Friday, 28 May 2010

There were never such devoted sisters: Mary and Elizabeth

Some time ago I discovered the script for the play, Bloody Queen and the Virgin Queen which, as the title suggests, concerns England’s first two crowned queen regnants. The comedy was initially performed at Warwick Arts Centre in 1997 (I am unaware of how many times it has been subsequently staged). It is an amusing piece, performed by just two actors, during which the two half-sisters discuss their reigns and their relationship. The play conveyed the sore points between the two. Here are a few of the, shall we say ‘disagreements’.

You’re not my sister; your father could be any Tom, Dick or Harry...or Mark

Liz: You’re just jealous Mary. Jealous.

Mary: Jealous? Jealous? Of a Lute Player’s Daughter? Who was you father Lizzie? King Henry VIII? I don’t think so – Mark Smeaton was it? Mummie’s lute player? There’s not a drop of blue blood in your veins – not even your varicose ones – you’re just a glorified commoner!

Liz: Malicious gossip! Of course I’m King Henry’s daughter, of course I am. Look at me, it’s obvious. Look at me! I’m the Spit of him. I look more like King Henry than King Henry looked like himself! I am the Image of my father – everybody said so.

Mary: They wouldn’t dare say otherwise – ‘Oh Good morning your Royal Highness, you know it’s funny don’t half remind me of your mother’s lute player...’ You’d have them strapped to the rack, fingernails out, eyes popped, hung, drawn and quartered. And they call Me the bloody one – Good Queen Bess? More like Good Queen Butcher.

Yes, the subject of Elizabeth’s paternity was raised. Ironic given that Elizabeth appears to have resembled Henry VIII more than any of his other children. But given the circumstances of her mother’s downfall it was not surprising that this could be used against her. Mary was alleged to have announced that Elizabeth was not her father’s daughter and thus her half-sister, but was the child of Mark Smeaton, the musician who had been condemned for adultery with Anne Boleyn and executed in 1536. Mary was neither the first nor the last to allege that Elizabeth was not the child of Henry VIII. During Anne Boleyn’s downfall, the imperial ambassador Eustace Chapuys incorrectly reported that the infant Elizabeth would be soon declared as the daughter of Henry Norris, one of the other men accused of committing adultery with Anne. In fact Henry VIII never doubted Elizabeth’s paternity and granted her, alongside Mary, a place within the succession. There appears to be no validity behind Mary’s allegations. David Loades has also referred to such remarks as the possibly the product of ‘diplomatic chatter’; did Mary actually say such things or were ambassadors reporting wild rumours? If we accept that Mary did state that Elizabeth looked rather like the former court musician, did she actually believe this? She never acted upon such views and treated Elizabeth, officially at least, as her sister. It is clear that Mary was dissatisfied with having Elizabeth as her heir and her frustration about this situation probably prompted her to voice such sentiments.

And how did Elizabeth respond? According to the Venetian ambassador,

she prides herself on her father and glories in him; everybody saying that she also resembles him more than the Queen does; and he therefore always liked her and had her brought up in the same way as the Queen”.

She was Henry VIII’s daughter; let no one forget it.

Your mother was a bitch who made my life hell!

Mary: She [Anne Boleyn] was an insatiable goggle-eyed whore who slept with her own brother to satisfy her craven sexual appetites!

Liz: You know as well as I do that she was framed.

Mary: She’d a hooked nose, a poxy neck and wanted to kill me.

Liz: I don’t know why you’re so aggressive, she apologised before she was executed. I hardly knew my mother, you did, you could tell me all the nice things about her.

Mary: Nice things! She once thought I’d curtsied to her in church when I was practically being sick in the aisle at the mere sight of her!

The fact that Elizabeth was the daughter of Anne Boleyn did not prevent Mary and Elizabeth from having an amicable relationship in the later years of Henry VIII’s reign and throughout Edward VI’s reign (though they rarely saw each other during Edward’s reign). But it was a factor that could not be overlooked and, if we credit the reports of the imperial and Venetian ambassadors during Mary’s reign, this became an issue for Mary. To leave the throne to the daughter of a woman whom Mary blamed for causing so much ill in her life – for being her own mother’s usurper – was a difficult pill to swallow. One of her first acts as queen was to announce that her mother’s marriage to Henry VIII had been valid, that she was legitimate, and hence Anne Boleyn had truly been, in the words of Chapuys, a ‘concubine’. Yet again Elizabeth had to respond. As she told the Venetian ambassador, “her mother would never cohabit with the King unless by way of marriage, with the authority of the Church, and the intervention of the Primate of England”. As queen, Elizabeth would refer to her mother on numerous occasions as her father’s wife and as a queen. During her own coronation, Elizabeth’s mother was presented as a queen consort resplendent in her regalia, alongside Elizabeth’s other royal ancestors. Elizabeth also ensured that Katherine of Aragon was never laid to rest in Westminster Abbey in a tomb that would present her as Henry VIII’s true wife as Mary requested. Elizabeth had made her point, and like her sister she had made it well.

You tried to kill me! So much for sisterly love...

Mary: Did you help plot my death? Were you part of the Wyatt rebellion?

Liz: I knew that on was coming, could feel it in my bones.

Mary: Answer!

This one worked both ways :)

In 1554, Elizabeth was sent to the Tower on charges of treason. Evidence linking her to Wyatt’s rebellion, an uprising primarily against Mary’s intended marriage to Philip of Spain, was uncovered. Worse still, there were rumours that the rebels intended to overthrow Mary and replace her with Elizabeth who would marry Edward Courtenay, earl of Devon, the man whom certain individuals had wanted Mary to marry. Some called for Elizabeth’s execution, though her supporters outranked her critics. In the end she was released from the Tower – on the day that her mother had met her end in the same gloomy place – and placed under house arrest.

This was one of the most important and damaging episodes in the pair’s relationship. Elizabeth’s loyalty to her sister was undermined and Mary, who already was uneasy about having Elizabeth as her heir, became more ardent in her displeasure. The extent of Elizabeth’s complicity in the uprising is questionable though clearly she was being sent bits of information. But how much she was being told – whether, for instance, she knew of plans to marry her off to Courtenay and agreed with such plans – remains unanswered. I suspect Elizabeth was guilty of knowing something was afoot and of absenting herself through this escapade, waiting it out to see who would succeed. She took a similar approach in the succession crisis of July 1553. Were Mary’s actions unpardonable? Not really. Elizabeth was a suspected traitor; sending her in the Tower was not an exceptional move. Mary has been criticised for treating her heir in such a fashion, but the fact that her successor may have been involved in treason made the matter incredibly serious. As queen, Elizabeth was prepared to approve of such severity. We all know what happened to Mary, Queen of Scots.

My accession means God loves me, not you!

Liz: Oh, ashes to ashes Mrs Bonfire – at least I didn’t burn every poor soul who wasn’t chanting the Ave Maria or swinging a rosary.

Mary: Well, at least I was up front about it. I didn’t do it for myself Elizabeth, I did it for God.

Liz: Well! He must’ve been tickled pink about that then, mm mmm? He certainly worked in mysterious ways when it came to producing that all important Catholic heir – Air –exactly! Remember Mary? Hot Air; that’s all your pregnancies amounted to – one big Catholic fart! Let’s face it Mary, God’s a Protestant and he wanted Me!

Upon the accessions of both Mary and Elizabeth, respective supporters determined the miraculous event to be a sign of God’s favour for their cause. Catholics proclaimed in 1553 that Edward VI’s demise and Mary’s success in gaining the throne against the Jane Grey faction was a clear sign of divine disapproval for Henry VIII’s actions and of the Protestant Reformation that occurred during Edward’s reign. News of Mary’s ‘pregnancy’ in late 1554 only revived such sentiments; now England would gain a Catholic heir and Anne Boleyn’s daughter would see herself demoted. Order would be established. Mary’s godly work would continue through her child.

Then Mary died. Childless. Who is laughing now, the Protestant retorted. Does not, John Foxe proclaimed, the accession of Elizabeth mark that we, the English, were the Elect Nation? That God intended the English to do away with the allegedly corrupt Catholic Church and became one again ‘true Christians’.

Both Mary and Elizabeth encouraged such rhetoric. Naturally, for they wished to strengthen their position on the throne, provide justification for female rule and see the successful implementation of their religious policies.

Queen Mary the who?

Mary: Well I’m sick, sick, sick of it... ‘I have the heart and stomach of a King’ blah blah blah blah. It’s my turn and I want to talk about me – the Maryian Period.

Liz: The Maryian period! There wasn’t a Maryian period – you didn’t last long enough to warrant an age... six years of sack-cloth and ashes, papism and prudery. (Aside) Everyone thinks you’re Mary Queen of Scots anyway.

Mary: I am not Mary Queen of Scots, I’m Mary Tudor, the first Queen to reign in England. I’m proud of it, it was a wonderful reign.

John Foxe’s Acts and Monuments, better known as The Book of Martyrs, is a familiar text to many interested in this period, and particularly Mary’s reign. We know of the attempts during Elizabeth’s reign to portray the policies of Mary I, namely the religious policies, as fundamentally disastrous and immoral. But equally Elizabeth wanted Mary to go unmentioned. The physical demonstration of this was the state of Mary’s grave during Elizabeth’s reign – a messy affair consisting of a simple grave hidden under a pile of altar stones in Westminster Abbey. Elizabeth’s policy was quite successful; how many today remember Mary? How many remember that Mary was England’s first crowned queen regnant? Mary’s reign had hardly been a pleasant time for Elizabeth thus it would be not trial to overlook that period. Plus now with Mary’s death it was Elizabeth’s moment, her time to shine. As queen, Mary had been fully prepared to take centre stage. Elizabeth craved the limelight as much as her. Well one can't expect any less from the daughters of Henry VIII!

In 1603, Elizabeth was laid to rest in Westminster Abbey. Her coffin was placed on top of Mary’s – the sister who triumphed in life did so in death. Those who have visited the graves will have found the Latin inscription on the base stating, ‘Partners both in throne and grave, here rest we two sisters, Elizabeth and Mary, in the hope of the Resurrection’. It is easy to find this amusing; it is rather obvious how the pair would have regarded this arrangement! It would also be simple to conclude that the sisters only held a throne and a grave in common - oh, and of course DNA. But despite attempts to present the two as polar opposites, the sisters held more in common than we (and they) would like to admit. Both were courageous; both were ruthless. Both were pioneers who had to fight their way to the throne, in Mary’s case quite literally. Both proved Henry VIII quite wrong.....

Liz: Come on Mary, you were the first Queen to ever reign in England – not an easy job – you were the ground breaker, made my job a lot simpler. All those men – they were all against you.

Mary: Yes, I was brave, wasn’t I? I faced them all.

(Excerpts from Bloody Queen and the Virgin Queen by Deborah Barnard, Jill Dowse, Kate Hale, and Cath Kilcoyne)

1 comment:

  1. I remember the story of Smeaton being Elizabeth's father from Hugh Ross Williamson's book "Who was the Man in the Iron Mask? And Other Historical Mysteries." Like many such stories, it makes for a good tale of intrigue, but that doesn't mean it is true.