On 17 November 1558 England’s first undisputed Queen regnant, Mary I, died, paving the way for the accession of her half-sister Elizabeth I. Mary had been a staunch Roman Catholic and she had been determined to bring England back to what she believed to be the true faith. Her short reign and early death ended her ambitions of re-establishing Roman Catholicism in England and she reluctantly recognised the protestant Elizabeth as her heir.
Elizabeth embodied the promise of a strong protestant age, but not everyone saw it that way. Elizabeth’s reign would face Catholic threats for decades which could have led to her being overthrown or assassinated. Elizabeth was the daughter of Anne Boleyn and Henry VIII and was considered illegitimate by many. As an alternative to Elizabeth, the Catholic heir the throne was the young Mary, Queen of Scots. As a result, Elizabeth would need a way to solidify her hold on the throne in order to defend herself from any threats against her crown. She used her Accession Day celebrations in order to strengthen her position and re-assert her protestantism against rivaling catholics.
Her coronation on 15th January 1559 was wonderfully elaborate and celebrated throughout parts of the country. Hundreds of candles lit up Westminster as Elizabeth walked down the blue carpeted aisle in the long red velvet train. After being crowned with the Crown of St. Edward, bells rang and trumpets blew. The following coronation banquet lasted until well after midnight. Elizabeth’s reign would begin with a bang.
Mary, Queen of Scots had returned to Scotland in 1561 after the death of her first husband, Francis II of France. She married her second husband, Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley in 1565. He had his own claim to the English throne as he too was a descendant of Margaret Tudor and they had one son, who would later become the future James I of England. Henry was murdered in early 1567. Mary contracted a third, unpopular, marriage to the Earl of Bothwell, who was thought to be behind the murder. In the end, Mary was forced to abdicate in favour of her young son in 1567. Mary escaped from her imprisonment in 1568 and fled towards the English border. If she believed a fellow Queen would come to her aid, she was mistaken. Mary was imprisoned while Elizabeth conducted an investigation into the murder. Mary was never found guilty but remained imprisoned nonetheless.
Whilst Elizabeth’s Accession Day was celebrated annually, it was just after the Northern Rebellion of 1569, which intended to free Mary, Queen of Scots from captivity and place her on the throne, that Elizabeth’s accession began to be celebrated more elaborately. It began with the simply ringing of church bells, followed by bonfires and feasting to celebrate Elizabeth’s life and reign. By doing this, Elizabeth was displaying to her courtiers and her people her authority as their rightful Queen and ruler.
By the 1580s the Accession Day had become a feast day of the church. Elizabeth had to deliver the English people from what she considered to be the dangers of the Catholic faith and she made sure everyone knew it.
The year 1581 saw the first so-called ‘Accession Day tilt’ devised by Sir Henry Lee of Ditchley. These tilts were attended by thousands and were quite the spectacle. No expense was paid to impress the Queen. Poets and actors were hired to act out the programme. The story lines always flattered Elizabeth or a particular story line was played out to ask the Queen for forgiveness for a specific offense.
A witness to the 1584 tilt describes horses equipped as elephants and odd carriages drawn by men. The Queen was addressed in composed verses or with ludicrous speech intended to make her and her ladies laugh. All the pageantry was followed by a joust.
All the spectacle of the Accession Day celebrations served to make the people forget the uncertainty of the future. Just like her half-sister, Elizabeth too had no heir and the Catholic threat continued to loom even with Mary, Queen of Scots in English captivity. Two further rebellions has failed to place Mary on the English throne, yet demonstrated a small number of those loyal Catholics who were determined to overthrow their Protestant Queen. The Babington Plot proved to be Mary’s downfall. She had consented to Elizabeth’s assassination in a letter and this was intercepted by Walsingham, Elizabeth’s infamous ‘spymaster’. On 8th February 1587 Mary was executed at Fotheringhay Castle.
Elizabeth faced the Spanish Armada in 1588, but she was successful in defending England against Philip II and Catholic Spain. In celebration of the victory, she triumphantly rode into London on a Roman chariot. St. Paul’s Cathedral was decorated with the banners of the defeated Spaniards and Elizabeth heard a sermon of Thanksgiving there before returning to Whitehall by torchlight. These celebrations once against cemented Elizabeth’s position as Queen in the mind of onlookers. Elizabeth used pomp and pageantry to deter anyone from doubting her legitimacy after successfully defeating the strongest power in Europe.
In the 1590s, the Earl of Essex entered the Accession Day tilt pageant as the head of a funeral procession. He was carried in on a bier. With this act he wanted to atone for failing to subdue Ireland and ask for the Queen’s forgiveness. Elizabeth wasn’t impressed by Essex’s display and did not forgive him right away.
As Elizabeth grew older, the uncertainty grew. Who would follow Elizabeth on the throne? By then, Elizabeth was certainly a public relations expert. She was left scarred by smallpox in 1562 and she depended heavily on wigs and make-up. No matter what, she would be eternally young through her image as Gloriana.
The last Accession Day tilt took place on 17th November 1602, and Elizabeth would later die the following March. The Catholic threat had subsided with the accession of Mary, Queen of Scots’ Protestant son, James VI of Scotland and now James I of England after 1603.
Elizabeth certainly realised a monarch needed popular support of her courtiers and public alike in order to rule accordingly and deter any threats to her crown. Whilst the Accession Day custom is still alive today, perhaps it could be argued that it is not quite so Elizabethan as the last Tudor monarch might have recognised it as!
Photo credit: Elizabeth I in coronation robes by Unknown – Scanned from the book The National Portrait Gallery History of the Kings and Queens of England by David Williamson, ISBN 1855142287. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.