Elizabeth I’s personality: the unfathomable queen

What was Elizabeth I really like? From an early age, 'Gloriana' was a master of hiding her true emotions, choosing to remain silent on one of the most foundational events of her life: the killing of her mother, Anne Boleyn, on the the orders of her father, Henry VIII. Here, Helen Castor attempts to decipher what the Virgin Queen was really thinking behind that inscrutable visage...

A portrait of the young Elizabeth I. (Photo by Art Collection 2/Alamy Stock Photo)

This article was first published in the March 2018 issue of BBC History Magazine

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Elizabeth I is an icon. The Virgin Queen is more instantly recognisable even than her monstrously charismatic father, Henry VIII. But she is also an enigma. The image of ‘Gloriana’ is a mask – literally so, in the ‘mask of youth’ portraits painted in the last two decades of her life. In these paintings, Elizabeth’s unlined face remains ageless and changeless, unlike the sitter on which they were modelled. And it is a mask that was – and is – remarkably difficult to shift.

As England’s sovereign, Elizabeth said a great deal. She gave speeches, wrote letters, poems and prayers. Her comments, in public and private, were recorded by ministers, courtiers and ambassadors. But it is often difficult to be certain of what she actually meant. Her intellect is clear in every word she ever wrote or spoke. Infinitely less clear are her intentions and emotions, the tone and the sincerity or otherwise of what she said, hidden as they always were behind the carapace of a carefully constructed public self.

Susan Doran will be speaking about ‘Did Elizabeth’s Gender Really Matter?’ at our Kings and Queens Weekend in March 2019. Find out more here

The BBC History Magazine Kings and Queens Weekend will take place on 2-3 March 2019

Her unreadability is not a trick of the historical light. Elizabeth was as unfathomable to her contemporaries as she is to posterity. As the Spanish ambassador in London wrote in 1566 – significantly, concerning the personally as well as politically fraught question of whether Elizabeth would choose to marry – “she is so nimble in her dealing and threads in and out of this business in such a way that her most intimate favourites fail to understand her, and her intentions are therefore variously interpreted”. And if it was hard to be sure of her intentions when she spoke, still more challenging is the task of interpreting her silence.

A terrible blow?

One subject on which she remained resolutely silent was the foundational event of her life. In May 1536, when Elizabeth was not yet three, her mother, Anne Boleyn, was killed on the orders of her father. Anne was the first English noblewoman, and the first anointed queen, to die at the executioner’s hand. It was a deeply shocking moment, which left her only child facing a frighteningly unpredictable future. And for the rest of her life, at least so far as the extant sources can tell us, Elizabeth never once uttered her mother’s name.

Arguments from silence are notoriously difficult to make, and historians have not found it easy to agree on the effect of this early loss. David Loades suggests that, though Elizabeth “was very aware of her mother’s fate”, she “seems not to have been affected by it”. David Starkey, on the other hand, sees Anne’s death as “a terrible blow for Elizabeth, and her father’s role in it more terrible still. But how deep the wound went we do not know…”. The one immediate impact to which he points is that “the shower of lovely clothes which Anne Boleyn had lavished on her daughter suddenly dried up” – and thereafter sees Elizabeth as a young woman who inherited all “the overweening self-confidence and egotism of her house”.

But there are other ways of reading Elizabeth’s inscrutability in the face of her mother’s loss, and other scraps of evidence to weigh in the balance. We know that she never spoke of Anne, and lionised the father who was responsible for her execution. Yet, when Elizabeth secured the degree of control over her environment to make it possible, she chose to surround herself with her mother’s relatives. And in her later years she owned an exquisite mother-of-pearl locket ring, which opened to reveal miniature portraits of herself and Anne. The specific sentiments behind these silent actions are impossible to elucidate, but, however we interpret them, they can hardly stand as evidence that the knowledge of her mother’s violent death left no mark on Elizabeth’s psyche.

It is plausible, at least, to suggest that her internal psychological landscape was shaped by the kind of traumatic emotional dissonance that can produce not overweening confidence, but deep-seated insecurity. Elizabeth grew up knowing that her mother had been found guilty on trumped-up charges of adultery with five men, one of them Anne’s own brother, and then beheaded – all on the authority of her father. And yet her father was the one certainty that remained, without whose approval she could not hope to flourish. As the 12-year-old Elizabeth said in the only surviving letter she wrote to Henry: “I am bound unto you as lord by the law of royal authority, as lord and father by the law of nature, and as greatest lord and matchless and most benevolent father by the divine law, and by all laws and duties I am bound unto your majesty in various and manifold ways…”

The bastard daughter

What is certain is that Elizabeth was too young when her mother died to remember a time when her own position in the world was anything other than precarious. Before she was three she was declared illegitimate as a result of the annulment of her parents’ marriage – no longer the heir to the throne, or a princess, but simply the ‘Lady Elizabeth’. And there was nothing straightforward about her revised position as the king’s bastard daughter. The Act of Succession of 1544 named Elizabeth and her older half-sister Mary as royal heirs to their younger half-brother Edward, while at the same time Henry continued to insist, in all other contexts, on their illegitimacy.

It was a contradiction that troubled their father little, but it left Elizabeth’s future in political limbo. The lives of most royal women were shaped by marriage to husbands whose identities were decided by the manoeuvrings of national and international diplomacy. Elizabeth and her half-sister were pawns in this matrimonial game, but pawns whose value was hugely difficult to assess, as royal bastards who, however unlikely it seemed, might one day become queens.

Politically, Elizabeth could not anticipate the life that lay ahead of her with any degree of confidence. Meanwhile – lest her mother’s fate had left her in any doubt of the physical and political dangers marriage might present – she gained and lost three stepmothers before her ninth birthday. The first, Jane Seymour, died of an infection less than a fortnight after giving birth to Henry’s son. The second, Anne of Cleves, was rejected by the king before the marriage had even taken effect. And the third, Catherine Howard – a teenage cousin of Elizabeth’s mother – was killed in the same way as Anne, as a result of similar charges of sexual misconduct.

From the summer of 1543 a fourth stepmother, Katherine Parr, facilitated a more workable approximation of family life for the three royal siblings. But the violent riptides of politics at their father’s court were never far away, and Elizabeth had neither the unique status of her brother Edward as heir to the throne to protect her, nor, like half-Spanish Mary, powerful relatives on the continent to keep an eye on her welfare.

Dangerous daydreams

The uncertainties of Elizabeth’s position only multiplied after her father’s death in January 1547. In February 1548 – now living with the widowed queen Katherine Parr and her new husband, Thomas Seymour – 14-year-old Elizabeth noted in a letter to her brother, the young King Edward, that “it is (as your majesty is not unaware) rather characteristic of my nature… not to say in words as much as I think in my mind”. The significance of this instinct toward opacity was confirmed a year later when Seymour was arrested on charges of treason. It emerged that he had not only flirted indecorously with Elizabeth but, after Katherine’s death in childbirth in the autumn of 1548, planned to marry her.

Elizabeth, it turned out, had not been resistant to Seymour’s advances. If this was an adolescent crush on a handsome and attentive older man – a father-figure who was not sexually out of bounds, should he ask for her hand – it is only likely to have been intensified by the fact that the prospect of marrying Seymour would spare Elizabeth the usual fate of royal daughters: to be sent abroad, in permanent exile from all that was familiar, to make a new life with a stranger for a husband. Now, however, it was suddenly evident just how dangerous such daydreams might be.

And in response, Elizabeth, at only 15, brought a public mask into political play for the first time. Under interrogation, with her closest servants in custody, she remained immovable, insisting that she had not been involved in Seymour’s plans, and there had been no discussion of marriage without the explicit proviso that the consent of the privy council was paramount. “She has a very good wit,” wrote the harassed Sir Robert Tirwhit, charged with extracting her confession, “and nothing is gotten off her but by great policy.” In March 1549 Seymour was sent to the block; Elizabeth was left to retreat into the calm of her books. It was a formative lesson: her decision to adopt a defensible position and resist all pressure to shift her ground had saved her from clear and present danger.

Profound and enduring insecurity, both personal and political, had defined Elizabeth’s environment and her experience even before she became the Protestant heir to her Catholic sister’s throne after Edward’s death in 1553. Within months, she found herself in the Tower – a prisoner, suspected of treason, in the same apartments where her mother had spent her last days. Psychological pressure found physical expression – her health was not good, and she had difficulty sleeping – but her composure, just as it had been during the Seymour affair, was impenetrable. She was innocent of conspiracy. If Mary believed otherwise, she must prove it. And the truth was that, as the Spanish ambassador admitted through gritted teeth, “there is not sufficient evidence to condemn Elizabeth”.

Hidden in plain sight

How, then, are we to understand Elizabeth as queen? Her accession to the throne in 1558, at the age of 25, brought authority and autonomy, but it did not bring safety. Already, her sharp intellect had been forged into a cautious and subtle intelligence, and her interaction with the world into a masked reactivity. Those same instincts – to watch and wait, to choose her friends carefully, and her enemies more carefully still – continued to guide the new queen as the threats to her person and her kingdom mutated and multiplied.

Mercurial as she could be, difficult to read as she was, she hid in plain sight. She took up positions – on religion, marriage, counsel, diplomacy – at the start of her reign, and, wherever she could, however she could, rebuffed attempts to make her move. Her ministers questioned her methods – her resistance to change, to war, to marriage, to naming an heir – but Elizabeth’s ambition as monarch was consistent and coherent: to seek security through stillness; to manage the known risks of current circumstances, rather than precipitate unknown dangers through irreversible action.

The experience of insecurity, it turned out, would shape one of the most remarkable monarchs in English history.

Helen Castor is a historian, broadcaster and author. She is co-presenter of Making History on Radio 4 and has presented several TV series, most recently England’s Forgotten Queen on BBC Four. She is also the author of Elizabeth I (Penguin Monarchs): A Study in Insecurity, published by Allen Lane.

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Susan Doran will be speaking about ‘Did Elizabeth’s Gender Really Matter?’ at our Kings and Queens Weekend in March 2019. Find out more here