Monday, 7 September 2015
On a late Sunday afternoon in September 1533 at Greenwich Palace, Queen Anne of England was delivered of a healthy, beautiful child. Everything about the child was perfect, but for its sex. It was a girl. Henry VIII had been assured by his friends, advisers and astrologers that his second wife's child was certain to be the male heir for which he had broken with the church of Rome and annulled his marriage to the resourceful Katherine of Aragon. However, pregnancy was an inexact and uncertain science in the sixteenth-century, and the child conceived in late 1532, weeks after her parents' secret wedding in Dover, was female.
Almost certainly named after her paternal grandmother Queen Elizabeth of York, and perhaps also for her maternal grandmother Lady Elizabeth Howard, the new princess was red-haired, coal-eyed and perfectly formed. She grew up to be a charismatic, shrewd and fiercely intelligent young woman who, despite her small stature, was able to cut hardened politicians down to size. Princess Elizabeth embodied both the best and worst traits of her parents: she inherited her father's charisma, warmth, fieriness and cunning, while inheriting her mother's wit, sensuality and deep-seated charm. The new princess, despite her obvious appeal, was not the male heir so longed for by both Henry and Anne.
The majority of the English population, while swearing the oath demanded by the king that recognised his second marriage as lawful, continued to regard the beleaguered Mary Tudor, eldest daughter of Henry VIII, as the rightful heir to the throne. Katherine of Aragon was highly popular in England, especially among aristocratic women, and the new queen tended to be regarded as a scheming parvenu or a heretic responsible for her husband's increasing bloodthirstiness. Elizabeth was feted by her parents' supporters as the rightful heir to the throne, a promise of hope for the future, but those who opposed the break with Rome were unanimous in declaring the new princess a bastard undeserving of royal honours.
Above: A later, fanciful artistic depiction of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn.
At the time, no-one expected Elizabeth to become queen regnant of England. It was both hoped and expected that Queen Anne would shortly bear the longed-for male heir, but as all students of history know, that was not to be. Elizabeth was cruelly deprived of her mother before her third birthday. Anne was sacrificed to the brutality of realpolitik, the increasing paranoia of her husband, and a climate of misogynistic vitriol that ended not only with her beheading but the deaths of five (almost certainly innocent) courtiers, including her own brother, Elizabeth's uncle. Elizabeth was shortly afterwards deprived of her place in the succession and was, like her half-sister Mary, declared illegitimate. Their half-brother Edward, born in the autumn of 1537, replaced them as heir to the throne. However, Elizabeth was to emerge triumphant in November 1558. At the age of twenty-five, this brilliant and hardened young woman became queen of England. Her reign has been immortalised ever since as the golden age of Gloriana, a possibility no-one could have foreseen in September 1533.