Inside the Secret Early Life of Queen Elizabeth I

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Queen Elizabeth’s BEST & BRIGHTEST Fashion Moments

Be it sarcastically or wholeheartedly, you have Queen Elizabeth I‘s family to thank for LARPing.

Live action role play—still most associated with dungeons, dragons and other medieval tableaus but also expanded to embrace the Star Wars universe, Middle-earth and other infinitely more exciting worlds than our own—really took off during the Tudor period, an eventful 118-year stretch during which lavish live entertainment for the royal court was all the rage.

As were beheadings, burnings, backstabbing, excommunication and, for the last 50 years at least, female rule.

And having a lady in charge didn’t put a cork in the madness for a minute, the ruler of what came to be known as the Elizabethan era dealing with a never-ending stream of palace intrigue, assassination attempts and political upheaval until her death in 1603.

Those volumes upon volumes of history are why Elizabeth I has remained such a meaty role for performers on stage and screen, be it the older, stone-faced, seen-it-all ruff-and-lace-cloaked queen or the younger, lustier version who had all the feelings before marrying herself off to her country.

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“She’s ripe for reinvention because she’s such an enigma,” Cate Blanchett, Oscar-nominated for 1998’s Elizabeth and 2007’s Elizabeth: The Golden Age, told Radio Free Entertainment upon the release of the sequel. “And also, if you think about the Elizabethan age, when the English culture as we know it was crystalized, it’s a fascinating period of history. So I think there’ll be many more Elizabeths long after this film, because I think she’s a fantastic…point on which to leap off for a story.”

From Bette Davis and Katharine Hepburn to Judi Dench (an Oscar winner for her eight minutes of screen time in Shakespeare in Love), Helen Mirren and Margot Robbie, Hollywood’s fascination has spanned a century. Alicia von Rittberg, 28, is the latest to don the royal robes as lead of the Starz series Becoming Elizabeth, which focuses on the years before the fated monarch ascended to the throne in 1558.

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“So there is not that much comparison,” Von Rittberg told E! News of the early period her show is tackling versus other takes on the queen’s life. In Becoming Elizabeth, while there’s the history “we know from the books,” the German actress explained, “we tried to make it as relatable as possible, as raw and truthful. As psychological as possible, as well.”

That shouldn’t be a problem.

The real conundrum was where to begin. Because you could start anywhere and instantly be sucked in by the crazier-than-fiction drama unfolding at any given time in the queen’s life. 

A Complicated Family Dynamic

King Henry VIII had been married to Catherine of Aragon, the mother of his eldest child, Mary Tudor, for almost 24 years when he chucked the union (and his Catholic faith) to wed Anne Boleyn—whose sister, Mary Boleyn, had been Catherine’s lady-in-waiting as well as Henry’s lover—in hopes that she’d give him a male heir. (Catherine had given birth to two stillborn sons and one who died at 7 weeks old.)

The king quietly married an already pregnant Anne on Jan. 25,1533 She was declared queen on April 13 but their union wasn’t declared valid by the Archbishop of Canterbury until May 28, once a court had determined that Henry’s marriage to Catherine was invalid (which also rendered Mary illegitimate and no longer first in line to the throne).

Elizabeth, named after both of her grandmothers, was born Sept. 7, 1533.

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But despite their bouncing baby girl, Anne ultimately turned out to be way too independent and outspoken for Henry’s taste, and his feelings for her—on a downswing already as that hoped-for male heir failed to turn up—curdled into paranoia and rage.

Catherine died Jan. 7, 1556, at the age of 50 and Anne miscarried on Jan. 29, the day of her predecessor’s funeral, paving the way for her demise.

With his increasingly viperous secretary Thomas Cromwell in his ear, Henry became convinced that Anne had to go. Since Henry’s break with Catholicism and installment as head of the Church of England, the smaller monasteries in the region had been under attack. Cromwell wanted them liquidated for the Crown’s profit; Anne wanted the money to be recirculated for religious education and charity.

At the same time, Henry worried that French Emperor Charles V, Catherine’s nephew, was still gunning for him over the treatment of his aunt. At the very least, Charles would never accept the legitimacy of Henry’s marriage to Anne.

And the monarch himself wasn’t so sure anymore, Henry starting to wonder if Anne hadn’t bewitched him by some sorcery (the Americans in Salem, Mass., certainly didn’t invent witch hunts), and that she was unable to deliver a son because God was punishing him for marrying her in the first place.

The Execution of Anne Boleyn

Tasked by the king with getting Anne out of the way, Cromwell came up with adultery. Five men, including Anne’s brother George Boleyn, were accused of having affairs with the queen. Anne, George and the others were tried and convicted of treason, and sentenced to death.

However, that wasn’t the grounds for annulment: The Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer, who previously had to rationalize why Henry’s marriage to Catherine was void and his union with Anne was the real deal, thinly accepted the notion that the king’s previous affair with Anne’s sister, Mary Boleyn, meant the marriage to Anne was never legal.

Anne (her exact age unknown, but roughly 35) was executed at the Tower Green on May 19,1536 Her daughter, Elizabeth, was 2 1/2 years old—and like her half-sister Mary, the child was also now illegitimate.

Henry went ahead and wed his mistress Jane Seymour on May30 She got pregnant right away but died on Oct. 24, 1537, 12 days after giving birth to a son, Prince Edward. (Cranmer, also later executed, was one of the future king’s godfathers. His half-sister Elizabeth, 4, carried the baptismal oil at the christening.)

The Decline of King Henry VIII

A widower not by his own design this time, Henry dispatched Cromwell & Co. to find him another bride. Anne of Cleves, selected for the possible political alliance with her brother, was his queen for the first half of1540 But she amicably agreed to an annulment, testifying that their marriage was never consummated. That freed the king to wed 17-year-old Catherine Howard, Anne’s cousin and former lady-in-waiting.

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They tied the knot on July 28, 1540, the same day Cromwell was executed. Henry later blamed false charges for the death of his chief minister, Cromwell’s enemies having conspired against the king’s ever-calculating right-hand man to turn the monarch against him 

But Catherine made the mistake of employing her former lover, Francis Dereham, whom she’d had an affair with before getting married, as her secretary—and when Henry found out, he had them both executed, along with Thomas Culpeper, a courtier Catherine had an affair with while she was married.

It was Henry’s sixth and final wife, Catherine Parr—a rich widow and reformer who authored several books on religion—who encouraged him to reconnect with his daughters, Mary and Elizabeth. The Third Succession Act, passed in 1543, allowed the girls back in line to the throne (behind their younger brother, Edward). 

Queen Elizabeth’s Formative Years

Elizabeth grew up motherless but in the care of devoted governesses Margaret Bryan and  Catherine Champernowne. The young princess had the best tutors and became fluent in Italian, Spanish, Dutch and all the languages of Great Britain, as well as proficient in Greek and Latin. Her formal schooling actually lasted till she was 17, making her one of the most educated women of her day, and she continued to be an avid reader and prolific translator of classic works. 

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Henry VIII died in 1547, after which 9-year-old Edward became king and Elizabeth went to live with Catherine Parr and her new husband, Thomas Seymour—who, according to multiple biographies, may have molested the princess starting when she was about 14 years old.

At the same time, “the rumor mill” speculated that Elizabeth “was not averse to her host’s advances,” G.L. Meyer wrote in The Tudors.

After Parr died from complications of childbirth in September 1548, Thomas Seymour—who was Jane Seymour’s brother—set his sights on marrying Elizabeth, whose governess encouraged her to be kind to the grieving widow. The princess was unmoved.

Thomas was arrested the following January anyway, for conspiracy to depose and replace his brother Edward Seymour as Lord Protector of England, get young King Edward VI married off to noblewoman Lady Jane Grey (Henry VIII’s grandniece, who’d also been living with Thomas and Catherine), and take Elizabeth as his bride.

That was far too much nefariousness, and Thomas Seymour was beheaded on March 20, 1549.

Edward VI died in 1553 at the age of 15 and, theretofore having ignored the Third Succession Act, his will stipulated that Lady Jane Grey succeed him as queen.

The 16-year-old Jane was deposed after nine days, and Queen Mary I took the throne that August, her younger sister, Elizabeth, supporting her all the way.

A Schism Between Sisters

Religion and a faltering grip on the reins of power eventually caused a rift between the sisters. Mary was Catholic, but Elizabeth, born after her father’s break from the church, was a Protestant—and Mary (a right chip off the old block) was determined to make England Catholic again, no dissent tolerated. The violent attempts to quash the Reformation under her reign earned her the nickname “Bloody Mary.”

(Maybe you and your friends have chanted it a few times into a mirror in a dark bathroom, waiting to see if she’d appear.)

The queen’s popularity started to wane further upon her announcement in 1554 that she planned to marry Philip, the future King of Spain and a member of the Austrian-Spanish Habsburg dynasty.

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Elizabeth was suspected of approving of Wyatt’s Rebellion, an uprising against Mary’s choice of husband organized by those who wanted to depose her and install her sister as queen. Elizabeth insisted she had nothing to do with it, but was imprisoned anyway in the Tower of London. Lady Jane Grey’s head was among those that ultimately rolled, along with her husband’s, punishment for her father’s hand in the rebellion. 

Meanwhile, there were government officials who insisted to Mary that her reign wasn’t safe while her sister was alive, but Elizabeth’s supporters successfully convinced the queen that putting her 20-year-old sister on trial (where she’d presumably be found guilty) was not the right choice. 

Instead, Elizabeth was relegated to house arrest in the town of Woodstock in May 1554 and Mary married Philip of Spain that July.

Queen Elizabeth’s Early Love

Elizabeth’s childhood friend Robert Dudley—”Rob,” to her—would remain a lifelong confidante and, it’s widely assumed, the love of her life. Amy Robsart, his ailing first wife, died in 1550 after falling down a flight of stairs and many never thought that wasn’t suspicious.

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Even though Elizabeth vowed to remain unattached, the speculation began right away when she became queen as to who the only 25-year-old monarch would choose for a husband. Dudley (Joseph Fiennes to Blanchett’s Elizabeth in the 1998 film) was always at the top of the list, though despite her being the ruler of everything, marrying a commoner would have been viewed as being beneath the Crown.

But she kept him close—geographically, installing him in apartments next to hers, and otherwise. She made him a privy councillor in 1562 and the following year suggested him as a husband for her widowed rival Mary, Queen of Scots, saying she’d consider Mary as a successor if Dudley was her consort. (She didn’t like the idea of him being with anyone else, but trying to manage his affairs took the sting out of it.)

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Elizabeth elevated Dudley to Earl of Leicester in 1564, but all the while he didn’t want to marry Mary, even though the plan for his proposal had already taken on a life of his own. Instead, he encouraged Mary’s marriage to her eventual second husband, Henry Stuart.

Having to accept for the umpteenth time that marriage to Elizabeth wasn’t in the cards, he fathered a child with Lady Douglas Sheffield in 1574 and wed Lettice Knollys in 1578.

The queen was said to have called Lettice a “she-wolf” and Dudley a “cuckold,” but he remained her personal favorite even as she forbid his wife to appear at court.

And when Dudley died in 1588 at the age of 56, Elizabeth locked herself in her suite for days and the door had to be broken down to get her to emerge. Until her death 15 years later, she kept Dudley’s last letter to her in a keepsake box by her bedside.

The Queen’s Strange Accession

Queen Mary was seemingly expecting a child, with a growing belly and everything, and Elizabeth was brought back to London to attend her sister in the final week of her pregnancy.

But it turned out Mary was not pregnant, despite her physical symptoms, and soon it was assumed that the monarch never would be. Castigated for this so-called “false pregnancy,” Mary fell into a deep depression, made worse by her thought process—that she was being punished for “tolerating” any Protestants at all. With no babies on the horizon, Philip left to lead the Spanish army in a fight against the French in Flanders, Belgium.

As her health declined, Mary resisted naming her sister her successor (Philip would have been named king regent to aid his heir only if his wife died in childbirth). In fact, the queen promulgated the conspiracy theory that Henry VIII was not Elizabeth’s father.

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Philip, meanwhile, was concerned that Mary, Queen of Scots—the Catholic granddaughter of Henry VIII’s sister Margaret Tudor and fiancée of the future king of France—could become queen if anything happened to Elizabeth. So, he got the hot idea that Elizabeth should marry his Catholic cousin, Emmanuel Philibert, Duke of Savoy, and ideally deliver an heir for the Habsburgs.

Finally, however, 11 days before she died on Nov. 17, 1558, at the age of 42, Mary named Elizabeth the next queen.

And so Queen Elizabeth I took the throne—forgoing marriage and (so she liked to claim) sex, if not fame and adulation—and the Elizabethan age began.

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