Saturday, June 9, 2012

The Lady Elizabeth, Prisoner at Woodstock

The Lady Elizabeth, later Queen of England, was 'much suspected' by her sister Mary
It is unlikely that Elizabeth was behind all or indeed any of the treasonous plots against her sister Queen Mary, though we have little proof either way. But Queen Mary clearly disliked her Protestant sister, whose beautiful mother had supplanted her own in Henry VIII's affections, for she was not slow to have her arrested and taken to the Tower following Wyatt's uprising of early 1554. This uprising had taken place in response to the news that Mary planned to marry Prince Philip of Spain, a move which many feared which bring England under Spanish rule.

Elizabeth escaped direct implication in this uprising, despite brutal efforts to force Wyatt to name her under torture as a co-conspirator. Wyatt was later beheaded, but the young Elizabeth remained popular with the people, making it difficult for Mary to take further action against her. Nonetheless, although Elizabeth was eventually released from the gloomy Tower of London, she was kept under house arrest until the spring of 1555.

A medieval 'pard' or leopard from the Aberdeen Bestiary
The place chosen for her imprisonment was Woodstock Palace in Oxfordshire, a hunting lodge originally built by Henry I in the Middle Ages. A royal residence for many centuries and a medieval parkland for such 'exotic' beasts as lions, leopards and peacocks, it had seen the birth of Edward, the Black Prince, in 1330.

By Mary's reign, Woodstock had fallen into serious disrepair and was considered uninhabitable. However, the gatehouse to the palace was still in reasonable repair. So it was there, in small cramped lodgings better suited to a servant, that Elizabeth was kept a prisoner for the better part of a year.

On her slow journey to Woodstock, it was reported that crowds cheered as she passed and commoners knelt in the streets at the sight of Henry VIII's youngest daughter. No wonder Mary Tudor thought her sister too dangerous to be left to her own devices!

On reaching Woodstock and seeing how isolated it was, Elizabeth must have been in great fear for her life. Locked away in rural Oxfordshire, far from London and the eyes of the court, she knew anything could happen. Not only was she an easy target for assassination there, but the queen's sister was also in danger of being forgotten as heir to the throne.

Denied the company of her ladies, and even the comfort of her own books, Elizabeth spent much of her time at Woodstock involved in disputes with Sir Henry Bedingfield, her appointed jailor. These arguments were often over matters such as her freedom to walk the grounds or receive visitors, for she was still very much under suspicion. Her linen and even her meals were checked for concealed items such as Protestant literature or letters from traitors, and she was watched daily to ensure she followed the Catholic faith.

Occasionally, however, she found herself embroiled in more dangerous accusations. At one stage, it came to the attention of the Privy Council that the Lady Elizabeth was 'keeping court' at Woodstock, thanks to a local inn where her loyal retainers and followers would gather to show their support for the imprisoned princess. Bedingfield received a letter insisting that he curtail these forbidden activities, but of course Elizabeth denied all knowledge of them and their stormy arguments continued.

Philip II of Spain with his wife, Mary I of England
The final blow came when Queen Mary married Prince Philip of Spain in July 1554. Later that year, it was whispered that the queen was expecting a child. Elizabeth must have felt that her chance to become Queen of England was slipping away, for any child born to their union would supplant her as heir to the throne.

Surprisingly, perhaps in response to pressure from her husband Philip, the queen ordered Elizabeth's return to court in the spring of 1555. It must have felt like a reprieve for Elizabeth to leave the ruins of Woodstock and return to the pomp and glory of Hampton Court. Yet she probably also suspected that Mary wanted her at court to witness the imminent birth of the new heir - a public humiliation Elizabeth would be unlikely to forget. In the terrible struggle of Tudor sister against sister, Mary certainly seemed to have the upper hand at that point.

However, Mary's triumph did not last. Her pregnancy faded away and was finally understood to be a phantom. The court discreetly dispersed. Philip returned to Spain, and Elizabeth was allowed to retire to the countryside until the news came of her sister's death in November 1558.

Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough
The ruined Woodstock Palace was never rebuilt. It was eventually pulled down in the early 1700s as an eyesore by Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough, and the vastly more glamorous Blenheim Palace built nearby instead. Woodstock Palace remained alive in legend though, as the place where one of England's greatest queens may once have signed herself 'Elizabeth, prisoner' in a rhyme scratched on a window: 'Much suspected of me, Nothing proved can be.'

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  1. Very interesting post, Victoria. The uncertainty during Mary's reign must have stoked Elizabeth's determination.

    I also find Mary a fascinating character. The need of producing an heir to continue her line, and the worry about constant plots, clearly took their toll.

    Neither sister had it easy during those tumultous times, but Elizabeth proved to be the stronger character. Mary never had enough time, and her body couldn't cope with the stress.

  2. Enjoyed your post. I've always imagined Mary as full of resentment, even hatred, toward Elizabeth. In her mind, she would have had good reason. Plus, I gather Mary was of a crabbed personality type, insecure, unloved and unlovable. I'd feel sorry for her except for, you know, all those burnings of Protestants at the stake.

  3. Thanks, Cathie and Gretchen. Yes, her love of burning people makes it hard to be entirely sympathetic towards Mary. You could argue that it was merely the violent time in which the Tudors lived, but her half-sister Elizabeth seems to have been far less prone overall to killing heretics - though still not a liberal, by any stretch of the imagination.

    I agree that Mary's stress and sense of failure as a woman/queen almost certainly led to her early death, or at least precipitated her ill health. With Philip in Spain for most of the latter part of their marriage, she must have felt very alone and rejected. And once it was clear that she was too old to conceive a child, knowing that she had not produced the much-needed heir that would prevent England from returning to Protestantism under Elizabeth must have felt like an added failure - perhaps the worst failure of all, given her extreme Catholicism.

  4. Loved this post! I'm adding this book to my wishlist ASAP. Sounds very good! So glad to have discovered here.


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