Monday, 17 November 2014

The day of the two queens

It's happened once and once only. On this day in 1558 one woman succeeded another to the throne of England. Against all the odds, Elizabeth I followed her half-sister Mary I as regnant of a country their father didn't think a woman could manage. November 17th is unique in British history.  It is the day of the two queens.

Elizabeth I, Queen of England, was the only woman to succeed another to rule the country

Like Mary, Elizabeth's reign began in hope and turmoil. When Mary had taken the throne in 1553 she had had to fight for her right to rule after the installation of Lady Jane Grey as queen in an ill fated coup. Mary's triumphant ride to London saw her greeted by thousands cheering her as their rightful monarch. It hadn't taken long to unravel and by the time she died, aged 42, on November 17th 1558 her reputation was damaged. She was 'Bloody Mary' who had put to death many Protestants as she tried to re-establish Catholicism as the main religion of her country. She was queen at a time of economic uncertainty and difficult harvests. And she was the woman who was called to be the first female regnant of her country but who was so desperate to marry by the time she won her crown that her unswerving devotion to her husband, Philip of Spain, led to many fearing that he might rule through her. Mary's reign quickly turned from sweet to sour. The rise of Elizabeth was a relief for many and a sign of hope on the horizon.

Mary I, Queen of England, always in the shadow of her glorious sister

Mary had bowed to the inevitable and named her Protestant half-sister as he heir before her death. Elizabeth, aged 25, was in at Hatfield House in Hertfordshire when news reached her that she was now Queen of England. The little girl declared illegitimate at the age of two and a half when her mother, Anne Boleyn, had been executed and who had grown up in the turmoil of the Tudor court before finding herself under house arrest in the reign of her sister was now the leader of her country. The realm belonged to her and her arrival as regnant was greeted with cheering. Except this time the story would have a far happier ending.

Henry VIII, father of Mary and Elizabeth, changed the succession twice to stop his daughters wearing his crown but both would reign in the end

Elizabeth's reign is one of the most famous in European history. Known as Gloriana she reshaped politics, foreign policy and the whole concept of monarchy. She was the Virgin Queen who ruled alone and who made it quite clear early on that there would be no blood line to inherit the throne. And in so doing she made sure that her country learned to love the concept of a king or queen rather than the family who embodied it at that time. Elizabeth's reign was a game changer but then it started in a most unique way. The only woman every to succeed another, she took the throne in a wave of hope which she turned into an ocean of success. The two sisters, so often apart and opposed in life, would eventually be buried together in Westminster Abbey.  For their lives, their relationships and their reigns were forever intertwined. And today is an important date in that story. It is the day of the two queens.

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