The Death of the Virgin Queen

Elizabeth I reigned for forty-four years, but in the 1590’s many speculated on her death and who would follow her onto the throne of England.  Elizabeth refused to sleep in the last days of her life; she believed that if she slept she would never wake up again. Fear of the unknown, life without the only monarch many of English people had ever known was unimaginable. But a new monarch would succeed the Queen; it was simply a matter of who.

Elizabeth purposefully declined to name a successor throughout her reign and it is questionable if she actually made a deathbed selection of James VI of Scotland. Elizabeth knew what the presence of an heir could do to a female ruler,  “During Mary’s reign those who didn’t like the reign had looked to her, so she didn’t want an alternative rival power base” (Bragg “The Death of Elizabeth I”).  Elizabeth purposefully led on her courtiers, always delaying the search for a husband or naming her successor, because she wanted to control the state and not fear the supporters of whoever was next in line. Elizabeth was married to the state, but that union could produce no heir. With her death the country had no leader and no government.

However, Robert Cecil had a plan. As one of the Virgin Queen’s chief advisers, Cecil had the most to lose with the death of the Queen.  Correspondence with any of the possible heirs to Elizabeth’s throne could have been considered treasonous and some courtiers were jailed when they suggested that the Queen name her heir. Cecil had to be strategic in his orchestrations with James VI of Scotland to ensure a peaceful transition of power when the Queen died and to do all of this without Elizabeth’s knowledge. Stories have circulated that Elizabeth made a designation to her advisers on her deathbed that James was her chosen successor, but since the Cecil family retained power under James some of the stories could be fabrications to legitimize the easy transition of power.

Elizabeth’s funeral five weeks after her death was a lavish send off for the Virgin Queen, with all of London dressed in black. The celebration of her death only added to the mythology that surrounds her to this day. Elizabeth I’s death brought about the end of the Tudors and the beginning of the Stuart line.

Bragg, Melvyn, host. ”The Death of Elizabeth I.” In Our Time with Melvyn Bragg (MP3 podcast). BBC. 15 October  2009.

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