Gateway to the Classics: Queen Elizabeth by Jacob Abbott
Queen Elizabeth by  Jacob Abbott

The Childhood of a Princess

Elizabeth was about three years old at the death of her mother. She was a princess, but she was left in a very forlorn and desolate condition. She was not, however, entirely abandoned. Her claims to inherit the crown had been set aside, but then she was, as all admitted, the daughter of the king, and she must, of course, be the object of a certain degree of consideration and ceremony. It would be entirely inconsistent with the notions of royal dignity which then prevailed to have her treated like an ordinary child.

She had a residence assigned her at a place palled Hunsdon, and was put under the charge of a governess whose name was Lady Bryan. There is an ancient letter from Lady Bryan, still extant, which was written to one of the king's officers about Elizabeth, explaining her destitute condition, and asking for a more suitable supply for her wants. It may entertain the reader to see this relic, which not only illustrates our little heroine's condition, but shows how great the changes are which our language has undergone within the last three hundred years. The letter, as here given, is abridged a little from the original:

My Lord:

When your lordship was last here, it pleased you to say that I should not be mistrustful of the King's Grace, nor of your Lordship, which word was of great comfort to me, and emboldeneth me now to speak my poor mind.

Now so it is, my Lord, that my Lady Elizabeth is put from the degree she was afore, and what degree she is at now. I know not but by hearsay. Therefore I know not how to order her, nor myself, nor none of hers that I have the rule of—that is, her women and her grooms. But I beseech you to be good, my Lord, to her and to all hers, and to let her have some rayment; for she has neither gown, nor kirtle, nor manner of linen, nor foresmocks, nor kerchiefs, nor sleeves, nor rails, nor bodystichets, nor mufflers, nor biggins. All these her Grace's wants I have driven off as long as I can, by my troth, but I can not any longer. Beseeching you, my Lord, that you will see that her Grace may have that is needful for her, and that I may know from you in writing, how I shall order myself towards her, and whatever is the King's Grace's pleasure and yours, in every thing, that I shall do.

My Lord Mr. Shelton would have my Lady Elizabeth to dine and sup at the board of estate. Alas, my Lord, it is not meet for a child of her age to keep such rule yet. I promise you, my Lord, I have not take upon me to keep her in health and she keep that rule; for there she shall eat diverse meats, and fruits and wines, which would be hard for me to restrain her Grace from it. You know, my Lord there is not place of correction there, and she is yet too young to correct greatly. I know well, and she be there, I shall never bring her up to the King's Grace's honor not hers, nor to her health, nor my poor honesty. Wherefore, I beseech you, my Lord, that my Lady may have a mess of meat to her own lodging, with a good dish or two that is meet for her Grace to eat of.

My Lady hath likewise great pain with her teeth, and they come very slowly forth, and this causeth me to suffer her Grace to have her will more than I would. I trust to God, and her teeth were well graft, to have her Grace after another fashion than she is yet, so I trust the King's Grace shall have great comfort in her Grace; for she is as toward a child, and as gentle of conditions, as ever I knew any in my life. Jesu preserve her Grace.

Good my Lord, have my Lady's Grace, and us that be her poor servants, in your remembrance.

This letter evinces that strange mixture of state and splendor with discomfort and destitution, which prevailed very extensively in royal households in those early times. A part of the privation which Elizabeth seems, from this letter, to have endured, was doubtless owing to the tough manners of the day; but there is no doubt that she was also, at least for a time, in a neglected and forsaken condition. The new queen, Jane Seymour, who succeeded Elizabeth's mother, had a son a year or two after her marriage. He was named Edward. Thus Henry had three children, Mary, Elizabeth, and Edward, each one the child of a different wife; and the last of them, the son, appears to have monopolized, for a time, the king's affection and care.

Still, the hostility which the king had felt for these queens in succession was owing, as has been already said, to his desire to remove them out of his way, that he might be at liberty to marry again; and so, after the mothers were one after another, removed, the hostility itself so far as the children were concerned, gradually subsided, and the king began to look both upon Mary and Elizabeth with favor again. He even formed plans for marrying Elizabeth to persons of distinction in foreign countries, and he entered into some negotiations for this purpose. He had a decree passed, too, at last, reversing the sentence by which the two princesses were cut off from an inheritance of the throne. Thus they were restored, during their father's life, to their proper rank as royal princesses.


Portrait of Edward VI.

At last the king died in 1547, leaving only these three children, each one the child of a different wife. Mary was a maiden lady, of about thirty-one years of age. She was a stern, austere, hard-hearted woman, whom nobody loved. She was the daughter of King Henry's first wife, Catharine of Aragon, and, like her mother, was a decided Catholic.

Next came Elizabeth, who was about fourteen years of age. She was the daughter of the king's second wife, Queen Anne Boleyn. She had been educated a Protestant. She was not pretty, but was a very lively and sprightly child, altogether different in her cast of character and in her manners from her sister Mary.

Then, lastly, there was Edward, the son of Jane Seymour, the third queen. He was about nine years of age at his father's death. He was boy of good character, mild and gentle in his position, fond of study and reflection, and a general favorite with all who knew him.

It was considered in those days that a king might, in some sense, dispose of his crown by will, just as, at the present time, a man may bequeath his house or his farm. Of course, there were some limits to this power, and the concurrence of Parliament seems to have been required to the complete validity of such a settlement. King Henry the Eighth, however, had little difficulty in carrying any law through Parliament which he desired to have enacted. It is said that, on one occasion, when there was some delay about passing a bill of his, he sent for one of the most influential of the members of the House of Commons to come into his presence. The member came and kneeled before him. "Ho, man!" said the king, "and will they not suffer my bill to pass?" He then came up and put his hand upon the kneeling legislator's head, and added, "Get my bill passed morrow, or else by to-morrow this head of you shall be off." The next day the bill was passed accordingly.

King Henry, before he died, arranged the order of succession to the throne as follows: Edward was to succeed him; but, as he was a minor, being then only nine years of age, a great council of state, consisting of sixteen persons of the highest rank, was appointed to govern the kingdom in his name until he should be eighteen  years of age, when he was to become king in reality as well as in name. In case he should die without heirs, then Mary, his oldest sister, was to succeed him; and if she died without heirs, then Elizabeth was to succeed her. This arrangement went into full effect. The council governed the kingdom in Edward name until he was sixteen years of age, when he died. Then Mary followed, and reigned as queen five years longer, and died without children, and during all this time Elizabeth held the rank of a princess, exposed to a thousand difficulties and dangers from the plots, intrigues, and conspiracies of those about her, in which, on account of her peculiar position and prospects, she was necessarily involved.

One of the worst of these cases occurred soon after her father's death. There were two brothers of Jane Seymour, who were high in King Henry's favor at the time of his decease. The oldest is known in history by his title of the Earl of Hertford at first, and afterward by that of Duke of Somerset. The youngest was called Sir Thomas Seymour. They were both made members of the government which was to administer the affairs of state during young Edward's minority. They were not, however satisfied with any moderate degree of power. Being brothers of Jane Seymour, who was Edward's mother, they were his uncles, of course, and the oldest one soon succeeded in causing himself to be appointed protector. By this office he was, in fact, king, all except in name.

The younger brother, who was an agreeable and accomplished man, paid his addresses to the queen dowager, that is, to the widow who King Henry left, for the last of his wives was living at the time of his death. She consented to marry him, and the marriage took place most immediately after the king's death—so soon in fact, that it was considered extremely hasty and unbecoming. This queen dowager had two houses left to her, one at Chelsea, and the other at Hanworth, towns some little distance up the river from London. Here she resided with her new husband, sometimes at one of the houses, and sometimes at the other. The king had also directed, in his will, that the Princess Elizabeth should be under her care, so that Elizabeth, immediately after her father's death lived at one or the other of these two houses under the care of Seymour, who, from having been her uncle, became now, in some sense, her father. He was a sort of uncle, for he was the brother of one of her father's wives. He was sort of father, for he was the husband of another of them. Yet, really, by blood, there was no relation between them.

The two brothers, Somerset and Seymour quarreled. Each was very ambitions, and very jealous of the other. Somerset, in addition being appointed protector by the council, got a grant of power from the young king called a patent. This commission was executed with great formality, and was sealed with the great seal of state, and it made Somerset, in some measure independent of the other nobles whom King Henry had associated with him in the government. By this patent he was placed in supreme command of all the forces by land and sea. He had a seat on the right hand of the throne, under the great canopy of state, and whenever he went abroad on public occasions, he assumed all the pomp and parade which would have been expected in a real king. Young Edward was wholly under his influence, and did always whatever Somerset recommended him to do. Seymour was very jealous of all this greatness, and was contriving every means in his power to circumvent and supersede his brother.

The wives, too, of these great statesmen quarreled. The Duchess of Somerset thought she was entitled to the precedence, because she was the wife of the protector, who, being a kind of regent, she thought he was entitled to have his wife considered as a sort of queen. The wife of Seymour, on the other hand, contended that she was entitled to the precedence as a real queen, having been herself the actual consort of a reigning monarch. The two ladies disputed perpetually on this point, which, of course, could never be settled. They enlisted, however, on their respective sides various partisans, producing a great deal of jealousy and ill-will, and increasing the animosity of their husbands.

All this time the celebrated Mary Queen Scots was an infant in Jane Sinclair's arms at the castle of Stirling, in Scotland. King Henry, during his life, had made a treaty with the government of Scotland, by which it was agreed that Mary should be married to his son Edward as soon as the two children should have grown to maturity; but afterward, the government of Scotland having fallen from Protestant into Catholic hands, they determined that the match must be given up. The English authorities were very much incensed. They wished to have the marriage take effect, as it would end in uniting the Scotch and English kingdoms; and the protector, when a time arrived which he thought was favorable for his purposes, raised an army and marched northward to make war upon Scotland, and compel the Scots to fulfill the contract of marriage.

While his brother was gone to the northward, Seymour remained at home, and endeavored, every means within his reach, to strengthen his own influence and increase his power. He contrived to obtain from the council of government the office of lord high admiral, which gave him the command of the fleet, and made him, next to his brother, the most powerful and important personage in the realm. He had, besides, as has already been stated, the custody and care of Elizabeth, who lived in his house; though, as he was a profligate and unprincipled man, this position for the princess, now fast growing up to womanhood, was considered by many persons as of doubtful propriety. Still, she was at present only fourteen years old. There was another young lady likewise in his family, a niece of King Henry, and, of course, a second cousin of Elizabeth. Her name was Jane Grey. It was a very unhappy family. The manners and habits of all the members of it, excepting Jane Grey, seem to have been very rude and irregular. The admiral quarreled with his wife, and was jealous of the very servants who waited upon her. The queen observed something in the manners of her husband toward the young princess which made her angry both with him and her. Elizabeth resented this, and a violent quarrel ensued, which ended in their separation Elizabeth went away, and resided afterward at a place called Hatfield.

Very soon after this, the queen dowager died suddenly. People accused Seymour, her husband, of having poisoned her, in order to make way for the Princess Elizabeth to be his wife. He denied this, but he immediately began lay his plans for securing the hand of Elizabeth. There was a probability that she might, at some future time, succeed to the crown, and then, if he were her husband, he thought he should be the real sovereign, reigning in her name.

Elizabeth had in her household two persons, a certain Mrs. Ashley, who was then her governess, and a man named Parry, who was a sort of treasurer. He was called the cofferer. The admiral gained these persons over to his interests, and, through them, attempted to open communications with Elizabeth, and persuade her to enter into his designs. Of course, the whole affair was managed with great secrecy. They were all liable to a charge of treason against the government of Edward by such plots, as his ministers and counselors might maintain that their design was to overthrow Edward's government and make Elizabeth queen. They, therefore, were all banded together to keep their councils secret, and Elizabeth was drawn, in some degree, into the scheme, though precisely how far was never fully known. It was supposed that she began to love Seymour, although he was very much older than herself, and to be willing to become his wife. It is not surprising that, neglected and forsaken as she had been, she should have been inclined to regard with favor an agreeable and influential man, who expressed a strong affection for her, and a warm interest in her welfare.

However this may be, Elizabeth was one day struck with consternation at hearing that Seymour was arrested by order of his brother, who had returned from Scotland and had received information of his designs, and that he had been committed to the Tower. He had a hurried and irregular trial, or what, in those days, was called a trial. The council went themselves to the Tower, and had him brought before them and examined. He demanded to have the charges made out in form, and the witnesses confronted with him, but the council were satisfied of his guilt without these formalities. The Parliament immediately afterward passed a bill of attainder against him, by which he was sentenced to death. His brother, the protector signed the warrant for his execution, and he was beheaded on Tower Hill.

The protector sent two messengers in the course of this affair to Elizabeth, to see what they could ascertain from her about it. Sir Robert Tyrwhitt was the name of the principal one of these messengers. When the cofferer learned that they were at the gate, he went in great terror into his chamber, and said that he was undone. At the same time, he pulled off a chain from his neck, and the rings from his fingers, and threw them away from him with gesticulations of despair. The messengers then came to Elizabeth, and told her, falsely as it seems, with a view to frighten her into confessions, that Mrs. Ashley and the cofferer were both secured and sent to the Tower. She seemed very much alarmed; she wept bitterly, and it was a long time before she regained her composure. She wanted to know whether they had confessed any thing. The protector's messengers would not tell her this, but they urged her to confess herself all that had occurred; for whatever it was, they said that the evil and shame would all be ascribed to the other persons concerned, and not to her, on account of her youth and inexperience. But Elizabeth; would confess nothing. The messengers went away, convinced, as they said, that she was guilty; they could see that in her countenance; and that her silence was owing to her firm determination not to betray her lover. They sent word to the protector that they did not believe that any body would succeed in drawing the least information from her, unless it was the protector, or young King Edward himself.

These mysterious circumstances produced a somewhat unfavorable impression in regard to Elizabeth, and there were some instances, it was said, of light and trifling behavior between Elizabeth and Seymour, while she was in his house during the life-time of his wife. They took place in the presence of Seymour's wife, and seem of no consequence, except to show that dukes and princesses got into frolics sometimes in those days as well as other mortals. People censured Mrs. Ashley for not enjoining a greater dignity and propriety of demeanor in her young charge, and the government removed her from her place.

Lady Tyrwhitt, who was the wife of the messenger referred to above that was sent to examine Elizabeth, was appointed to succeed Mrs. Ashley. Elizabeth was very much displeased at this change. She told Lady Tyrwhitt that Mrs. Ashley was her mistress, and that she had not done any thing to make it necessary for the council to put more mistresses over her. Sir Robert wrote to the protector, that she took the affair so heavily that she "wept all night, and lowered all the next day." He said that her attachment to Mrs. Ashley was very strong; and that, if any thing were said against the lord admiral, she could not bear to hear it, but took up his defense in the most prompt and eager manner.

How far it is true that Elizabeth loved the unfortunate Seymour can now never be known. There is no doubt, however, but that this whole affair was a very severe trial and affliction to her. It came upon her when she was but fourteen or fifteen years of age, and when she was in a position, as well of an age, which renders the heart acutely sensitive both to the effect of kindness and of injuries. Seymour, by his death, was lost to her forever, and Elizabeth lived in great retirement and seclusion during the remainder of her brother's reign. She did not, however, forget Mrs. Ashley and Parry. On her accession to the throne, many years a forward, she gave them offices very valuable, considering their station in life, and was a true friend to them both to the end of their days.

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