On 7 September 1533 at 3 in the afternoon, Anne Boleyn gave birth to a daughter at Greenwich who would be named Elizabeth. Elizabeth’s father, King Henry VIII of England, had broken with Rome in order to annul his first marriage to Catherine of Aragon and marry Anne. He and Catherine had just one surviving child together – the future Queen Mary I. Anne’s triumph would have been complete if Elizabeth had been a boy, but it was not to be. However, Anne had lived through the birth, and there was hope for the future. A celebratory Te Deum was sung in St Paul’s for the happy delivery of a princess.
Just three days after her birth, Elizabeth was christened with neither parent attending the ceremony, as was customary. Thomas Cranmer, the Archbishop of Canterbury, was her godfather. For the first three months of her life, little Elizabeth stayed with her mother at Greenwich but by December 1533, Elizabeth was taken to her own household at Hatfield in Hertfordshire. Anne’s aunt Lady Anne Shelton and her husband Sir John were in charge of Elizabeth’s household, along with Margaret, Lady Bryan – a half-sister to Anne’s mother. Elizabeth’s half-sister, the now illegitimate Lady Mary, was also called to join the new Princess’ household. Lady Bryan regularly wrote to the court to inform her parents of her progress, and her parents also paid her visits whenever they could. In addition to Hatfield, Elizabeth was moved to other residences to allow for thorough cleaning of the residences.
Elizabeth was not yet three years old when her mother was executed on 19 May 1536. Her parents’ marriage was annulled, and so Elizabeth too was made illegitimate. In July 1536, Parliament repealed the Act which made Elizabeth her father’s heir. Though the sisters would never be particularly close, Mary did bring Elizabeth to the Christmas court of 1536, and they were also at court for the christening of their new little brother – the future King Edward VI – who was born to Henry and his third wife Jane Seymour in October 1537. Jane tragically died two weeks after the birth. Lady Bryan went on to serve in his household while Elizabeth received Lady Troy as governess and Katherine Champernowne (later Ashley) as a gentlewoman in waiting. Katherine Ashley would remain close to Elizabeth all her life, and she was responsible for her initial education. Both Mary and Elizabeth now settled at Hunsdon.
One of Elizabeth’s first tutors was William Grindal, and he built on the education already provided by Katherine Ashley. Elizabeth’s first surviving letter was written in 1544 in Italian and was addressed to Catherine Parr – Henry’s sixth and final wife. Before this, Elizabeth was occasionally at court – like for the arrival of Henry’s fourth wife Anne of Cleves. Elizabeth’s daily life was barely recorded during these years, but she was an excellent scholar. The Third Succession Act of 1543 confirmed Edward as Henry’s successor, and it also returned both Mary and Elizabeth to the line of succession, though both sisters remained illegitimate.
On 28 January 1547, King Henry VIII died, and he was succeeded by Elizabeth’s younger brother who now became King Edward VI at the age of 9. Her brother wrote to her, “There is very little need of my consoling you, most dear sister, because from your learning you know what you ought to do, and from your prudence and piety you perform what your learning causes you to know… I perceive you think of our father’s death with a calm mind.”1
Elizabeth was left £3000 a year with a further £10000 upon marriage. For now, nothing much changed for Elizabeth, and her main focus continued to be her education. Elizabeth was taken into the household of Catherine Parr, the widowed Queen, who soon remarried to Thomas Seymour, King Edward VI’s maternal uncle and the brother of the Lord Protector, Edward Seymour, 1st Duke of Somerset. She may have shared her lessons with Lady Jane Grey, who also briefly resided there. Elizabeth left the household in June or July 1548, following an unsettling situation with Thomas, and Catherine died following childbirth in September of that same year.
Elizabeth was apprehensive about sending him condolences following Catherine’s death, so whatever happened must have troubled her. He apparently wanted to marry her but he was arrested the following year, and Elizabeth was interrogated. He was executed on 20 March 1549 on several charges of treason. Elizabeth eventually settled at Hatfield with a household of some 140 people. Katherine Ashley, who had encouraged the talk of Thomas Seymour, had been arrested and also interrogated and, although she was released, she was removed from Elizabeth’s household. Katherine was restored to her former position in Elizabeth’s household in late 1549.
It would not be Elizabeth’s last brush with authority, and it would take a lot for this Tudor Princess to survive to become Queen.2