Elizabeth I and Westminster Abbey
On 7th September it will be the anniversary of the birth of Elizabeth I in 1533. Elizabeth I had many connections to Westminster Abbey; not only did key moments in her life take place here but she also greatly influenced the Abbey’s history in a way that we can still see today.
The Tudor period was marred by its religious tensions and the back and forth between Protestantism and Catholicism, dependent on the preferences of the monarch at the time. Elizabeth was thought of as having a stabilising effect on these religious problems as she attempted to chart a course of compromise to appease both sides. However, when she initially came to the throne following the death of her half sister Mary I, she was thought of as a Protestant saviour only. Mary’s reign had been filled with violent suppressions of heretical Protestants and this had taken its toll on the country. As Elizabeth was known to have more Protestant sympathies it was assumed that when she took the throne she would completely disregard all elements of the Catholic faith and reinstate Protestantism fully. This was not appreciated by those who had served the church in Mary’s reign, as can be seen by the events of Elizabeth’s coronation at Westminster Abbey. At the time there was no Archbishop chosen for Canterbury, and the other senior bishops refused to perform the ceremony as they did not agree with Elizabeth’s religious beliefs. In the end it became the job of the lowly Bishop of Carlisle to perform the coronation on 15th January 1559. In doing this he caused great offence to his brother Bishops and is said to have later died of remorse for his actions.
Following Elizabeth’s accession to the throne, it was not only the country that was thrown into flux but also the fate of Westminster Abbey. Prior to the religious reformation in the time of Henry VIII the Abbey was independent and answered only to the Pope, however following the dissolution of the monasteries the structure changed and a Dean and Chapter was created to run it under the Bishopric of London. This continued until Mary’s reign when her revival of the Catholic faith led to the Abbey becoming autonomous once again and answering only to Rome. Elizabeth chose to follow a structure similar to her father and reinstated a Dean and Chapter when she made her own foundation. However, rather than have the Abbey answer to the Bishopric of London, she made it a Royal Peculiar which answered to the Crown alone. This was also important for the Westminster School, within the precincts of Westminster Abbey, which began as a charity school run by the monks. Henry VIII ensured its survival following the dissolution of the monasteries by a statute. Elizabeth I also guaranteed its survival by making it part of the foundation that she created – The Collegiate Foundation of St Peter – in 1560. Following this Westminster Abbey took on the running of the school directly which it carried out until the mid-1800s; still today the Dean of Westminster is Chairman of the school’s governing body. As Elizabeth I is seen as the foundress of the school they hold a commemoration service on her accession day, 17th November, every year and lay flowers on her tomb inside the Abbey.
When Elizabeth died in 1603 her funeral was held at Westminster Abbey; she was laid to rest in Henry VII’s Lady Chapel in the same vault as her grandparents Henry VII and Elizabeth of York. When James I took to the throne he began building a monument to be erected over Elizabeth’s grave and commissioned Maximillian Colt to create it. It was made to resemble later portraits of the queen in her older years and showed her adorned with a crown and royal regalia. Although this appears to be a wonderful tribute to his predecessor, it was actually a calculated move by James to appease those who disapproved of the magnificent tomb and monument he was building in Westminster Abbey for his mother, Mary Queen of Scots. Elizabeth I’s monument was completed in 1606 and was placed in the north aisle of the Lady Chapel, where Elizabeth was reburied to be in the same vault as her sister Mary I. Elizabeth was the last monarch buried in the Abbey to have a monument erected above her although it has not necessarily been treated with reverence over the years. The gilded jewellery and regalia on the marble effigy were stolen and the current ones are replacements which date from the 1970s.
To learn more about Elizabeth I, we have a wealth of information in the many Tudor books that we stock online and you can learn more about her monument and tomb in the Abbey in Treasures of Westminster Abbey.