Why Do Today…?
Both Henry VII and Elizabeth I have had the word temporise used to describe their behavior. Will historians ever know positively if their irresolute actions were procrastination due to personal reasons or reluctance due to political reasons; oscillation or genius? As usual, it depends on who is writing the history.
“As a new man, Henry had to secure his place. He did this by a compromising approach: by marrying Elizabeth, but only belatedly…” (Bacon and Weinberger 238). In December 1483 he had pledged to marry Elizabeth of York and had obtained the papal dispensation needed. It was left to Parliament to encourage the marriage on December 10, 1485, by proclamation to the King “that he would please take the noble Lady Elizabeth, daughter of King Edward the IV, as his wife and consort” (Bacon and Lumby 239).
On January 18, 1486, the greatly anticipated marriage took place to great joy on the part of the peoples of England. Henry had to realize that the ceremony “was thought by some to have been too long delayed, and historians have declaimed against Henry on this account” (Bacon and Lumby 239).
According to Jerry Weinberger, many of Henry’s early troubles stemmed from the fact that he slighted Elizabeth and the House of York. He postponed their marriage and delayed her coronation. The coronation occurred most likely, as with other things, because events forced his hand. Henry learned that by not crowning Elizabeth and “vouchsafing her the honour of a matrimonial crown” (Bacon and Lumby 22) it “did rankle and fester the affections of his people” and therefore, “he resolved at last to proceed” (Bacon and Lumby 39).
When he returned to London after traveling north, “the Queen was with great solemnity crowned at Westminster, the twenty-fifth of November, in the third year of his reign, which was about two years after the marriage…” (Bacon and Vickers 37). His “strange and unusual distance of time made it subject to every man’s note, that it was an act against his stomach, and put upon him by necessity and reason of state” (Bacon and Lumby 40).
Although it is not the purpose here to relay the history of the country of Ireland, suffice to say that the issues were complicated and Henry was “obliged to temporize. After long hesitation …” the king instituted his policy in Ireland (Morris 24).
Other international situations, such as in France, “precipitated the kind of decision which Henry had striven to avoid since his accession…” (Griffiths 172). When dealing with Ferdinand of Aragon, the Hapsburg Empire and Burgundy “Henry hesitated, drew back…” (Mattingly 77). Likewise, it appears to be déjà vu all over again with his actions concerning events in Flanders where the “the King was obliged to temporise” (Fletcher 61). At least he was consistent as Raimondo di Soncino, the Milanese envoy to Ludirio Sforza, Duke of Milan, reported of Henry VII that “he well knows how to temproise…” (Pollard 160).
Was it personality? Was it policy?
Ten years into his reign, it was thought that policies and events that unfolded positively we accredited to his foresight and skill. The King would “cunningly put off…” decisions and revelations of his plans until favorable conditions arose (Bacon and Vickers 37). Amazingly, while Henry VII appears skillful in his vacillating, Elizabeth Regina was scoffed at as displaying womanly indecision. Historians, I believe, have not been able to remove the sexism of her time period in their interpretations. Understandably, the evidence which is left is the letters between her advisors or dispatches between diplomats and their home countries–written by men in that traditional time period. Can Elizabeth not be credited for having the wisdom to allow events to unfold, to await natural solutions and to weigh possible options?
In general Elizabeth had her secretaries “fuming by her time-wasting ploys” (Somerset 279). Once she had ordered letters to be written, she often would not sign them or allow the letters to be sent until she had thought things over some more. Sir Thomas Smith writing to Lord Burghley said, “I had somewhat ado to get to the Queene, and more to get anything signed” (Wright 448) and “the letter already signed, which your Lordship knoweth, permitted to be sent away, but day by day, and hour by hour, deferred till anoe, sone, and to-morrow” (Cecil 1).
The letters between these two men displayed “her peculiarities, her caution, her love of procrastination…her fondness for reiterated considerations of matters which every one thought to have been determined upon…” (Sylvanus 346). Elizabeth did temporize and she was notorious for ignoring decisions. Often these courses of action (or inaction) worked in her favor, as it did for her grandfather, because events would unfold and either resolve themselves or reveal a clearer path. Nevertheless, while Henry VII is touted as exuding cunning, she is condemned as exuding “weakness” (Carruthers).
“Her hesitation, indecision, petulance, emotionalism and petty-mindedness are vices which men throughout the ages have been pleased to regard as typically feminine” (Ridley 335). Yet, in 1569 the failure of the northern Earls’ rebellion was “due to the cautious and temporising policy for which Elizabeth has been so severely blamed by heated partisans” (Beesly).
Mary, Queen of Scots, had been a troubling issue for Elizabeth from the moment Mary returned to Scotland. After many years as a political prisoner in England, Elizabeth was still unsure of how to handle the situation. Once “proof” (many would interpret the evidence-gathering by Walsingham and his operatives as entrapment) had been collected to prove Mary was plotting with Catholics for the overthrow of Elizabeth, her conviction was a foregone conclusion.
Judgment was handed down in October of 1586 yet Elizabeth wavered until February of 1587 before signing the death warrant. The story is well-known of how William Davison, a privy councilor, bore the brunt of Elizabeth’s wrath once the execution was carried out. Elizabeth had given him the signed warrant with the intention, so she later said, that it would not be delivered. The seasoned Davison recognized the dangerous position he was in and “fearing she should lay the Fault upon me…” he had eventually taken the signed warrant to Cecil (The Life and Reign … 243). Burghley called a meeting of the Privy Council and all agreed to send the warrant off without delay (Froude, Hibbert, MacCaffrey, Neale, Ridley, Somerset).
Her vacillation and unclear directives can be interpreted as genuine indecision of putting a fellow monarch to death or as brilliant political maneuverings to avoid the blame and placate the French and Spanish. If one acknowledges the emotions Elizabeth was experiencing concerning the death of a fellow monarch and family member plus the pressures of domestic and international politics, it is easier to recognize her indecision.
As an interesting aside at his trial for disobeying his sovereign, William Davison testified that “I perceived that she wavered in her Resolution, I asked her whether she had changed her Mind? She answered, No: but another Course, said she, might have been devised…” (The Life and Reign …244). Like her grandfather, she held out waiting for another means; in this case it was her hope that Mary could be quietly done away with by some other method besides execution. This came to light when Mary’s custodian at the time, Sir Amyas Paulet, asserted in a letter to Walshingham that he would do much for his Queen but would not “make so foul a shipwreck of my conscience, or leave so great a blot to my poor posterity, to shed blood without law or warrant” (Paulet 362).
Determining the path to take concerning the Netherlands proved another area of discontent between Elizabeth and her advisors. Sir Thomas Smith wrote to Burghley that “…nothing resolved, and therefor, such number of things unanswered, whereupon her Majestie’s ministers lie still in suspense” (Cecil 1). Many of her councilors sided with Leicester very early to support William of Orange’s rebellion against the Spanish. Her view was different from her councilors as she did not relish supporting ‘rebels’ against their sovereign; even if in this case the sovereign was her adversary Philip II. “After long oscillation Elizabeth’s policy finally gravitated towards Philip and peace” (Froude 409).
This was not the policy that was eventually carried out. As the political situation changed, military intervention on behalf of the Prince of Orange would become the official policy. Secretary of State Sir Thomas Wilson stated “Temporising hath been thought heretofore good policy. There was never so dangerous a time as this is, and temporising will no longer serve” (Archer 136).
William of Orange Philip II
England’s neighbor, Scotland, proved another trouble spot for policy. Support for rebels against the state was never an easy path for Elizabeth. She would not give aid even though there were French troops landing on Scottish shores then agreed to do so because of the intervention of Spain. Was she irresolute or facing realpolitik?
Walsingham boldly wrote in January 1575 to the Queen concerning her procrastination over policy in Scotland, “For the love of God, madam, let not the cure of your diseased state hang any longer on deliberation. Diseased states are no more cured by consultation, when nothing resolved on is put into execution…” (Halser). Would he have done this if his sovereign had been Henry VII? Obviously, that is one of those unanswerable questions.
Elizabeth’s oscillating about marriage is so well-known there is no need to go into great detail. She changed her mind not only per candidate, but even to marry, many times based on the international situation of the balance of power in Europe and perhaps her thoughts of having a chance at romantic happiness. “The Queen skittishly shifted her ground, consistent only in her unwillingness to commit herself” (MacCaffrey 208).
Elizabeth came closest to marrying the Duke of Anjou (also referred to as the Duke of Alençon), even becoming ill at one point over her indecision. The lengthy negotiations could be interpreted solely to “gain time and to keep the peace” (Hibbert 202). Her purpose was served as she kept England out of the troubled Netherlands for longer, she lead Philip II to believe there was a chance for an Anglo-French alliance, and she dispensed Anjou out of the country on good terms.
Duke of Anjou
Perhaps diplomatic and romantic reasons were not enough and James Melville, the Scottish diplomat, found the most precise reason for Elizabeth never marrying when he declared “Ye think gene ye wer married, ye wald be bot Quen of England, and now ye ar King and Quen baith; ye may not suffer a commander” (Melville 122).
The hesitations and changes of policy were genuine, and often due to the change in political climates both domestic and international rather than due to a character flaw. Elizabeth herself wrote to William Cecil, Lord Burghley, on April 11, 1572, “Methinks that I am more beholding to the hinder part of my head than well dare trust the forwards side of the same …” (Marcus 131).
Throughout her reign, Elizabeth’s goals were consistent –to keep England at peace and prosperous. One can understand how hard it would be to make these decisions as there would be no way to see all eventualities.
Maybe in modern day parlance it would be that she had a fear of failure. Elizabeth wanted so much to make the right decisions that she was often incapable of making one. The issues discussed above were complex even if one did not include the factors of a monarch with obligations to her state and a woman with personal preferences.
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