The Turning of the Tide

Elizabeth I is known as one the greatest monarchs in English history. She ruled England for 45 years overseeing the crushing defeat of the Spanish Armada and creating a manageable religious settlement between England’s Catholic and Protestants (which was no easy feat in early modern Europe!). Yet the Elizabethan age may never have happened, one of our most famous and beloved historical monarchs may have remained a relatively unknown figure, had it not been for ‘the Tide letter’ written in 1554.

Portrait of Elizabeth (1558-1560s) courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Elizabeth’s youth had been fraught with danger. She was born a girl to great disappointment from her father, the infamous Henry VIII, and when she was only 2 years old her mother Anne Boleyn was executed on her father’s orders. In the same year Henry had an Act of Parliament declare Elizabeth illegitimate. This left Elizabeth in a complicated position, and upon her father’s death in 1547 things did not get easier. She was involved in a scandal with her stepmother Catherine Parr’s new husband Thomas Seymour, which did damage to her reputation and implicated her in his later plots for power. She survived all these dangers and more, but in 1554 she faced her greatest danger yet that nearly cost her dearly.

In 1554 Elizabeth’s Catholic half sister Mary was Queen of England, and had decided to marry the Spanish Hapsburg monarch Philip II of Spain. This caused great contention among many, who worried about foreign involvement in English affairs. This prompted Sir Thomas Wyatt and other nobles to revolt. In a nutshell the plan was to depose Mary replacing her with Elizabeth instead, but their rebellion failed. Elizabeth was now viewed with suspicion and arrested, and during this period was sent to the Tower of London where her mother had been executed years before. Before going though Elizabeth wrote a letter appealing directly to her sister, which as Simon Sebag Montefiore says “is the letter that saves a princess“.

In this letter Elizabeth wrote:

I never practiced, counselled, nor consented to anything that might prejudicial to your person anyway, 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 condemened.”

This a clear statement of innocence from Elizabeth, who knows how Mary’s Councillors may still yet encourage her execution. Elizabeth and Mary had never had an easy relationship, mostly in part due to their religious differences and the history of their mothers. It may have not been difficult for Mary’s Councillors to play on this tension, and encourage Mary to depose of her sister. After all, Mary had their cousin Lady Jane Grey executed at this time despite only being a pawn in powerful Protestant men’s plots.

Elizabeth also wrote: “I pray to God the like evil persuasions persuade not one sister against the other…I humbly crave to speak to 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.”

Elizabeth boldly acknowledges in this letter that forces are trying to separate them, and that she wants to speak to Mary herself to proclaim her innocence. She refers to Wyatt as a traitor, clearly distancing herself from him and stating she never knew of this plot. After all it’s not the first time in English history a woman has been a pawn in others plot, of which they know nothing. This direct appeal from “Your Highness’s most faithful subject” does not work straight away, and although “Elizabeth deliberately writes so slowly that the tide has turned before its finished, delaying her remand to the Tower for a day” she is still eventually taken there.

She was later released, as there was not a lot of evidence to condemn her, for Wyatt despite being tortured always said she knew nothing of the plot.

Drawing by Antony van den Wyngaerde of London (1554-1557) courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Mary ruled for another four years before her death in 1558, and although relations between sisters were never particularly great she did accept Elizabeth as her heir according to their father’s Act of Succession. Elizabeth was crowned on the 15th January 1559, and a new era of her life began where she would no longer be treated as a pawn and forced to beg for her life but where she was God’s anointed ruler of the English realm.

This original letter is held at the National Archives and can be seen online here.

What do you make of this letter? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comment section below.

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Anne Boleyn Files:

History Learning Site:

Written in History: Letters that Changed the World by Simon Sebag Montefiore

11 thoughts on “The Turning of the Tide

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