The crowning of the queen was merely one part of the grand pageant of putting her on the throne. The occasion took several weeks of elaborate planning, culminating on the date chosen by the foremost astrologer in England, John Dee. A mathematician and astronomer, as well as an astrologer, Dee did his best to give Elizabeth a coronation date that would be as auspicious as possible for her, as well as her reign.
The festivities started on the 12th, when Elizabeth was brought down the Thames on her royal barge from Whitehall Palace to the Tower of London, where she would await her coronation day. An eyewitness to the coronation, a Venetian named Il Schifanoya who was serving as an ambassador to the Duchy of Mantua, wrote to the duke’s castellan, Gabriel e Calzont, to explain:
The necessary ships, galleys, brigantines, &c, were prepared as sumptuously as possible to accompany her Majesty and her Court thither by the Thames … At 2 p.m., the flood-tide then serving to pass under London Bridge, her Majesty, accompanied by many knights, barons, ladies, and by the whole Court, passing through the private corridor, embarked in her barge, which was covered with its usual tapestries, both externally and internally, and was towed by a long galley rowed by 40 men in their shirts, with a band of music, as usual when the Queen goes by water. Her Majesty having passed the bridge, in sight of the Tower, some pieces of artillery were fired; she landed at the private stairs, and, entering by a little bridge, was seen but by very few persons.
After all the times she had come to the Tower as a prisoner in fear of her life, setting foot on the green as the queen must have tasted doubly sweet to Elizabeth.
Elizabeth had a day to rest, but on Saturday afternoon she began her state procession through London, so that the people could see her and she could have a chance to woo them over.
Il Schifanoya described the procession:
The number of horses was in all 1,000, and last of all came her Majesty in an open litter, trimmed down to the ground with gold brocade, with a raised pile, and carried by two very handsome mules covered with the same material, and surrounded by a multitude of footmen in crimson velvet jerkins, all studded with massive gilt silver, with the arms of a white and red rose on their breasts and backs, and laterally the letters E. R for Elizabetta Regina wrought in relief, the usual livery of this Crown, which makes a superb show. They were uncovered (scoperti), and without anything on their heads. The Gentlemen-Pensioners of the Axe walked at the sides, with hammers in hand, and clad in crimson damask, given them by the Queen for livery, all being on foot and bareheaded.
Her Majesty was dressed in a royal robe of very rich cloth of gold, with a double-raised stiff pile, and on her head over a coif of cloth of gold, beneath which was her hair, a plain gold crown without lace, as a princess, but covered with jewels, and nothing in her hands but gloves.
Il Schifanoya further wrote that on horseback behind the litter rode:
Lord Robert Dudley, Master of the Horse, mounted on a very fine charger (corsiero), and leading a white hackney (acchinea) covered with cloth of gold. Then came the Lord Chamberlain and other Lords of her Majesty’s Privy Chamber, who were followed by nine pages dressed in crimson satin on very handsome chargers richly caparisoned, with their Governor and Lieutenant.
Behind the men and officials came the ladies of the court, with the lowest ranking women on foot and those of the highest birth riding in open carriages styled as chariots. At the very end of the parade came the Yeoman of the Guard and the groomsmen of the royal stables.
This mass of people went to no fewer than eleven tableaux vivant or “pageants”, with each one “having a theme loaded with political and religious allegory.” Six of the performances were relatively simple, such as when the Lord Mayor of London and the city’s aldermen gave the queen a silk purse containing a thousand gold marks in gold at Cheapside, but five of the tableaux were as drawn-out as any court production or play.
The first point of the procession was the triumphal arch at Gracechurch Street, a massive edifice three stories tall depicting “The uniting of the two houses of Lancastre and York”. It had large effigies of Henry VII and Elizabeth of York on the first tier, Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn on the second tier, and at the very top was the enthroned figure of Elizabeth herself, the ultimate bloom of the Tudor roses.
The second major tableaux was at Cornhill, where “Pure Religion, Love of Subjects, Wisdom and Justice, which did tread their contrary vices under their feet” put on an allegorical show for the queen.
The third significant tableaux took place upon the queen “near the church of St. Thomas, after passing the fountain, which had been newly repainted with arms, labels, and mottoes, in English and Latin, [where] she found the third arch with the eight beatitudes described by the Evangelist Matthew, chapter V., verses 1 to 10, all of which they deem her Majesty to possess.”
As the queen drew closer to St Paul’s Cathedral, she saw what may have been the most elaborate pageant:
two mounts, somewhat separated from each other; the one green, flourishing and fruitful, the other dry, sterile and uncultivated. On the summit of the green mount there sat a handsome youth well dressed, joyous, and jocund, under the shade of a green laurel. On the sterile mount there sat another youth dressed in black velvet, melancholy, pale, and wan, under a dry and arid tree, loaded with labels and mottoes indicating the cause of its dryness and sterility, whilst on the green mount conversely the cause of its greenness and fertility were demonstrated. Between the two mounts there was a grotto with a wicket, and when her Majesty arrived at it, an old man, scythe in hand, representing “Time,” came forth, accompanied by his daughter “Truth,” and expressed a wish to mow and reap the grass on the pleasant mount; an allusion to the money heretofore coined by her Majesty of holy memory. The whole implied in their tongue that the withered mount was the past state, and the green one the present, and that the time for gathering the fruits of truth was come … there was a little pulpit, from which a lad explained the whole meaning of the two mounts, presenting her Majesty with a book generally supposed to be the New Testament in English, which the Queen clasped in her arms and embraced passionately
The final major pageant was near Fleet Street, which portrayed Queen Elizabeth as the prophetess Deborah, the sole female judge mentioned mentioned anywhere in the Bible. Like Deborah, the new queen would rescue her people from oppression, and ideally bring peace throughout the troubled land. The Biblical prophetess was likewise accompanied by the three estates of England, “probably representing the forthcoming parliament which had already been summoned to decide the religious policy of the new government.”
The message was clear – God had chosen Elizabeth to lead his people down the path of righteousness, via parliamentary procedures.
The new queen treated every pagenet as if it were the wonder of the age, and was so gracious as to win every Londoner’s sooty heart. As described in Procession preceding the coronation of Elizabeth I, Queen of England: The Royall Passage of her Maiesty from the Tower of London, to her Palace of White-hall, with al the Speaches and Deuices, both of the Pageants and otherwise, together with her Maiesties seuerall Answers, and most pleasing Speaches to them all, the people “were wonderfully ravished with the loving answers and gestures” of their new sovereign, who “did declare herself no less thankfully to receive her people’s good will, than they lovingly opened it unto her.’
After an exhausting day of pagentry, Elizabeth returned to the Tower, rested, and waited to be crowned queen.
On Sunday, 15th January, mass was sung for the coronation in Westminster Abbey, which was decorated with the handsomest and most precious tapestries that were ever seen, they having been purchased by Henry VIII …
The Queen was received under the canopy by the Archbishop and another Bishop, they having previously perfumed her with incense, giving her the holy water and the pax, the choristers singing; then the Earl of Rutland followed her Majesty with a plain naked sword without any point, signifying Ireland, which has never been conquered; then came the Earl of Exeter with the second sword; the third was borne by Viscount Montagu; the Earl of Arundel, having been made Lord Steward and High Constable for that day, carried the fourth (sword) of royal justice, with its gilt scabbard loaded with pearls. The orb was carried by the Duke of Norfolk, Lord Marshal, and in advance were knights clad in the ducal fashion, carrying the three crowns, they being the three Kings-at-arms; they bore the three sceptres, with their three crowns of iron, of silver, and of gold on their heads, and in their hands three naked iron swords, signifying the three titles of England, France, and Ireland. In this way they proceeded to the church, the Queen’s long train being carried by the Duchess of Norfolk, after whom followed the Lord Chamberlain, upon purple cloth spread on the ground; and as her Majesty passed, the cloth was cut away by those who could get it …
On her Majesty’s arrival at the church, all the bells in London ringing, she ascended the lofty tribune erected between the high altar and the choir, being thus exhibited to the people, of whom it was asked if they wished her to be their crowned Queen? Whereupon they all shouted “Yes;” and the organs, fifes, trumpets, and drums playing, the bells also ringing, it seemed as if the world were come to an end.
Descending from the tribune, the Queen placed herself under her royal canopy; and then the choristers commenced the mass … the Bishop of Carlisle commenced the coronation according to the Roman ceremonial
My favorite fact about the coronation is that Elizabeth, for all her understanding of pomp, was also thrifty – she wore the same coronation ensemble as Queen Mary I had worn. Elizabeth just had her sister’s old clothes altered to fit her. For other monarchs, the most that would have been done would have been to reuse the furs and gems on other, newer, clothes, and the hand-me-downs passed along to a courtier or repurposed in some other way. But not Elizabeth. Waste not, want not.
After the coronation ceremony, the queen an her attendants returned to Westminster Hall, “her Majesty carrying in her hands the sceptre and orb, and wearing the ample royal robe of cloth of gold.” Along the way, Elizabeth “returned very cheerfully” the good wishes of the crowds lining the streets, “with a most smiling countenance for every one, giving them all a thousand greetings.” At Westminster there was a massive state banquet for the queen to attend, which she did with the same smiling countenance as before, “when she drank all their healths, thanking them for the trouble they had taken.”
Anne Boleyn’s daughter had survived in the shadow of the headsman’s axe for years, and had now come to the throne … where she would remain a target for most of her reign. We forget that part, when we look back at the Golden Age, the rule of Glorianna, the Good Queen Bess who guided her nation through the growing pains of the Elizabethan era. We look back on the icon, the success, the woman who proved queens could rule England as well as – if not better than – kings and it is easy to think of her having an iron grip on the throne from the start. But it was not so. Her coronation was only the beginning of a new set of troubles, and she held onto her crown only because she was as sharp and cunning as her grandfather, Henry VII, and as charismatic as her parents. She may have been one of the most clever and intelligent people to ever sit on the British throne.
And when the newly crowned queen came to her first parliament a few days after her coronation, she also reused her sister’s crimson velvet robes rather than buy a new set.
What’s not to love about a queen like that?