Louise of Savoy- The King’s Mother Part II

Louise of Savoy symbolically taking over the “rudder” in 1525, and requesting the help of Suleiman the Magnificent, here shown lying at her feet enturbanned.

As we discussed in Part I, Louise of Savoy was a huge influence on her son and instrumental in bringing him to the throne of France.  (Please see here for this post:  http://www.historynaked.com/louise-savoy-kings-mother-part/ ).  So in 1515, Francis ascended the throne of France, but he went off to enjoy the pleasures of being king and left the governing in the capable hands of his mother.  Louise was prepared for the job as she watched Anne of Beaujeu run the country in her youth.  Ambassadors and other notables of the court knew to go to her and treated her as if she was the crowned queen.  However, she was always careful to defer to the actual queen- Claude, daughter of her old rival Anne of Brittany.  There are reports that Claude and Louise did not get along.  It would make sense as Louise and her mother were on terrible terms.  Pierre de Bourdeille Brantôme in his Book of the Ladies, claims Louise treated Claude very harshly.  Claude was extremely popular while Louise did not gain the love of the people, and was described as a “a most terrible woman” by the Venetian ambassador.  That probably didn’t help either.  Despite this, the two were in constant company for the most of their lives, even when Claude was a child.  In her journal, Louise referred to Claude as “my daughter”, which might have just been courtesy for the time or could hint at a closer relationship.  I imagine this relationship was much more complex than simple rivalry.

Francis had his mother elevated to the title of Duchess of Angoulême and later Duchess of Anjou.  She made a claim to the Duchy of Bourbon, which was disputed with Duke Charles III.  The easiest way out of the difficulty was for the two to marry.  Louise was still considered an attractive woman.  An Italian ambassador describes her by saying she looked young for her age and she was “an unusually tall woman, still finely complexioned, very rubicund and lively.”  However, Duke Charles did not agree and turned her down.  Well, that didn’t go over well.  Louise use every bit of influence she had, which by this time was considerable, to take him down.  Eventually, he was exiled, punished for rebellion and lost his titles and lands.  Guess who got them?  I’ll give you three guesses and the first two don’t count.

Although Louise was only technically regent while Francis was off fighting in Italy, she appointed men to offices who followed her lead.  These men stayed in power even after Francis returned in 1516, and as such her influence was strong in the government.  In 1520, the young English king and the young French king met for the first time at the Field of the Cloth of Gold.  Louise did much of the planning of the display for Henry VIII.  Although she was not technically the queen, Louise arrived in splendor riding in a black velvet litter with a considerable number of ladies dressed in crimson velvet with sleeves slashed with gold.  Relations with England were always iffy at best.  Although she negotiated The Treaty of the Moor, worked out with the ever present Cardinal Wolsey  (more on him in this post:  http://www.historynaked.com/cardinal-thomas-wolsey/ ) to pay England to cease hostilities with France, relations were never very good.

Louise was in charge at this time because Francis had taken up fighting in Italy again, and at this time was captured by the Holy Roman Emperor.  He was imprisoned in Spain, and wrote a sorrowful letter to his mother saying “nothing is left but my honour and my life.” He begged her “not to lose heart,” but to “exercise” her “customary prudence.” He recommended to her his “little children,” who were, he reminded her, also hers. He signed himself her “humble and obedient son.”  Louise was distraught, but she mobilized her forces to free her son and protect his lands.  The Treaty of the Moor kept England off their backs for the time being, and undertook the tricky charge of raising the ransom to get Francis out of prison.  Parliaments are touchy about money and the Parlement of Paris tried to get a different regent installed.  They failed.  They didn’t know who they were dealing with.  Even the chancellor of France assured the captive king that the “said lady has managed so well that the rea[l]m is on its accustomed footing.”

Looking for allies, Louise thought outside the box and sent overtures to Ottoman Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent.  The Turks had long been a scourge on the borders of the Holy Roman Empire, and Louise was happy to make a deal with them to free her son.  Her first set of ambassadors were lost in Bosnia, but the second set arrived in Constantinople in December 1525.  This was the first steps in the Franco-Ottoman alliance, which held until the Napoleonic campaign in Ottoman Egypt in 1798.

The Treaty of Madrid in 1526 negotiated to free her son was punishing, but she signed it.  They had to relinquish the territory of Burgundy to Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, renounce all claims to Italy and Francis was to marry the widowed sister of Charles V, Eleanor of Portugal.  The most heartbreaking condition of all was Francis’ two sons were to be held hostage for their father at the Holy Roman court.  The treaty was signed on January 20, 1526, but neither Francis or his mother intended to keep any of the promises made.  At first he played for time.  He was in mourning for his first wife, Claude, who had died while he was on campaign.  FInally, the matter was settled at the Treaty of Cambrai.  Louise negotiated for France and her son, and her old companion Margaret of Austria negotiated for her nephew Charles V and the Holy Roman Empire.  As such the treaty was called Paix des Dames or Peace of the Ladies.  In it Francis gave up claims to Italy, but claims to Burgundy were restored.  His sons were escorted back to France by Eleanor, who became Francis’ wife.

Legend has it, Louise felt a chill while watching a comet in Grez-sur-Loing.  She died shortly after on September 22, 1531.  She was entombed at Saint-Denis in Paris.  A just reward after a life of service to her country, king and son.


Louise of Savoy- The King’s Mother Part I

The royal line of France is somewhat of a tangle because of their insistence on Salic Law, which said the crown could not be claimed through the line of female descent.  (For more on why this was enforced, see this post:  http://www.historynaked.com/tour-de-nesle-affair-medieval-soap-opera/ )  This did not stop French history from being full of powerful and strong women.  They just remain ostensibly behind the scenes.  Louise of Savoy was one such woman.

Born on September 11, 1476 at Pont-d’Ain, Louise was the daughter of Duke Philip II of Savoy and Princess Marguerite of Bourbon.  Louise is described as vivacious and tall with light brown hair and blue eyes.  Louise’s mother died of tuberculosis when she was seven.  After this tragic event, Louise and her brother Philibert left Pont-d’Ain to be raised at the French court.  They went into the household of Anne de Beaujeu, the formidable daughter of King Louis XI and the unofficial regent of her younger brother King Charles VIII.  Louise was given an excellent education and was able to rub elbows with the court.  Some notables included Margaret of Austria who was engaged to Charles although it was later repudiated and Diane de Poitier (see more about her in this post:  http://www.historynaked.com/diane-de-poitiers/ ).  Although she was a poor relation of “Madame la Grande”, as Anne of Beaujeu was called, she was receiving a bird’s eye view of how to run the country from an expert.

Louise was an eligible prospect and her marriage was soon arranged at the tender age of 12.  She was to mary Charles, Count of Angoulême who was seventeen years older than she was.  Louise was frightened of marrying such an older man, and expressed her fears to her father who later wrote of them to his second wife.  He writes. “My daughter says she is still too narrow, and does not know whether she might die of it; so much so that she asks every day how big and how long his thing is, and whether it is as big and long as her arm.”  Her father wrote this as a humorous anecdote, but how scary this business of marrying off young girls was.  Poor little thing.  The living situation was less than ideal as her husband had not one but two mistresses in his household.  This was not unusual and the advice of the day was for a wise wife to ignore it, even befriend the mistresses.  Eventually, his illegitimate children with these women were raised in the household along side his legitimate heirs.  I would have made a terrible medieval wife.   Moving on.

The marriage went on as planned, but when Louise was not pregnant two years later at the ripe old age of 14, she went on a pilgrimage to Plessis-lez-Tours, where the Italian hermit Francis of Paola lived.  He was believed to work miracles especially those concerning childbirth.  At their meeting, Francis of Paola prophesied Louise would give birth to a son who would be king.  There was not a straight line from her child to the throne, but it was a hope Louise never gave up for her son born September 12, 1494.  She named him after the hermit, and guiding Francis to the throne of France was her all consuming drive.  She called him “her pacific Caesar”.  When Charles of Angoulême  died in 1495, Francis took his place in line for the throne.  Weirdly, Charles VIII died after hitting his head on a low hanging doorway in 1498, which moved Francis one space closer.

Louis XII was the successor to the throne and married Anne of Brittany, making her Queen of France for the second time as she was Charles VIII’s widow.  These family trees look like spider webs.  However, they only had daughters.  Louis doted on Francis, who became the heir presumptive and was betrothed to their oldest daughter, Claude.  Louise and Anne of Brittany hated one another.  Anne was determined to keep Francis from the throne and have a son of her own, but had miscarriage after stillbirth.  Louise kept track of these birthing adventures in her journal with a cold calculations.  Anne died in January 1514, and left her children in Louise’s care.  Even though they had been bitter rivals in life, Anne knew Louise would put Claude on the throne just to get Francis on the throne.

It looked like there was a clear path to the crown, but old Louis decided to take a young bride, the beautiful Mary Tudor, sister of Henry VIII.  She was eighteen, healthy and unbelievably gorgeous.  If this young woman bore a son, Francis was out of luck.  However, Louis tried much too hard to keep up with his vigorous young bride and “died of his pleasure” on January 1, 1515.  Mary was put into seclusion as la Reine Blanche or “the White Queen”, ordered to wear white gowns and wait for a month to see if she was carrying the next heir to the throne of France.  In her seclusion, Francis visited her and asked her frankly if she was pregnant.  Mary assured him she was not, and Francis was proclaimed king.  In gratitude or perhaps to deprive Henry VIII of a valuable pawn on the marriage market, he helped facilitate Mary’s secret marriage with Charles Brandon.  (For more on this, please see post:  http://www.historynaked.com/charles-brandon-part-i/ )

Francis was crowned king of France on January 1, 1515, and decided to take full advantage of being king.  The country he left in his mother’s capable hands.  More on that in the next post.  (Part 2 of this post is here:  http://www.historynaked.com/louise-savoy-kings-mother-part-ii/ )



Kidnapping a King-  The Fall of Thomas Seymour

Portrait of Thomas Seymour, 1st Baron Seymour of Sudeley Photo Credit-  By Nicholas Denizot - http://collections.rmg.co.uk/collections/objects/14494.html
Portrait of Thomas Seymour, 1st Baron Seymour of Sudeley Photo Credit- By Nicholas Denizot – http://collections.rmg.co.uk/collections/objects/14494.html

Henry VIII had labored over the need for a son.  He changed the country’s religion and sent two women to their death- one by neglect the other to the block- to get his much beloved son.  Finally, Edward was born to his third wife, Jane Seymour, on October 12, 1537.  Jane died in the process and Henry grieved, but it was a small price to pay for an heir.  Edward’s life and health was guarded zealously as he was the one thing standing between the Tudor dynasty and oblivion.

However, Henry didn’t live as long as he had planned.  Most people don’t.  He left Edward a ten year old boy king instead of the strong heir he had hoped.  In his will, Henry set up a regency council of peers- men who would be equal to each other to guide the young king.  Once he was dead, this plan was thrown out.  The earl of Hertford, Jane’s brother Edward Seymour, and Sir William Paget made their play.  Hertford was made Lord Protector for his young nephew, Edward.  Hertford was then raised to the dukedom of Somerset.  A few months later when his ally Lord Rich was appointed lord chancellor, Somerset was now the most powerful man in England.  He was king in all but name.

Many people weren’t thrilled to see Hertford in the seat of power- John Dudley, earl of Northumberland for one and his own brother Thomas Seymour, Baron Seymour of Sudeley.  Thomas had married the king’s widow, Katherine Parr, in unseemly haste.  Edward seemed to have an amiable relationship with his younger brother, but was not about to relinquish guardianship of the king to him.  Thomas’ new marriage seemed only to underscore his naked ambition and a rift widened between the two.  Thomas protested that it was unfair one brother should have the power and he should get consolation prizes.  He went to great pains to ingratiate himself to the young king. Thomas brought him money and gifts and played the benevolent uncle to Somerset’s strict behavior.  Thomas also got himself the wardship of young Jane Grey, Edward’s cousin by Henry’s sister Mary’s daughter.  He promised the Grey’s he would arrange the girl’s marriage to the king.  How Thomas was going to do that, no one was quite sure.   He also tried to court the favor of Edward’s half sister, Mary.  However, perhaps most dangerously, and in my opinion most odiously, he began flirting shamelessly with the young Elizabeth Tudor, Edward’s sister who was living with his wife, Katherine Parr, at Chelsea.  The flirting could easily be construed as molestation in modern times as he climbed into the thirteen year old girl’s bed naked but for a nightshirt.  For more details on this, please see this post on young Elizabeth http://www.historynaked.com/elizabeth-tudor-early-years/


Somrset continued to lose popularity with both the king and his fellow nobles.  He lacked any tact and at one point reduced a colleague to tears with his sharp tongue.  He was significantly ill-equipped to balance the egos on the Council or his wife, Anne Stanhope.  She considered herself the first lady of the kingdom over Katherine Parr, Henry’s widow, or either of the princesses and was happy to let anyone who listened know it.  Anne refused to bear Katherine’s train, and even physically tried to push her out of her place at the head of their entrances and exits at court.  In short, she was a veritable shrew.  There was no love lost between the king and Somerset either.  Somerset treated Edward like a child, whereas both Dudley and Thomas treated him as a king.  In fact, Thomas remarked to Edward “ye must take upon you yourself to rule, for ye shall be able enough as well as other kings; and then ye may give your men somewhat; for your uncle is old, and I trust will not live long”. Edward’s reply was telling: “it were better that he should die”.  Yikes.

In the meantime, Katherine Parr died in childbirth giving Thomas a daughter, Mary.  Being free, he began looking for another wife and began meeting privately with Elizabeth’s cofferer, Thomas Perry, in London.  In other fronts, he met with Sir William Sharington, the under-treasurer at the Bristol mint.  Sharington began counterfeiting coins to pay for men to bring about a palace coup for control of the king.  Thomas Seymour was about to have it all.  A young royal bride and the king in his pocket.  Except it all went wrong.

Portrait of Edward VI in 1547, in a pose reminiscent of his father
Portrait of Edward VI in 1547, in a pose reminiscent of his father

Sharington got caught and the Bristol mint was searched by Somerset’s men.  The arrest could lead back to Thomas but the ambitious man kept going.  Underfunded and undermanned, Thomas pushed ahead with his crazy plan.  He began quizzing his main contact in the king’s privy chamber, John Fowler, about what the king was saying about him.  Then he wanted to know if the king was locked in at night.  He made comments like “there is a slender company about the king”, before stating that “a man might steal away the king now, for there come more with me than is in all the house besides”.  By day, Thomas attended Parliament, but by night was thinking up a kidnapping plan.  He was openly asking other disaffected nobles for support.  He was completely indiscreet and it was a matter of time before he was found out.  On January 16, 1549, a servant tipped him off that a deposition was made against Thomas by the Earl of Rutland.  He would be arrested soon.  It was time to act.

Fowler had supplied keys to Thomas for the king’s private apartments at Hampton Court.  That night, he entered through the privy garden and entered the room adjoining the king’s bedchamber.  Unfortunately, the king had a little dog, a spaniel, who slept in his bedroom.  The dog heard Thomas coming in and began barking.  Some reports say Thomas shot the dog, other say he stabbed it.  In either case, the barking summoned the Yeoman of the Guard who demanded an explanation.  The king woke and stood his bedroom doorway, in his nightshirt and visibly frightened.  Remember this was a ten year old boy who had been awakened from a dead sleep and watched his beloved uncle kill his dog.  Thomas tried to spin some line he was “testing the king’s guards”.  Then he tried to claim he had the king’s permission for everything.  None of this flew and he was taken to the Tower and beheaded on March 20, 1549.

The following scandal swept up Elizabeth and she barely kept her reputation and head.  In the end, Somerset fell as well and John Dudley step in to clean up the mess.

Sources available on request

Anne of Cleves- The Ugly Wife

220px-anne_of_cleves_by_hans_holbein_the_youngerWhen we discuss Henry VIII, we talk about his six wives-  the faithful one, the coquette, the mother, the ugly one, the flirt and the nurse.  Anne of Cleves was famously called by Henry VIII “the Flander’s Mare” and claimed that he was incapacitated by her “slack breasts” and “evil smells”.  But what do we know of this woman, who was defamed throughout England as too unattractive to marry?

Anne was born September 22, 1515 to Duke Johann III the late Duke of Juliers-Cleves.  She was the second daughter, and had a brother William, who became the Duke after her father’s death, and a sister Amalia.  Sybille was an older sister.  Anne was descended from both Edward I of England and John II of France.  The prevailing myth is that Juliers-Cleves was a backward part of the world.  However, it was an independent part of the Holy Roman Empire.  Her father was a patron of Erasmus, the famous Dutch Renaissance scholar, and was a good ruler.  The court was just with low taxes and was relatively unaffected by the religious storms sweeping Germany.  Johann’s wife, Maria, raised their daughters as Catholics, although Duke William became a Protestant when he succeeded to his father’s title.

Unlike Henry’s previous wives, Anne’s education was limited.  She only spoke German and did not play a musical instrument, a distinct handicap in the English court and paired with musically talented Henry.  At age 12, Anne was betrothed to Francis, son of the Duke of Lorraine.  This was not unusual for a girl at that time.  The prospective groom was only 10, so there was no hurry for the marriage.  Eventually, the support for this marriage petered out and the betrothal was put aside.  However, it would cause problems for Anne later in life.

In 1539, famous Tudor court painter Hans Holbein arrived at her home to pain her and her sister, Amalia.  They were under consideration to be the next wife of King Henry VIII.  Jane Seymour had died after giving birth to the future Edward VI.  Henry had remained single for a record two years after Jane’s death, but was now casting about looking for a new wife, someone who could give a spare to go with his heir.  Also in the running were Christina of Milan and Marie de Guise.  Christina was quoted as saying she would marry Henry if she had two heads, and Marie de Guise ended up marrying Henry’s nephew, James V of Scotland.  It is thought Henry’s chancellor, Thomas Cromwell, pushed him in the direction of an alliance with Cleves.  Cleves could stand as a buffer between England and the Holy Roman Empire and France.  France and the Holy Roman Empire had just signed a treaty setting the two of the against England.  A buffer was going to be necessary.  But Henry couldn’t marry anyone, and was very concerned Anne would be up to his standards.  Cromwell reassured Henry “Every man praiseth the beauty of the same lady [Anne] as well for the face as for the whole body… she excelleth as far the duchess [of Milan] as the golden sun excelleth the silver moon.”  Not wanting to take any chances, Holbein was dispatched.  Henry must have liked what he saw because the treaty was signed on October 4, 1539 and Anne was on her way a few weeks later.

Please keep in mind that at this time Henry was no longer the golden young king of his youth.  He was close to 50 years old had become rather grotesque.  He had gained untold amounts of weight and portraits show his small eyes and rosebud mouth buried in fat and he appears to have no neck.  The circumference of his doublets were said to measure 52 inches.  “The king was so stout that such a man has never been seen,” reported a visitor to court. “Three of the biggest men that could be found could get inside his doublet.”  He was not a young girl’s dream husband, but Anne was royal.  She knew her duty.

Anne appeared in Rochester Castle on New Year’s Eve.  In keeping with chivalric tradition, Henry came to her in disguise.  According to Eustace Chapuys, the Spanish ambassador, who was kept abreast of all the latest gossip, the meeting did not go well.  His reports say, “On New Year’s Eve the duke of Norfolk with other knights and the barons of the exchequer received her grace on the heath, two miles beyond Rochester, and so brought her to the abbey of Rochester where she stayed that night and all New Years Day. And on New Years Day in the afternoon the king’s grace with five of his privy chamber, being disguised with mottled cloaks with hoods so that they should not be recognized, came secretly to Rochester, and so went up into the chamber where the said Lady Anne was looking out of a window to see the bull-baiting which was going on in the courtyard, and suddenly he embraced and kissed her, and showed here a token which the king had sent her for New Year’s gift, and she being abashed and not knowing who it was thanked him, and so he spoke with her. But she regarded him little, but always looked out the window…. and when the king saw that she took so little notice of his coming he went into another chamber and took off his cloak and came in again in a coat of purple velvet. And when the lords and knights saw his grace they did him reverence…. and then her grace humbled herself lowly to the king’s majesty, and his grace saluted her again, and they talked together lovingly, and afterwards he took her by the hand and led her to another chamber where their graces amused themselves that night and on Friday until the afternoon.”  There is speculation that this meeting was even worse than is portrayed, but we cannot know for sure.

Henry VIII of England Photo Credit- Wikipedia
Henry VIII of England Photo Credit- Wikipedia

At any rate, Henry was not pleased with his new bride.  He blamed others for over praising her beauty, but luckily never went after Holbein, who remained court painter.  However, despite popular legend, Henry never called Anne a “Flanders Mare”.  That was a story popularized by Bishop Gilbert Burnet in the late 17th century.  However, Henry did look for any way to get out of the wedding.  Plus, the truce between France and the Holy Roman Empire was disintegrating, so the diplomatic reasons for the marriage were gone as well.  Unable to find an excuse, Henry went through with the marriage, but Anne’s days as queen were numbered.  There is a detailed account of the wedding night, and it is much less salacious than anyone would imagine.  It was reported the king inspected his new wife’s body and complained of the “looseness of her breasts” and declared she was “no maid”.  He confided she could not “provoke any lust” in him and he left her a maid.   Henry was quick to insist to his physician that didn’t mean he was impotent as he had two “wet dreams”.  

This had to be completely embarrassing for a young wife to hear.  Additional testimony depicts Anne as completely ignorant of sex and what it took to make a son.  The Countess of Rutland reported that Anne claimed Henry only kissed her goodnight and good morning, and that she thought this was normal for married people.  Could she be this ignorant?  It is possible.  However, it must have been humiliating to have your new husband, who was no prize himself, discussing your “evil smells” and the “slackness of [your] belly”.  It did not help matters that Henry had cast his eyes on young Katherine Howard, a very young beauty who was a lady in waiting to the queen.  Henry had to be rid of Anne.

As architect of the Cleves marriage, Thomas Cromwell took the fall.  He was arrested for treason and forced to give evidence for the annulment from the Tower.  Eventually, he would be beheaded.  The old betrothal to the Duke of Lorraine was brought into play as the reason the marriage was invalid.  Fearing the fate of Anne Boleyn, Anne agreed even though she doomed herself to a life alone as she could not marry as long as the Duke of Lorraine was alive.  Anne wrote a letter of submission to the king and was declared his “beloved royal sister”.  From her new manors of Hever Castle, she watched her former lady in waiting Katherine Howard marry Henry.

However, Katherine didn’t fair well either as she was eventually sent to the block for adultery.  At that time, Anne had her brother pursue possibly remarrying Henry to become queen again.  Henry refused and married Catherine Parr.  Anne was again humiliated and was said to have gone into a deep depression.  Rumors went round that Anne had given birth to the king’s son, and was mentioned to the King’s Council at least twice.  However, these rumors were dropped in 1542.

Anne outlived Henry and survived into the reign of his daughter Mary, and rode in her coronation procession in 1553.  She died at Chelsea Manor on July 16,1557 at 42 of suspected cancer.  Anne is the only one of Henry’s queens buried in Westminster Abbey.


Sources available on request

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