Story of Liberty - Charles Coffin

Progress of Liberty in England

The Duke of Guise has captured Calais, which England has held for a long time, and the loss is a terrible blow to Mary Tudor. "When I die, Calais will be found written on my heart," is her lament over its loss. Her life has been filled with disappointment. It is just forty years since she went, with her mother Katherine, to the Field of the Cloth of Gold. She has seen her mother's divorce and humiliation. All her dreams of happiness which she had fondly indulged in regard to Philip have faded; he has deserted her, and is over in Holland, leading a disreputable life. She hoped to re-establish the authority of the Pope in England; but though she has burned so many men, though the prisons are filled with heretics, though she has compelled thousands to flee the country, the Pope's authority is not re-established. She knows that she is hated, that her subjects will rejoice at the news of her death. She is weak, sickly, querulous, prematurely old. Possibly a sweet, sad face, smeared with blood—the countenance of a lovely, innocent girl—may haunt her at times, when she thinks of the beheading of Jane Grey. In her dreams maybe she sees the good Bishop of Gloucester, or Latimer and Ridley, or the boy of Brentwood, with steadfast faith looking into heaven amidst the flames which she has kindled. Unloved and unlovable, her life is going out in darkness. On November 17th, 1558, she ceases to breathe. This is the epitaph that may be sculptured upon her tomb: "Died of disappointment."

"God save Queen Elizabeth! Long and happily may she reign!"

The Bishop of Ely (lord chancellor) proclaims it in Parliament. Bells ring, cannon thunder, bonfires blaze, tables are spread in the streets. Te Deums are sung. No more burning of heretics; no more Spanish grandees stalking through the streets insulting the people; no more spying and plotting by Jesuits to send men to the stake—but liberty, such as never before has been enjoyed!

Elizabeth is at Hatfield; but she comes to London, attended by a thousand nobles, knights, and gentlemen and ladies, accompanied by bands of music. Companies of singers greet her with songs; the people fall on their knees, pouring forth their prayers and praises. So the daughter of Anne Boleyn rides to the Tower, entering it, not now by the Traitor's Gate, but iii regal pomp, sovereign of the realm.

[Illustration] from The Story of Liberty by Charles Coffin


On the 12th of January, 1559, she is crowned in Westminster Abbey. Never before has there been so gorgeous a pageant in London. The river swarms with boats and barges, the rowers in livery, the canopies of cloth of silver and gold. The nobles and their ladies appear in their richest robes—coats and gowns of velvet or satin, trimmed with gold and silver lace. Cannon thunder once more, the church-bells ring. All London is astir. Triumphal arches are erected, with allegorical characters. One represents the queen trampling Ignorance and Superstition beneath her feet. Another represents Time leading his daughter Truth by the hand, carrying a Bible, which she presents to the queen. Elizabeth receives it graciously, kissing it, and pressing it to her heart.

"I thank the City for the gift; I prize it above all things," is the queen's reply.

Elizabeth is twenty-five. She has her mother's fair complexion, her father's proud and independent spirit. Now that she is queen, there are plenty of men who would like to marry her. The first to offer himself is the man who eats bacon-fat, Philip, who hurries on his suit almost before Mary is in her grave. He sends an ambassador to the Pope to obtain permission to marry, without waiting to see if Elizabeth will say yes or no to his proposal. She does not consult the Pope, but sends her answer—No! The King of Sweden makes proposal; so does the Archduke Charles of Austria: but Elizabeth will not resign her independence to them. The Earl of Leicester is one of her favorites, and the court gossips are sure that he is to be the favored one. The Earl of Essex is another favorite. But Elizabeth will not be beholden to any man; she will rule in her own royal right.

[Illustration] from The Story of Liberty by Charles Coffin


The people love her, for any one—the poor as well as the rich, the low as well as the high—may approach her with their petitions. If she makes a promise, she never fails of keeping it. She has a wise man to advise her, Sir William Cecil, who conducts the affairs of State with great ability.

The bishops will not accept Elizabeth's authority as head of the Church, and she puts them in prison, and appoints others in their place. There are no more burnings; but has liberty come to the people? Not yet. The queen, by the uttering of a word, the lifting of a finger, can imprison men and women, confiscate their estates, or send them into exile, for no crime but that of incurring her displeasure.

Mary Grey, Jane's sister, marries Martin Keys, who is a judge, and a good man; but Elizabeth does not like the marriage, and both are put into prison, where Mary languishes for more than three years.

Notwithstanding the queen exercises such arbitrary power, liberty advances. Men can think and speak more freely than ever before. Those who believe in the Pope, and those who do not believe in him as the head of the Church, if they are not violent in their language, may speak their minds.

[Illustration] from The Story of Liberty by Charles Coffin


A golden age for literature has come. A boy who was born on the banks of the Avon, down which the dust of Wicklif floated to the sea, the boy who went to school in the old town of Stratford, and sat at an oaken desk—William Shakespeare—is reading his plays to Elizabeth, and they are being acted in the theatre of London. A people far enough advanced to read such poetry cannot long be slaves.

As Geoffrey Chaucer gave a great uplift to freedom by his "Canterbury Tales," so does William Shakespeare by his dramas. Men behold the spectacles upon the stage, and see the weaknesses, the follies, the tyrannies of kings, as never before. They begin to understand that monarchs are but men, that the Pope is but a chief priest in the Church, that all men have certain rights, and are entitled to liberties which they never yet have enjoyed. We shall see ere long what will come from their thinking.