The Tudor Society

17 November – The queen is dead! Long live the queen!

On this day in Tudor history, 17th November 1558, forty-two-year-old Queen Mary I, daughter of Henry VIII and his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, died at St James’s Palace in London. She passed the throne on to her twenty-five-year-old half-sister, Elizabeth, daughter of Henry VIII and his second wife, Anne Boleyn, who became Queen Elizabeth I.

In today's talk, I talk about the accession of Queen Elizabeth I and the traditional story of Elizabeth finding out that she was queen at Hatfield.

You can find out more about Accession Day and how it was celebrated in my article here.

Also on this day in history:

  • 1525 – Death of Sir John Fyneux, Judge and Chief Justice of the King's Bench. He was appointed Chief Justice in 1495, and was also an executor of Henry VII's will.
  • 1551 – Death of Richard Fermor, wool merchant, at Easton Neston. He was buried at the parish church there. Fermor was one of the jurors at the trial of Sir Richard Empson, and purchased the manor of Easton Neston from Empson's family. He was imprisoned at Marshalsea prison in May 1540 for misprision of treason, for supporting his Catholic chaplain who was vocal in his support of the Pope as head of the Church, but was released in August 1540 and pardoned in 1541.
  • 1558 – Death of Cardinal Reginald Pole, Mary I's Archbishop of Canterbury, at Lambeth Palace in London. He had been ill since September 1558 and died after hearing news of Mary I's death. He lay in state at the palace for forty days before being buried at Becket's Corona in Canterbury Cathedral.
  • 1571 – Death of Sir Thomas Leigh, Lord Mayor of London. He was buried in the Mercer's Chapel. As Lord Mayor at the time of Elizabeth I's accession and coronation, he led Elizabeth's coronation procession.
  • 1584 – Death of William Ayloffe, Justice of the Queen's Bench.
  • 1589 – Death of Valentine Dale, member of Parliament, civil lawyer and diplomat, in the parish of St Gregory by Paul's in London. He was buried in the parish church there. Dale was sent on embassies to Flanders in 1563 and to Alexander Farnese, Duke of Parma, in 1588. He was on the commission which indicted Anthony Babington, and was also present at the trial of Mary, Queen of Scots. After Mary's trial, he wrote a memorandum justifying Mary's execution, at the behest of William Cecil, Lord Burghley.


On this day in Tudor history, 17th November 1558, forty-two-year-old Queen Mary I, daughter of Henry VIII and his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, died at St James’s Palace in London. She had been queen for just five years and four months. She passed the throne on to her twenty-five-year-old half-sister, Elizabeth, daughter of Henry VIII and his second wife, Anne Boleyn.

Parliament was in session on the day that Mary died so Mary’s Lord Chancellor, Nicholas Heath, Archbishop of York, announced the queen's death to the House of Lords. Then, at noon, The Houses of Lords and Commons proclaimed Elizabeth queen at Whitehall.

Sir Nicholas Throckmorton recorded how Elizabeth had arranged with him to bring her Mary’s enamelled black ring, one given to her by her husband Philip of Spain, on her death so that she could be sure that her sister was really dead. He said that he “galloped in post” from court to Elizabeth’s estate at Hatfield with the ring, but that his news was “stale”, for it had already reached Elizabeth. It served as confirmation though, from a trustworthy source: “My news was stale”, Throckmorton wrote, “butt yet she knewe it true.”

The Count of Feria recorded that six of Mary's council travelled to see the new queen:
“The day on which the Queen died, after the customary proclamation was made at Westminster and London, the Council decided that the Chancellor, the Admiral, the earl of Shrewsbury, the earl of Pembroke, the earl of Derby and William Howard, should go to the new Queen and perform the ordinary ceremonies, and that the remainder should stay behind, but everyone wanted to be first to get out.”

Sir Robert Naunton in his “Fragmenta regalia” writes a very romanticised account of Elizabeth finding out she was queen:

“ […] which on her sisters departure, she most religiously acknowledged, ascribing the glory of her deliverance to God above: for she being then at Hatfield, and under a guard, and the Parliament sitting at the self same time, she received both the news of the Queen's death, and her own proclamation, by the general consent of the house and the public suffrage of the people: whereat falling on her knees, after a good time of respiration, she uttered this verse of the psalme: A domino factum est istud, et est mirabile in oculis nostris”

The Latin translates to “this is the Lord's doing; it is marvellous in our eyes” and is from psalm 118. Elizabeth was, according to this tradition, sitting under an old oak tree in the parkland around the palace of Hatfield, reading a book when the men arrived to give her news of her accession.
Sadly, this romantic tradition may well not be true. As David Starkey points out, this account was written 70 years after the event and is “psychologically wrong” as it has Elizabeth speaking only “after a good time of respiration” when Elizabeth had already heard the news and wasn't the sort to receive new with what Starkey describes as “female flutterings”.
I do love it though!

Today, you can still see an oak tree in the parkland at Hatfield. It is not THE tree, as that died. However, our present queen, Elizabeth II, planted a new oak in its place on 22 July 1985. The plaque there reads:
“This oak tree was planted by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II on the 22nd July 1985 on the site of the original oak tree under which Her Majesty the Queen Elizabeth I heard of her accession to the throne.”

The 17th November was celebrated as Accession Day throughout the reign of Elizabeth I and the reigns of many of her successors. As well as Accession Day, it was also known as Queen Elizabeth's Day or Queen's Day and was celebrated with the ringing of bells, processions, the burning of an effigy of the Pope, and special tilts in which knights not only jousted but also dressed up and took parts in special pageants involving poetry and theatre. Accession Day celebrations continued well into the 18th century with Elizabeth being seen as an "icon of the Protestant revolution" and effigies of the Pope and the Devil being traditionally burnt on this day. It is not marked in the UK today, though.

I might well raise a glass to Gloriana, the Virgin Queen, Good Queen Bess later, after all, she was the daughter of my favourite historical character.

There are 6 comments Go To Comment

  1. R

    So if she didn’t hear the news under the oak tree, do we know how it really happened?

    1. C - Post Author

      Probably inside, which isn’t quite as romantic! It would have been rather chilly to be sitting under a tree outside reading in November, but perhaps she was taking some air, you just never know.

  2. R

    Rest in peace Mary Tudor and Cardinal Pole.
    Happy Ascension Day Queen Elizabeth I.
    The Tudors had some interesting monarchs, ruthless, great, adventurous, all the subject of myth and propaganda and our history has been suppressed by them. As historians, this is one of the best recorded eras but one of the most repressive and difficult to reveal the truth. It is also one of the most exciting because new horizons opened up. Religious and social changes blasted England into the middle of conflicts we would probably have been better keeping out of, but we also know more about the Tudors than any other era. Unfortunately, what we know has also been misinterpreted because of bias and what we might call attachment to certain characters. If we feel too much sympathy for Henry’s wives for example, we can be blinded to many of his achievements and his earlier characteristics as well as the context in which his reign saw so much brutality and dramatic transformation. His children operated within that world and their own religious and personal style of government are influenced by their experiences of their father.

    Elizabeth herself was raised rather differently, although she did share the periods of rejection that Mary endured from time to time, but the half sisters had very different views on truth and religious commitment, although they were not so different in how they governed as we might suppose. Religious persecution was a major theme of both reigns and that has to be held as a terrible indictment of any monarchy at this time. However, Mary should also be renowned for making Elizabeth I ascension possible. Her gender free establishment of the crown, her holding her own v rebels, treason and usurped crowns showed her to be resilient and bold and that a woman can rule. Her short reign also opened up contacts in Russia and with Bagdad and Constantinople. Both of these were substantially built upon by Elizabeth and trade and new discoveries extended to America and the Indies. Piracy and slavery were the downside of our discoveries as was a prolonged war with Spain and trouble in Ireland.

    Art and culture are possibly the two biggest things which took off on a marvellous scale under Elizabeth and the theatre was encouraged for ordinary people as well as patrons. New architecture can still be seen and painting was very much a political as well as a grand art form for which the Elizabethan era is known. Schools, began under her father and siblings were extended and many more encouraged and built and literature and literacy increased, although it’s a myth that before ordinary people were ignorant. New farming technology also appeared at this time. Elizabeth herself was a hands on patron and an involved monarch.

    One thing Elizabeth is known for is the greatest myth of all. The defeat of the Spanish Amarda in 1588 was celebrated in painting and is still so in film and no doubt it was a great deliverance. However, it was almost a great defeat, the government didn’t have enough arms and shot was short and more than half those who served died of starvation, poverty and disease. The English Amarda, which nobody has heard of until now because it was suppressed knowledge, launched in 1589 to take revenge by attacking Portugal was a complete disaster on land and sea, the biggest in our history. The weather played the greatest role in the defeat of the Amarda, although a victory was won in an engagement at Gravilines that turned the tide and helped the English victory. Elizabeth did go to address the troops, but in fact the danger had passed and her speech is no doubt one of great encouragement. However, her reign also saw much suffering, famine and war. She did also survive several attempts, imagined or real on her person and reigned for 44 years. Her reign has been held as a Golden Age when it was nothing of the kind and although it was known for several highlights, the propaganda which has created so much mythology about Elizabeth has obscured the achievements of her siblings and father.

    Unfortunately, the greatest monarchs are also the most ruthless and the Tudor Age was known for beauty and destruction, liberty and suppression, achievement and darkness, religious grandeur and persecution and art and culture, but also the greatest destruction of institutions and religious art in our history. It is also the era which transformed England and put it on the map politically, economically, socially, culturally and through pride and determination as well as extending our physical presence around the globe.

    So I am not lifting my glass to Elizabeth but to the Tudors, our greatest, most ruthless and most inventive and weirdest dynasty.

    1. C - Post Author

      I loved your final comment! They certainly were inventive and weird and the kings and queens of propaganda! They certainly keep us talking and debating today.

      1. R

        Hi Claire, many thanks. For some reason I am now thinking of them in charge of a modern general election or Tudor social media. The masters of spin and the best time on these wonderful sites. We love the oak tree story I believe because it is romantic and it would have fitted with the Victorian ideas of Elizabeth. It’s also a great story for visitors. I was so pleased to read that Queen Elizabeth ii replaced the old oak with a new one. Heritage is so important.

        1. C - Post Author

          Have you visited Hatfield, RTL? It’s lovely there. It was a rather chilly and breezy day when I went there but I did enjoy walking out to the oak and pausing there a while. The main palace is Jacobean, but there is still the Old Palace with its great hall, where Elizabeth held her first council meeting.
          Yes, definitely masters of spin!

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17 November – The queen is dead! Long live the queen!