“I humbly beseech your majesty to have a good opinion of me, and to think me to be your true subject…”

After Mary’s accession, Elizabeth remained at court. Along with Anne of Cleves she attended Mary’s coronation on October 1. Mary, at first, was magnanimous on her accession and flattered Elizabeth by letting her have place of honor at her side and holding her by the hand when they appeared in public together. Ultimately, though, Mary found it hard to trust the adult Elizabeth – a self confident young woman who carefully played the obedient sister. In a private audience with Mary: “Elizabeth knelt down on both knees; weeping, she said she saw only too clearly that the queen was not well-disposed toward her, and she knew of no other cause except religion.” She had “never been taught the doctrine of the ancient religion.” She requested books and a learned man to instruct her. Mary wanted to believe her but when Elizabeth was to attend mass she complained of stomach ache and had a suffering air.

Two weeks after the coronation Simon Renard, the Emperor Charles V’s envoy, warned Mary: “You have four certain and open enemies, the heretics and schismatics, the rebels and adherents of the Duke of Northumberland, the king of France and Scotland, and the Lady Elizabeth.”

By December 1553 strained relations between the sisters induced Elizabeth to request to return to her estates in Hertfordshire. Mary agreed and although they parted on on affectionate terms Mary was not convinced in Elizabeth’s public pronouncements of her support of Catholicism.

On word that Mary was to marry Philip of Spain there was fear that the identity of England would be submerged with that of Spain and the other countries that Philip ruled. There was also the fear that he would exploit England’s resources for his own ends. Sir Thomas Wyatt, the son of the Tudor poet who had been in love with Anne Boleyn, was one of the ringleaders determined to prevent this. When the rebellion was known Mary wrote to Elizabeth in early 1554, “…we, tendering the surety of your person, which might be in some peril if any sudden tumult should arise… do therefore think it expedient you should put yourself in good readiness with all convenient speed to make your repair hither to us, which, we pray you, fail not to do…” Elizabeth declined pleading ill health having already been made aware of the uprising from Sir James Croft. Three councilors were sent to Elizabeth’s residence at Ashridge to bring her to court. By the time she reached Whitehall, Mary refused to see her. On March 18, 1554 Elizabeth was arrested and sent to the Tower on the charge of complicity in Wyatt’s rebellion. She was imprisoned for two months. Wyatt was questioned and admitted he had written to Elizabeth but that she had not had any part in the rebellion. When he was executed on April 11 he again refused to implicate Elizabeth. She in turn swore she did not receive a letter from him. Elizabeth’s letter to Mary, before her incarceration, begged,”…I be not condemned without answer and due proof which it seems I now am.” After all the investigations were concluded, Elizabeth was not put on trial for treason as no evidence could be found. Elizabeth wrote, with a diamond from her jewels, on the window, “much suspected of me, nothing proved can be, quote Elizabeth, prisoner.” Some of Mary’s council still argued for the execution of Elizabeth. If she remained alive she would always be a threat. But Elizabeth was very popular with the people and in that sense more of a threat dead than alive. Mary let her return to Woodstock but under house arrest. 

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Princess Elizabeth ca. 1560

At Philip’s urging, Elizabeth returned to court in April 1555. He insisted Mary should treat her as an affectionate sister and as her heir. It was in his best interests that the next queen should be his ally. He did not want Mary, Queen of Scots as the next heir because, although Catholic, she was betrothed to the French Dauphin and the French were the enemies of Spain.  Elizabeth remained at court until October 1555 when she returned to Hatfield.                

Another conspiracy appeared in the winter of 1555-1556. Sir Henry Dudley and other members of parliament were plotting against Mary. There was fear of a French invasion but by spring it was over. Because the hope of making Elizabeth queen had also been part of the plot, her servants, Italian teacher, and three ladies were arrested. Philip advised against imprisonment or exile for Elizabeth. Mary sent Elizabeth a diamond as proof of her belief in her sister’s innocence. Elizabeth arrived at court to celebrate Christmas of 1556 but left five days later as Philip was hounding her to marry a prince of his choice. The last time the sisters met was at the end of February 1558. Elizabeth was now content with her situation. The Queen of Scots marriage to the dauphin of France in April made Elizabeth a necessary ally for Philip and he wanted Mary to show she accepted Elizabeth as heir. This was not a choice that Mary would have made on her own but by the autumn of 1558 Mary was gravely ill and by November she had made her will and accepted Elizabeth as heir.  

Elizabeth learned two valuable lessons from Mary’s reign. One was the great problems that the question of marriage could raise for a maiden queen. It was obvious that England looked unkindly to the rule of a foreign monarch, but even if she married within the land she would still be guided and directed by her husband, something that the independent Elizabeth abhorred. Second was how the opposing forces of the country would rally around the designated heir. Because of this Elizabeth refused to acknowledge her heir until the very end.  Elizabeth was at Hatfield when the news of Mary’s death reached her. A fitting place to end their relationship – at the site where it began.

Conspirators and the Crown by Hugh Ross Williamson