When the infant Princess Elizabeth awoke in her nursery on 20 May 1536, the landscape of her childhood was imperceptibly but irrevocably changed. Her mother, Queen Anne, had died the previous morning in the Tower precincts, her head struck from her body by the dancing blade of a French swordsman imported from Calais for the task. So many corpses, so many ghosts. Elizabeth’s path to the throne was littered with 150 years’ worth of bodies. Since 1400, when the two strands of the great Plantagenet dynasty which had ruled England since 1154 divided and turned against one another, the preoccupation of the English crown had been heirs. The childless Richard II (with whom Elizabeth was later to identify herself) lost his throne to Henry Bolingbroke, subsequently Henry IV. The death of his son Henry V, the second Lancastrian king, in 1422, left the nation under the nominal leadership of a tiny baby, inaugurating the second phase of the Wars of the Roses, the dynastic conflict which dominated English politics until Henry Tudor seized the throne from Richard III in 1485. With Henry’s accession and celebrated reunion of the two strands of the dynasty in his marriage to Elizabeth of York, the succession seemed assured, though it passed to another Duke of York, Henry VIII, rather than his elder brother, Arthur, Prince of Wales. It was hardly surprising, given this legacy of treachery, death, and devastating insecurity that when Henry married his brother’s widow, Katherine of Aragon, he should have been even more concerned than his ancestors with the getting of a male heir, yet this was the one thing which, in his view, God denied him. Henry’s struggles to release himself from his first marriage and wed Elizabeth’s mother, Anne, precipitated the greatest confessional schism Europe had yet seen and set England on the course to Protestant isolation which became such a self-declared part of the emerging nationalist identity of his daughter’s state.
Elizabeth was the product of that schism, and for two years, officially at least, she was his petted darling, the first child of that godly marriage which would people the courts of Europe with Tudor blood. Yet on 20 May 1536, all the small certainties of her world were severed. Historians have been arguing ever since about the effect this had on Elizabeth, but we cannot know how and when the two-year-old girl was informed of her mother’s death or what her reaction was. This has not prevented generations of writers from imaginatively constructing the consequences of Elizabeth’s loss, but statements such as “Unresolved grief continued through Elizabeth’s childhood .?.?. for Anne Boleyn’s name could not be mentioned without provoking a fearful reaction from Henry VIII. Such a situation often leads to excessive mourning reactions on occasions of loss and later melancholia,” are merely speculative and without authority, though not uninteresting. That Elizabeth was nurturing a secret guilt at having fulfilled the desire of her Electra complex (the killing of her mother), that she was traumatized into evading marriage in later life, that she promoted a cult of her virginity in order to compensate for her inadequacy as a woman, that she needed to dominate and control those around her, have all been confidently and speciously attributed to the scars left by her mother’s execution. That Anne’s death had some effect on her daughter is reasonable; we simply do not know what that effect was, even if Elizabeth herself did.
This is not to say that Anne was not influential in her daughter’s life. Her trial, her execution, and the dissolution of her marriage invested her absence with a form of negative capability — an absence which has been understood as haunting her daughter’s life ever after. Two weeks before her death, the queen had written to Henry, begging him not to punish their daughter in his resentment against her, a plea which, given the declared illegality of their marriage, Henry had no choice but to ignore: the most significant aspect of Anne’s legacy to Elizabeth was the ambiguous status of her birth, the stain of illegitimacy which was to dog her well beyond her eventual accession to the throne. The comment of Elizabeth’s governess, Lady Bryan, on the sudden alteration in Elizabeth’s status —“As my lady Elizabeth is put from the degree she was in, and what degree she is at now I know not but by hearsay, I know not how to order her or myself”— summed up a confusion which spread from the royal nursery across the courts of Europe. There was not one moment of Elizabeth’s entire life during which her status was unequivocally accepted. So while we can only surmise Elizabeth’s feelings towards Anne from a (very) limited record of her actions, Elizabeth’s refusal to accept her bastard status did at times invoke her mother, though in a symbolic or legalistic, rather than an emotional, fashion.
The very circumstances of Elizabeth’s birth have proved cause for debate. Was she “the most unwelcome royal daughter in English history” or the confirmation of God’s blessing on a controversial marriage which both parents nevertheless confidently believed, in 1533, would go on to produce sons? On 26 August of that year, Anne had formally “taken to her chamber” at Greenwich to await the birth of her child, in a ceremony which closely followed that set out in the Ryalle Book for the delivery of Henry’s mother, Elizabeth of York. Elizabeth’s room had been decorated in blue arras cloth and gold fleur-de-lis, because any more complex decorative scheme was considered, according to the protocol, as “not convenient about Women in such case.” Anne selected tapestries featuring the story of Saint Ursula and the eleven thousand virgins, a prescient choice, while her bed, fitted with feather pillows and a crimson cover finished with ermine and gold edging, followed the model of her late mother-in-law. The bed was ceremonial as much as practical, functioning as a semi-throne, surmounted with a canopy of state embroidered with the crowns and arms of the royal couple. A pallet at the foot of the bed served for daytime use, and for the labor itself when the time came. Again following the precedent of fifteenth-century queens, the birthing chamber was furnished with two cradles, one upholstered and gilded to match the state bed, the second more simply carved in wood. The chamber also contained an altar and closet for Anne’s devotions. After hearing Mass, Anne entertained the court (though not the king) in her Great Chamber, where she was served with wine and spices as she had been at her coronation. Then she retired with her women to remain enclosed until the birth. The birthing chamber was a powerful feminine space, a reliquary of sacred mystery. This still entirely feminine world, where all the roles of the queen’s household were taken by women, became the tense, beating heart of the court. As Anne waited out the long weeks in those dim, stifling rooms, she at least seemed serene as to the ritual’s end. Anne had every intention of bringing forth a prince. The court doctors and astrologers had assured the royal couple that their child would be male, and letters (later hastily amended) had been prepared to announce the birth of Henry’s true heir.