The Tudor Society

18 March – Elizabeth I is arrested

On this day in Tudor history, 18th March 1554, Palm Sunday, the twenty-year-old Lady Elizabeth (the future Queen Elizabeth I) was escorted by barge from her home at Whitehall Palace along the River Thames to the Tower of London, and imprisoned there.

Elizabeth had been implicated in Wyatt's Rebellion, a rebellion that sought to depose Queen Mary I and put Elizabeth, the queen's half-sister, on the throne in her place.

Where was Elizabeth imprisoned? What happened to her? Find out more about Elizabeth's arrest and her time in the Tower of London in today's talk.

Also on this day in Tudor history, 18th March 1496, Henry VIII's beloved sister, Mary Tudor, Queen of France, was born at Richmond Palace. Find out all about her in last year’s video:

Book recommendation: "Elizabeth: Apprenticeship" by David Starkey.

Link to read "The Miraculous Preservation...." -

May 19 – Elizabeth’s release from the Tower:

Also on this day in history:


On this day in Tudor history, 18th March 1554, Palm Sunday, the twenty-year-old Lady Elizabeth (the future Queen Elizabeth I) was escorted by barge from her home at Whitehall Palace along the River Thames to the Tower of London, and imprisoned there.

The previous day, two of her half-sister Queen Mary I's councillors, William Paulet, Marquess of Winchester, and Robert Radcliffe, Earl of Sussex, had arrived on Elizabeth’s doorstep to arrest her for her alleged involvement in the recent Wyatt’s Rebellion. If you heard my talk from 17th March last year, you’ll know that this is when Elizabeth wrote what historian David Starkey calls “the letter of her life”, the aptly named Tide Letter, so-called because as Elizabeth wrote this letter to the queen, the tide turned, making it impossible for Elizabeth to be taken to the Tower that day. Unfortunately, the letter only gave Elizabeth a day. The queen was determined for Elizabeth to be arrested and interrogated.

John Foxe, in his Book of Martyrs, includes a tract called “The miraculous preservation of the Lady Elizabeth, now Queen of England, from extreme calamity and danger of life; in the time of Queen Mary, her sister”, and here is an excerpt regarding Elizabeth’s apprehension:

“about nine of the clock, these two returned again, declaring that it was time for her Grace to depart. She answered, ‘If there be no remedy, I must be contented;’ willing the lords to go on before. Being come forth into the garden, she did cast her eyes towards the window, thinking to have seen the queen, which she could not: whereat she said, she marvelled much what the nobility of the realm meant, which in that sort would suffer her to be led into captivity, the Lord knew whither, for she did not. In the mean time, commandment was given in all London, that every one should keep the church, and carry their palms, while in the mean season she might be conveyed without all recourse of people into the Tower.
After all this, she took her barge with the two foresaid lords, three of the queen's gentlewomen, and three of her own, her gentleman-usher, and two of her grooms, lying and hovering upon the water a certain space, for that they could not shoot the bridge, the bargemen being very unwilling to shoot the same so soon as they did, because of the danger thereof: for the stern of the boat struck upon the ground, the fall was so big, and the water was so shallow, that the boat being under the bridge, there staid again awhile. At landing she first stayed, and denied to land at those stairs where all traitors and offenders customably used to land, neither well could she, unless she should go over her shoes. The lords were gone out of the boat before, and asked why she came not. One of the lords went back again to her, and brought word she would not come. Then said one of the lords, which shall be nameless, that she should not choose: and because it did then rain, he offered to her his cloak, which she, putting it back with her hand with a good dash, refused. So she coming out, having one foot upon the stair, said, ‘Here landeth as true a subject, being prisoner, as ever landed at these stairs; and before thee, O God! I speak it, having no other friends but thee alone.’ To whom the same lord answered again, that if it were so, it was the better for her.

At her landing there was a great multitude of their servants and warders standing in their order. ‘What needed all this?’ said she. ‘It is the use,’ said some, ‘so to be, when any prisoner comes thither.’ ‘And if it be,’ quoth she, ‘for my cause, I beseech you that they may be dismissed.’ , Whereat the poor men kneeled down, and with one voice desired God to preserve her Grace; who the next day were released of their cold coats.
After this, passing a little further, she sat down upon a cold stone, and there rested herself. To whom the lieutenant then being said, ‘Madam, you were best to come out of the rain; for you sit unwholesomely.’ She then replying, answered again, ‘It is better sitting here, than in a worse place; for God knoweth, I know not whither you will bring me.’ With that her gentleman-usher wept: she demanding of him what he meant so uncomfortably to use her, seeing she took him to be her comforter, and not to dismay her; especially for that she knew her truth to be such, that no man should have cause to weep for her. But forth she went into the prison.

The doors were locked and bolted upon her, which did not a little discomfort and dismay her Grace: at what time she called to her gentlewoman for her book, desiring God not to suffer her to build her foundation upon the sands, but upon the rock, whereby all blasts of blustering weather should have no power against her. The doors being thus locked, and she close shut up, the lords had great conference how to keep ward and watch, every man declaring his own opinion in that behalf, agreeing straitly and circumspectly to keep her.”

It’s a wonderfully descriptive account but we have to take it with a hefty pinch of salt though, for, as David Starkey points out, we know from other sources that Elizabeth was not taken through Traitors’ Gate, but instead was taken to Tower Wharf. The tract also goes on to state that Elizabeth was kept in a dungeon, and some books and websites state that she was imprisoned in the Bell Tower, but this just isn’t true. Elizabeth was confined in the royal palace in the inner ward of the Tower of London, the palace which had been renovated by her father, King Henry VIII, for her mother Anne Boleyn’s coronation in 1533. The royal apartments there served as Anne Boleyn’s prison in May 1536 and Elizabeth’s prison in 1554. So, not a cold, damp horrible dungeon or prison cell, and Elizabeth was attended by servants, BUT she was still a prisoner and was accused of being a traitor to the crown.

On 23rd March 1554, Good Friday, Elizabeth was interrogated by the queen's council. Rebel leader Thomas Wyatt the Younger had refused to implicate Elizabeth in his plot during his interrogations, so the council were hoping that they could break Elizabeth and that she’d implicated herself. However, the princess kept her wits about her.

At his execution on 11th April 1554, Wyatt gave a rousing speech proclaiming Elizabeth’s innocence. There was just no evidence against her. David Starkey writes of how Mary's council “bickered and debated” over what to do with Elizabeth and how Mary herself “dithered”. Mary may have seen Elizabeth as a threat, but Elizabeth was her half-sister and the daughter of Bluff King Hal. There may well have been trouble if Mary had executed her. Simon Renard, the imperial ambassador, recorded in a dispatch to the emperor that “even if there were evidence, they would not dare to proceed against her because her relative, the Admiral, has espoused her cause, and controls all the forces of England”. He was referring to William Howard, 1st Baron Howard of Effingham, who was Lord Admiral to Mary I but also Elizabeth’s uncle.

With no evidence of treachery, Elizabeth was granted more freedom and, although still a prisoner, was permitted to walk in the palace's privy garden. The story in “The Miraculous Preservation” of a boy, the son of an officer of the Tower, bringing flowers to Elizabeth, and Elizabeth’s fellow prisoner, Edward Courtenay, Earl of Devon, trying to communicate with her through this boy, is actually true as it is confirmed in a report by Simon Renard, who reported to the emperor, “ It is proved that Courtenay has sent a child of five, the son of one of the soldiers in the Tower, to present his commendations to Elizabeth.” The Earl of Devon was, of course, the man that the rebels had apparently wanted Elizabeth to marry when they put her on the throne after deposing Mary I. Elizabeth was also permitted to walk in the great gallery and this extra freedom must have given Elizabeth hope that Mary was going to release her and spare her life.

Elizabeth must have been stricken with fear though on 4th Mary when Sir Henry Bedingfield, Constable of the Tower of London, was ordered to raise a hundred troops. Were these men for crowd control at her execution. Fortunately for Elizabeth, the queen decided to release her into house arrest, and on 19th May 1554, the anniversary of her mother’s execution, Elizabeth was released from the Tower.

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