Alternative Queen's Christmas speeches: what would Elizabeth I and Matilda have said?
The Queen's speech on 25 December is, for many, a highlight of the Christmas calendar, with 7.6 million people in the UK tuning in last year. The broadcast, which reflects on current issues and chronicles the global, national and personal events that have affected the Queen and her listeners, was first delivered in 1932 (by the Queen's grandfather, George V) and has been read by Elizabeth II since 1952. But what would queens before her have said in their Christmas speeches, if they'd had the chance?
Here, four top historians entertainingly imagine what Elizabeth I, Mary Tudor, Queen Anne and Queen Matilda might have said in their Christmas speeches…
Elizabeth I – 25 December 1587
Tracy Borman speculates what might have been included in Queen Elizabeth I’s Christmas speech, December 1587. In February that year, Elizabeth had signed the death warrant for her cousin, Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots. She had juggled the advice of councillors and overseen the expansion of her kingdom through lands known as the ‘New World’ – all while keeping one eye on the Spanish king…
Most dearly beloved subjects.
As I prepare to embark upon my 30th year as your Queen, I must take a moment to reflect upon the one that went before. Many yuletides have passed since I proclaimed myself married to England, and like all marriages there have been trials as well as triumphs.
It is with untold grief that I call to mind my cousin Mary, erstwhile Queen of Scots, who despite my oft-proved loyalty and unswerving devotion, did treacherously betray me with that wretch Babington and his fellow papists. To think that I cherished a serpent in my bosom these 19 years! What base ingratitude for all my manifold kindnesses towards her. I gave her the clothes off my back when she first fled to these shores, yet still she complained that they were not fine enough.
Neither was she thankful for the luxurious accommodation that I provided for her. I treated her as an honoured guest, but she insisted upon calling herself a prisoner. If she had only followed my example and chosen not to marry, then all of her troubles would have been at an end.
I have ever ruled with the head; Mary with the heart. I weep afresh to think that her heart is stopped forever. But hear me, my loyal subjects: I neither commanded nor intended her execution. I am but a weak and feeble woman, and have been greatly deceived by my councillors. They will suffer God’s vengeance, as they have suffered mine.
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But lest you think me over-fond of dwelling upon such melancholy thoughts, I will turn to more joyful subjects. Though it is nigh 55 years since my arrival into this world – to the rejoicing of my father King Henry, the eighth of that name – time has not marked me. Little wonder that foreign princes still clamour for my hand. But be assured, my loving subjects, that I would as like forsake you as a mother would abandon her children. No, I have made my vows to my kingdom and will take no other husband. My kingdom shall continue to bask in the glory of her Virgin Queen.
You, my humble subjects, shall rejoice also in the knowledge that England’s empire is expanding into new worlds. New lands have been established in my name, and my explorers have brought back great riches from all corners of the globe. Sir Walter Ralegh assures me that soon we will have all the potatoes we can smoke and that there will be ample sugar to clean the teeth of even the humblest subject.
And so, my most dearly and well-beloved people, I wish you great joy of the New Year, 1588. Now that the Queen of Scots is vanquished and the King of Spain no more likely to stir himself for invasion than I am to marry, England can look forward to greater peace and prosperity than ever before.
Tracy Borman is an author and historian, specialising in the Tudor period. Her books include Elizabeth’s Women: the Hidden Story of the Virgin Queen (Vintage, 2010).
Queen Matilda – Gloucester Castle, 25 December 1140
When Henry I died in 1135, the English throne should have passed to the designated heir, his daughter Empress Matilda, but she was usurped by her cousin Stephen of Blois, who was crowned in her stead. Matilda was not the sort of woman to take this lying down; leaving her husband and young sons in Normandy, she launched an invasion to claim her rights. By Christmas 1140 she had a secure base in the West Country, and the war for the crown was about to start in earnest. Here, Catherine Hanley imagines what Matilda might have said in her festive speech…
Greetings, good people! Let me begin by saying how glad I am that you’ve seen sense and invited me to make this royal Christmas address instead of... well, you know who.
During this season of goodwill, our thoughts necessarily turn to family, although frankly all I wish my cousin Stephen is indigestion. The children do get excited, though, don’t they? I haven’t seen any of mine for over a year, but I did get a letter from my six-year-old son Henry last week. It was in his best handwriting, ink splodges and sloppy kisses everywhere, and it said that all he wanted for Christmas was for me to come home so he could give me a big hug.
Naturally I wrote straight back telling him not to be such a sissy. I’ve sent him a sword and some armour (gift-wrapped) and told him to get on with learning how to use them. Finding a present for my husband Geoffrey might not be quite so easy, as I want to get him something that will keep him as far away as possible. I’m thinking maybe Normandy.
But let me not spend the whole address talking about my own family. What about yours? I sincerely hope that you’re all tucked up cosily with your nearest and dearest, eating a good meal in front of a roaring fire.
Ha ha, only joking. Of course I do care about you a bit – about as much as my horses and a great deal more than most of those irritating chroniclers who keep hanging around! So just keep supplying me with grain, paying your taxes (preferably in coins that feature a picture of me), and for goodness’ sake, stop whingeing about Christ being asleep and help me win this war.
My own Christmas wish is simple, and I’ve rolled it into one with an early New Year’s resolution: smash the patriarchy; knock a few chauvinist barons’ heads together; be declared rightful monarch; and be crowned at Westminster Abbey. Preferably on the same day as hearing that Stephen has developed a particularly painful boil on his nose and his odious twerp of a son has failed all his Latin exams.
Merry Christmas to all! (Except the house of Blois, obviously.)
Dr Catherine Hanley is a historian specialising in 12th- and 13th-century warfare in western Europe. Her new book, Matilda: Empress, Queen, Warrior, will be published by Yale University Press in March 2019.
Catherine Hanley will be speaking about 'Matilda: The Greatest King England Never Had' at our Kings and Queens Weekend in March 2019.
Mary Tudor – 25 December 1553
When Edward VI died of a lingering infection in July 1553, he left a will that altered the succession as it had been laid out by his father (Henry VIII) in the 1544 Act of Parliament. The 15-year-old king, on the threshold of assuming power in his own right, was determined that the religious changes he had introduced would not be undone by his Catholic half- sister, Mary, who had steadfastly disapproved of his Protestantism.
Edward decided to bar both Mary and his other half-sister, Elizabeth, from the succession, on the grounds that both their mothers had been divorced and they were therefore illegitimate. Instead, he nominated his cousin, Lady Jane Grey, as his heir. The Succession Crisis which followed took England to the brink of civil war as Mary fought for her throne. By Christmas 1553 Mary was crowned and established as England’s first queen regnant. Linda Porter believes that she would have had a ringing message at Christmas…
Right trusty and well-beloved, we send you our heartiest greetings for the season of Christmas. This is a time to reflect on what has been a year of marvels, for which we give thanks to God, who has placed us on the throne of England as your first sovereign lady.
We bring to mind another Christmas, that of 1536, when we rode with our father, King Henry VIII and his new wife, Queen Jane, through ice and snow to the palace of Greenwich. The furs that wrapped our body could not pierce the coldness lodged deep in our heart at the end of that terrible year. Our dearest mother, Queen Catherine, had died in January, to be followed only months later by that woman (whose name we desire never to hear spoken again) who had sinfully taken her place and whose execution, though we did not rejoice in it, yet did we believe it justified in the eyes of God and man. And though Queen Jane was ever kind to us, our father required us to submit utterly to his will, denying our mother’s lawful marriage, our title of princess and the authority of the Pope.
As a dutiful daughter should, we bowed, in much sorrow, to his will.
We have, with God’s help, survived the harsh restrictions and humiliations of our late brother, Edward VI’s, reign and grieve greatly for his loss. The more so because we, as his elder sister and godmother watched in despair as evil counsellors swayed his young mind against the true religion. After his untimely death this summer we fought, with the support of God and loyal subjects, for the Crown of England that is rightfully ours by the laws of this land. Our triumph has shown that true Englishmen will not be deceived by false arguments and pretended claimants to the throne.
Now the days for rejoicing are at hand. We have granted the request of our sister, Elizabeth, to leave court and pass the winter at her house of Ashridge in Hertfordshire but we embrace eagerly the company of our beloved cousin, Lady Margaret Douglas, who will join us at this merry time of masques, music and entertainment.
In the coming year we will do our duty as your queen and, against our inclination, take a husband, one who is suitable in birth and prestige. Be assured, however, that the choice of spouse is ours alone. We will brook no opposition, for we are Great Harry’s daughter. Those who foment rebellion or question our policies will feel the full force of the law.
Given at our palace of Richmond this 25th day of December, 1553.
Linda Porter is a historical writer and author of Mary Tudor: The First Queen (Piatkus, 2007). Her more recent works include Crown of Thistles: The Fatal Inheritance of Mary Queen of Scots (Macmillan, 2014) and Katherine the Queen (MacMillan, 2010).
Queen Anne – 25 December 1707
Hannah Greig speculates what might have been included in the 1707 Christmas speech of the last Stuart monarch, Queen Anne. This year had seen England and Scotland unite through the 1707 Act of Union, forming the kingdom of Great Britain, while Anne herself had experienced great personal loss, suffering frequent miscarriages and stillbirths between 1684 and 1700. Her only surviving son, William, had died in 1700…
This year, the fifth of my reign and the year of Our Lord 1707 heralds a momentous union of two great kingdoms, neighbours and now friends: England and Scotland, who will hereafter stand united as one nation of Great Britain.
Such a union is something that I have long desired in my heart and have determined to accomplish during my reign. Whoever has thought I was to be hectored or frightened into compliance or quietness because I am a woman has been very mightily mistaken. The past years spent reaching a resolution to unite the nation have required the diligence and determination of parliaments, churches and nobles across the two nations, but it was work that I commanded and required from the outset as your Queen. It was thus with passion in my heart that I gave royal assent and thanks to God last March for the Act of Union passed in the parliament in Scotland and then in England. We shall hereafter be governed by one crown and one parliament for Great Britain. We shall stand united beneath a common flag, enjoy the riches bestowed by a common currency and relish a common purpose and a common prosperity.
We have all of us seen bloodshed and distraction in our own time and in the time of our forebears, as such neighbours have battled at home and abroad, and as crowns have descended from one head to another in successions marked by uncertainty, wars and fear. God has not seen fit to permit me to leave on this earth an heir to carry that crown. He must have some other purpose for all my beloved children, each taken from me to him either without having taken breath in this world or after only a short life. Whilst I have wept for each infant, with the same tears as you wet yours, I am comforted in my grief by God’s intention that I should not be a mother of children but a loving mother of a new nation who has bequeathed to my family of Scotland and England a truly United Kingdom. At such a time as I am called by our lord to leave this earth to stand beside him, I depart knowing that two great countries will find strength in unity and enjoy new peace as one.
My mortal body ails me, with diseases and pains that can ravage us all paying no heed to rank or goodness. And yet I sincerely assure you that I stand ready to do anything and everything still for the happiness and prosperity of our united countries, for however many more years God sees fit for me to reign as your Queen, the proud and loving Queen of Great Britain and Ireland.
Dr Hannah Greig is a senior lecturer in early modern history at the University of York and a historical consultant to The Favourite (2018). Her research interests lie in the social, political and material history of Britain in the long 18th century (c1688–1830). She’s the author of The Beau Monde: Fashionable Society in Georgian London (OUP, 2013).