Queen Elizabeth - Jacob Abbott

Personal Character

Mankind have always been very much divided in opinion in respect to the personal character of Queen Elizabeth, but in one point all have agreed, and that is, that in the management of public affairs she was a woman of extraordinary talent and sagacity, combining, in a very remarkable degree, a certain cautious good sense and prudence with the most determined resolution and energy.

She reigned about forty years, and during almost all that time the whole western part of the Continent of Europe was convulsed with the most terrible conflicts between the Protestant and Catholic parties. The predominance of power was with the Catholics, and was, of course, hostile to Elizabeth. She had, moreover, in the field a very prominent competitor for her throne in Mary Queen of Scots. The foreign Protestant powers were ready to aid this claimant, and there was, besides, in her own dominions a very powerful interest in her favor. The great divisions of sentiment in England, and the energy with which each party struggled against its opponents, produced, at all times, a prodigious pressure of opposing forces, which bore heavily upon the safety of the state and of Elizabeth's government, and threatened them with continual danger. The administration of public affairs moved on, during all this time trembling continually under the heavy shocks it was constantly receiving, like a ship staggering on in a storm, its safety depending on the nice equilibrium between the shocks of the seas, the pressure of the wind upon the sails, and the weight and steadiness of the ballast below.

During all this forty years it is admitted that; Elizabeth and her wise and sagacious ministers managed very admirably. They maintained the position and honor of England, as a Protestant power, with great success; and the country, during the whole period, made great progress in the arts, in commerce, and in improvements of every kind. Elizabeth's greatest danger, and her greatest source of solicitude during her whole reign, was from the claims of Mary Queen of Scots. We have already described the energetic measures which she took at the commencement of her reign to counteract and head off, at the outset, these dangerous pretensions. Though these efforts were triumphantly successful at the time, still the victory was not final. It postponed, but did not destroy, the danger. Mary continued to claim the English throne. Innumerable plots were beginning to be formed among the Catholics, in Elizabeth's own dominions, for making her queen. Foreign potentates and powers were watching an opportunity to assist in these plans. At last Mary, on account of internal difficulties in her own land, fled across the frontier into England to save her life, and Elizabeth made her prisoner.

In England, to plan or design the dethronement of a monarch is, in a subject, high treason. Mary had undoubtedly designed the dethronement of Elizabeth, and was waiting only an opportunity to accomplish it. Elizabeth, consequently, condemned her as guilty of treason, in effect; and Mary's sole defense against this charge was that she was not a subject. Elizabeth yielded to this plea, when she first found Mary in her power, so far as not to take her life, but she consigned her to a long and weary captivity.

This, however, only made the matter worse. It stimulated the enthusiasm and zeal of all the Catholics in England, to have their leader, and as they believed, their rightful queen, a captive in the midst of them, and they formed continually the most extensive and most dangerous plots. These plots were discovered and suppressed, one after another, each one producing more anxiety and alarm than the preceding. For a time Mary suffered no evil consequences from these discoveries further than an increase of the rigors of her confinement. At last the patience of the queen and of her government was exhausted. A law was passed against treason, expressed in such terms as to include Mary in the liability for its dreadful penalties although she was not a subject, in case of any new transgression; and when the next case occurred, they brought her to trial and condemned her to death. The sentence was executed in the gloomy castle of Fotheringay, where she was then confined.

As to the question whether Mary or Elizabeth had the rightful title to the English crown, it has not only never been settled, but from its very nature it can not be settled. It is one of those cases in which a peculiar contingency occur which runs beyond the scope and reach of all the ordinary principles by which analogous cases are tried, and leads to questions which can not be decided. As long as a hereditary succession goes smoothly on, like a river keeping within its banks, we can decide subordinate and incidental questions which may arise; but when a case occurs in which we have the omnipotence of Parliament to set off against the infallibility of the pope—the sacred obligations of a will against the equally sacred principles of hereditary succession—and when we have, at last, two contradictory actions of the same ultimate umpire, we find all technical  grounds of coming to a conclusion gone. We then, abandoning these, seek for some higher and more universal principles—essential in the nature of things, and thus independent of the will and action of man—to see if they will throw any light on the subject. But we soon find ourselves as much perplexed and confounded in this inquiry as we were before. We ask, in beginning the investigation, What is the ground and nature of the right by which any king or queen  succeeds to the power possessed by his ancestors? And we give up in despair, not being able to answer even this first preliminary inquiry.

Mankind have not, in their estimate of Elizabeth's character, condemned so decidedly the substantial acts which she performed, as the duplicity, the false-heartedness, and the false pretensions which she manifested in performing them. Had she said frankly and openly to Mary before the world, If these schemes for revolutionizing England and placing yourself upon the throne continue, your life must be forfeited; my own safety and the safety of the realm absolutely demand it; and then had fairly, and openly, and honestly executed her threat, mankind would have been silent on the subject, if they had not been satisfied. But if she had really acted thus, she would not have been Elizabeth. She, in fact, pursued a very different course. She maneuvered, schemed, and planned; she pretended to be full of the warmest affection for her cousin; she contrived plot after plot, and scheme after scheme, to ensnare her; and when, at last, the execution took place, in obedience to her own formal and written authority, she pretended to great astonishment and rage. She never meant that the sentence should take effect. She filled England, France, and Scotland with the loud expressions of her regret, and she punished the agents who had executed her will. This management was to prevent the friends of Mary from forming plans of revenge.

This was her character in all things. She was famous for her false pretensions and double dealings, and yet, with all her talents and sagacity, the disguise she assumed was sometimes so thin and transparent that her assuming it was simply ridiculous.

Maiden ladies, who spend their lives, in some respects, alone, often become deeply imbued with a kind and benevolent spirit, which seeks its gratification in relieving the pains and promoting the happiness of all around them. Conscious that the circumstances which have caused them to lead a single life would secure for them the sincere sympathy and the increased esteem of all who know them, if delicacy and propriety allowed them to be expressed, they feel a strong degree of self-respect, they live happily, and are a continual means of comfort and joy to all around them. This was not so, however, with Elizabeth. She was jealous, petulant, irritable. She envied others the love and the domestic enjoyments which ambition forbade her to share, and she seemed to take great pleasure in thwarting and interfering with the plans of others for securing this happiness.

One remarkable instance of this kind occurred. It seems she was sometimes accustom to ask the young ladies of the court—her maids of honor—if they ever thought about being married, and they, being cunning enough to know what sort of an answer would please the queen always promptly denied that they did so. Oh no! they never thought about being married at all. There was one young lady, however, artless and sincere, who, when questioned in this way, answered, in her simplicity, that she often thought of it, and that she should like to be married very much, if her father would only consent to her union with a certain gentleman whom she loved. "Ah!" said Elizabeth; "well, I will speak to your father about it, and see what I can do." Not long after this the father of the young lady name to court, and the queen proposed the subject to him. The father said that he had not been aware that his daughter had formed such an attachment, but that he should certainly give his consent, without any hesitation, to any arrangement of that kind which the queen desired and advised. "That's all, then," said the queen; "I will do the rest." So she called the young lady into her presence, and told her that her father had given his free consent. The maiden's heart bounded with joy, and she began to express her happiness and her gratitude to the queen, promising to do every thing in her power to please her, when Elizabeth interrupted her, saying, "Yes, you will act so as to please me, I have no doubt, but you are not going to be a fool and get married. Your father has given his consent to me, and not to you, and you may rely upon it you will never get it out of my possession. You were pretty bold to acknowledge your foolishness to me so readily."

Elizabeth was very irritable, and could never bear any contradiction. In the case even of Leicester, who had such an unbounded influence over her, if he presumed a little too much he would meet sometimes a very severe rebuff, such as nobody but a courtier would endure; but courtiers, haughty and arrogant as they are in their bearing toward inferiors, are generally fawning sycophants toward those above them, and they will submit to any thing imaginable from a queen.

It was the custom in Elizabeth's days, as it is now among the great in European countries, to have a series or suite of rooms, one beyond the other, the inner one being the presence chamber, and the others being occupied by attendants and servants of various grades, to regulate and control the admission of company. Some of these officers were styled gentlemen of the black rod, that name being derived from a peculiar badge of authority which they were accustomed to carry. It happened, one day, that a certain gay captain, a follower of Leicester's, and a sort of favorite of his, was stopped in the antechamber by one of the gentlemen of the black rod, named Bowyer, the queen having ordered him to be more careful and particular in respect to the admission of company. The captain, who was proud of the favor which he enjoyed with Leicester, resented this affront, and threatened the officer, and he was engaged in an altercation with him on the subject when Leicester came in. Leicester took his favorite's part, and told the gentleman usher that he was a knave, and that he would have him turned out of office. Leicester was accustomed to feel so much confidence in his power over Elizabeth, that his manner toward all beneath him had become exceedingly haughty and overbearing. He supposed, probably, that the officer would humble himself at once before his rebukes.

The officer, however, instead of this, stepped directly in before Leicester, who was then going in himself to the presence of the queen; kneeled before her majesty, related the facts of the case, and humbly asked what it was her pleasure that he should do. He had obeyed her majesty's orders, he said, and had been called imperiously to account for it, and threatened violently by Leicester, and he wished now to know whether Leicester was king or her majesty queen. Elizabeth was very much displeased with the conduct of her favorite. She turned to him, and, beginning with a sort of oath which she was accustomed to use when irritated and angry, she addressed him in invectives and reproaches the most severe. She gave him, in a word, what would be called a scolding, were it not that scolding is a term not sufficiently dignified for history, even for such humble history as this. She told him that she had indeed shown him favor, but her favor was not so fixed and settled upon him that nobody else was to have any share, and that if he imagined that he could lord it over her household, she would contrive a way very soon to convince him of his mistake. There was one mistress to rule there, she said, but no master. She then dismissed Bowyer, telling Leicester that, if any evil happened to him, she should hold him, that is, Leicester, to a strict account for it, as she should be convinced it would have come through his means.

Leicester was exceedingly chagrined at this result of the difficulty. Of course he dared not defend himself or reply. All the other courtiers enjoyed his confusion very highly, and one of them, in giving an account of the affair, said, in conclusion, that "the queen's words so quelled him, that, for some time after, his feigned humility was one of his best virtues."

Queen Elizabeth very evidently possessed that peculiar combination of quickness of intellect and readiness of tongue which enables those who possess it to say very sharp and biting things, when vexed or out of humor. It is a brilliant talent, though it always makes those who possess it hated and feared. Elizabeth was often wantonly cruel in the exercise of this satirical power, considering very little—as is usually the case with such persons—the justice of her invectives, but obeying blindly the impulses of the ill nature which prompted her to utter them. We have already said that she seemed always to have a special feeling of ill will against marriage and every thing that pertained to it, and she had, particularly, a theory that the bishops and the clergy ought not to be married. She could not absolutely prohibit their marrying, but she did issue an injunction forbidding any of the heads of the colleges or cathedrals to take their wives into the same, or any of their precincts. At one time, in one of her royal progresses through the country, she was received, and very magnificently and hospitably entertained, by the Archbishop of Canterbury, at his palace. The archbishop's wife exerted herself very particularly to please the queen and to do her honor. Elizabeth evinced her gratitude by turning to her, as she was about to take her leave, and saying that she could not call her the archbishop's wife, and did not like to call her his mistress, and so she did not know what to call her; but that, at all events, she was very much obliged to her for her hospitality.

Elizabeth's highest officers of state were continually exposed to her sharp and sudden reproaches, and they often incurred them by sincere and honest efforts to gratify and serve her. She had made an arrangement, one day, to go into the city of London to St Paul's Church, to hear the Dean of Christ Church, a distinguished clergyman, preach. The dean procured a copy of the Prayer Book, and had it splendidly bound, with a great number of beautiful and costly prints interleaved in it. These prints were all of a religious character, being representations of sacred history, or of scenes in the lives of the saints. The volume, thus prepared, was very beautiful, and it was placed, when the Sabbath morning arrived, upon the queen's cushion at the church, ready for her use. The queen entered in great state, and took her seat in the midst of all the parade and ceremony customary on such occasions As soon, however, as she opened the book and saw the pictures, she frowned, and seemed to be much displeased. She shut the book and put it away, and called for her own; and, after the service, she sent for the dean, and asked him who brought that book there. He replied, in a very humble and submissive manner, that he had procured it himself, having intended it as a present for her majesty. This only produced fresh expressions of displeasure. She proceeded to rebuke him severely for countenancing such a popish practice as the introduction of pictures in the churches All this time Elizabeth had herself a crucifix in her own private chapel, and the dean himself, on the other hand, was a firm and consistent Protestant, entirely opposed to the Catholic system of images and pictures, as Elizabeth very well knew.

This sort of roughness was a somewhat masculine trait of character for a lady, it must be acknowledged, and not a very agreeable one, even in man; but with some of the bad qualities of the other sex, Elizabeth possessed, also, some that were good. She was courageous, and she evinced her courage sometimes in a very noble manner. At one time, when political excitement ran very high, her friends thought that there was serious danger in her appearing openly in public, and they urged her not to do it, but to confine herself within her palaces for a time, until the excitement should pass away. But no; the representations made to her produced no effect. She said she would continue to go out just as freely as ever. She did not think that there was really any danger; and besides, if there was, she did not care; she would rather take her chance of being killed than to be kept shut up like a prisoner.

At the time, too, when the shot was fired at be barge in which she was going down the Thames, many of her ministers thought it was aimed at her. They endeavored to convince her of this, and urged her not to expose herself to such dangers. She replied that she did not believe that the shot was aimed at her; and that, in fact, she would not believe any thing of her subjects which a father would not be willing to believe of his own children. So she went on sailing in her barge just as before.

Queen Elizabeth I


Elizabeth was very vain of her beauty, though, unfortunately, she had very little beauty to be vain of. Nothing pleased her so much as compliments. She sometimes almost exacted them. At one time, when a distinguished embassador from Mary Queen of Scots was at her court, she insisted on his telling her whether she or Mary was the most beautiful. When we consider that Elizabeth was at this time over thirty years of age, and Mary only twenty-two, and that the fame of Mary's loveliness had filled the world, it must be admitted that this question indicated a considerable degree of self-complacency. The embassador had the prudence to attempt to evade the inquiry. He said at first that they were both beautiful enough. But Elizabeth wanted to know, she said, which was most beautiful. The embassador then said that his queen was the most beautiful queen in Scotland and Elizabeth in England. Elizabeth was not satisfied with this, but insisted on a definite answer to her question; and the embassador said at last that Elizabeth had the fairest complexion, though Mary was considered a very lovely woman. Elizabeth then wanted to know which was the tallest of the two. The ambassador said that Mary was. "Then," said Elizabeth, "she is too tall, for I am just of the right height myself."

At one time during Elizabeth's reign, the people took a fancy to engrave and print portraits of her, which, being perhaps tolerably faithful to the original, were not very alluring. The queen was much vexed at the circulation of these prints, and finally she caused a grave and formal proclamation to be issued against them. In this proclamation it was stated that it was the intention of the queen, at some future time, to have a proper artist employed to execute a correct and true portrait of herself, which should then be published; and, in the mean time, all persons were forbidden to make or sell any representations of her whatever.

Elizabeth was extremely fond of pomp and parade. The magnificence and splendor of the celebrations and festivities which characterized her reign have scarcely ever been surpassed in any country or in any age. She once went to attend Church, on a particular occasion, so accompanied by a thousand men in full armor of steel, and ten pieces of cannon, with drums and trumpets sounding. She received her foreign embassadors with military spectacles and shows, and with banquets and parties of pleasure, which for many days kept all London in a fever of excitement. Sometimes she made excursions on the river, with whole fleets of boats and barges in her train; the shores, on such occasions, swarming with spectators, and waving with flags and banners. Sometimes she would make grand progresses through her dominions, followed by an army of attendants—lords and ladies dressed and mounted in the most costly manner—and putting the nobles whose seats she visited to a vast expense in entertaining such a crowd of visitors. Being very saving of her own means, she generally contrived to bring the expense of this magnificence upon others. The honor was a sufficient equivalent. Or, if it was not, nobody dared to complain.

To sum up all, Elizabeth was very great, and she was, at the same time, very little. Littleness and greatness mingled in her character in a manner which has scarcely ever been paralleled, except by the equally singular mixture of admiration and contempt with which man-kind have always regarded her.