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The Coronation of Queen Elizabeth

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On January 15th, 1559, England’s twenty-five-year-old sovereign left Whitehall to be crowned Queen. This article, by A.L. Rowse, was first published in May 1953, in a special issue of History Today that marked the imminent coronation of Queen Elizabeth II.

Elizabeth I in her coronation robes, patterned with Tudor roses and trimmed with ermine.The coronation of the first Elizabeth is of considerable interest to us and of greater historical importance than most. Not only was it the last occasion on which the Latin service was used, as throughout Plantagenet times, and with the Roman mass, but what happened on the occasion was a portent of the policy the new Queen would pursue, a pointer to the Elizabethan religious settlement which has subsisted essentially unchanged ever since. It is precisely that that has given rise to some controversy among historians as to what precisely happened. Did the Queen remain present throughout the Mass or did she withdraw to her traverse – or private closet in St. Edward’s chapel – at the crucial point of the consecration and elevation of the Host? Did the officiating bishop elevate the Host? Did the Queen communicate or not? We shall see – as well as we can see, from the curious confusion of the evidence.

The full proceedings of a coronation in medieval times, and up to Elizabeth I’s and beyond, fell into four parts. The new monarch had first to take possession of the Tower: the significance of that move is obvious enough – it was to make sure of London. And, in the English way, the tradition continued to be adhered to for some time after the necessity for the action had gone. The second stage was the sovereign’s progress through the city to Westminster on the eve of the coronation. The third was the coronation itself in Westminster Abbey, with the procession to it. The fourth was the banquet in Westminster Hall after the ceremonies in the Abbey.

In those days, it was desirable to invest the new sovereign as soon as possible with the full authority that anointing and crowning conferred. Mary had died on November 17th, 1558; Elizabeth was crowned in her place within two months after. She had had a rapturous reception from London – sick of the burnings and failures of Mary’s reign – when she just rode in to the city as Queen. And Elizabeth set herself to capture the hearts of the people as she well knew how. (Not for nothing was she Anne Boleyn’s daughter.) She had spent Christmas at Whitehall; on Thursday, January 13th, 1559, she made her move to the Tower, going by water in her state-barge down the Thames. An Italian envoy who saw the spectacle was reminded of the great ceremony of the Doges – the mystic marriage of Venice with the sea.

On Saturday, the whole Court having gathered at the Tower, the Queen set out in procession, in the clear snowy air, through the streets so familiar to us from the engravings and pictures of Wyngaerde, Hollar and others. Only twenty-five years ago – and Elizabeth had been carried through these self-same streets in the womb of her mother to her coronation.

The verses for the pageants had been written by the court-poets, John Leland and Nicholas Udall:

I, decens Regina, tuam ad coronam,
Et diu omins vive doloris expers,
Regis Henrici, superum favore, Optima coniux.

Many who watched the daughter’s triumph today must have seen the spectacle of the mother – herself grand-daughter of a Lord Mayor; some few must have reflected on the chances and ironies of history.

 Of them none was more aware of the treacherous sands of high politics than Elizabeth and from the first she set herself to conquer the heart of the city, already well-inclined, and to attach it to her chariot. The haughty Feria, Philip’s representative in England, wrote contemptuously: ‘she is very much wedded to the people and thinks as they do, and therefore treats foreigners slightingly.’ Gone were the days of deference to Philip’s ambassador, who could transmit his master’s orders to England. After all, Elizabeth owed her very life and safety to the unspoken support of the English people. Feria was soon obliged to change his tone, from contempt to apprehension: ‘she seems to me incomparably more feared than her sister and gives her orders and has her way as absolutely as her father did.’

Today Elizabeth completed her conquest of London. ‘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 opened it unto her.’ In return, ‘the people again were wonderfully ravished with the loving answers and gestures of their Princess, like to the which they had before tried at her first coming to the Tower from Hatfield.’

At Fenchurch a richly furnished stage had been erected, ‘whereon stood a noise of instruments, and a child in costly apparel, which was appointed to welcome the Queen’s majesty in the whole city’s behalf.’ The child proceeded to spout the usual Elizabethan doggerel appropriate to such occasions. The Queen listened with polite attention, but had to call for order in the nursery before she could hear. What she heard was such stuff as this:

The second is true hearts, which love thee from their root,
Whose suit is triumph now, and ruleth all the game.
Which faithfulness have won, and all untruth driven out;
Which skip for joy whenas they hear thy happy name.

It is the poetry of Bottom the weaver, Snug the joiner, and Flute the bellows-mender. Whatever the Queen thought of it – and there is no evidence that her own taste in poetry was much better – she acted her part, as she could always be trusted to do, superb actress that she was. ‘Here was noted in the Queen’s Majesty’s countenance, during the time that the child spake, besides a perpetual attentiveness in her face, a marvellous change in look, as the child’s words touched either her person, or the people’s tongues or hearts.’ There was no mistaking the intent of the verses: the Protestants were now on top.

Right across Gracechurch Street there stretched a structure with battlements and three gates. Above the main gate were three stages; in the lowest were the figures of Henry VII and his queen, Elizabeth of York; next above were Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, resurrected now – poor woman. At the top stood Elizabeth, alone. (For how long? some must have thought.) The two sides of the building were ‘filled with loud noises of music. And all empty places thereof were furnished with sentences concerning unity.’ The whole pageant was garnished with red and white roses and entitled ‘the uniting of the two houses of Lancaster and York.’ We remember the famous chronicle of Edward Hall on this theme and the historical material with which it provided Shakespeare; and whatever we may suppose as to the crudity of the pageants, we must not forget what they led on to – the cycle of Shakespeare’s plays on English history.

In Cornhill the conduit was curiously trimmed with rich banners; and here was the second pageant, inculcating the virtues of good governance: ‘Pure Religion, Love of Subjects, Wisdom and Justice, which did tread their contrary vices under their feet.’ Here too, the Protestant bias of the city was underlined:

While that Religion True shall
Ignorance suppress,
And with her weighty foot break
Superstition’s head . . .

All along the streets from Fenchurch to Cheapside the city companies stood in their livery hoods and rich furs; the sheets enclosed with wooden rails and hanged with cloths, tapestry, arras, damask and silks. Banners and streamers hung from the windows; wifflers and garders of the companies stood out in their chains of gold. At the upper end of Cheapside the Queen received the city’s gift, a purse of crimson satin with a thousand marks in gold. She took the purse with both hands and made one of those little extempore speeches she had always at command:

I thank my Lord Mayor, his brethren and you all. And whereas your request is that I should continue your good Lady and Queen, be ye ensured that I will be as good unto you as ever queen was unto her people. No will in me can lack, neither, do I trust, shall there lack any power. And persuade yourselves that for the safety and quietness of you all, I will not spare, if need be to spend my blood. God thank you all.’

This piece of royal eloquence moved the crowd to great enthusiasm, ‘the heartiness thereof was so wonderful and the words so jointly knit.’ The Queen was observed to smile: she had heard someone say, ‘Remember old king Harry the eighth?’ She saw an ancient citizen turn his back and weep: ‘I warrant you it is for gladness,’ she said. No points were going to be lost in that quarter. One observes the personal touch in government at every point then: some element of which remains with monarchy still, even if symbolic rather than actual.

In Cheapside ‘upon the porch of St Peter’s Church door stood the waits of the city, which did give a pleasant noise with their instruments as the Queen’s Majesty did pass by, which on every side cast her countenance and wished well to all her most loving people.’ The Little Conduit was decked with a pageant of which the Queen politely inquired the signification. It signified Time, she was told. ‘ “Time?” quoth she, “and Time hath brought me hither”.’ Such sententiousness was much to Elizabethan taste. From a cave there issued Father Time, leading his daughter Truth, who had a book for the Queen, ‘Verbum Veritatis.’ Sir John Perrot, who was one of the bearers of her canopy, took it. (He prided himself on his marked resemblance to Henry VIII; he ended in the Tower.) The Queen took the Bible, kissed it, held it up in both her hands and laid it on her breast. It is to be feared that circumstances were not to permit her an unqualified indulgence in truth.

And so, on to St Paul’s churchyard, where one of the boys of St Paul’s school spoke a Latin oration in her honour, comparing her to Plato’s philosopher-king. ‘Haec lieris Graecis et Latinis eximia, ingenioque praepollens est.’ That was no more than the truth. ‘Hac imperante, pietas vigebit, Anglia florebit, aurea secula redibunt.’ As to that, time would show; or – to use Elizabeth’s own words to Parliament – ‘the sequel shall declarer.’ We remember what a part the ‘children of Paul’s’ were to play in the drama of subsequent years, performing the plays of Lyly and others, and rivalling the companies of adult players.

On through Ludgate, the forefront of the gate ‘being finely trimmed up against her Majesty’s coming’; and so into Fleet Street, where against the conduit the last pageant was erected. It showed a return to the Protestant theme: the Queen was Debora the judge, restorer of the house of Israel. Outside St Dunstan’s church, where the children of the hospital were standing, the Queen stayed her chariot and was seen to lift up her eyes as if in prayer, as who should say, ‘I here see this merciful work towards the poor whom I must in the midst of my royalty needs remember.’ From which we see that none of the arts of propaganda was lost on Elizabeth. At Temple Bar the city said farewell to her; on the gate itself the images of the giants Gogmagog and Corineus holding scrolls of Latin and English verses. ‘Thus the Queen’s Highness passed through the city which, without any foreign person, of itself beautified itself.’ Someone pointed out that there was no cost spared; ‘Her Grace answered that she did well consider the same and that it should be remembered.’

It so happens that there survives a fascinating volume of pen and ink drawings which are the original designs for the coronation procession, and showing the lay-out of the dais-end of Westminster Hall for the banquet and the arrangement of the central space around the throne and up to St Edward’s Chapel in the Abbey for the ceremonies there. It is clearly an official sketch of the proceedings, drawn up for the benefit of those taking part in it and evidently discussed and approved by the Queen, for the actual order of events very largely followed the project as sketched. As we turn over the parchment leaves, the procession from the Tower to Whitehall unrolls before our eyes.

The first half of the book portrays this event; so we must turn to the middle and run the leaves backwards to get the order of the procession. We see the head of it there entering the gate of Whitehall Palace, while the first folio shows us the procession being wound up by the Queen’s guard just emerging from a gateway of the Tower of London. The procession follows a logical order of precedence, beginning with the messengers of the Queen’s privy chamber, with the serjeant-porter, who was responsible for the entrance-gate to the royal residences, and the gentleman-harbinger, whose duty it was to make the residence ready on the approach of the Queen. Then come her personal servants, gentleman-ushers and sewers of the chamber, followed by the squires of the body and the aldermen of London. Next are the chaplains and clerks, clerks of the privy council, of the privy seal and the signet. Now the masters in chancery, the law-serjeants and the judges, with the Lord Chief Baron and the Lord Chief Justice of Common Pleas, the Master of the Rolls and the Lord Chief Justice of England walking two by two. Next come the knights and the peers, spiritual and temporal, in their proper order.

Then follow the whole body of the officers of state and of the Queen’s household, headed by the earl of Arundel, bearing the Queen’s sword, on one side the duke of Norfolk, Earl Marshal, on the other, the earl of Oxford, Lord Chamberlain. After these come the mayor of London, Garter king of arms and Drue Drury, great usher of the privy chamber. Next, Anthony Wingfield, representing the duke of Guyenne, arid Anthony Light, representing the duke of Normandy, preceded the foreign ambassadors, who were only four in number. There follow the great officers of state, Lord Treasurer and Lord Keeper of the Great Seal – who were the Marquis of Winchester and Sir Nicholas Bacon respectively, the Lord Privy Seal and the Lord Admiral, and so on. With the Archbishop of York the Archbishop of Canterbury is set down to walk; but Cardinal Pole was dead and the see was not yet filled. Then come the treasurer and the comptroller of the household, and the two secretaries – one of them Mr SecretaryCecil.

This all leads up to the centrepiece of the whole show – the Queen’s litter drawn by two mules, the first led by Lord Ambrose Dudley, the second by Lord Giles Paulet; the canopy over it borne by two knights on either side; seated alone within, the figure that was to become so famous, her coronation robes spread before and behind. Immediately after her rides Lord Robert Dudley, leading the palfrey of honour – the Queen’s own palfrey. Her equerries and footmen march bare-headed on either side next the litter, and outside, the pensioners on foot with their halberds. The Queen’s litter is depicted as followed by six ladies riding upon palfreys, and by three chariots each followed similarly: these would be the peeresses and ladies of the household. Behind the last chariot come the henchmen upon their steering horses – depicted in pretty, prancing attitudes. We get back to the first folio that gives us the Queen’s guard issuing from the Tower gate, three by three – as the regular order of march was then – led by the captain of the guard and the master of the henchmen. In the background is the outer wall of the Tower, some roofs within and houses without – the last a tavern with its signboard out.

Returning to the centre of the book, we find a drawing of the entrance front of Westminster Hall and, opposite, the Queen’s table upon the dais at the upper end within, with the long boards laid lengthways down the Hall as in colleges today, where similar ways and customs continue. The next folios lay down the order of the procession to the Abbey, precisely as we shall see it took place. But we have two additional pieces of information: the earl of Huntingdon is given as bearing the Queen’s spurs, the earl of Bedford St Edward’s staff. Both these peers – the first of royal Plantagenet lineage, the second very much a new man, a Russell of the second generation – were decided Protestants, in favour of the new deal. A rubric is given: ‘Nota that neither Dukes Marquises Earls nor Viscounts put on their caps of estate with coronals on their heads until the Queen’s Highness be crowned and then they to put on the same and so to continue all day long until the Queen’s Highness be withdrawn into her chamber at night.’

Most interesting of all are the two folios at the end that give us the lay-out for the ceremonies in the Abbey. The central space at the crossing, where so many coronations have taken place, is railed off to make a square enclosure. Within it the ‘throne’ is erected: an octagonal platform raised high with ‘the chair upon the throne’, and with several steps up to the platform from the choir on one side and from the altar on the other. A trap-door in the corner leads to a ‘chamber under the throne’; there are men to guard this chamber and the steps on either side. Going up towards the altar, on the north side standing room is railed off for the rest of the Council who are not lords, and on the south side for the ambassadors.

Lastly, we see the disposition of St Edward’s chapel; and we learn from this that the ‘Queen’s traverse to make her ready in after the ceremonies and service done’ is placed within it on the south side of the altar. Before the altar are placed the cushions for the Queen to kneel upon ‘when she shall offer to St Edward’s shrine’. Outside the chapel, in the sanctuary on the south side are placed ‘the carpet and cushions for the Queen to kneel upon when she taketh her prayers to Almighty God before she doeth to (be) anointed and crowned. The carpet is of blue velvet and the cushions of cloth of gold.’ Straight in front of the high altar is shown ‘the carpet of cloth of gold and cushions of the same for the Queen to be anointed’. This lay-out of the space clears up one or two points that have been matter of historical dispute; for example, it makes it quite clear that the traverse to which the Queen retired at an important moment in the service was off the stage entirely: it was into St Edward’s chapel that she withdrew.

One general reflection that is borne home to us from a scrutiny of this prompt-book, so to say – corroborated by our knowledge of what took place – is that the coronation was essentially a personal affair of the sovereign, attended upon by the nobility and the bishops, the officers of state and of the household: an affair of the Court, with which the general public had very little to do – except as spectators, and they were almost exclusively the people of London – and to which the mayor and aldermen were invited as a matter of courtesy.

Sunday, January 16th, was the day of the coronation. The streets of Westminster were new-laid with gravel and blue cloth, and railed in on each side. The Queen came from Whitehall first to Westminster Hall, preceded by trumpets, knights and lords and heralds at arms; then came the nobles and bishops in scarlet; last, the Queen with all her footmen waiting on her. Here she was vested in her robes of state and was met by the bishop who was to perform the ceremony, with all the chapel Royal in their copes, the bishop mitred. The Archbishop of Canterbury, Cardinal Pole, was dead and the see vacant; if Cranmer had been alive he would have crowned Elizabeth, as he had her mother, but unfortunately he had been burned by Mary. The duty – or privilege – fell to Nicholas Heath, Archbishop of York; but the bishops were sulking, since they could get no guarantees that Elizabeth would follow a Catholic course and they had their just suspicions. In the end, Oglethorpe, Bishop of Carlisle – a not very important ecclesiastic – was persuaded to do the job. With the chapel singing the traditional Salve festa dies, they all passed into the Abbey.

Since Mary’s coronation was only five years away, many of the officers of state bearing principal parts were the same. Some were Catholics, some Protestants, but most had their eye to the main chance and were, like sensible men, prepared to swim with the tide. And what experiences they had survived: the terror of Henry’s reign, the rapids of Edward VI’s, the hollow reaction of Mary’s. Some of these men had taken part in all the ceremonies of these years – Henry, Edward, Mary’s funerals, the coronations of Anne Boleyn, Edward and Mary. The most notable figures of those years were absent: dukes in particular were wanting: Somerset, Northumberland, Suffolk had lost their heads; only the young Norfolk remained to play a part today, and he was to lose his a dozen years later.

Of the swords of state borne before the Queen, the chief, Curtana – the short, blunt sword of mercy – was carried by the Earl of Derby, who had carried it at Mary’s coronation. This was Edward, 3rd Earl, who was at heart a Catholic and had frequently taken part in proceedings against Protestants in her reign. Now he was facing the prospect of a new deal. He was to conform and take part, without enthusiasm, in Elizabeth’s proceedings against Catholics. It was due to his pulling his punch that Lancashire and Cheshire, where he ruled, were inadequately reformed and that so many Catholics continued in those parts. The second sword was carried by the Earl of Rutland. He was a Protestant, who had been a follower of Northumberland; but he conformed under Mary and now sailed into safe harbour with Elizabeth, who regarded him with favour for he was intelligent and liked learning. He was soon to be made ruler of the North, as Lord President. The Earl of Worcester, a Catholic, carried thethird sword. He became a patron of the drama: his company of actors were entertained at Stratford when Shakespeare’s father was bailiff. The Earl of Westmorland bore the fourth sword, also a Catholic, whose foolish young son was to break out into rebellion in 1569 – the Rising of the Northern Earls – and ruin his family.

Behind them came the Earl of Arundel: he was Lord High Steward at the coronation and bore the sceptre, as he had done at Mary’s. Twelfth earl, immensely aristocratic and conservative, he detested the new dealers of which the key-figure was the new Secretary of State, William Cecil – and was politically rather stupid. He involved himself later in the plots of Norfolk to marry Mary Stuart and, outwitted and defeated, had to retire from the Council. He was lucky that worse didn’t happen to him; but Cecil was not a vengeful man. Next came the marquis of Winchester, Lord Treasurer, bearing the orb as he had done for Mary. He was a clever, complaisant Paulet, who was prepared to do anything for anybody within reason. He held high office under four reigns; Henry, Edward, Mary, Elizabeth – all found him indispensable. Once, when somebody asked the old man how he had managed to survive so many storms, he said that the clue was that he was made of willow, not oak. He was very useful, allthe more so for keeping his head; he made, of course, a great fortune and built a vast house. Last, before the Queen, came the man who could have learnt most from him, the only remaining duke, the young and foolish Norfolk; a cousin of Elizabeth’s, he bore the crown.

Then came the Queen, her train borne by her cousin on the Tudor side, the countess of Lennox, to whose issue the crown was to descend, for she was mother of Darnley, grandmother of James I. She was helped in holding up the train by the Lord Chamberlain, another of the Queen’s Howard cousinage – Lord Howard of Effingham a popular bluff fighting man, father of a more famous son. So they all passed into the Abbey, the people scrabbling for the blue cloth they had walked on, as soon as the Queen had gone by – the custom, apparently, at coronations.

Arrived, the Queen was placed in a chair of estate in the middle of the crossing, facing the high altar. At once the recognition – the first part of the coronation service – took place. She was conducted between two lords to be proclaimed by the bishop and acclaimed by the people in four directions – north, south, east, and west – the trumpets sounding at each proclamation. The two peers provided a nice symbolic contrast: Arundel, of the old Norman nobility, catholic and cultured; Pembroke, one of the newly risen Herberts, a doughty soldier, hardly literate but a great favourite with Henry, who had made him his immense fortune from the spoils of the Church.

Next come the offering: the Queen was led before the high altar and, kneeling before a bishop seated there, kissed the paten and made her offering of gold. Then seated in a chair before the altar she heard the sermon, preached by a bishop: we do not know who. After the sermon, the Queen now kneeling, came the bidding of the beads – i.e., the bidding of the people’s prayers – an old-established practice in England reaching back to earliest times, and of interest since it was the one part of the ceremony said in English amid all the other devotions said or sung in Latin.

There followed the administering of the customary oaths by the bishop to the Queen: to keep the laws and customs of England, to keep peace to the Church and people, to execute justice in mercy and truth. Here there stepped forward that symptomatic figure, Secretary Cecil, master-mind of the new regime, to hand a copy of the oaths to the bishop. What was he doing here? he was no ecclesiastic: I cannot but think this the most symbolic move in the whole show. Next came the most sacred moment of the ceremony – the consecration and anointing of the Queen. This was initiated by the singing of Veni, Creator and the Litany, and the saying of several long prayers. Previous sovereigns had endured this lying prostrate on cushions before the altar, and Mary had not been the one to omit it. Elizabeth politely knelt: no doubt she held that sufficient.

Now she was vested for the anointing; buskins, sandals and girdle put on, and over all a tabard of white sarsnet, the vestment called the colobium sindonis. Upon her head was placed a coif to protect the holy oil from running down – the coif, we know from the accounts, was of cambric lace; there were gloves of white linen and fine cotton wool to dry up the oil after the anointing. We do not know, but, presumably, Elizabeth was anointed in the five places usual then: palms of the hands, breast, between the shoulders, on the inside of the elbows, and lastly on the head. The anointing over, the Queen was invested and made ready for the delivery of the ornaments, the symbols of power. The gloves were presented to her by the lord of the manor of Worksop, who was the Earl of Shrewsbury – subsequently keeper of Mary Stuart and husband of Bess of Hardwick. The sword was offered to the Queen and redeemed by Arundel, as Lord Steward. Last came the delivery of the sceptre and the orb. Thus equipped, she was crowned, with all the trumpets sounding; and, though our account does not mention it, no doubt all the peers and peeresses put on their coronets at that moment. After that came the homaging. The Queen had re-delivered the sword and laid it on the altar, and now returned to her chair of estate. The Bishop of Carlisle put his hand to the Queen’s hand and did homage first. Then followed the temporal peers first kneeling and then kissing the Queen; the bishops likewise. This was a reversal of the traditional order followed at Mary’s coronation: with that pious devote the Church came first; Elizabeth thought more of the temporal than of the spiritual.

When the bishop began the mass, the Queen was seated holding sceptre and orb. The epistle and gospel were read in both Latin and English, and the gospel was brought her to kiss. She then made her second offering, going to the altar, preceded by three naked swords and a sword in the scabbard. There she kissed the pax. But immediately upon the consecration of the elements beginning, it seems undoubted that the Queen withdrew to her traverse. Let us hope that she took the opportunity to have some refreshment, before the next stage, the procession to Westminster Hall for the banquet. She certainly changed her apparel and came forth in a ‘rich mantle and surcoat of purple velvet furred with ermines’.

For the last stage, she left bishops and clergy behind her in the Abbey – they had after all performed their function and served her turn – and carrying sceptre and orb in her hands, ‘she returned very cheerfully, with a most smiling countenance for every one, giving them a thousand greetings, so that in my opinion’ – says an Italian onlooker – ‘she exceeded the bounds of gravity and decorum.’ She could well afford to be pleased with herself. She had been crowned with full Catholic ritual without committing herself to the maintenance of her sister’s Catholicism, indeed leaving herself free to follow the course she thought best for the country.

A.L. Rowse’s The England of Elizabeth is republished by Palgrave, 2003.

Historical dictionary: Elizabethan era


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