’ he said, speaking of Elizabeth, ‘God send our mistress a husband, and by him a son, that we may hope our posterity shall have a masculine succession.’
It seems conclusive, but once again the context was Mary. Cecil’s off-the-cuff remark is not quite what it seems to be. It came just as he had learnt of Elizabeth’s first offer to make a settlement with Mary. Cecil intended to do all in his power to frustrate it on religious grounds, which meant persuading Elizabeth to marry and have children on her own account, thereby excluding Mary from the English succession for ever. ‘This matter,’ Cecil warned Throckmorton, ‘is too big for weak folks, and too deep for the simple….’
So when Mary married Darnley before Elizabeth herself was married, Cecil saw her decision as an act of war. It is a fascinating argument, opening for us a window into a lost world in which royal marriages had the power to alter people’s lives. If Mary married before Elizabeth, not only would the people flock to her, she would ‘draw away’ their ‘allegiance’ from Elizabeth. These were Cecil’s exact words, and his syntax was that of the law of treason.
And yet, despite all the ructions of the Darnley marriage – perhaps in the end because of them – Elizabeth still wanted to reach a dynastic accord with Mary. Cecil, from the beginning, was subverting her at every turn. In 1562, he even had the cheek to draft Sir Henry Sidney’s instructions informing Mary that her proposed interview with Elizabeth at Nottingham or York was cancelled, even as Elizabeth was making her own preparations for the meeting to go ahead.
One thing must be clarified. If Elizabeth wanted a dynastic settlement with Mary, she was never willing to identify Mary by name as her successor. She was prepared to protect Mary’s rights, which by the rules of hereditary succession were invincible unless Elizabeth herself married. That is why Cecil several times attempted to draft an Exclusion Bill after 1563, to exclude Mary from the succession for ever by Act of Parliament. It is in these drafts that Cecil has been most persuasively depicted as a quasi-republican in England as well as Scotland, because his vision of politics anticipated that of the Glorious Revolution of 1688-89, when James II was deposed and a Protestant succession engineered by peers and Parliament in defiance of hereditary right.
But Elizabeth’s reluctance to identify Mary as her successor had, initially, less to do with Mary or her Catholicism and more with the primordial problem of Elizabeth’s ‘winding-sheet.’ The English Queen had an almost superstitious fear that, if she named her successor, she would die or her action would provoke factionalism or a revolt. To a large extent, I think she had the right of the argument. At the very least, to have named a successor would have sparked a flurry of factionalism. But the point I want to make is that even on this potential deal-breaker – I mean Elizabeth’s refusal to name a ‘second person of the realm’ and heir apparent – Mary was finally willing to compromise.
This leads me to the crux of my argument. I believe the model that sees Elizabeth and Mary as ‘rival British Queens’ goes so far but no further. Of course there was rivalry, and Elizabeth certainly wanted to dictate the terms and the object of Mary’s marriages. But the two Queens had much more in common than the model allows. In particular, they had a clear understanding of the ideological issues. That is, when female monarchs had to deal with male councillors in a dynamic political environment informed by religious sectarianism, more than just ‘business as usual’ was at stake.
This Mary understood perfectly. In Paris there is a marvellous account by the French diplomat Michel de Castelnau, Sieur de Mauvissière, of his private conversations with her at the outbreak of the Earl of Moray’s second revolt. Mary intended to crush her rebels. They had abandoned their lawful allegiance under the pretext of religion and sought to depose her. Moray, as Camden had known very well, was the villain of the piece.
But Mary went further. Her case, she believed, touched every other ruler, since if her rebels were allowed to behave in this way and seek the collusion of England in their crimes, there could be no stability or order in the world.
Elizabeth concurred, and refused to help Moray against Mary. She put her foot down, and Cecil was forced to drop his plans for a military intervention in Scotland.
Mary was unflinching in her beliefs. Moray and his Protestant allies were not just rebels with political grievances or an axe to grind, they were ‘republicans’ – she used the word herself. They were set on destroying the ‘ancient monarchy.’ They would depose and kill her and Darnley, and then create a ‘republic’ in which sovereignty was vested in the nobles. They had already deposed her mother. She was next on the list. Her view of republicanism was an early prototype of ‘domino’ theory. Once Scotland had fallen to the rebels, the subversion would spread to England, to the Netherlands and to France.
Mary routed her rebels with Bothwell’s help. She dealt courageously with the Rizzio plotters, and a few months later began the most dangerous phase (in Cecil’s eyes) of her diplomacy with Elizabeth. It took place at the level of Queen to Queen in the weeks after Mary recovered from a gastric ulcer that burst at Jedburgh. As the discussions moved forward, Elizabeth went over the heads of her councillors and – apparently without regard to Cecil – offered Mary a new ‘treaty of perpetual amity’ that would replace the offending clauses of the treaty of Edinburgh.
Elizabeth at the start of 1567 was willing to acknowledge Mary’s rights as heir apparent in England. Both Queens would provide mutual guarantees whereby each would recognize the other to be a lawful ruling Queen, and neither do anything to harm the other. As Elizabeth put it in her own words, ‘this manner of proceeding is the way to avoid all jealousies and difficulties betwixt us….’
By that time, Elizabeth and Mary were – as it might whimsically be said – fully-paid up members of the monarchs’ trade union. By now, each saw the danger of allowing religion to dictate policy. And each was fed up with their councillors’ collusion across the border to undercut their ideas and push them in directions in which they might not wish to go.
In Elizabeth’s case, the point is illustrated by Cecil’s covert activities in Parliament shortly before she offered her final terms to Mary, in which he sent his personal secretary, Bernard Hampton, who was also clerk to the Privy Council, to act as clerk to the House of Commons’ committee that was attempting to blackmail Elizabeth by linking the question of her marriage to a grant of taxation. This episode has been brilliantly revisited in its English context by Stephen Alford, even if it has yet to be securely seated in its Scottish frame. Elizabeth was well aware of Cecil’s lobbying. But it was one thing to know, and another to prove. Had she ever obtained firm proof, Cecil would, I believe, have been sacked at this juncture.
In a scribbled minute, perhaps read only by Cecil, Elizabeth railed against the ‘lewd practices’ of those on the Commons committee and elsewhere. She then turned to her own solution, negotiating directly with Mary at the level of Queen to Queen.
Only Lord Darnley’s murder in the first British gunpowder plot in the early hours of 10 February 1567 blocked this new treaty. Less than forty-eight hours before this most spectacular of assassinations, Mary had instructed her personal ambassador, Robert Melville, to ride south to seal the dynastic settlement that would have ended more than five years of stop-go negotiations and maybe led to a definitive Anglo-Scottish accord. Even as the great ‘crack’ of the explosion woke everyone from their beds in Edinburgh, Melville had his luggage packed and his horses ready in the stables.
A second glimpse into Elizabeth’s mindset followed Mary’s forced abdication at Lochleven Castle in the summer of 1567. The circumstances were dramatic. At first, Mary had refused to sign the documents. Seeing her hesitate, Lord Lindsay ordered her to ready herself to leave, swearing that she should be cast adrift on an island in the middle of the sea, or else thrown into Loch Leven. Finally, he threatened to cut her throat. Only then did a terrified Mary sign.
When Elizabeth heard of this, she sent at once for Cecil. He got the message at 5 o’clock in the afternoon, and when he arrived was harangued (as he informed Throckmorton) in a ‘great offensive speech’ on the grounds that he had failed to do anything for Mary.
Cecil answered, he said, ‘as warily as I could’. But to no avail. Elizabeth was so incensed, she threatened to declare war on the Scots. She refused all Cecil’s protests and counter-arguments. It was one of their classic rows, and it turned on the nature and power of monarchy. Mary was an anointed Queen. She was accountable to God alone. Elizabeth wanted it clearly to be demonstrated that no such example as this could be tolerated. She particularly had her own English subjects in mind. Now it was Elizabeth who was brooding over the potential for a ‘domino’ effect.
Cecil artfully replied that a declaration of war might precipitate what Elizabeth most feared – Mary’s assassination at dead of night. He was muddying the waters to help his Scottish allies, because he knew that if time were allowed to pass, Elizabeth’s anger would subside. It usually took three to six weeks.
Historians have glimpsed many of these elements, but have yet to visualize the underlying pattern. Camden is perhaps mainly to blame. To castigate the Earl of Moray as the villain of Mary’s personal rule in Scotland, while presenting Cecil in so positive a light as in the Annals, is simply ludicrous. Camden shrouded the topic in mist by blaming Leicester for the conspiratorial activities for which Cecil was responsible, leaving Elizabeth’s chief minister – and Camden’s patron – covered in a thick coat of teflon.
It is not my intention to suggest that Elizabeth and Cecil were more generally at loggerheads. On a wide variety of issues they either agreed or were in a state of constructive dialogue. Sometimes they played good and bad cops: Elizabeth would say one thing, Cecil another, while behind the scenes she tipped Cecil the wink so he could get things done through the back door of which she approved, but with which she preferred not to be directly associated. That had sometimes happened even over Scottish business, although more so after Mary’s flight to England in 1568 than before.
But where Mary herself was concerned, different rules applied. My point may need little further advocacy. Cecil makes my case for me in a memo written on the eve of the 1572 Parliament. Mary was then under house arrest at Sheffield. Cecil wanted her attainted in Parliament and executed for her part in the Ridolfi plot. It was to this end that he printed and circulated the Detection of the doings of Mary Queen of Scots to his trusted inner caucus.
In this latest memo, Cecil roundly rebuked Elizabeth for her ‘doubtful dealing with the Queen of Scots.’ But his analysis was still more comprehensive. It was a blistering attack on everything he thought Elizabeth had done wrong since her accession to the throne, all of which he believed came full circle on the issue of Mary.
Top of the list was Elizabeth’s refusal to marry. It had led to instability at home and abroad, producing ‘discomfort’ and confusion among her subjects and servants, who feared for their future. Mary’s credibility was rising fast, boosted by this inertia. Already the Protestants could not sleep safely in their beds.
Next, said Cecil, Elizabeth had spent the last thirteen years helping the Catholics negotiate their way around the hurdles of the Protestant religious settlement, while ignoring the needs of the Protestants. For this, she had sown a wind and would reap a whirlwind.
Above all, said Cecil, Elizabeth ‘from the beginning’ had dealt with Mary as if ‘she meaneth to reclaim her by gentleness and benefit …’ Elizabeth had been too conciliatory, and far too willing to compromise. This was a fundamental mistake. Mary was too popular in England. The ‘greater number’ regarded her as Elizabeth’s lawful successor, and by many she was regarded even as the lawful Queen. ‘She doth daily win the hearts of her Majesty’s subjects from her ….’ She was just so incredibly dangerous.
Cecil’s verdict was chilling. The only ‘good’ Mary was a dead one. His memo was known to Sir Robert Cotton, Camden’s collaborator in the Annals, but was quietly buried in his collection. Meanwhile, Cecil’s inner caucus spoke on cue in Parliament. Speaker after speaker rose to denounce Mary, echoing each other almost word for word.
The Scottish Queen, they argued, had disqualified herself. She was no longer Queen, but ‘the late Queen of Scots.’ She was ‘a Queen of late time and yet through her own acts now justly no Queen.’ She was Elizabeth’s kinswoman ‘and yet a very unnatural sister.’ ‘She hath sought to dispossess the Queen’s Majesty of her crown ….’
She was ‘this Jezebel’, this ‘Athalia’, this ‘idolatress’, this ‘most wicked and filthy woman.’ She was ‘the monstrous and huge dragon and mass of the earth.’ There was no ‘safety’ for Elizabeth as long as she lived. ‘She hath been a killer of her husband, an adulteress, a common disturber of the peace of this realm, and for that to be dealt with as an enemy. And therefore my advice is to cut off her head and make no more ado about her.’
But Elizabeth refused. She declined to hand Parliament an axe, instead encouraging members to seek an act excluding Mary from the succession. And yet, when such a bill was passed, Elizabeth vetoed it. She claimed it was not technically a veto, but in this she played with words. The idea of monarchy was too powerful. She could not bring herself to proceed against an anointed Queen.
Cecil was angry and frustrated. Of the failed Exclusion Bill, he wrote to Sir Francis Walsingham, then ambassador to France: ‘All that we have laboured for and had with full consent brought to fashion – I mean a law to make the Scottish Queen unable and unworthy of succession to the crown – was by her Majesty neither assented to nor rejected, but deferred.’ And in another letter known to Cotton and therefore doubtless also Camden, he made a shrill complaint as to how the ‘highest person’ in the realm had failed to act, and so brought shame on her councillors.
Cecil did not let up. After no fewer than another fourteen years had passed, Mary was finally trapped. By then, with the Protestant William of Orange assassinated, England at war with Spain in the Netherlands and the Atlantic, and Spanish preparations for the Armada in train, Elizabeth feared sufficiently for her own safety to act. Still more to the point, a separate treaty between England and James VI, then twenty years of age, and made behind his mother’s back, ensured that Mary Stuart was at last irrelevant and disposable. Elizabeth could condone her death without appearing to have made concessions to the idea of republicanism in Scotland.
But the manner of Mary’s death would hold the key. For Elizabeth to sustain her view of monarchy, she had to ensure that Mary was not executed after a public trial or on the strength of a warrant signed by herself. Elizabeth was not squeamish. She had at last agreed that Mary must die, but did not want the responsibility of executing an anointed Queen. If Mary did not die naturally, Elizabeth’s preference was barely masked. She wanted her to be assassinated, if necessary by a cut-throat murderer.
Elizabeth had a command of the ideological issues. She knew that regicide authorized by a statute made in Parliament would alter for ever the future of the monarchy in the British Isles. It would tend to make the ruler accountable to Parliament, diminishing for ever the ‘divinity that hedges a King.’ This was of slender concern to Cecil, who wanted Mary dead as the expression of the will of the state: as a legitimate proscription for which the Protestant citizens of England had voted in their parliamentary senate. By now, Cecil had a theory of Protestant citizenship in his mind. And it was in Parliament that the will, perhaps even the sovereignty of these citizens, was exercised and declared.
The story of Mary’s trial and execution is too well known to repeat here. It was her finest moment, a stage performance so brilliantly scripted and produced, it was worthy of the dramatist whose birthday we honour today. But as those lines were spoken on the scaffold at Fotheringhay and the climax approached, how little did Mary guess that Elizabeth’s intention had been that she should be murdered like the Princes in the Tower by ‘one Wingfield’, a hired assassin, and that she owed the privilege of her public stage to the ideological standpoint of Cecil and his allies.
What we glimpse in the story of Elizabeth and Mary Queen of Scots are the contradictions inscribed in a monarchy where the vagaries of dynastic succession competed with loyalties to an ideal of an exclusively Protestant commonwealth. Whereas Elizabeth stood for monarchy, Cecil was working towards a definition of Protestant citizenship, towards a framework in which Parliament had the sovereign right to determine the succession in order to defend the confessional beliefs of its citizens.
Such positions were incompatible. What Cecil had imagined was closer to Buchanan’s theory of popular sovereignty – the belief that political power lies in the people and not in the ruler. This was the ideology developed by Mary’s rebel Lords in Scotland to depose her. That same ideology was taught in Scotland and (still more subversively) in France for 250 years after her death, and was propelled onto the global stage when Dr William Small, a Scot, taught ethics and political science to Thomas Jefferson at the College of William and Mary.
Sir Robert Naunton said of Elizabeth, she ruled ‘much by faction and parties, which she herself both made, upheld and weakened, as her own great judgement advised.’ I don’t believe that was ever true. Maitland of Lethington, the so-called ‘Scottish Cecil’ got it right when he told Mary in a letter from Chenonceaux in 1563, that there were ‘three factions’ in England: the Catholics, the Protestants, and Elizabeth herself. Far from riding above faction, Elizabeth was a faction all by herself. She had ‘a stately and majestic comportment’, yes. But to get her way – certainly where the Queen of Scots was concerned – she had to compete with, as well as try to dominate, her own councillors.
Of course, history is full of ironies. And the supreme irony in the 1590s, is that Cecil turned conservative. We still remember him best from these years as Lord Burghley – stricken with gout and riding around his gardens on a mule admiring his ornamental trees and plants. Shakespeare lampooned him as Polonius, the ‘establishment’ bureaucrat whose idea of politics had nothing more subversive to it than an old man eavesdropping behind the arras. In the 1590s, Burghley reinvented himself (visible in his letters and formularies for his son Robert Cecil) as Elizabeth’s loyal servant. He cultivated his own myth of ‘humble duty’ and ‘service’ to Gloriana, soon to be venerated in the Rainbow portrait: a Queen who was the apotheosis of monarchy.
Here lie the seeds of Camden’s thesis of monarchical triumphalism, in which Burghley appears in the role of a supporting actor, except that Camden was too good a historian not to quote from documents. And when he began to do that, he left us the clues we need to begin the work of deconstruction.
Burghley’s metamorphosis can be explained. He was the leopard who could change his spots when the Queen of Scots was dead. A dead Mary was a good one. She paved the way for a Protestant King. And in March 1603, the humbug was swept away. James I’s proclamation by the heralds as King of England and Ireland made it luminously clear that he had succeeded by virtue of his hereditary rights. Henry VIII’s will was disregarded. It was little short of an outright recognition that Mary’s claim to be Elizabeth’s lawful successor had been valid all along. She had finally won. Her posthumous victory was more conclusive than even she might have dared to hope, because every subsequent British ruler has been descended from her, and all derive their claim to the throne from her and not Elizabeth.
Looking back on the later Tudors, Francis Bacon noted the ‘strangest variety’ of reigns: that of ‘a child … the reign of a lady married to a foreign prince; and the reign of a lady solitary and unmarried.’ In 1603, England had a proper King again. James himself knew the score. When absent from London and Queen Anne of Denmark was meeting the Privy Council on his behalf, he quipped to Robert Cecil: ‘Ye and your fellows there are so proud now, that you have got the guiding of a feminine court in the old fashion that I know not how to deal with ye.’ James found it all a huge joke.
But submerged beneath the waters lurked the monster that was regicide. It was in hibernation, but it was ready to be awakened. What had been done could not be undone. In particular, the ideas of resistance and legitimate regicide injected into the syntax of the English state by Moray, Knox, Buchanan and Cecil, were embedded. Perhaps even without fully realizing it, Cecil – in reacting as he did against Mary Queen of Scots – had cast a shadow over Gloriana and put the British monarchy on probation. And if that sounds to you to be a whiggish proposition, then that’s fine, because it’s my story and I’m sticking to it.