Experience the pageants and ceremonies of the royal coronations of Tudor Queens: Mary I and Elizabeth I!
The Tudor dynasty has a high percentage of crowned queens. Never before, and never since, have two back-to-back crowned monarchs been single women. The ceremonies and pageants that made up the coronations of Mary I and Elizabeth I give us great insight into these two half-sisters made and their reigns.
Hello and welcome to British History: Royals, Rebels, and Romantics. I’m your host and tour guide to the past, Carol Ann Lloyd. Join me today as we travel back in time to the 16th century where’s we’ll be doing the Tudor Tango. It’s time for Tudor Queens and Coronations!
Many things make the Tudor dynasty a significant changing point in English history. There are so many Queen Consorts! After all, Henry VIII gave us six of them—making him the most married monarch in English history!
But one thing we don’t always pay as much attention to is there are more single regnant Queens in Tudor times than in any other dynasty. Never before, and so far never since, have two back-to-back crowned monarchs been single women.
The ceremonies and pageants that made up the coronations of Mary I and Elizabeth I give us great insight into these two half-sisters made and their reigns.
The first challenge these two women faced was that they were, well, women. Not since 1135 had a woman inherited the throne of England. And that ended in civil war and disaster. No one believed a woman could or should govern a country.
As the first crowned Queen, Mary’s coronation followed essential traditions that had shaped the monarchy for hundreds of years, hers also had some unique events because she was a woman.
For example, part of the coronation ceremony was the creation of new Knights of the Bath. Traditionally, the man about to be crowned King would observe the ceremony of the bathing. Of course, this wasn’t possible for the Queen! Mary sent a male representative, the Earl of Arundel, and the ceremony went on. Just one indication of how completely everyone assumed the coronation would be of a King.
The coronation ceremony itself was also specifically designed for a King, and possibly a Queen consort. Mary’s coronation had to be reimagined to crown a Queen who held all the power. Ultimately, Mary played both roles and her coronation presented her as a Queen and King—or as a Queen with the power of a King. According to some contemporary reports, she wore her hair down as a consort would but was anointed and crowned as a King.
A crown was placed on Mary’s head three times. As was customary, she was crowned with St. Edward’s crown first and then with the Imperial Crown of the Realm. Then Mary was crowned with a smaller crown specially made for her. She was invested with the traditional regalia: ring, bracelets, scepter, and orb. The Bishop of Winchester, fastened on the spurs and girt her with the sword, as he would have done with a King. According to some reports, at the end of the ceremony Mary held two scepters: one of the King and one of the Queen consort.
Mary also made an effort to reduce anxiety about her gender by assuring everyone that she would quickly marry. By taking on the traditional woman’s roles as wife and future mother, Mary was positioning herself as less threatening. After all, soon there would be a man in the picture to bring wisdom and order to Mary’s reign.
Five years later, Elizabeth faced the same gender challenge. The unfortunate reality of another woman on the throne was no more welcome than it had been the first time. All the failures of Mary’s role, from the loss of Calais to the bad harvests to the unpopular participation in her husband’s war were blamed in large part on Mary’s gender.
In many ways, Elizabeth stepped in her half-sister’s footsteps. She is said to have worn her sister’s coronation robes. Bishop Oglethorpe administered the customary oaths to Elizabeth that had been administered to Mary and to the Kings before her: to keep the laws and customs of England, to keep peace to the Church and the people, and to execute justice in mercy and truth. Unlike Mary, who chose to lie prostrate before the altar as previous Kings had done during the anointing and consecration, Elizabeth chose to kneel. Elizabeth was anointed with oil, as was traditional.
As Mary had, Elizabeth received the symbols of power associated with the monarchy. The scepter and orb came last. At that point, she was crowned in a similar mode to Mary: first with St. Edward’s crown, then with the Imperial Crown, and finally with a smaller third crown. Some scholars think this might have been the crown that had been made for her mother, Anne Boleyn.
Like Mary, Elizabeth emerged from her coronation as both King and Queen. But unlike Mary, she did not rush to assure her Council and her country that she would quickly marry. At best, her comments about marriage were ambivalent, sometimes indicating determination to marry, other times indicating determination to remain single. Instead, throughout her reign, Elizabeth simply positioned herself as chosen by God to be the monarch and therefore not subject to the natural limitations of her gender. Much later in her reign, she described how she embodied the notion of King and Queen when she declared “I know I have the body but of a weak and feeble woman, but I have the heart and stomach of a king, and of a king of England too.” In other words, Elizabeth took the beginning of a notion that Mary started, the idea of being both King and Queen, and carried it forward to a much greater realization in her reign.
Another challenge both Mary and Elizabeth faced was that of religion. Each followed a monarch who was zealous and dedicated to a religion she did not share. Each was crowned according to religious laws she did not believe. Each had to make choices about how to reconcile what she believed and what she was legally required to agree to.
Mary’s religion meant she almost didn’t have a coronation. Her predecessor, half-brother Edward VI, was determined to leave a Protestant heir. When he realized he was dying, he attempted to change the law to leave the throne to Lady Jane Grey so she would carry on his Protestant reform. But Mary responded quickly and decisively and gathered supporters. She took the throne from Jane Grey in less than two weeks, with people rallying behind her. Encouraged, she approached her coronation believing she was fulfilling God’s will. She would restore England to the true faith: Catholicism.
Mary’s coronation provided her an opportunity to express her religious beliefs. The problem was, for 20 years, England had not been a Catholic country. By law, there was no relationship with Rome and the monarch was Supreme Head of the Church of England. The Archbishop of Canterbury, the man who would traditionally conduct the ceremony, was a Protestant. Many of the council had supported the effort to preserve Protestantism by putting Jane Grey on the throne.
Mary took some matters into her own hands. Before her coronation, she had Archbishop Cranmer arrested, thrown in the Tower, and eventually executed. She selected her long-time supporter and fellow Catholic Stephen Gardiner, Bishop of Winchester, to conduct her ceremony. Concerned that the anointing oil had been tainted by Edward’s Protestant ceremony, she asked the Bishop of Arras in Brussels to prepare special oil and secretly get it to Bishop Gardiner for the anointing.
Mary chose not to use the ancient Coronation Chair as she thought it might have been “polluted” by Edward. Mary had a platform constructed in the lantern so many people could see her. She climbed 30 steps to reach her throne at the top of the platform. There is a report that the Pope sent over the chair Mary sat in for her coronation, but there is no evidence of what came of it. Legally, Mary could not avoid being named Supreme Head of the Church of England—a title and institution she completely rejected. Mary requested that Cardinal Pole absolve her and her bishops.
Mary reached out to and took counsel from the Pope and Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor, in designing her coronation and her reign. The steps she took in the coronation set her on a track that would see her do all she could to restore England’s relationship with Catholic Europe.
Just as Protestant Edward did not wish to leave his throne to a Catholic, Mary did not wish to leave her throne to a Protestant. But ultimately, she had no choice. Elizabeth would be next.
When Elizabeth came to the throne, there weren’t any Protestant church leaders to crown her. The Archbishop of Canterbury had died. Many of the Protestant bishops had fled the country—or been burned at the stake. The Catholic Archbishop of York refused to crown Elizabeth because he didn’t consider her the rightful monarch. Elizabeth eventually persuaded Bishop Oglethorpe to conduct the ceremony. The coronation did not make Elizabeth “Supreme Head of the Church of England,” as the Church of England did not legally exist at the time of her coronation.
Elizabeth’s ceremony was a combination of Catholic and Protestant practices. The elevation of the host as part of the ceremony. Some reports state that this Catholic rite was eliminated at Elizabeth’s request; others say that the host was elevated and Elizabeth withdrew from the ceremony in protest. The ceremony was conducted in Latin and English, according to Catholic and Protestant tradition.
This provides an insight into how she wished to conduct her reign. As long as her subjects were loyal to her and to England, she is reported to have said she had no wish to “open windows into men’s souls.” In her early reign, Catholics and Protestants served together in her Council, just as her coronation had combined Catholic and Protestant, as well as Latin and English, rites.
The final challenge Mary and Elizabeth faced was perhaps the most problematic: legally, they had both been declared illegitimate. It had taken Henry VIII three wives to get his much-desired son, and to get to wife number three he declared marriages one and two invalid and both daughters illegitimate. Although the Third Succession Act in 1543 returned Mary and Elizabeth to the succession, Henry never declared them legitimate.
The question was: could a woman declared illegitimate be crowned Queen of England? Members of Mary’s Privy Council suggested that Parliament meet before her coronation to ratify her claim to the throne. This was the opposite of the traditional order, where the King was crowned and then called his first Parliament. In the traditional order, the newly crowned King validated Parliament. The Privy Council suggestion was that Parliament would validate Mary’s coronation. Mary recognized this would forever weaken her position, creating the idea she was beholden to Parliament for her royal power. She refused to alternate the order or events. Mary was crowned Queen 1 October 1553 and she held her first Parliament later that month.
Mary did turn to Parliament to reinforce her legitimacy. One of the first acts of Parliament was to declare that the marriage of Henry VIII and Katherine of Aragon was valid. This made Mary legitimate. The Queen used this “seal of approval” during the Wyatt rebellion. She reminded her subjects that she was Queen by virtue of God’s will, evidenced by her coronation, and Parliamentary law. As such, she was due their allegiance. It seemed to work—once again, the people rallied to Mary and Wyatt’s rebellion was put down quickly.
Mary also reinforced her legitimacy through the clear support shown her by the Pope and Charles V. They had been her champions throughout Edward’s reign, and they made their allegiance clear once she took the throne. Catholics in England were eager to have Mary on the throne, and the question of her legitimacy was put to rest.
Elizabeth’s proclamation as Queen upon Mary’s death called attention to her perceived deficits. When Elizabeth was proclaimed Queen, she was identified as the “only right heir by blood and lawful succession” to “the” crown—not the Imperial Crown, as it had for Edward and Mary. Elizabeth was not declared “Supreme Head of the Church of England,” as Mary had eliminated the Church of England and restored leadership of the Church to the Pope. Once again, the Privy Council suggested that Parliament should meet before the coronation and clarify she was the legitimate heir to the throne. Like Mary, Elizabeth said “no.”
Instead of taking the advice to get Parliamentary approval before being crowned, Elizabeth took the advice of one of her lawyers, Nicholas Bacon. He told her to move forward as quickly as possible to her coronation, for “the Crowne once worne, quietly taketh away all defects whatsoever.” Elizabeth took Bacon’s advice and proceeded quickly toward her coronation. She took the suggestion of BFF Robert Dudley to have John Dee, a mathematician, astrologer, and occultist to choose an opportune date that would lead to a successful reign. Dee selected 15 January 1559, and preparations began.
Elizabeth made full use of the pre-coronation events to reinforce the strength of her claim to the throne. After spending two nights in the Tower of London, as was traditional before the coronation, Elizabeth publicly thanked God for His help in bringing her from her earlier experience as a prisoner in the Tower to the “Prince of this land.” Most people knew she was a prisoner in the Tower less than 5 years ago. Such a transformation certainly seemed to indicate only God could have made it happen.
On the procession to Westminster, Elizabeth played her part to perfection—asked the procession to slow down so she could listen attentively to her subjects, thank them for gifts, respond to their good wishes. As they called out “God save Your Grace,” she responded, “And God save you all.” There were several pageants performed along the way to reinforce her magnificence and right to the throne. For example, the Pageant of Roses had people representing Henry VII and Elizabeth of York, then Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, and finally Elizabeth herself. The red and white and combined roses reinforced Elizabeth’s place as natural inheritor of the Tudor crown. In this way, the validation of Elizabeth’s legitimacy was presented as a fait accompli. It wouldn’t be addressed by Parliament because there was no need.
Elizabeth walked to her coronation the next morning on full display for her people to see. When Elizabeth appeared in Westminster Hall, she was dressed in the traditional crimson parliament robes, perhaps the ones worn by Mary. She participated all the traditional elements of coronation. She sat in the traditional coronation chair. She was crowned three times: with St. Edward’s crown, with the Imperial crown, and with a smaller crown. Elizabeth’s coronation had echoes of her half-sister and her mother, but it also represented her own success. She embraced Bacon’s belief that the crown, once worn, took away any defects. She wore that crown for nearly 45 years.
Two half-sisters. Single women. Crowned according to religious laws they did not believe. Similarities, differences. But most significantly, the first two crowned regnant Queens.
Thank you for joining us to celebrate the coronation of two Queens! Please join us next time as we explore the Wars of the Roses and John of Gaunt’s love life!