History in Focus: Elizabeth I and James VI and I | about | home |

Elizabeth I (1533-1603), English school, formerly attributed to John Bettes the Younger (fl 1570 – d 1616), about 1590

his issue of History in Focus marks the 400th anniversary of the death of Elizabeth I, and accession of James VI & I, in 1603.

You will find below a selection of resources for the study of the reigns of Elizabeth and James, including websites, articles, book reviews, sample chapters and a bibliography.





'Elizabeth' at the National Maritime Museum

Elizabeth and James on the web


Image © National Maritime Museum, London



Web Sites

Reviews and Articles


'Elizabeth': an exhibition at the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich

It is perhaps easy to forget that many of the central dramas of the Tudor dynasty were not played out within the heart of London, as we sometimes tend to assume, but in the palaces which surrounded the city – at Richmond, Windsor Castle, Hampton Court or at Greenwich. The fact that so many important events took place in Greenwich Palace makes it an appropriate setting for an exhibition about Elizabeth I, and one which by its very location requires some kind of imaginative response, trying to envision the Tudor brick-built riverside palace that no longer remains. Henry VIII, Mary I and Elizabeth I were all born there. Edward VI died there. Anne Boleyn was arrested on charges of treasonous adultery after a tournament held there in 1536; over fifty years later it was there that her daughter finally signed the death warrant for Mary, Queen of Scots. The very location of the exhibition compels you to envisage the Tudor palace that lay beside the river.

As this exhibition makes clear, however, it has to be remembered that Elizabeth’s birth at Greenwich, in September 1533, was to the dismay of her parents and the consternation of the regime of the time. Henry VIII had moved heaven and earth to annul his first marriage to Katherine of Aragon, and marry Anne Boleyn, and both his personal convictions and the royal propaganda of the time seemed to rest on the assurance that he was hereby doing the will of God. Both parents had firmly believed that God would bless their cause by sending the long-awaited son and heir. The arrival of a princess was a blow to royal confidence, to the new royal marriage, and to the still very shaky infrastructure of an English Church independent of the papacy. One of the most poignant exhibits in this exhibition is the letter from Anne Boleyn to Lord Cobham, announcing the new arrival, which had been prepared before the actual birth. The announcement of God’s mercy and grace ‘in the deliverance and bringing forth of a Prince’, has been hastily altered, with the addition of an ‘s’, to make the prince into a princess. This one small detail suggests the degree of confidence with which a son was expected, and commensurately, the scale of the disappointment which must have followed.

From this unfortunate beginning, the exhibition traces Elizabeth’s difficult youth through the reigns of father, brother and sister, and manages to submerge the rather tired familiar story of her tempestuous childhood and adolescence in the remarkable details of the events and personalities of this time. From the point of her accession, the exhibition branches out, moving from her family history, private tribulations and convictions, to her public life at court, the iconography of her queenship, the questions of religion, marriage and foreign policy, the problems of succession and the difficulties of her final years. The rationale of the exhibition was to concentrate on Elizabeth herself rather than on the Elizabethan age in general, but the scope of the exhibits is broad. One especially apposite emphasis is the importance of trade and exploration – it was from Greenwich that Elizabeth bade farewell to Martin Frobisher, sailing off in search of the North-West Passage. Thus the wider implications of Elizabeth’s reign are included alongside the more personal details.

This exhibition brings together a fabulous selection of portraits, manuscripts and artefacts, and undoubtedly should be seen by everyone with even a slight interest in Tudor history. Some of the images will be familiar, but most are not, and even the portraits well-known from book illustrations take on a new glow when seen in the original. The private side of Elizabeth emerges in objects such as the locket ring which opens to show portraits of Elizabeth and Anne Boleyn, side by side, but which closed gives no indication of the hidden, and perhaps painful, family link it depicts. The book of Katherine Parr’s prayers, translated by the young princess into Latin, French and Italian as a New Year’s gift to her father in 1546, demonstrates her scholarship, but also suggests her need to conciliate her father – the preface reiterates several times the bond between them – as well as perhaps hinting at the personal piety which continues to evade easy categorization.

At the other end of the scale we see the maps which indicate the mental world of the time: the commercial atlas in which Cecil scribbled notes concerning recent explorations, and details of how to address foreign rulers correctly; the pair of celestial and temporal globes which map out both earth and skies as they were perceived in the fifteen-nineties. In this section the existing Elizabethan collection of the National Maritime Museum finds a perfect setting, and books, maps, charts and scientific instruments all testify to the extraordinary achievements of the Elizabethan seafarers. This had a human side too: the gorgeous Drake Locket Jewel, reportedly presented by the queen when she knighted Drake in 1581, was to appear as a precious heirloom in a portrait of one of his descendants in 1884. This echoes the appearance of more straightforwardly religious heirlooms in the exhibition, the possessions of Mary, Queen of Scots, lent by the descendants of the recusant families of the time who, in defiance of the authorities, treasured them as relics, and passed them down to future generations.

The iconography of Elizabeth is perhaps more well-known, but still fascinating, and thankfully there are more measured claims made here for its significance than sometimes appear. The splendour of some of the portraits contrasts well with some of the more homely artefacts of life at court; the slightly crude stove-tile with the royal cipher, and the sturdy candle-sconce which bears the royal coat of arms. The reappearance of these royal arms in a painted triptych from a Suffolk parish church reinforces how the Elizabethan religious settlement, whatever its doctrinal ambiguities, sought to replace traditional religious imagery with more politicized royal emblems. In this, at least, Elizabeth seems to have followed her father’s lead. The doors of this triptych, when closed, reveal a selection of biblical texts denouncing the use of religious images, showing the close accommodation possible between royal propaganda and puritan convictions.

This is one aspect of Elizabeth’s regime which could perhaps have been more clearly conveyed; the iconographic ideal of the queen has long since taken on a secular life of its own in the popular imagination, and it could have been more strongly emphasized how large a part of this emerged initially from the Protestant mythology of the reign. It is a slight surprise to find the Elizabethan ‘via media’ in religion so calmly asserted by the exhibition, given that it is still a debatable assessment of Elizabeth’s own views, and definitely does not fully reflect the state of the Elizabethan Church of the time. It is the later development of Elizabeth’s reputation that is responsible here, and although this is dealt with in the catalogue (Elizabeth, ed. Susan Doran (London: Chatto & Windus and the National Maritime Museum, 2003)), it could have been called into question more vigorously by the exhibition itself. The fact that this exhibition is being used, we are told, as the basis for a study in contemporary leadership and business skills, founded on the premise that Elizabeth inherited a ‘business in ruins’ and turned England into ‘the richest and most powerful nation in Europe’, does pose some interesting questions about the relationship between historical truth and historical hype. Equally, the recurring references to how Elizabeth laid the foundations for ‘the world’s greatest Empire’ give some cause for anxiety.

No doubt the problem with any exhibition these days is how to marry the views of the historical experts with the views of those responsible for marketing and public relations. It seems a shame, however, that this wonderful exhibition should have to delve at all into such facile distortions. The video introduction also strikes a sour note, harping on a kind of Cinderella story, in which we marvel at Elizabeth’s progress from ‘vulnerable teenager’ to arguably England’s ‘greatest leader’. The truth of Elizabeth’s story is in itself spectacular and fascinating enough, as this exhibition more than amply demonstrates. It should not have to sentimentalize, or dramatize what is already so obviously extraordinary.

Yet the overall impression drawn from this exhibition is, in the end, one of great subtlety, and the exhibition for the most part does full justice to the complexities and ambiguities of Elizabeth’s reign. It does not patronize the general public with too much over-simplification, and assumes, reasonably enough, that anyone whose imagination is fired by these exhibits might well be prepared to think more deeply about them. The inclusion of transcripts of key documents in the exhibition brochure is a good indication of this, and the whole is supported by the superb catalogue which accompanies the exhibition, edited by Susan Doran. This has essays by a range of Elizabethan experts, which manage to be clear and concise enough for the non-specialist without losing any of the historical depth – it also has an array of beautiful illustrations, meticulously referenced and explained. There is, fortunately, too broad and varied an array of historical evidence here to let glib generalization eclipse historical veracity, and the messages conveyed by this exhibition manage on the whole to be informative without being dogmatic or sensationalist. Given the enormity of the challenge posed by Elizabeth’s reputation, this is an impressive achievement.

The exhibition runs until 14 September 2003 at the National Maritime Museum: for more details, please see www.nmm.ac.uk

Lucy Wooding, King's College London


Conrad Russell's James VI and I and rule over two kingdoms: an English view first appeared in Der Herrscher in der Doppelpflicht: Europäische Fürsten und ihre Beiden Throne, ed. H. Duchhardt (Mainz, 1997), pp. 123-37, and is reproduced in English for the first time in the IHR's journal Historical Research.

The article compares English and Scottish responses to the union of the crowns in 1603 following the accession of James VI and I, examining the reluctance of the English to rethink their ideas on sovereignty, and the problems inherent in an 'imperfect union'.

Click here for more information about the journal, including a list of forthcoming articles




'The translation of a monarchy': The Accession of James VI and I, 1601-1603

In June 1603, just after the accession of James I, the Venetian ambassador in London was chatting to Lord Kinloss, a Scottish nobleman and royal confidant. Kinloss mentioned the anxieties the king endured before coming to the English throne, but added 'by a Divine miracle all has gone well'. James himself was convinced that his safe arrival on the throne formerly occupied by Queen Elizabeth was literally God-designed, in order to bring the two realms of England and Scotland closer together. However, for all the talk about miracles, the reality was more prosaic.

In the early hours of 24 March 1603, Elizabeth I died at Richmond. The 'Virgin Queen' made no explicit provision for an heir, fearing that she might encourage faction within her kingdom. Yet James VI of Scotland was smoothly proclaimed as the new king. There was no opposition, but equally no immediate celebration. The London diarist John Manningham slyly noted that the proclamation was met with 'silent joye, noe great shouting', although there were bonfires and bell-ringing that evening as the announcement sank in. Three days later in Edinburgh, the king himself received the news with exultation.

James was Elizabeth's nearest royal relative; both were direct descendants of Henry VII, the first Tudor king. Yet in English law James's claim was uncertain. Since 1351, foreigners were forbidden to inherit English lands, which might block James from inheriting the Crown and its estates. The parliamentary succession statute of 1544 mentioned no heir after Elizabeth and her children (if any), while the 1547 will of Henry VIII debarred his Scottish relatives from the throne. More recently a statute of 1585 insisted that if any claimants should conspire against Elizabeth, all their legal rights were forfeited. Mary Queen of Scots had been executed in 1587 for her involvement in Catholic assassination plots against Elizabeth. As Mary's son and potential beneficiary of her actions, was James compromised?

The king had a cousin, Lady Arbella Stuart, another Scottish descendant of Henry VII but English-born. Exempt from the 1351 aliens statute, Arbella might be a serious contender. The wild card was the Infanta Isabella, daughter of Philip II of Spain and married to her cousin the Archduke Albert, with whom, after 1599, she ruled over Spanish Flanders. In Armada year, 1588, Philip proclaimed that his daughter's descent from Edward III made her the rightful queen of England. Isabella was dangerously close at hand in Brussels, and James was agitated by the possibility that she might re-assert that 1588 claim and urge English Catholics to rise and support her.

However, James had the great advantage of being a proven monarch. Emerging from his long minority, he steadily gained control over both the Scottish kirk and the nobility. His flexible but tenacious pursuit of his aims revitalised Scottish kingship. As Edinburgh steadily extended effective government into the distant Highlands and Western Islands, James enjoyed a rising reputation in Europe.

Among the Englishmen turning northward as Elizabeth aged was the young earl of Essex, after 1589 her favourite, who secretly committed himself to James. By 1601, however, Essex had lost Elizabeth's favour and after a chaotic revolt in London he was tried and executed. This was a blow to the king's hopes. Essex was popular, and as a privy councillor he was an ideal informant on English policy. Now James had to start again, rebuilding his party of supporters at the English court.

James was already showing signs of frustration as Elizabeth remained obdurately silent on the succession. Consumed by his ambition to succeed her, he was angered at being treated with condescension as a beginner in the arts of kingship. He even asked his Scottish subjects to sign a General Band (bond) for the maintenance of his title to England, though without prejudice to the rights of Elizabeth in her lifetime. However, in June 1600 the Scottish estates ridiculed any suggestion of taking the English throne by force. Then, in August 1600, the king was embroiled in the Gowrie plot, when an attempt was apparently made against his life. This murky episode seemed to point to rising tensions between James and his leading nobles that might revive political instability.

Dustjacket, Croft, King JamesIn England, after the death of Lord Burghley in 1598, his son Sir Robert Cecil was the queen's principal secretary of state and most influential privy councillor. Essex's rebellion convinced Cecil that the succession must be settled before Elizabeth's death. It was too risky to leave the matter open, since further tumults could destabilise both England and Scotland. In April 1601 James sent two envoys south, to repair the damage in relations caused by Essex's revolt, and Cecil indicated his willingness to co-operate. An exchange of letters began, but a secret correspondence with a foreign monarch was a treasonable offence. Cecil was risking his career and perhaps his life, so the letters were partly encoded; Cecil was '10', Elizabeth was '24', James was '30'. The king was reassured by his new-found alliance with the secretary and promised that he would not aim for the English throne except through his firm amity with the queen. He put aside any thoughts of intervention and Cecil ensured that a substantial increase was added to the English pension which James already received. Elizabeth wrote to him in May 1601, indicating he would get an extra 2,000 per annum, but that these 'offices of extraordinary charge and kindness' would only continue while they were 'both thankfully accepted and and sincerely requited and deserved'. It seems likely that she understood that Cecil was negotiating with James. Even though Elizabeth refused to acknowledge him openly, he was her most suitable heir and in her letters she addressed him as 'dearest brother and cousin'.

Between 1601 and 1603, Elizabeth continued her annual routine of a short summer progress and Christmas revels. She was sixty-nine on 7 September 1602. A play was performed before her at court in March 1603; in London the theatre was flourishing as never before. Then she began to sink, refusing food and finally taking to her bed. John Manningham learned from one of her chaplains that her death was 'mildly like a lambe, easily like a ripe apple from the tree'.

Meanwhile her privy council was taking every precaution to ensure stability. Cecil prudently prepared the proclamation announcing the transfer of the Crown and sent it north for the king's approval. His elder half-brother Thomas Cecil was lord president of the council in the north, a key post facilitating contacts with Edinburgh. The ports were closed, and extra watchmen reinforced by local householders patrolled throughout London. Leading Catholics were kept under surveillance, as was Lady Arbella Stuart, in semi-captivity at Hardwick Hall in Derbyshire. There was no trouble at home and no sign of any foreign forces supporting the archduchess. Neither the unmarried Arbella nor the childless Isabella enjoyed much support. After forty years of spinster rule, a male monarch offered a welcome return to normality. James was a married man with children - two boys and a girl - and his young family promised longterm dynastic stability.

On 27 March 1603 King James wrote to Cecil praising him and his fellow-councillors for their care in overseeing what he described as an unprecedented event, 'the translation of a monarchy'. On 5 April he left Edinburgh, optimistically assuring his people that he would return in three years, and typically borrowing 10,000 Scottish merks for his travel expenses. He crossed the border at Berwick and continued south to York, where he delighted the crowd by walking through the streets to the Minster for the Easter service. The ride south became a triumphant progress, with James feasting and indulging his passion for hunting. He thought he was witnessing an outpouring of spontaneous affection, but the overwhelming public emotion was relief at the peaceful succession, mixed with natural curiosity.

James also wanted to introduce his ideas on kingship to his English subjects. His Basilicon Doron, 'the king's book' of advice for his son, was promptly reprinted in London with a new royal preface. The publication was almost certainly organised by Cecil. It signalled that the king was a keen author; a flood of political and theological works was to follow.

The speed and ease of the unchallenged transition aroused some astonishment. Even Cecil confessed that it had gone better than he expected. 'We are now so strangely and unexpectedly made the spectacle of happiness and felicity' he mused to the English ambassador in Paris. Sir George Carew, a midlands landowner, reported that 'all men are exceedingly satisfied and praise God who of his goodness hath so miraculously provided for us'. Did Cecil smile to himself? Secretly, the secretary had taken considerable risks and devoted much time and effort to containing what might have been a major succession crisis. Once the strongest candidate for the English throne, James VI, had clandestinely joined forces with the most influential English privy councillor, Robert Cecil, all other possibilities were deliberately closed off. Considering the chaos that the disputed succession of Henri IV had caused only recently in France, the people of both England and Scotland had occasion for gratitude. Cecil's proclamation announced that James was king 'by Law, by Lineal succession, and undoubted Right'. But he was also king by prior arrangement.

Pauline Croft, Royal Holloway, University of London

Further reading

Pauline Croft, King James was published in paperback by Palgrave Macmillan in November 2002 (0 333613 96 1, price £14.99)

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The 400th anniversary of Elizabeth I's death and the accession of James VI & I marks interesting times for the study of the two reigns, with traditional forms - political, legal and biographical histories - vying with more interdisciplinary, culturally-rooted accounts for shelf space.

The history of the Elizabethan and Jacobean periods is populated with memorable figures, not least the monarchs themselves, and biographical approaches have always loomed large in the historiography. Three recent works that attempt to re-assess the 'storied reputations' as their reviewer John Cramsie puts it, are Pauline Croft's King James (Palgrave, 2003), Alan Stewart's The Cradle King: a Life of James VI and I (Chatto and Windus, 2003), and Carole Levin's The Reign of Elizabeth I (Palgrave, 2002).

Biographical traditions and traditional source material, however unreliable it might be, have influenced the reception of Elizabeth I and James VI & I in sharply opposing ways, and Cramsie's review suggests that whilst revisionist studies have contributed to a more sympathetic reappraisal of James I's reign in particular, the dismal account of his kingship that characterised earlier 'toxic treatments', can still shape modern historical portraits.

Elizabeth I's continuing popularity is such that she ranked amongst the top ten 'Great Britons' in the 2002 BBC poll. Explanations for this longevity, and the ways in which this appetite for the 'Virgin Queen' was fed by literature, art and myth in the decades and centuries following 1603 are ventured in two recent books: The Myth of Elizabeth, edited by Susan Doran and Thomas S. Freeman (Palgrave, 2003) and England's Elizabeth: an Afterlife in Fame and Fantasy, by Michael Dobson and Nicola Watson (OUP, 2002).

Dustjacket, Doran and Freeman, The Myth of ElizabethAs the reviewer Anne McLaren observes, if the 'overt political significance' of the identification of Elizabeth as England embodied has faded, the multiple cultural resonances of Gloriana are still powerful, even in their most 'brazenly fictitious' forms (for example, Blackadder). Despite differences in approach, McLaren recommends both books for exploring perceptions of Elizabeth's person (as a woman) and related personifications (as virgin, as England, amongst many others) in relation to wider concerns about gender and power, and towards Englishness (and Britishness).

Chapter 7 of Susan Doran's England's Elizabeth, 'Virginity, Divinity and Power: the Portraits of Elizabeth I' is available here. Download sample chapter

In his review of Levin's account of Elizabeth's reign, Cramsie notes that the themes of 'religion, marriage and succession' dominate - a domination reflected in other recent works. The transformation of England and Wales into a Protestant kingdom was still in its infancy at the beginning of Elizabeth's reign, and was by no means complete at the end of James's. Elizabeth's ambivalence about the necessary extent of religious reformation certainly plays a large part in this uneasy transition. In reviewing a work that focuses on one of Elizabeth's 'hotter' Protestant subjects, William Harrison (G.J.R. Parry, A Protestant Vision: William Harrison and the Reformation of Elizabethan England (CUP, 2002 [1987])), Andrew Hadfield argues that it is only through exploring the aspirations and frustrations of a Protestant radical like Harrison, and through appreciation of the ' close relationship between religion, politics and historical writing', evident in the work of a man like Harrison, that a fuller understanding of Tudor and Elizabethan intellectual culture can be reached.

The consequences of religious upheaval in both the spiritual and legal arenas during Elizabeth's reign, and exploration of the roots of Elizabethan failure to sustain a religiously 'mixed polity' in the reign of her father, are features of John Guy's work, collected in the book of essays, Politics, Law and Counsel in Tudor and Early Stuart England (Ashgate, 2000). As the reviewer Christopher Brooks notes, 'Guy's view of English political development eschews any model of progressive linear development across the later sixteenth and seventeenth centuries', and asserts that Elizabeth's management of her counsellors and churchmen, both liberal and radical, particularly in the last two decades of her reign, laid some of the grounds for civil war in the next century.

Other aspects of the Elizabethan 'mixed polity' have been explored by historians: notably the reception and perception of immigrants into England. This 'highly emotive topic', as the reviewer Nigel Goose calls it, is the subject of Laura Hunt Yungblut's book, Strangers Settled Here Amongst Us - Policies, Perceptions and the Presence of Aliens in Elizabethan England (Routledge, 1996). While Goose is sceptical that Yungblut's book sheds any new light on the conventional foci of work on aliens -- their demographic presence, levels of xenophobia against them and their socio-economic contribution to English society -- he nevertheless concludes that it 'can only serve to draw attention to the opportunities that still exist for more detailed research into alien immigration … for both sources and topics for further exploration are clearly available in abundance'.

Elizabeth's failure to marry and to produce the necessary Tudor heir, and the succession crisis this fuelled, has also attracted the attention of historians, both in terms of how the crisis was managed and the Stuart dynasty installed without bloodshed (see Pauline Croft's introduction above); and more generally, in how early modern governments handled the uncertainties of dynastic stability and disruption (whether through natural or unnatural causes). As Robert Oresko notes in his review of Howard Nenner's book, The Right to be King: The Succession to the Crown of England. 1603-1714 (Macmillan, 1995), James I and VI's 'tenacious adherence' to his 'indefeasible hereditary right' to be king, indisputably shaped Stuart destiny on the English and, as importantly, Scottish thrones. Indeed, as Nenner acknowledges in his response, 'the problem of monarchical succession in Stuart England was not sui generis' in early modern continental Europe; nor is it without relevance in contemporary England, where the longevity of yet another Elizabeth, and debate about the suitability of adhering to a straightforward dynastic descent, means that the succession question is far from just being merely academic.

Special reader discounts are available on selected titles in the Bibliography

Elizabeth and James on the Web

There are surprisingly few high quality websites presenting resources for the study of Tudor and Stuart history, let alone offering information about Elizabeth, James or the succession. Those that there are have in many cases been created to mark the very anniversary celebrated in this issue of History in Focus. For the study of Tudor history generally, including the reign of Elizabeth, the excellent Tudor England 1485 to 1603 is a very good starting point, offering a range of royal biographies, primary sources, general resources, bibliographies and links. Other sites, such as Elizabeth's pirates and Print and censorship in Elizabethan society offer an insight into more specific areas of sixteenth-century life. Elizabeth herself is the subject of a number of sites, ranging from The National Archives' The Great Seal of Elizabeth, which uses the seal as an entry point into a wider study of the reign, to the National Maritime Museum's comprehensive Elizabeth, which arises out of the exhibition to mark the 400th anniversary of Elizabeth's death and James's succession. For the succession itself, The Union of the Crowns, 1603-2003 focuses primarily on the Stuart dynasty, but provides a good general background to the centuries of conflict between England and Scotland leading up to Elizabeth's death. For James VI and I, one profitable route of study lies in those resources provided for the Gunpowder Plot in 1605, as on the website of The Gunpowder Plot Society, or the BBC's What if the Gunpowder Plot had succeeded?


The Institute of Historical Research is grateful to the National Maritime Museum for permission to reproduce three of the images included in these pages.

July 2003

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