Elizabeth I, revered by many as the greatest of the Tudor monarchs, was an unlikely queen. With the benefits (or myopia) of hindsight we know that Elizabeth reigned longer than any other Tudor monarch but her journey to the crown of England was long, dangerous and by no means certain. During the reigns of her half-siblings she found her position, and indeed her life, threatened through implication in two dangerous plots.
Elizabeth spent much of the first 25 years of her life at Hatfield House, including periods under house arrest during the 'Thomas Seymour scandal' in the reign of her brother Edward VI and again on the orders of her sister, Mary I, following the 'Wyatt Rebellion' during which she also spent time in the Tower of London.
The first of these perilous situations in which Elizabeth found herself was in January 1549 following the arrest of her step-father Thomas Seymour. Seymour had married Elizabeth's step-mother Katherine Parr soon after the death of her husband, Elizabeth's father, Henry VIII. Elizabeth had lived with the couple and we now know that there were many instances of suggestive and disturbing behaviour from Thomas who appears to have enjoyed making sexual advances in the form of play towards his charge. So when he was arrested for a plot to kidnap the king, Edward VI, and there were rumours that he had planned to marry Elizabeth, she found herself implicated in the affair. Elizabeth, along with some of her closest servants, were arrested and questioned. Nothing could be found to incriminate Elizabeth and she steadfastly stuck to her position agreeing only that there had been rumours. Eventually Elizabeth and her servants were released. Thomas Seymour was beheaded on Tower Hill on 20th March 1549.
She had survived implication in one persons rebellious plot but another would follow during the following reign, that of her half-sister Mary I. Elizabeth, as a daughter of Henry VIII and as a protestant, was an obvious figurehead for any rebellion against the catholic Mary and her unpopular Spanish husband, Philip II of Spain. Her threat was too real to be ignored and Mary took action to keep a very close eye on Elizabeth. Elizabeth was arrested in 1554 after being implicated in a plot to overthrow her sister Queen Mary in protest to her Spanish marriage, known as the Wyatt rebellion. Elizabeth was brought to the Tower. Lady Jane Grey had recently been executed for fear that she was providing a figurehead for such uprisings. Elizabeth arrived by river boat and ascended the slippery steps from 'Traitor's Gate''. As she stood at the top of the stairs she pronounced:
"Here landeth as true a subject, being prisoner as ever landed at these stairs…..I come in as no traitor but as true a woman to the Queen's Majesty as any as is now living; and thereon I will take my death”
Her words had great effect on the Yeoman warders present who fell to their knees and swore "God preserve Your Grace!". Elizabeth may have presented herself eloquently but she was a woman fearing for her life. She spent eight terrifying weeks in the Bell Tower not knowing her sister's plans for her and fearing execution. Her father, Henry VIII, had sent her mother to the executioners block on Tower Green, not far from where Elizabeth was being kept. She was interrogated but she was clever and despite the best efforts of her interrogators they could not get her to admit to anything incriminating. Without evidence of any involvement in the plot, Mary could not have her executed.
Her experiences as a prisoner in the Tower had a lasting impact on Elizabeth, even after becoming Queen she would refer back to her time in the Tower.
Elizabeth's journey to the crown of England had been long and dangerous but it was no less dangerous once she became Queen. She was a protestant queen in a catholic Europe and many still wished for a return to catholicism in England. But that's a blog for another day…