The Ugly Monster
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The Ugly Monster

Poetry | Politics

The Political Poetry of Elizabeth I

Attributed to Marcus Gheerearts the Younger c.1600

Queen Elizabeth I’s power came from her careful use of language. She was a skilled orator, who used speeches and letters to soothe, intimidate, or embolden her audience. She also wrote a few poems, which reveal her inner philosophical struggles with power, duty, injustice, and love.

Lady Elizabeth — The Clever Little Bastard

Not everyone grew up being a Tudor nerd like me, so before we get into the poetry, here’s a quick crash course of the early years of Elizabeth I…

She was born in 1533 to the fiery King Henry VIII and his ambitious second wife Anne Boleyn. Henry was desperate to have a male heir, which his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, was unable to produce.

He had one daughter, Princess Mary, and one recognised illegitimate son, Henry Fitzroy. Neither of these children were considered suitable enough to be a stable heir to the throne, and the Pope refused to grant a marriage annulment so Henry could remarry a younger woman.

So, Henry, who was infatuated with Anne Boleyn at the time, did something drastic. He broke from the catholic church and established The Church of England, making himself the head. He then granted himself an annulment, declared his daughter Mary illegitimate, and married Anne Boleyn.

Anne only produced a daughter, Princess Elizabeth. Henry had made a lot of enemies in Europe by turning his back on the pope and divorcing his Spanish Queen to marry Anne. It really pissed him off that she hadn’t popped out a son.

So, he had Anne arrested, convicted of high treason, adultery, and witchcraft, and beheaded. The three-year-old Elizabeth lost her titles, her claim to the throne, and her mother, all in a matter of weeks, if not days. Henry then married Jane Seymour, who later died giving birth to a son, Prince Edward.

Elizabeth spent most of her childhood away from court, but she was kept very busy. She received the most robust education a renaissance noble could hope for. She was fluent in five languages by the age of eleven, and up a few more by adulthood. She was also taught history, philosophy, mathematics, and rhetoric, and she was said to be brilliant at everything that was thrown at her. She especially enjoyed working on translations of classical texts.

She was never explicitly told what happened to her mother. King Henry had given orders that Anne was not to be spoken of. She slowly learned about her mother’s fall from snippets of information given to her throughout her adolescence. That alone is enough to mess with your head. Imagine slowly finding out that your father had your mother killed because you weren’t a boy.

After the death of her father, the nine-year-old Edward became king. Elizabeth, now thirteen, went to live with her stepmother Katherine Parr and her new husband Thomas Seymour.

Thomas was anything but fatherly to Elizabeth. It wasn’t long before he began sexually harassing her. Elizabeth had to rise early and surround herself with maids to stop him from sneaking into her bedroom.

He got his comeuppance a few years later when he was executed for treason.

King Edward died of tuberculosis at the age of fifteen, and here is where things get very dangerous for Elizabeth. Mary, the scorned daughter of Henry’s first marriage, assumed power and was determined to restore England back to Catholicism. By any means necessary.

Around three hundred people were burned at the stake for heresy, many were exiled, and plenty more converted (or at least pretended to). This led to protestant plots against Queen Mary. All eyes turned to Elizabeth, the protestant heir.

Though Elizabeth paid lip service to Catholicism, she was eventually imprisoned in the Tower of London after a protestant rebellion in 1554, and later moved to Woodstock palace under house arrest.

Here is where she does something interesting.

Princess Elizabeth — The Political Prisoner

There are two poems that survive from her imprisonment at Woodstock. The one etched onto her window is quite simple,

Much suspected by me,

Nothing proved can be,

Quoth Elizabeth prisoner

This short and sweet couplet is strangely powerful. She acknowledges that she is suspected of many things, but doesn’t proclaim any innocence, only that nothing can be proved. While there is no proof that she played an active role in any plots against queen Mary, here there is a suggestion that her feelings aren’t quite innocent.

I imagine her sitting at a bay window, frustrated and isolated, wondering who could be spying on her, or if anyone is trying to trick her into treason. I wonder if defacing a window with a broody verse made her feel any better. I kind of hope that it did.

Her classical graffiti at Woodstock Palace didn’t end there. She also wrote the following poem on a wall,

Oh Fortune, thy wresting wavering state

Hath fraught with cares my troubled wit,

Whose witness this present prison late

Could bear, where once was joy’s loan quit.

Thou causedst the guilty to be loosed

From bands where innocents were inclosed,

And caused the guiltless to be reserved,

And freed those that death had well deserved.

But all herein can be nothing wrought,

So God send to my foes all they have thought.

Here is a careful lament of a political prisoner. She doesn’t call anyone out, she doesn’t blame anyone, nor does she direct any feelings of guilt or innocence to herself. She just suggests that she is unfortunate. This poem explores the idea of fate and fortune and its disregard for guilt or innocence.

I wonder if she thought of her mother when writing this, whose fate was sealed in an unfair trial that disregarded all her solid alibis (it’s easy to disregard alibis when you accuse someone of witchcraft).

But it wasn’t long before Elizabeth’s fortune changed. Her sister died in 1558, and she was crowned Queen Elizabeth at the age of 25.

Queen Elizabeth — The Political Captor

After Elizabeth became queen, the political plots very quickly changed from protestant plots to catholic ones.

Some weren’t too happy about the return to Protestantism, and many Catholics still saw Elizabeth as illegitimate. Plans soon started brewing to get rid of Elizabeth and replace her with her Catholic cousin, Mary, Queen of Scots. Elizabeth did exactly what her sister did in her shoes, and had the Scottish queen put under house arrest.

Here is another political poem, inspired by all this family drama.

The doubt of future foes exiles my present joy,
And wit me warns to shun such snares as threaten mine annoy;
For falsehood now doth flow, and subjects’ faith doth ebb,
Which should not be if reason ruled or wisdom weaved the web.
But clouds of joys untried do cloak aspiring minds,
Which turn to rain of late repent by changed course of winds.
The top of hope supposed the root upreared shall be,
And fruitless all their grafted guile, as shortly ye shall see.
The dazzled eyes with pride, which great ambition blinds,
Shall be unsealed by worthy wights whose foresight falsehood finds.
The daughter of debate that discord aye doth sow
Shall reap no gain where former rule still peace hath taught to know.
No foreign banished wight shall anchor in this port;
Our realm brooks not seditious sects, let them elsewhere resort.
My rusty sword through rest shall first his edge employ
To poll their tops that seek such change or gape for future joy.

Queen Elizabeth was never really allowed much time to revel in the fact that she had beat the odds in getting the throne. This is possibly expressed in the opening line ‘The doubt of future foes exiles my present joy’. Again, she contemplates the role of destiny in her life, now that she’s in the position her sister once was.

There is lots of nature imagery in this poem, once again suggesting the uncontrollable forces of fate. The ebb of ‘faith’ and the ‘flow’ of falsehood suggests the fleeting loyalties of courtiers during a strange luke-warm war between Catholicism and Protestantism. Also, the metaphor of the web is a bit of a paradox. They may be strong and beautiful, but they are also delicate, and dangerous for those who get caught up in them.

Mary, Queen of Scots was seemingly not as shrewd as Elizabeth and was embroiled in multiple catholic plots. The final nail in the coffin was when letters written by Mary were intercepted. In these letters, she sanctioned an assassination attempt on Queen Elizabeth.

Though initially reluctant to set a precedent of executing a foreign queen, Elizabeth signed her death warrant. Mary Queen of Scots was executed for high treason in 1587.

Elizabeth became the instigator of Mary’s fate. It was a fate that Elizabeth herself feared when she was a political prisoner. Maybe she told herself that she did what her sister wanted to do but couldn’t.

Who knows?

Queen Elizabeth — The Conflicted Lover

It wasn’t all plots and schemes. There was also a lot of talk of love and marriage during Elizabeth’s reign. It’s well known she died unmarried and childless. It was also well known that she was in love with her childhood friend and favourite courtier Robert Dudley, whose wife ended up dying in very suspicious circumstances.

Though she never explicitly wrote a poem about Dudley, one of his letters was found after his death with a note in her handwriting reading ‘his last letter’. I personally feel this note is quite tragic… and a little romantic.

The following poem, titled ‘On Monsieur’s Departure’ conveys her feelings after the breakdown of marriage negotiations with the Duke of Anjou.

I grieve and dare not show my discontent,
I love and yet am forced to seem to hate,
I do, yet dare not say I ever meant,
I seem stark mute but inwardly do prate.
I am and not, I freeze and yet am burned,
Since from myself another self I turned.

My care is like my shadow in the sun,
Follows me flying, flies when I pursue it,
Stands and lies by me, doth what I have done.
His too familiar care doth make me rue it.
No means I find to rid him from my breast,
Till by the end of things it be supprest.

Some gentler passion slide into my mind,
For I am soft and made of melting snow;
Or be more cruel, love, and so be kind.
Let me or float or sink, be high or low.
Or let me live with some more sweet content,
Or die and so forget what love ere meant.

The courtship lasted around three years, and it is said that they were very close and quite flirtatious with each other. Elizabeth had a cheeky nickname for him, and she wore a frog shaped earring that he had gifted to her. Although some have speculated that this poem could really be about her feelings for Robert Dudley.

It’s not that important to know who this poem is about. What is important is that political pragmatism wins over love and desire, and it hurts her. She must now wrestle with the love she still has and cannot act upon it. She is ‘forced to seem to hate’. She again feels out of control of her fate, even as The Queen.

She asks for either a ‘gentler passion’ or to ‘be more cruel’. It reminds me of Lady Macbeth’s soliloquy (which hadn’t been written yet), where she prays to spirits to become cold and heartless so she can successfully kill King Duncan. This poem is basically saying that powerful people, especially powerful women, must choose between kindness and cruelty to be effective. When, in reality, we’re all stuck being a mixture of the two.

Elizabeth — The Poet and Person

It’s clear that Queen Elizabeth I was a complex political figure.

Her parents were the poster children for papal rebellion. Throughout her lifetime she went from heir to a dynasty, to the bastard child of a witch, to political prisoner, and finally a queen, deciding the fate of people who were in the same dangerous position she once was. Her biography and self-penned speeches let us know all of this.

But her poems remind us that she was also a person experiencing a very strange and tumultuous political life.

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