England,  ER,  Western Europe

Accession Day

Elizabeth I borne aloft by her courtiers during a procession in this c1601 painting by Robert Peake Photo Credit - Bridgeman Art Library
Elizabeth I borne aloft by her courtiers during a procession in this c1601 painting by Robert Peake Photo Credit – Bridgeman Art Library

Many people in England were sick of the reign of Mary I. Protestants were being burned on a regular basis, inflation was sky high and she had lost Calais, the last outpost of English dominion in France. Mary herself was desperately unhappy as she had not provided the realm a Catholic heir and was essentially abandoned by her husband, Philip II of Spain. In her last days, she consoled by a vision of angels “like little children”. On November 17, 1558 she received Holy Communion then lost consciousness and never awoke again. (For more on Mary and Elizabeth please see these posts: http://www.historynaked.com/elizabeth-mary-ever-devoted-sisters/ and http://www.historynaked.com/elizabeth-mary-part-2-surviving-sister-wars/ )

Though the Queen was dead, the court moved on and moved on quickly. Sir Nicholas Throckmorton rode from Hatfield to London carrying Mary’s coronation ring as Elizabeth knew her half sister would never take it off while alive. Legend says she was found under an old oak tree, the symbol of England, reading a book. When they presented the ring to her with the news of her half sister’s death, Elizabeth is said to have sank to her knees and spoke the words of Psalm 118 in a voice trembling with emotion. “This is the Lord’s doing: it is marvellous in our eyes.” Another story told by Sir John Harington, Elizabeth’s godson, and corroborated by David Starkey, says Elizabeth gave the following speech.

“My lords, the law of nature moveth me to sorrow for my sister; the burden that is fallen upon me maketh me amazed; and yet, considering I am God’s creature, ordained to obey His appointment, I will thereto yield, desiring from the bottom of my heart that I may have assistance of His grace to be the minister of His heavenly will in this office now committed to me. And as I am but one body naturally considered, though by His permission a body politic to govern, so I shall desire you all, my lords (chiefly you of the nobility, everyone in his degree and power), to be assistant to me, that I with my ruling and you with your service may make a good account to almighty God and leave some comfort to our posterity in earth. I mean to direct all my actions by good advice and counsel. And therefore, considering that divers of you be of the ancient nobility, having your beginnings and estates of my progenitors, kings of this realm, and thereby ought in honour to have the more natural care for maintaining of my estate and this commonwealth; some others have been of long experience in governance and enabled by my father of noble memory, my brother, and my late sister to bear office; the rest of you being upon special trust lately called to her service only and trust, for your service considered and rewarded; my meaning is to require of you all nothing more but faithful hearts in such service as from time to time shall be in your powers towards the preservation of me and this commonwealth. And for council and advice I shall accept you of my nobility, and such others of you the rest as in consultation I shall think meet and shortly appoint, to the which also, with their advice, I will join to their aid, and for ease of their burden, others meet for my service. And they which I shall not appoint, let them not think the same for any disability in them, but for that I do consider a multitude doth make rather discord and confusion than good counsel. And of my goodwill you shall not doubt, using yourselves as appertaineth to good and loving subjects.”

Though her formal coronation day was not until January, November 17 became known as Accession Day or Queene’s Day and was celebrated with jousting, bonfires and pageantry as early as the 1570’s. The first celebration is thought to have been a bell ringing in Oxford. Although there is also evidence that Oxford was beaten to the punch by Lambeth, who rang their bells in 1569. All of this was a spontaneous celebration of the country’s “salvation” from the Catholics. Elizabeth’s reign was rife with rumors of rebellion and Catholic plots, and this was a way to show loyalty the Queen. Other cities soon followed with bonfires being lit in York and London. This was soon turned into a new “holy day” of the Anglican church to give thanks for the Queen who delivered England from “from danger of war and oppression, restoring peace and true religion”

Essex in "sable sad" armour, probably for the Tilt of 1590
Essex in “sable sad” armour, probably for the Tilt of 1590

Sir Henry Lee of Ditchley was the Queen’s Champion and formalized the Accession Day tilts. By the 1580’s, they had become the most important court festival. Thousands were recorded to have been in attendance and the public was allowed to watch the festivities for a small fee. Lists of knights involved in the tilts survives and comprise a Who’s Who of Elizabeth’s court. Some of the notables include the Francis Russell, 2nd Earl of Bedford; Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton; Charles Howard, 1st Earl of Nottingham, 2nd Baron Howard of Effingham; and of course Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex. The tilts were so popular that Sir James Scudamore, who jousted in the 1595 tournament, was added to Edmund Spenser’s epic The Faerie Queene.

These jousts and tilts were dangerous, but an air of romance and entertainment dominated. Each knight paraded into the tiltyard at Whitehall Palace dressed as a figure from mythology or literature. A great platform was built for the Queen and her ladies to view the festivities. They were obstensively in disguise and their costumes included trappings for their steeds or a pageant car of some kind. They were attended by a cadre of servants also in costume to match their master’s theme. The more ostentatious the better, so the expense of these each year was huge to the contestants. Some even hired professional actors or poets to augment the tableaux. Notables such as Francis Bacon and Philip Sidney lent their talents to the Accession Day pageants of their peers. After they arrived at the tournament grounds, each knight was presented with a pasteboard shield decorated with the character’s “devise”. This would explain the significance of the character in poetry or mythology. The characters were naturally chosen to flatter the Queen, however, some of the choices were more serious than others as this was a perfect opportunity for a noble to plead his case or beg for forgiveness. For example, after the Earl of Essex failed at pacifying Ireland, he appeared in the 1590 Accession Day tilt in deep black and carried on a bier as if at a funeral. Her majesty was not amused or impressed. After the Queen and her ladies watched the entrances, the jousting began. The festivities usually last until late into the afternoon.

Lee continued to arrange these festivities until he retired as the Queen’s Champion in 1590. Then the honor was passed to George Clifford, 3rd Earl of Cumberland, while the Earl of Worcester took over organizing the tilts. The last Accession Day tilt was held in November 1602 as the Queen died in March of 1603. A similar celebration was done for James I every March 24, his accession day, but after that the custom mostly died out. Bonfires were still lit on November 17 in England and Wales for about 300 years before the celebrations ended. However, the custom was revived in the village of Berry Pomeroy in Devon in 2005. Celebrations begin with evensong in the parish church and end with an effigy of Satan burned on a bonfire.


Sources available on request