The Imprisonment of Princess Elizabeth

Princess Elizabeth Tudor miniature by Nicholas Hilliard

On 18 March 1554 Princess Elizabeth was imprisoned in The Bell Tower at The Tower of London by order of her half sister and ruling Queen of England, Mary I (Tudor) or (Bloody Mary) and as a result of The Wyatt Rebellion. Mary was determined to turn back the clock on twenty years of religious reform and make England a Catholic nation again. Elizabeth conformed outwardly to the Catholic faith. But she could not distance herself too much from her Protestant supporters. When Sir Thomas Wyatt led a rebellion in January 1554, matters came to an unpleasant impasse. Wyatt had written to Elizabeth that he intended to overthrow Mary but his letter was intercepted, as was a letter from de Noailles to the king of France. His letter implied that Elizabeth knew of the revolt in advance, and repeated rumors that she was off gathering armed supporters. The government was able to suppress the rebellion before it spread very far and Wyatt was arrested. Mary's council could find no real proof that de Noailles's suppositions were true but they decided to summon Elizabeth back to London for questioning. She was understandably frightened and ill; she sent word that she could not travel. Two of Mary's personal physicians were sent to evaluate her condition. They diagnosed 'watery humors' and perhaps an inflammation of the kidneys. She was ill, they reported, but not too ill to travel the 30 miles to London in the queen's own litter. Three of the queen's councilors - Howard, Hastings, and Cornwallis, all of whom were friendly with Elizabeth - escorted her back to London. They traveled quite slowly, covering just six miles a day.

Elizabeth kept the curtains of the litter pulled back as she entered the city, and the citizens were able to see her pale, frightened face. She had good cause for her fear; the heads and corpses of Wyatt and his supporters were thrust upon spikes and gibbets throughout the city. The queen waited for her at Whitehall but they did not meet immediately. First, Elizabeth's household was dismissed and she was told that she must undergo close interrogation about her activities. She was questioned by the unfriendly bishop of Winchester, Stephen Gardiner, but she was not intimidated. She denied any involvement in the rebellion and repeatedly asked to see the queen. But she was told that Mary was leaving for Oxford where she would hold a Parliament. Elizabeth would be leaving Whitehall as well, though at first the council could not decide where to send her. No councilor wanted the responsibility of keeping her in close confinement at their homes; it was too unpleasant and potentially dangerous. And so Gardiner and Renard had their way and she went to the Tower of London. The earl of Sussex and the marquess of Winchester were sent to escort her from Whitehall.

Elizabeth was terrified. The mere mention of the Tower was enough to shatter her already fragile nerves. She begged to be allowed to write to her sister, and the men agreed. Written on 17 March 1554, the letter was long, rambling, and repetitious but proof of her fear and trepidation: It is known as The Tides Letter:

If any ever did try this old saying, ‘that a king’s word was more than another man’s oath’, I most humbly beseech your majesty to verify it to me, and to remember your last promise and my last demand, that I be not condemned without answer and due proof, which it seems that I now am; for without cause proved, I am by your Council from you commanded to go to the Tower, a place more wanted for a false traitor than a true subject, which though I know I desire it not, yet in the face of all this realm it appears proved.

I pray to God I may die the shamefullest death that any ever died, if I may mean any such thing; and to this present hour I protest before God (Who shall judge my truth, whatsoever malice shall devise), that I never practised, counselled, nor consented to anything that might be prejudicial to your person any way, or dangerous to the state by any means. And therefore I humbly beseech your majesty to let me answer afore yourself, and not suffer me to trust to your councillors, yea, and that afore I go to the Tower, if it be possible; if not, before I be further condemned. Howbeit, I trust assuredly your highness will give me leave to do it afore I go, that thus shamefully I may not be cried out on, as I now shall be; yea, and that without cause.

Let conscience move your highness to pardon this my boldness, which innocency procures me to do, together with hope of your natural kindness, which I trust will not see me cast away without desert, which what it is I would desire no more of God but that you truly knew. Which thing I think and believe you shall never by report know, unless by yourself you hear. I have heard in my time of many cast away for want of coming to the presence of their prince; and in late days I heard my Lord of Somerset say that if his brother had been suffered to speak with him he had never suffered; but persuasions were made to him so great that he was brought in belief that he could not live safely if the Admiral lived, and that made him give consent to his death. Though these persons are not to be compared to your majesty, yet I pray God the like evil persuasions persuade not one sister against the other, and all for that they have heard false report, and the truth not known.

Therefore, once again, kneeling with humbleness of heart, because I am not suffered to blow the knees of my body, I humbly crave to speak with your highness, which I would not be so bold as to desire if I knew not myself most clear, as I know myself most true. And as for the traitor Wyatt, he might peradventure write me a letter, but on my faith I never received any from him. And as for the copy of the letter sent to the French king, I pray God confound me eternally if ever I sent him word, message, token, or letter, by any means, and to this truth I will stand in till my death. Your highness’s most faithful subject, that hath been from the beginning, and will be to my end, Elizabeth I humbly crave but only one word of answer from yourself

After finishing, she carefully drew lines throughout the rest of the blank sheet so no forgeries could be added, and she signed it 'I humbly crave but one word of answer from yourself. Your Highness's most faithful subject that hath been from the beginning and will be to my end, Elizabeth'.

The letter had taken too long to write; they had missed the tide. They could wait a few hours and take her to the Tower in the darkest part of night, but the council disagreed. There could be an attempt to rescue her under cover of darkness. They decided to wait until the next morning, Palm Sunday, when the streets would be nearly deserted since everyone would be in church. Meanwhile, her letter was sent to Mary who received it angrily and refused to read it through. She had not given permission for it to be written or sent, and she rebuked her councilors fiercely.

The next morning, 18 March 1554, arrived cold and grey; there was a steady rain. At 9 o'clock in the morning, Elizabeth was taken from her rooms and through the garden to where the barge waited. She was accompanied by six of her ladies and two gentleman-attendants. She waited under a canopy until the barge began to slow; she then saw that they would enter beneath Traitor's Gate, beneath St Thomas's Tower. This was the traditional entrance for prisoners returned to their cells after trial at Westminster. The sight terrified her and she begged to be allowed entry by any other gate. Her request was refused. She was offered a cloak to protect her from the rain but she pushed it aside angrily. Upon stepping onto the landing, she declared, 'Here landeth as true a subject, being prisoner, as ever landed at these stairs. Before Thee, O God, do I speak it, having no other friend but Thee alone.' She then noticed the yeoman warders gathered to receive her beyond the gate. 'Oh Lord,' she said loudly, 'I never thought to have come in here as a prisoner, and I pray you all bear me witness that I come in as no traitor but as true a woman to the Queen's Majesty as any as is now living.' Several of the warders stepped forward and bowed before her, and one called out, 'God preserve your Grace.'

She still refused to enter the Tower. After the warder's declaration, she sat upon a stone and would not move. The Lieutenant of the Tower, Sir John Brydges, said to her, 'You had best come in, Madame, for here you sit unwholesomely.' Elizabeth replied with feeling, 'Better sit here, than in a worse place, for God knoweth where you will bring me.' And so she sat until one of her attendants burst into tears. She was taken to the Bell Tower, a small corner tower beside Brydges's own lodgings. Her room was on the first floor, and had a large fireplace with three small windows. Down the passageway from the door were three latrines which hung over the moat. It was not as destitute or uncomfortable as she had feared, but it was still the Tower of London and she was a prisoner. This was the beginning of one of the most trying times of her life.

Elizabeth spent just two months in the Tower of London, but she had no idea that her stay would be so brief - and it did not feel particularly brief. She truly believed some harm would come to her and she dwelt most upon the possibility of poison. She knew Mary hated her and that many of her councilors constantly spoke ill of her, encouraging either her imprisonment or execution.

It was abundantly clear to Elizabeth that her position was precarious and dangerous. During the first weeks of her imprisonment, she was allowed to take exercise along the Tower walls but when a small child began to give her flowers and other gifts, Brydges was told to keep her indoors. Elizabeth had always been active, both physically and mentally. She chafed at her confinement and its boring routine. She was occasionally interrogated by members of Mary's council, but she held firm to her innocence. She had faced such interrogations during Thomas Seymour's fall from grace, and could not be easily intimidated. Still, the stress - which she handled with outward aplomb - took its toll on her physical health. She lost weight, and became prone to headaches and stomach problems.

Elizabeth and Sir Henry Bedingfield - the new Constable of the Tower
First Elizabeth is placed in close confinement in the Bell Tower, then Sir Thomas Wyatt is executed and a final blow is struck when the Constable of the Tower Sir John Gage is replaced by Sir Henry Bedingfield (1509 - 1583) on 5 May 1554. Many of Mary's supporters were still looking for the death of Elizabeth. Mary had attempted to remove Elizabeth from the line of succession, but Parliament would not allow it. Mary had reluctantly signed the Death warrant of Lady Jane Grey and although she disliked her sister she did not want to be responsible for her death. Sir Henry Bedingfield was a staunch Catholic and one of the powerful men who were instrumental in putting Queen Mary on the throne of England. Mary trusted Bedingfield and had rewarded his loyalty by giving him an annual pension of £100 out of the forfeited estates of the hapless Sir Thomas Wyatt. Elizabeth had never met Sir Henry Bedingfield and knew of the man only by his reputation. Elizabeth was terrified that he had been sent as her 'jailer' in order to arrange her murder. This was not paranoia on Elizabeth's part. She had heard the rumor that staunch Catholic members of Mary's council had sent a warrant for her execution to the Tower without Mary's signature. The warrant had been delivered to the Lieutenant of the Tower, Sir John Brydges. He had checked the warrant, saw it was incomplete and would not act upon it because it lacked the Queen's signature. Sir John Brydges had saved the life of Elizabeth.

Elizabeth is released from the Tower of London
Elizabeth had no idea what was going to happen to her. But she believed that she was going to die. She knew that Catholic members of the Privy Council were plotting against her. What she did not know was that she also had and extremely powerful ally. The ally was, of all people, King Philip II of Spain. The Catholic husband of her half-sister Mary! Philip was about to arrive in England. He was politically astute and realised that English were extremely wary of the new, Spanish, Catholic husband of their Queen. He realised that if anything happened to Elizabeth it would be his influence on Mary that would be blamed! Better that Elizabeth was kept alive but closely watched and eventually married off to one of his relatives! He advised Mary to release Elizabeth from the Tower. And Mary, who was besotted with Philip, obeyed. On Saturday 19 May Elizabeth was released from the Tower of London. But she was to be placed under the equivalent of House Arrest at the palace at Woodstock.

Thank you for stopping by please feel free to leave any comments or questions!


Anonymous said…
This is so cool!
Kimberly Eve said…
Yes Anonymous it is very cool!

Absolutely Robert! One could say it is 'inspirational' :)
Anonymous said…
What an amazing recounting of very dramatic events. Even knowing how the story ends, I was kept on the edge of my seat! A wonderful tribute to a great queen whose influence we are still feeling today. Good job! gigigirl
WoofWoof said…
It is interesting when you think of Elizabeths life - to lose her mother at age 3 (and in such a terrible way), then to grow up to be told that her mother was an adulterer, guilty of incest and witchcraft. These years under Queen Mary must have been terrifying for her -especially to be sent to the Tower where so many had been tortured and held before execution. You can just feel the fear and desperation in that letter. On the other hand, I can also see it from Marys point of view - her own mother being sidelined and humiliated by Elizabeths mother, herself being declared a bastard, her brother trying to stop her succeeding to the throne. One can understand her own paranoia and why she might fear and hate Elizabeth. It's interesting the two lie side by side in the same tomb in Westminster Abbey. Thanks for a wonderful article which vividly captures this young woman's fears and terrors.

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