Inside Elizabeth I’s coronation and the controversy behind it


Elizabeth I’s coronation made history as the last of its kind, but whether or not the Queen took part in a crucial element has been the subject of controversy historians have never been able to agree on.

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Elizabeth I ascended the throne in November 1558; her predecessor and older sister Mary I had fallen ill and recognised Elizabeth as her heir presumptive days earlier. Her first surviving date paper, signed 17 November — the day of her accession — is a memorandum for the appointment of “Commissioners for the Coronation” which declared a date had been selected. Elizabeth would be crowned five months later, on January 15, 1559.

At that time, the coronation festivities fell into four parts. First, the new monarch had to take possession of the Tower of London and spend one or more nights in vigil. Then, on the eve of the coronation, the Sovereign processed through the City of London. The third stage was the coronation itself in Westminster Abbey, and with a procession to it. And the fourth and final event was the banquet in Westminster Hall.

She had a rapturous reception from London when she rode into the city as Queen following the death of Mary I, who had reversed the Protestant Reformation and burned hundreds at the stake.

An unmarried woman, her claim to the throne resting on her executed mother — Anne Boleyn — and the likelihood of further religious upheaval, meant that Elizabeth was aware she had to secure popularity with her subjects.

As a result, the coronation was a lavish, grand affair, with Elizabeth spending some £16,000 on the event. While the religious ceremony was theoretically the main element, the Queen was aware that it was the street processions that would increase her acclaim among the public.

Elizabeth I

Elizabeth I was crowned on January 15, 1559 (Image: Getty Images)

Solemn procession for Coronation of Elizabeth I

The procession for the Coronation of Elizabeth I (Image: Getty)

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On January 13, 1559, Elizabeth made her move to the Tower, travelling by the state barge down the River Thames. Then, on Saturday, the Queen made her royal entry — a state procession from the Tower through the city and the western suburbs to the Palace of Westminster.

Il Schifanoya, a native of the Italian duchy of Mantua who lived in London and regularly wrote accounts of events there, recounted the houses along the way being decorated and the route lined with the City guildsmen in their hoods and black gowns. He estimated that the whole procession consisted of 1,000 horses.

Along the route, there was a series of triumphal arches; the first — at Gracechurch Street — was three storeys tall and was labelled, ‘The uniting of the two houses of Lancaster and York’. On the first storey were statues of Henry VII and his queen, Elizabeth of York, on the second stood figures of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, and on the third was a lone Elizabeth. The procession continued to St Paul’s Cathedral, through Ludgate and on to Westminster.

Then came the day of the coronation. The streets of Westminster were laid with gravel and blue cloth and rails were erected on each side. Preceded by trumpets, knights and lords, then nobles and bishops, the Queen travelled from Whitehall to Westminster Hall.

Coronation of Queen Elizabeth I of England.

Queen Elizabeth I’s coronation procession (Image: Getty)

Having been censed by the Archbishop of York, the Queen walked the short distance to the Abbey in procession.

Several bishops declined to officiate because of the new monarch’s religious standpoint; in the end, the low-ranking Bishop of Carlisle, ​Owen Oglethorpe, accepted the role.

For what would be the final time, the monarch was crowned in Latin. Some parts of the service were read twice, first in the ancient Roman language and then in English — a change portent of the religious settlement to come and symbolic of her “make-haste-slowly” approach to introducing change.

Also for the last time, the coronation included a Catholic mass, an aspect that proved to be controversial. The three surviving eyewitness reports are either obscure or contradictory, meaning there is no clear consensus among modern historians as to what actually occurred and whether Elizabeth participated.

National Portrait Gallery, London

Elizabeth I succeeded her older sister Mary I and brother Edward VI (Image: Getty)

At some point during the mass, the Queen withdrew to the traverse — a curtained-off area behind the high altar to give the monarch privacy when she was required to change dresses for the ceremony.

However, when or why Elizabeth withdrew remains a point of contention. Some historians state the monarch took part, while others claim she withdrew before the crucial point of consecration.

Nonetheless, Elizabeth was crowned as Queen. She was proclaimed as Queen in each of the four corners, with the Bishop asking the congregation if they would accept her as their queen and listening for their enthusiastic replies of “Yea! Yea!”

She made the traditional offerings at the altar and listened to the sermon. She knelt for the Lord’s Prayer, took the oath and later withdrew to the traverse to change for the holiest part of the ceremony — the anointment. Elizabeth was anointed on the shoulder blades, breast, arms, hands and head.

The Queen was then crowned in St Edward’s Chair — otherwise known as the Coronation Chair — on which British monarchs sit when they are invested with regalia and crowned.

The Coronation Chair And The Stone Of Scone

Monarchs have been crowned in the Coronation Chair for centuries (Image: Getty)

She left the Abbey, smiling and exchanging greetings with the crowd, and according to Il Schifanoya, did not hold back her “loving behaviour”.

Following the coronation ceremony, a huge banquet was hosted at Westminster Hall. A beaming Elizabeth celebrated her crowning with her nobles, and “she drank all their healths, thanking them for the trouble they had taken” on her behalf.

The day after the coronation was set aside for tournaments in the new Queen’s honour, but the celebrations had to be postponed. Exhausted by days of ceremony, Elizabeth withdrew herself from the public eye.

Elizabeth I of England, also known as the Virgin Queen, reigned for 45 years and was the last of the five monarchs of the House of Tudor.


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