By Aidan Norrie
On 17 November 1558, Elizabeth, daughter of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, succeeded to the throne of England and Ireland upon the death of her half-sister Mary I. She was England’s fourth monarch in eleven years (or fifth, if Jane Grey is counted), and it is not unreasonable to claim that her accession would change the course of English history forever.
This is not Whiggish, hagiographic biography: in the premodern period, a monarch’s own opinions and beliefs were hugely influential on their subjects, especially when they were shared by the elites. That Elizabeth harboured reformist beliefs (i.e., was a Protestant), was something of an open secret, especially among those at court. It is this ‘belief’ of Elizabeth’s that would have profound consequences for the nation’s future.
Within a year of her accession, the Church of England was once again reformed, although this departure from the Catholic Church would prove permanent—unlike that undertaken by her half-brother Edward VI. That Elizabeth was protected by God to succeed to the English throne, and thus re-establish England as a Protestant nation, was a fairly common belief in Elizabethan, and then Stuart, England.
This belief ensured that Elizabeth’s accession day was an important day of celebration during the Queen’s life. For instance, in his tract celebrating Elizabeth’s accession day in 1587, Maurice Kyffin claimed that ‘No Ruler Such hath weld this Realme of yore, / Fewe Realmes haye [en]joyd, so long a Peacefull Rule’, before exhorting the English to
Adore Novembers sacred Sev’nteenth Day,
Wherein our Second Sunne began her Shine:
Ring out lowd sounding Bels; on Organs play;
Stringd Instruments, strike with Melodious sound.
Kyffin’s points were made even more overt in several marginal notes. One claimed that ‘The reestablishing of the Gospel, by her Majestie, [is] a work of inestimable worth, [and is] everlastingly famous for ever and ever’; another described 17 November as a date ‘More fit to be solemnized, than many other dayes noted in the Kalender.’ It was clearly not enough to merely commemorate Elizabeth’s accession: the English had to be reminded of their good fortune, and it had to be celebrated with great fanfare.
In the century after her death, however, when England’s Protestantism was believed to be under attack from Catholics (especially in the aftermath of the Gunpowder Plot), Elizabeth’s accession day was increasingly tied up with ideas about England’s ‘freedom’ from popish ‘tyranny’, and English exceptionalism. Consequently, throughout the seventeenth century, Elizabeth’s accession day was often treated as England’s quasi-national day—generally at the expense of the current monarch.
For instance, on 16 November 1634, the parish of St Botolph without Bishopsgate in London paid three shillings for the ringing of the bells in response to an official order that Henrietta Maria’s birthday be commemorated. The next day, the parish commemorated Elizabeth’s accession day with the ringing of bells, for which the churchwardens paid ten shillings—without any official prompting. Thirty years after Elizabeth’s death, she was apparently worthy of more vigorous celebrating than the Catholic consort of the current king who was refusing to work with parliament.
A few years later, on 17 November 1640, Cornelius Burges delivered a fast day sermon to MPs in St Margaret’s, Westminster. His claim, ‘I presume, little did you think of the 17 of November, when you first fixed on this day for your Fast’, is extremely disingenuous, and was evidently intended to set up his main point about Elizabeth’s accession.
Linking Elizabeth’s accession with England’s freedom from ‘popery’ and ‘Popelings’, Burges observed that on ‘this very day, the 17. of November, 82. yeeres sithence, began a new resurrection of this Kingdome from the dead, our second happy Reformation of Religion by the auspitious entrance of our late Royal Deborah (worthy of eternall remembrance and honour)’. Elizabeth’s ‘blessed and glorious Reigne’ ensured that ‘Religion thrived, and prospered under her Government’, despite the ‘oppositions from Popish factors at home and abroad’. Again, England’s (re)birth and England’s accession are explicitly linked.
The links between England’s Protestant rebirth and Elizabeth’s accession were a common trope during the Exclusion Crisis (1679–1681), a conflict caused by attempts to prevent the potential accession of James, Duke of York, who was a Catholic, and was Charles II’s heir presumptive.
A Poem on the Burning of the Pope, published in 1679, praised ‘our Eighth Henry’s Daughters Reign … Not bloody Maries, but Triumphant Bess’, and sought to ‘in her Memory, on her Birth-Day too / Do over now again, what she did do.’ The author praised
That Holy Queen whose Memory we adore
the Great Elizabeth,
Who the great Romish-Babylon with her Breath
Threw to the Ground.
The ballad also claimed it was ‘Solemnly Performed / On Queen Elizabeths Birth-Day: / This Instant November the 17th. 1679’. Elizabeth’s birthday was actually 7 September, but these two ‘slips’ further emphasise the link between Elizabeth’s accession and the re-birth of English Protestantism.
Likewise, James Salgado’s overtly anti-Catholic ballad, A Song upon the Birth-day of Queen Elizabeth (1680), equated Elizabeth’s ‘birth’ with the establishment of Protestantism in England:
Let Protestants with thankful hearts remember
This Royal day, the seventeonth [sic] of November.
This is the day wherein that Glorious Star
Did first in Englands Horizon appear:
Whose Life was life to Protestants, and death
To Popish Rebels, stirr’d up by the Devil,
I mean Elizabeth, that Noble Queen,
Who us from Popish Bondage did redeem.
In the context of the Exclusion Crisis, there could be no greater argument against allowing the accession of a Catholic than the invocation of England’s Protestant rebirth at Elizabeth’s accession.
The continued celebrations of Elizabeth’s accession well into the seventeenth century are a large part of the reason the last Tudor monarch occupies a powerful place in contemporary popular culture. These celebrations of Elizabeth’s accession morphed, as the decades went by, into the myth of British exceptionalism that still pervades British public discourse—especially in the aftermath of the 2016 Brexit vote.
Elizabeth’s life and legacy was—and to some extent remains—incredibly adaptable and of contemporary relevance. Upon hearing of her accession, Elizabeth is said to have fallen to her knees and quoted Psalm 118: ‘It is the Lord’s doing; it is marvellous in our eyes.’ This idea that Elizabeth was sent to the English by God was repeated again and again throughout both her life and the seventeenth century, and remains (implicitly, rather than explicitly), part of the myth of ‘Good Queen Bess’.
Aidan Norrie is Lecturer in History and Programme Leader at the University Campus North Lincolnshire, and the author of the forthcoming monograph, Elizabeth I and the Old Testament: Biblical Analogies and Providential Rule (Arc Humanities Press). You can follow them on Twitter @aidannorrie.
 Maurice Kyffin, The Blessednes of Brytaine, Or A Celebration of the Queenes Holyday (London, 1587; STC 15096), sig. B3v
 David Cressy, Bonfires and Bells: National Memory and the Protestant Calendar in Elizabethan and Stuart England (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1989), 138.
 Cornelius Burges, The First Sermon, Preached to the Honourable House of Commons now assembled in Parliament at their Publique Fast. Novemb. 17. 1640. (London, 1641; Wing B5671), 66.
 A Poem On The Burning of the Pope. Being SOLEMNLY Performed On Queen Elizabeths Birth-Day: This Instant November the 17th. 1679 (London, 1679; Wing P2688), one page.
 James Salgado, A Song upon the Birth-day of Queen Elizabeth, the Spanish Armado; the Gun-Powder-Treason, and the Late Popish Plot ([London, 1680]), 1.
Cover Image and Figure 1. Clockwise, from top left: Henry VIII and Thomas Cranmer removing the pope’s power in England; Edward VI kneeling in prayer; Elizabeth I and a bishop holding a copy of the Bible in English; and the burning at the stake of Cranmer, Bishop Nicholas Ridley, and Bishop Hugh Latimer, while Mary I watches. Frontispiece of Gilbert Burnet, The Abridgment of the History of the Reformation of the Church of England, 2nd ed. (London, 1683). Author’s own copy.
Figure 2. Commemorating the deliveries of Elizabeth, as England’s Deborah, and James VI & I, as England’s Solomon, from the invasion of the Spanish Armada and the Gunpowder Plot, respectively. Frontispiece of George Carleton, A Thankfull Remembrance of Gods Mercie (London, 1624). Copy in the Newberry Library, Chicago, Case F 4549.146.
Figure 3. Elizabeth I, as depicted in the seventeenth century. Henry Holland, Herōologia Anglica (London, 1620). Copy in the Newberry Library, Chicago, Case 6A 110.