The Tudor Society

Was Elizabeth I really an awful person?

Thank you to Tudor Society member Denis for asking the question "Was Elizabeth I as awful a person as Philippa Gregory paints her in her novel The Last Tudor?" I haven't read the novel, so can't share any views, but I know that Philippa Gregory used Leanda de Lisle's book The Sisters Who Would be Queen for research so I asked Leanda. Leanda said:

"Elizabeth I had good reason to be frightened of the Grey sisters as her possible heirs. She had already seen the eldest, Jane, supplant her in the line of succession and was very frightened that a married Katherine - with a son - could replace her on the throne. She had far less reason to fear Mary Grey, but her harsh treatment of Thomas Keyes sent a message to all - do not cross the queen on the matter of marriage to members of the royal family. If you read my Tudor: The Family Story, you will discover that the Grey sisters and Mary, Queen of Scots were not the only heirs she imprisoned, and it also explains the importance of these issues throughout the story of the dynasty."

Leanda wrote an article for us here at the Tudor Society a few months ago "The Last Tudor and The Sisters Who Would Be Queen". She also wrote one on Katherine Grey for the Elizabeth Files back in 2009 - see "Katherine Grey – Heir to Elizabeth" - and you can read an article on Mary Grey, also by Leanda, at

Other resources:

Conor Byrne did an expert talk on the Grey sisters for the Tudor Society and you can click here to view the video.

There are 10 comments Go To Comment

  1. M

    Elizabeth wasn’t awful. Her father, on the other hand, well….. maybe. Elizabeth had to be smart, and ruthless at times, to protect her throne and her realm. Her realm meant everything to her. She gave up everything for it as any good mother would to protect her child. No. I don’t believe she was awful. I think she was a great queen. She made some very hard choices.

  2. C

    I have read several of Philippa Gregory’s novels and I believe it is fair to regard her as anti-Elizabeth. She paints a negative portrait of Elizabeth in at least two other novels, The Virgin’s Lover and The Other Queen; in the former, she actually accuses Elizabeth of engaging in sexual relations with the married Robert Dudley and masterminding the murder of Robert’s wife Amy. There is zero historical evidence for either assertion. In terms of Elizabeth’s treatment of the Greys, from our perspective we may regard her as harsh or unfeeling, but as Leanda notes, Elizabeth had very real concerns about the Grey family – after all, from her perspective they had behaved traitorously in 1553. Moreover, why does no-one seem to regard other monarchs, including Henry VII and Henry VIII, as ‘awful’ in their treatment of their cousins and dynastic rivals? I can’t help but wonder if the answer lies in Elizabeth’s status as a woman and in cultural beliefs about how women are ‘expected’ to behave and act.

  3. R

    Yes, Elizabeth was an awful person, but she was also a smart one. She probably wasn’t as bad as she is in Gregory, nobody is as bad as they are in Gregory. I think she would find a way to make the most saintly person in history awful if she could. Having said that, I am actually surprised the question is being asked about a Philippa Gregory novel as she is a novelist with a reputation for presenting fiction as fact without saying it’s actually her own ideas.

    Personally it is difficult to really know how Elizabeth or Henry or even Mary were as people because the actions they took as autocratic monarchs may not represent their personal wishes, but have been necessary to preserve their lives and crown. The Grey sisters are three entirely separate entities and don’t collectively represent a wild threat to the Tudor crown. However, being a Tudor grandchild or cousin was not always healthy and the Dynasty was paranoid right the way through. Jane had been chosen by Edward over his Protestant half sister and Catholic half sister because they were in his eyes illegitimate as his father had made them so by law. Jane represented a legitimate line, a true bloodline, a Reformed family, half Tudor blood and youth. She could be married off and bred and her children inherit the crown. There wasn’t enough time for this so she was chosen as well as her potential heirs. ( Jane of course could also have produced a load of girls had she lived). Elizabeth had noted that she was put aside for her cousin so already the danger was highlighted. Mary I had not wanted to execute her very young cousin, but it didn’t take long for her to be the pawn for someone else so there was no choice in the end. Elizabeth also knew this to be true and she never had herself made legitimate again, although Mary did. She had noted the potential in the Grey family being encouraged to promote themselves as heirs, even if the younger sisters didn’t do this.

    For one thing let’s not forget that Katherine Grey didn’t ask permission to marry Edward Seymour, who was also in line to the throne. This didn’t sit well and although Elizabeth was cruel to put them in the Tower and separate them, they had broken a law forbidding those related to the crown from marriage without permission. They feared they would not be allowed to marry so acted with the Brandon/Grey rashness the family was known for. Henry Viii had put two Howard brothers in the Tower for contracting themselves to his niece Margaret Douglas and Elizabeth would put her back there when her son married Mary Queen of Scots. Katherine went on to have two sons and it is here that Elizabeth was particularly cruel, keeping her from her husband and possibly causing her ill health and premature death.

    Elizabeth had nothing to fear from the youngest sister and her treatment of someone who went out of their way to marry a commoner was ridiculous. I don’t find her actions in putting him in the Fleet Prison justified in any way.

    Elizabeth made some very good decisions as Queen, she kept a tight hold and governed a lot of ambitious and pushy men and managed to stay one step ahead of them. However, when it came to creating rivals, that was her own fault. The best way to ensure you are not put of the throne by rivals, real and imagined is to make a strong marriage alliance and have kids. Elizabeth is often praised for ruling alone but it was a weakness, not a strength. It was her job to keep England safe, not to invite trouble. That Elizabeth ruled for 45 years and ultimately kept the Spanish out, she did so only by the skin of her teeth. It was her job, male of female, to marry and have heirs to follow her or to nominate someone else if she knew she wasn’t going to bother. I don’t believe Elizabeth made up her mind never to marry when she was nine or fourteen and she did intend to marry in the first decade of her reign. Political problems and international politics and religion caused too much of a delicate balance at home and she couldn’t make up her own mind. Eventually, she was too old and personally decided she was too tired of the round of marriage negotiations and interference from her advisers. She took on a stronger, firmer, more mystical role of a powerful goddess Queen and decided to remain unmarried. She became the iconic Virgin Queen and the propaganda did the rest.

    Elizabeth didn’t react to everyone getting married, that is another myth. She attended several weddings from her Ladies and even the Gentlemen of her court. Yes, she hated many of her favourites to bring their wives to court, to marry without her permission, but they had to ask anyway, she broke all the mirrors and had a nasty temper. However, her Godson married and she attended, as did others she was fond of like Catherine Carey. She forgave Raleigh for his marriage to Bess Throgmorton after a year or two and was again Godmother to their second son. She was jealous of Lettice Knowles, but that was natural, I suppose. She also had a hard time with Essex but in the end he wanted far too much power and Elizabeth was strong enough to outwit him and put him in his place, being forced to execute the idiot for an uprising and treason.

    Like most people Elizabeth probably had a dark side which enabled her to rule and make what we see as awful and cruel decisions, but she had her throne to consider and her own safety. The same attributes can be found in her father and her mother. She also had a more gracious side and a fun side. She had wit and she had charm and charisma, which both of her parents also had. She was intelligent and she was also courageous. However, if she had one bad side, it was her indecision. That is what always annoyed her Council and what let her down in dealing with her so called rivals and in the Succession.

  4. R

    I have just read the interesting article in the Spectator which explains that Mary Grey was buried in Westminster Abbey with her ancestors. Unfortunately, the article then lets itself down by stating that she was buried in her mother’s tomb in Chequers. Frances Grey is buried in Westminster Abbey, not Chequers, so just to point this out as these articles are meant to be professional. There isn’t a comment box on the article, which is a shame. The article other than this error is excellent and informative.

    1. C - Post Author

      I suspect it’s a typo in The Spectator article as Leanda states near the beginning that Mary’s funeral was at Westminster, and I doubt The Spectator would do anything about it now as it’s quite a few years old. I can pass it on to Leanda and see if she can get it changed though. Obviously, it’s not one of our articles so I cannot do anything about it I’m afraid, but it is an excellent article and the book is fantastic.

  5. C

    I don’t think it’s fair to regard Elizabeth as an ‘awful person’; she didn’t put either of the younger Grey daughters to death, yet her father and grandfather both executed numerous members of the house of York. Her treatment of Mary Grey, in particular, seems harsh, but you have to view Elizabeth’s actions from her perspective rather than from a twenty-first century mindset. Ultimately, the Greys were unlucky because according to Henry VIII’s will, it should’ve been a descendant of Katherine Grey who occupied the throne in 1603 after Elizabeth’s death. Even if the Grey-Seymour marriage was invalid, as Elizabeth believed, then the English crown should have descended to Margaret Stanley and her descendants, rather than to James VI of Scotland.

    1. C - Post Author

      I don’t think she can be described as an “awful person” but I think she was certainly awful at times. Her treatment of some of her ladies could be described as awful, her treatment of Catholics in her reign, her doing things like refusing Francis Knollys permission to go home and see his dying wife, her treatment of the Greys… all this could be described as awful but awful actions at times don’t necessarily constitute an awful person.

      I haven’t read Gregory’s novel so I would like to know exactly how Elizabeth I depicted in it and what makes her an awful person.

      1. C

        Claire, there is a user called Iset on Goodreads who has reviewed all of Gregory’s books (and the reviews are very negative). I would recommend reading their reviews, they are very informative.

        1. C - Post Author

          Thanks. I’ll have a look.

  6. R

    The word awful was used in the question, but it is probably the wrong word. As a Tudor Queen or Female King she had a choice of how she appeared or dealt with rivals, misdeeds of subjects, traitors, rebels, criminals asking for mercy or justice and the threats, perceived or otherwise. Not everyone was treated unfairly, but there are occasions that the ruthless Tudor trait definitely comes out. As a person she and all leaders of her day had to balance out what they felt with the right thing to do or political thing to do. In her dealings with Mary Queen of Scots, the question may be was she too much inclined to tolerate her cousin or did she fear the consequences so didn’t act without absolute cause or evidence that Mary wanted her death? ( Whether that evidence was planted or proven is another debate) Elizabeth had Mary as her “guest” or prisoner under increasing security for 18 years. I am not certain I wouldn’t give the nod to a plot or two given those circumstances, but to be fair she did say no again and again. In the end she said yes, pretended she didn’t and blamed everyone but herself. She was right, however, in her reasoning, this execution of an anointed Queen by another Monarch, did open the doors for the legal attainment of a Sovereign for treason. Other Kings had been executed after being captured in battle, the last directly descended Holy Roman Emperor was executed by the King of France in the early fourteenth century aged sixteen. To put one on trial for treason was unheard off. With the northern rebellion Elizabeth was even more ruthless than her father and there are definitely signs that she was just as paranoid as her life progressed, partly due to a number of assassination attempts on her life.

    Elizabeth made the same ruthless decisions as others but she is far more easily condemned because she was a woman and as Helen Castor and our own Conor Byrne point out a man doing this would be called strong, a woman would get painted with a wide number of unflattering names. I still believe Elizabeth was ruthless or awful and stand by my earlier post, but I have qualified my response by stating that Catherine Grey was not locked up for being a rival but had married without royal permission which was against the law and to yet another cousin, thus making her sons as the next heirs. I did also point out that Henry Viii put two Howard brothers in the Tower as Margaret Douglas, his eldest niece had “married” them, resulting in one dying and the offending Princess being separated from him and “marriage” dissolved . I still think Elizabeth was too hard on Mary Grey who made certain she was out of the running by marriage to a commoner.

    Elizabeth could also have redeemed the situation because Catherine was actually her heir as Conor points out as per the will of Henry Viii, which overlooked the Scottish line in favour of the English Suffolk line. I feel she could have pardoned her cousin, Catherine Grey and recognised her and her sons formally, but instead her continued actions were mean and personal. In the article it is pointed out that Elizabeth was set aside for a Grey, Jane, so she was naturally distrustful of Catherine and Mary. Elizabeth had also just recently recovered from small pox after just four years on the throne, nearly died and had no heir of her body or spouse. I can understand her initial reaction but her continued actions were those of a person who feels insulted and wants to make an example and I feel are over the top and aweful. She didn’t execute them as they hadn’t directly acted in a way of treason so the Tower was sufficient. I have to point out that in similar cases Henry acted the same way, not with execution. The one case he didn’t even do that was with his sister and Brandon but negotiated a huge fine. He did dissolve the marriage, as did Elizabeth but it was too late, they had found a way to get access to each other and Catherine was pregnant. She had two sons and it was only afterwards that she was let out and while ill she was still not allowed to see her husband. That was cruel. That was personal and a symbol of paranoia. The treatment of Mary was even worse.

    Henry Vii didn’t as is often claimed work his way through the House of York and their cousins, but he did ruthlessly execute Warwick. This young man was the son of George Duke of Clarence, brother of Edward iv and the future Richard iii, but at ten was placed under secure house arrest in the Tower as a prisoner. Henry was afraid he would be used against him and he was actually right. John de la Pole, son of the sister of the above, used Warwick as his own supplement for the crown, although he was more likely the leader of the revolt in 1486 and 87. He also had with him a young man who was crowned in Dublin as Edward V or Vi depending on how you read the entry in the York Books, which give him a numerical assignment. Other sources say he was the real Earl of Warwick and Henry was worried by this. After Stoke in 1487 which saw the army of John Earl of Lincoln defeated and himself killed, a boy known as Lambert Simnel was held up as this fake Warwick. He was put in the kitchens and then served as a falconer. However, in 1499 Warwick was taken out and executed! Why? Another pretender had arrived known as Richard of England or Perkin Warbeck to history. He claimed to be the even more dangerous rival, Richard, Duke of York, son of Edward iv. He had wide support abroad and even at court, he found support. He was a real threat for eight years. Eventually he was captured, treated as a house guest, but separated from his royal wife, Catherine Gordon. He was held while Henry tried to establish his identity, beaten and forced to say he was Perkin in a formal but suspicious confession, then he escaped and was placed in the Tower. Henry had him put in with Warwick and one persuaded the other to escape. He was recaptured and Henry had his excuse. Both were tried and found guilty of treason. Henry was also acting under pressure from Spain to get rid of his male rivals and these two young men were executed in November 1499. Warwick, whom Leanne de Lisle says was retarded based on a comment by Hall, was beheaded and Warbeck (Richard) was hung as a common criminal. The sons of Suffolk were lurred back and locked up. Edmund, Earl of Suffolk was beheaded by Henry Viii as he was off to war, which was not seen as tyrannical but a political necessity due to security, but we would see it as ruthless now. His brother, another Richard, was killed fighting for the French at Pavia. Henry Vii is condemned wrongly for his treatment of Warwick, but it was still ruthless or awful by our modern notions, which should not be put on the past.

    Elizabeth was a chip of the old block and proud of it. Her father did deal without mercy in his last decade to get rid of political rivals, but was it just because they were rivals or did his religious ideas have more to do with it? I would suggest a bit of both. The family of Pole and Courtney were grandchildren of Edward iv, via their mother, Margaret the sister of the unfortunate Warwick. Margaret, Countess of Salisbury had been married off to an obscure knight, Sir Richard Pole by whom she had at least six children, four of them sons. The entire family had thrived under Henry Viii for over twenty years, then he broke from Rome and divorced Catherine of Aragon with whom they were all close. The son, Reginald had trained in England for the priesthood and was a scholar. Henry had sponsored him. Now he had fallen out and gone abroad. Margaret had been the Governess of Princess Mary before she was estranged from her mother by her father. She remained loyal to both the Queen and Princess. After Jane Seymour became Queen she even came back to court briefly. However, influenced abroad Reginald, now a Cardinal wrote strong and passionate works against Henry’s divorce, his new titles and his reforms. Henry was out to get him but failed. Due to the fact he couldn’t get Reginald and the so called Exeter plot, probably invented by Cromwell, Henry went after the rest of the family! Henry Pole and his brother in law were arrested, his son was also arrested and his mother was arrested. Their associated friends and relatives, Sir Nicholas Carew and Sir Edward Neville were arrested. The men were tried and executed. The young Geoffrey Pole was questioned, gave “King’s” evidence and due to possibly suicidal tendencies, he was spared and released. The grandson, the son of Henry Pole vanished. We don’t know the truth, but it was alleged that he was allowed to starve to death. The most ruthlessly merciless act was against the grand Matriarch herself. Held in prison until May 1541 she was then suddenly taken out and beheaded without any warning or trial. She had a botched execution and there are two versions, both brutal, but both resulting in her being hit several times with the axe before she died. She was 69 and in frail health and is considered a martyr. Now this can be seen as a cynical way to get rid of the last great Catholic and York families by a now well and truly paranoid King, or as a direct result of political events and religious changes resulting from Henry Viii breaking from Rome and his divorce. However, they are still ruthless and pitiless actions.

    Henry had also removed the third Duke of Buckingham on trumped up charges in 1521, but this may have nothing to do with getting rid of a rival as the Duke was more likely set up for a fall by Cardinal Wolsey. His execution of the Earl of Surrey, however, and his arrest of Norfolk can be seen as either getting rid of the last old rivals for his son’s crown or clearing House as the new order in the shape of the Seymours are believed to have had a hand in Surreys fall.

    So, is Elizabeth really that awful in the light of her father and grandfather or even her siblings. Yes if you see her as being as ruthless as any other Tudor or contemporary and her actions as a Queen, rather than as a person. I do feel her personal feelings got in the way here as they did at other times but her genuine fears did as well. She was most certainly less awful than her father, but more awful than her sister, Mary and her grandfather. Although the actions of her brother can mostly be put down to the ruthless reactions of Northumberland in dealing with protest and rebellion, he had it in him to become another Henry Viii and his diary in his last two years show him cold and detached. He may go down in history as a new Josiah but he can’t be judged fairly as he was not fully adult and not around long enough. Both Mary and Elizabeth were equally as ruthless against religious descent but I have never heard Elizabeth called Bloody and yet, when it came to treason and rebellion, the former was the more tolerant and forgiving. Yes, I stand by Elizabeth being ruthless and awful in many of her actions, but would mitigate this by stating that her actions have to be seen in context. She reacted to a perceived threat against those she had already seen get mixed up in at least one attempt to keep a Tudor of their lawful throne. She also reacted because her life had just been in danger and as any monarch did when faced with dangerous people. She may have allowed personal fear to decide her decision but she at other times was very careful not to overreact. She took her time when deciding if certain convicted traitors should die, for example with Norfolk and Mary, Queen of Scots. She weighted up advice and often overlooked it because they wanted people dead without due process. Elizabeth has a reputation for having a temper but that is not the full story. She also made life long friends and clearly there was an affectionate side to her. In the end, she made her own decisions when it came to her ultimate succession.

    James was not the obvious choice, but he was a sensible choice. Yes, the line of Succession should have gone to a Grey or the family of Eleanor Brandon, Countess of Cumberland in the person of the son of Margaret Stanley, Countess of Derby. I can see why Elizabeth reverted to the excluded but senior Stuart line and back room deal political manoeuvres played their role. Although she didn’t name him, it was understood that James Vi was to succeed Elizabeth and that she was deeply suspicious of the other cousins. This is how Arbella Stuart arose as a potential heir over James and whose own marriage to yet another Grey descendent, was to have such tragic consequences of her own as it put James in fear of being replaced on the throne and invasion. For her Council, James was a safe male choice with male heirs of his own. The Third Act of Succession also allows the changing of the will of Henry Viii, but Elizabeth could have saved all of this either by fair treatment of the sons of Catherine Grey or by naming a Successor. Not marrying and having an heir put England and herself in danger, which led to many of her own personal problems.

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Was Elizabeth I really an awful person?