Transcript - Shakespeare's Restless World - Programme 4
Life Without Elizabeth: Portrait of the Tudor Dynasty
The really big political questions, in Britain at least, are often the ones that nobody dares speak about. In 1936 the constitutional crisis threatened by King Edward VIII's relationship with Mrs Simpson was widely discussed in the American and Continental press, but the topic was entirely absent from British newspapers. In the 1590s the people going to see Shakespeare's plays would certainly have been talking among themselves about the big constitutional issue of their day. But the Queen, tetchy on the subject at the best of times, had by law forbidden any public discussion of it, and the big question was: who would succeed the ageing Elizabeth?
It was a question that had been central to English politics for a generation. In 1936 the constitutional crisis was largely about sexual scandal. In the 1590s, it was about national survival.
Richmond: 'England hath long been mad and scarred herself,
The brother blindly shed the brother's blood,
The father rashly slaughtered his own son,
The son, compelled, been butcher to the sire:
All this divided York and Lancaster'
(Richard III 5.5.23-7)
We're at the end of Richard III and Henry VII, the first Tudor king, isn't mincing his words. Hunch-backed Richard, who murdered his nephews in the Tower, has himself just been killed and Henry is now about to install the new Tudor dynasty which will put an end, so he hopes, to the horrors of England's civil war. The Wars of the Roses can often to us sound like a genteel game of maidens tossing flowers at one another. In fact they were decades of bloody in-fighting that ravaged the country. Henry Tudor's success on the battlefield has for now ended all that. But for how long?
Even with the establishment of Tudor peace the question of the succession was the thorny issue that would not go away. Were there enough heirs and were they up to the job? It's what gives Shakespeare's history plays so much bite for his contemporaries. If the monarch fell, everybody at every level of society would feel the misery that followed. From the beginning of Elizabeth's reign, 'who would succeed her?' was the critical question.
But if the succession question couldn't be openly discussed in the 1590s, it could be pictured and the pictures that reached the widest possible public were of course prints, they were cheap to produce and they were easily distributed. So if you want to know what large parts of the population were thinking, prints are highly valuable evidence and this one in front of me here, in the British Museum, goes straight to the heart of the matter.
It's a print that was made in the early 1590s and it shows, on the right hand side at the front, Elizabeth I. Behind her is her father Henry VIII, on his left Edward VI, his son, and on his right Mary Tudor with her husband Philip of Spain. Dr Susan Doran of Jesus College Oxford probably knows more about the questions surrounding Elizabeth's succession than anybody else, so I asked her why a print showing the Tudor dynasty in this way would have been made at this point?
S Doran: 'I think it's in order to get Elizabeth to name her successor, to put the uncertainty away.'
N MacGregor: So this is as near as we can get really in public to raising the issue. It was a totally taboo subject.
S Doran: 'Yes it had been so from 1571 when the Treasons Act was passed which made it treason to discuss the succession and particularly the title of any potential successors to Elizabeth.'
N MacGregor: And does that go on all the way through her reign?
S Doran: 'It becomes even more part of the policy of the government because there's another Act passed in 1581 which reinforces that need for silence on the succession.'
N MacGregor: So this is the great elephant in the room in Shakespeare's early life?
S Doran: 'Yes.'
N MacGregor: This is the fear that dare not speak its name.
S Doran: 'Completely, yes.'
By the time that this print was published, Elizabeth was of an age well beyond producing her own heir and so the question of who might succeed her was a very tricky topic. But the astonishing thing is that although printed in the 1590s, this image is actually a copy of another one made 20 years earlier and if we really want to gauge the depth of the national obsession with who should succeed Elizabeth, then the 20 years between this print and its source are the best possible measure.
To see the original on which the print was based I've come to Cardiff, to the National Museum of Wales. Looking at it reminds me a bit of those Christmas cards you receive from families to tell you what a great year they've had. But the point of this picture is of course to tell us, the viewers, what a great century we've had thanks to the Tudors. Because of them we've had a hundred years of peace. We've seen off Philip of Spain on the left wearing black and on the right hand side coming in loaded with fruit and flowers come Peace and Plenty to support Elizabeth.
It's got to be said this is not a great piece of painting. Nobody would thrill to the way that Lucas de Heere, the Flemish artist, has pained the velvets or the jewels. But that of course wasn't the point. The point was to make a very clear statement about how fortunate England and Wales were to have Elizabeth as their sovereign. But although the Elizabethan spectator would certainly have been grateful they would also, I think, have been apprehensive because this peace and prosperity that the Queen had brought, although it was real, was nonetheless fragile. Everything hinged on her survival. Everything was in question if she were to die without an heir.
I think it's fair to say that all of this would have been immediately understandable to any Elizabethan standing where I am standing now. But this picture was not made for Elizabethan spectators in general, it was made for one in particular, and at the very bottom of the picture are written the following words:
'THE QVENE TO WALSINGHAM THIS TABLET SENTE/ MARKE OF HER PEOPLES AND HER OWNE CONTENTE'.
The recipient of the picture, Sir Francis Walsingham, was Elizabeth's spymaster. He specialised in foiling conspiracies to kill the queen. In 1569 a powerful group of Catholic nobleman in the north of England had rebelled against her. Then a foreign banker called Ridolfi, up to no good in the City of London, had plotted with the Duke of Norfolk to depose Elizabeth and lead a Spanish invasion. It was Walsingham who unravelled the plot and sent Norfolk to the scaffold. So in the early 1570s, as this picture was being painted, the first people who looked at it knew that the queen had just survived a rebellion and an assassination attempt.
We don't know where Walsingham kept the picture made in the early 1570s, but I like to imagine it hanging over his desk, and for the next 20 years as he looked up at it he would be able to feel some satisfaction that he had played a part in protecting the Queen from a whole series of plots and conspiracies that he, Walsingham, had unveiled and punished. There were numerous attempts at assassination and indeed the very word is coined in this period by Shakespeare himself and he, and all his contemporaries, lived in a country used to the idea of plots and regicides. When Walsingham died in 1590 the picture was, we believe, still in his possession. But the question of who would succeed the Queen had still not been answered.
When we look again at the 1590s print that reproduces the painting, it is startling to realise that in those 20 years nothing has happened. Here still is the Tudor dynasty and here still it comes to an end in the person of Elizabeth. She's produced no heir, she's appointed no successor. The print does of course update Elizabeth's costume to keep the dress in line with 1590s fashion but apart from that, nothing on the face of it has altered since 1571. But behind the scenes, important changes have occurred.
Susan Doran: 'There is a hope that Elizabeth is going to avoid there being a civil war on her death, avoid there being a transitional period which might be exploited by Catholics, which might be exploited by foreign powers, particularly Spain, to name her successor.'
N MacGregor: So by 1591 there's an even greater danger of civil war than there was in 1571?
S Doran: 'There is a danger of an international war about the succession. That was what was happening in France at that time. On the death of Henry III, the Protestant Henry IV had been challenged and Spain had come in to oppose his accession to the French throne. There is an anxiety in England that that is going to happen on the death of Elizabeth and so pressure is being put on Elizabeth in parliament, quietly by some privy councillors and by James VI of Scotland who wants to be named her successor. So it is very much a topical issue in the 1590s.'
It's clear that Elizabeth's life has a limited term, but there is no totally satisfactory solution and there are worries. Will a contested succession breed religious war and foreign invasion, as it had done in France? The threat from Philip of Spain was real and multiple: he had been married to Mary Tudor; he was a legitimate descendant of the House of Lancaster; and by the 1590s, he had a son, the future Philip III, who could follow him. So for those who wanted a Catholic Monarch, Philip of Spain is still the ideal choice.
But there was another candidate closer to home. Mary Stuart, Mary Queen of Scots - the main contender for the crown in the 1570s, has by now been executed. But she has a grown son, James, and he also is descended from the Tudor family. By the 1590s when this print is made, Mary's son is now King of Scotland and, more importantly, James has a son of his own, Prince Henry. So for Protestants in England, James is the great hope.
In the 1590s the Scots were free to publish their thoughts on who would succeed Elizabeth. But in England, the Treasons Act forbade that discussion. Not that some didn't risk it. One writer decided what the Queen really needed was a tract that he briskly entitled 'A Pithy Exhortation to Her Majesty for Establishing Her Successor to the Crown'. It was a foolish move. You could end up, as the writer Peter Wentworth did, pithily exhorting in the Tower, or worse.
But concerns about the succession could be addressed in prints and obliquely on stage, provided you were as nimble as Shakespeare was in not espousing too specifically any one particular position. When Shakespeare dramatised the Wars of the Roses in the 1590s, it was partly propaganda to show the terrible crisis from which the Tudors had rescued England. But the plays also reveal deep anxiety about succession, as one royal kinsman after another, struggles for supremacy. The ever-self-dramatising Richard II cries to the usurper Henry IV:
Richard: 'Here, cousin - seize the crown.'
(Richard II, 4.1.181)
Rebellion runs in the family.
Richmond: 'Abate the edge of traitors, gracious Lord,
That would reduce these bloody days again
And make poor England weep in streams of blood!
Let them not live to taste this land's increase
That would with treason wound this fair land's peace!'
(Richard III, 5.5.35-39)
Henry VIII got through six wives as he tried to secure a viable heir. Neither Edward nor Mary Tudor had children and Elizabeth herself, unmarried, seemed unwilling to take the necessary public steps to guarantee the future of the crown.
By the 1590s, fears for the future were growing steadily stronger. Everybody knew about the civil wars going on in France, where foreign powers were intervening in a bloody struggle that had already lasted for a generation. It could easily happen in England.
As it turned out, England was luckier than France. The picture in Cardiff that I've been looking at is a kind of history play of the whole Tudor dynasty and when eventually the leading lady left the stage, the play had an unexpectedly happy ending. The Welsh Tudors were succeeded on the English throne by the Scottish Stuarts and in 1603 James VI of Scotland came peacefully to London.
Shakespeare quotations are taken from:
Richard III (London: Penguin, 2005). ISBN-13: 978-0-141-01303-9
Richard II (London: Penguin, 2008). ISBN: 978-0-141-01663-4