ND   Essays / by Robert Hugh Benson

The Death-Beds of "Bloody Mary" and "Good Queen Bess"

By Robert Hugh Benson, M.A.

" 'BLOODY MARY,' a sour, bigoted heartless, superstitious woman, reigned five years, and failed in everything which she attemptcd. She burned in Smithfield hundreds of sincere godly persons; she went down to her grave, hated by her husband, despised by her servants, loathed her her people, and condemned by God. 'Good Queen Bess' followed her, a generous, stout-hearted strong-minded woman, characteristically English; and reigned forty-five years. Under her wise and beneficent rule her people prospered she was tolerant in religion and severe only to traitors; she went down to her grave after a reign of unparalleled magnificence and success, a virgin queen, secure in the loyalty of her subjects, loved by her friends, in favour with God and man. "

So we can imagine some modern Englishman summing up the reigns of these two half-sisters who ruled England successively in the sixteenth century -- an Englishman better acquainted with history-books than with history, and in love with ideas rather than facts.

It is interesting, therefore, to pursue our investigations a little further, and to learn in what spirit each of these two queens met her end, what was the account given by those about them, what were the small incidents, comments, and ideas that surrounded the moments which for each of them were the most significant of their lives. Death, after all, reveals what life cannot; for at death we take not only a review of our past, but a look into the future, and the temper of mind with which we regard eternity is of considerable importance as illustrating our view of the past. At death too, if at any time, we see ourselves as we are, and display our true characters. There is no use in keeping up a pose any longer. We drop the mask, and show our real faces.

We should expect, then, if we took the view of the ordinary Englishman, that Mary Tudor would die a prey to superstition and terror; the memory of her past and the prospect of her future would surely display her as overwhelmed with gloom and remorse, terrified at the thought of meeting God, a piteous spectacle of one who had ruled by fear and was now ruled by it. Elizabeth, on the other hand, dying full of honour and years, would present an edifying spectacle of a true Christian who could look back upon a brilliant and successful past, a reign of peace and clemency, of a life unspotted with superstition and unblameable in its religion; and, forward to the reward of her labours and the enjoyment of heaven. There will be no mummery or darkness round her bed, as round her sister's.

Let us turn then to history and see how far our expectations are justified by it.

Our first extract will be from Clifford's Life of Jane Dormer. This lady was one of Mary's greatest friends, a woman of extreme simplicity and beauty of character, who, after refusing many other offers, finally married the Duke de Feria, after her mistress' death. She was in Mary's service during all the years of her reign, and was actually with her when she died.

The Death-bed of "Bloody Mary."

"When it chanced that Jane was not well, as that she could not well attend upon the Queen, it is strange, the care and regard her Majesty had of her, more like a mother or sister, than her Queen and mistress. As in the last days of this blessed Queen, she being at Hampton Court and to remove to London, Jane having some indisposition, her Majesty would not suffer her to go in the barge by water, but sent her by land, in her own litter, and her physician to attend her. And, being come to London, the first that she risked for was Jane Dormer, who met her at the stairfoot and told her that she was reasonably well.

"The Queen answered, 'So am not I,' -- being about the end of August, 1558. So took her chamber and never came abroad again. . . .

"It pleased Almighty God that this sickness was her last, increasing daily, until it brought her to a better life. Her sickness was such as made the whole realm to mourn, yet passed by her with most Christian patience. She comforted those of them that grieved about her, she told them what good dreams she had, seeing many little children, like angels, play before her, singing pleasing notes, giving her more than earthly comfort, and thus persuaded all ever to have the holy fear of God before their eyes, which would free them from all evil, and be a curb to all temptations. She asked them to think that whatsoever came to them was by God's permission, and ever to have confidence that He would in mercy turn all to the best."

[Life of Jane Dormer; sometime Lady-in-Waiting to the Queen, afterwards Duchess of Feria; by Clifford, quoted by Miss Stone.]

Cardinal Pole, who was ill at the same time as the Queen, and who died a few hours after her, thus writes to Philip a few days before her death:

"During her malady, the Queen did not fail to take the greatest care of herself, following the advice of her physicians" (quoted by Miss Stone) and Monsignor Priuli, the Cardinal's friend and secretary, thus writes of the illness and death of them both: --

"During their illness they confessed themselves repeatedly, and communicated most devoutly, and, two days before their end, they each received Extreme Unction; after which it seemed as if they rallied, and were much comforted, according to the fruit of that holy medicine."

One of the things about which Mary was most anxious, was the future of England. It must be remembered that, at that time in English history, a sovereign had a great deal of influence in the appointment of a successor. Perhaps it is not possible to say that Mary could have prevented Elizabeth's succession, but, if she had been the spiteful and revengeful woman that her enemies suppose, she could at least have given Elizabeth a great deal of trouble, by bequeathing the crown to her husband or to some other Catholic claimant. But she was simple enough to trust Elizabeth's word, and to believe that when that lady promised solemnly to preserve the Catholic faith, she meant what she said. After all, Elizabeth had been regular in hearing two Masses a day for at least a year or two; she had protested her orthodoxy even with tears, again and again, and Mary preferred to trust her sister, and to bequeath the crown to her rather than to treat her as one in whom it was impossible to put any confidence. Here is Clifford's account of the matter: --

"Queen Mary in her last sickness sent Commissioners to examine her [Elizabeth] about religion, to whom she answered, 'Is it not possible that the Queen will be persuaded I am a Catholic, having so often protested it?' and thereupon did swear and vow that she was a Catholic. This is confirmed by the Duke of Feria's letter to the King, who in this sickness of the Queen visited the Lady Elizabeth. He certified him that she did profess the Catholic Religion, and believed the Real Presence, and was not like to make any alteration for the principal points of religion." [Life of Jane Dormer, quoted by Miss Stone.] Elizabeth, as we know now, kept her word just long enough to secure her succession; she was crowned with Catholic rites by a Catholic bishop, and then immediately set to work to break her promise. She began by striking at the very heart of the Religion she had sworn to preserve, by her action in forbidding the Elevation of the Host at Mass, and so proceeded to re-establish the "Reformation principles" which she had explicitly abjured. Here is the account which Mr. David Morris B.A. , an historian of strong Protestant views gives of her energy: --

"Thus the Reformation was again the law of England and the work of Pole and Mary faded away. 'The nuns and monks were scattered once more, the crucifixes came down from the roodlofts the Maries and Johns from their niches, and in Smithfield Market, at the cross-ways and street-corners, blazed into bonfires, as in the old days of Cromwell.' . . . These changes were not carried out without much opposition. . . . All the bishops, excepting the Bishop of Llandaff, refused the oath of supremacy, and were consequently deprived of their sees."

It was in this manner that Elizabeth observed her promise made to her sister. However, this is by the way; we must return to our subject.

Of the final scene of Mary's life we have a tolerably detailed account, taken down from the relation of Jane Dormer herself, who was one of the few friends who remained with Mary to the end. Most of her other attendants had already made their way to Hatfield, to pay their court to the Princess who would presently be in power. This account is an interesting comment on the way in which Mary's religion was a support to her in the crisis, and forms an agreeable comparison with the same element in her sister's death nearly fifty years later. Of course Mary's devotion in no way proves the truth of her faith it is only an evidence of her absolute and serene sincerity.

"That morning hearing Mass, which was celebrated in her chamber, she being at the last point (for no day passed in her life that she heard not Mass), and although sick to death, she heard it with good attention, zeal, and devotion, as she answered in every part with him who served the Priest, such yet was the quickness of her senses and memory. And when the priest came to that part to say, 'Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi,' she answered plainly and distinctly to every one, 'Miserere nobis, Miserere nobis, Dona nobis pacem.'

"Afterwards, seeming to meditate something with herself, when the Priest took the Sacred Host to consume it, she adored it with her voice and countenance, presently closed her eyes and rendered her blessed soul to God. This the Duchess [Jane Dormer] hath related to me, the tears pouring from her eyes, that the last thing which the Queen saw in this world was her Saviour and Redeemer in the Sacramental Species, no doubt to behold Him presently after in His glorious Body in heaven. A blessed and glorious passage, 'Anima mea cum anima ejus.'" [From Life of Jane Dormer, quoted by Miss Stone.]

Mary thought it her duty also, in common with most Christian people, to make some provision for the disposal of her body and her goods after her death -- again offering a comparison with Elizabeth's action. She had already impoverished herself with efforts to restore to the service of God what her father had taken "to his own use"; and on her death-bed she made further dispositions in the same direction. In her will and codicil, every page of which she signed painfully with her own hand, she bequeaths her soul to the mercy of Almighty God, and to the "good prayers and help of the most pure and blessed Virgin St. Mary, and of all the Holy Company of heaven"; and her body to be buried at the discretion of her executors. She leaves large sums to the poor, to the Religious Houses which she had re-founded, to the poor scholars at the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge, and to Hospitals, especially to one for disabled soldiers; she also leaves legacies to her ladies and her servants, as well as to her husband and executors. This will was entirely disregarded by Elizabeth, and lay, as Miss Stone remarks, in obscurity for over three hundred years.

So far, then, we are agreeably surprised. There is no terror of the future, or agonised remorse there is repentance, of course, and confession of sin and shortcomings, but that is scarcely to Mary's reproach. There is tranquil confidence in religion and the mercy of God; she encourages her friends, makes her will, trusts her sister, and gives up her soul during what was to her, throughout her life, the most sacred and holy action of the day. Whether or not her religion was true is not our affair now; we are only concerned with the way in which it was her support during her last moments, and even if we are not satisfied as to its objective truth, we can at least be satisfied with its power to uphold one who believed in it with all her heart. In this sense, if in no other, we can say, with Jane Dormer, "A blessed and glorious passage! May my soul be with hers!"

We turn now to

The Death-bed of "Good Queen Bess";

and, if we happen to be of the religion of that lady, and an admirer of her character and achievements, we shall expect to find her last moments marked with the same kind of incidents and aspirations as those of her superstitious sister. If a false religion can give peace and serenity, a true religion can do no less; in fact we might reasonably expect it to do a good deal more, considering the conspicuous advantages that it gave to Elizabeth, at any rate from a worldly point of view. We should expect, also, that a religion which claimed to be an improvement upon Popery should at any rate be free from superstition -- at least in the case of such a professor as the common-sense Elizabeth. Whether that was so or not we shall hear from Elizabeth's companions.

We begin with an extract from the account given by Lady Southwell, one of the women in attendance on her a few weeks before her death: --

"Her Majesty being in very good health one day, Sir John Stanhope, Vice-Chamberlain, came and presented her Majesty with a piece of gold of the bigness of an angel, full of characters which he said an old woman in Wales had bequeathed to her on her death-bed and thereupon he discoursed how the said testatrix, by virtue of the piece of gold, lived to the age of 120 years, and in that age, having all her body withered and consumed, and wanting Nature to nourish her, she died, commanding the said piece of gold to be carefully sent to her Majesty, alleging, further, that as long as she wore it on her body she could not die.

"The Queen in confidence took the said gold and hung it about her neck . . .

" Though she became not suddenly sick, yet she daily decreased of her rest and feeding, and within fifteen days she fell downright ill, and the cause being wondered at by my Lady Scrope, with whom she was very private and confidant, being her near kinswoman, her Majesty told her (commanding her to conceal the same), 'that she saw one night her own body exceedingly lean and fearful in a light of fire.' This vision was at Whitehall, a little before she departed for Richmond, and was testified by another lady, who was one of the nearest about her person, of whom the Queen demanded 'Whether she was not wont to see sights in the night?' telling her of the bright flame she had seen. . . .

Afterwards, in the melancholy of her sickness she desired to see a true looking -- glass, which in twenty years before she had not seen, but only such a one as on purpose was made to deceive her sight, which true looking-glass being brought her, she presently fell exclaiming at all those flatterers which had so much commended her, and they durst not after come into her presence. [LADY SOUTHWELL, quoted by Miss Strickland.]

While Mary sees heavenly children playing and singing about her bed, Elizabeth sees her own body exceedingly lean and fearful in a light of fire, and examines her looking-glass to see if she were really as beautiful as her courtiers declared. But to continue; Sir Robert Carey writes: --

"When I came to Court I found the Queen ill-disposed, and she kept her inner lodging; yet she, hearing of my arrival, sent for me. I found her in one of her withdrawing chambers, sitting low upon her cushions. She called me to her, I kissed her hand, and told her it was my chiefest happiness to see her in safety and in health, which I wished might long continue. She took me by the hand and wrung it hard and said, 'No, Robin, I am not well,' and then discoursed with me of her indisposition, and that her heart had been sad and heavy for ten or twelve days, and in her discourse she fetched not so few as forty or fifty great sighs. I used the best words I could to persuade her from this melancholy humour, but I found by her it was too deeply rooted in her heart, and hardly to be removed . . . From that day forwards she grew worse and worse. She remained upon her cushions four days and nights at the least. All about could not persuade her either to take any sustenance or go to bed." [SIR ROBERT CAREY.]

And again, the French Ambassador writes to his master: -- [March 19.]

"(The) Queen Elizabeth (hath) been very much indisposed for the last fourteen days, having scarcely slept at all during that period, and eaten much less than usual, being seized with such a restlessness that, though she had no decided fever, she felt a great heat in her stomach and a continual thirst, which obliged her every moment to take something to abate it. Some ascribed her disorder to her uneasiness with regard to Lady Arabella Stuart; others to her having been obliged by her Council to grant a pardon to her Irish rebel, Tyrone. Many were of opinion that her distress of mind was caused by the death of Essex; but all agreed that before her illness became serious, she discovered an unusual melancholy, both in her countenance and manner.

[March 22.]

"The Queen of England had been somewhat better the day before, but was that day worse, and so full of chagrin and so weary of life that, notwithstanding all the entreaties of her councillors and physicians for her to take the proper medicine and means necessary for her relief, she refused everything." [DE BEAUMONT, quoted by Miss S.]

"Bloody Mary," then, lies in bed, hearing Mass each morning, receiving the sacraments with devotion and serenity, looking back indeed on a short life that had apparently failed, but to an eternal future which seemed full of hope: "Good Queen Bess," in the midst of honours and success, after a long and magnificent reign, does not sleep; she lies on cushions it is suggested by her friends that her melancholy may arise from having been compelled to pardon her enemy; and there is no word as yet, of religion. It can scarcely, surely, be the past which she regrets! Has she not prospered in all to which she has I put her hand? Can it be death, judgement, and eternity of which she is afraid? And, if so, is it possible that the religion for which she has sacrificed her plighted word, has no comfort for her now?

Her visions, too! Her own body, "exceedingly lean and fearful in a light of fire," -- is that a mere superstition with nothing to justify it, or is it something worse?

Her own kinsman adds another terrible detail or two; let us hear them in Miss Strickland's words:--

"The [Lord] Admiral [Howard] came and knelt beside her where she sat among her cushions sullen and unresigned; he kissed her hands, and with tears implored her to take a little nourishment. After much ado he prevailed so far, that she received a little broth from his hands, he feeding her with a spoon. But when he urged her to go to bed, she angrily refused, and then in wild and wandering words hinted of phantasma that had troubled her midnight couch.

" 'If he were in the habit of seeing such things in his bed,' she said, as she did when in hers, he would not persuade her to go there' . . .

"When Cecil and his colleagues were gone, the Queen, shaking her head piteously, said to her brave kinsman --

" 'My lord, I am tied with a chain of iron about my neck.' The Lord Admiral reminded her of her wonted courage, but she replied, desponding:

" 'I am tied, I am tied; and the case is altered with me.' "


She was carried to bed soon, but again left it. The French Ambassador continues: --

"The Queen continued to grow worse, and appeared in a manner insensible, not speaking above once in two or three hours, and at last remained silent for four and twenty, holding her finger almost continually in her mouth, with her rayless eyes open and fixed on the round, where she sat on cushions, without rising or resting herself, and was greatly emaciated by her long watching and . . . . This morning the Queen's Music (i.e. the choir) has gone to her. I believe she means to die as gaily as she has lived. . . ."


"The Queen hastens to her end, and is given up by all her physicians. They have put her to bed almost by force, after she had sat on cushions for ten days, and has rested barely an hour each day In her clothes."


About this time Lady Southwell adds a significant story: --

"The two ladies-in-waiting discovered the queen of hearts with a nail of iron knocked through the forehead, and thus fastened to the bottom of her Majesty's chair; they durst not pull it out, remembering that the like thing was used to the old Countess of Sussex, and afterwards proved a witchcraft, for which certain persons were hanged."

[LADY SOUTHWELL, quoted by Miss S.]

Let Miss Strickland continue: --

"Lady Guildford then in waiting on the Queen, and leaving her in an almost breathless sleep in her privy chamber, went out to take a little air, and met her Majesty, as she thought, three or four chambers off. Alarmed at the thought of being discovered in the act of leaving the royal patient alone, she hurried forward in some trepidation in order to excuse herself, when the apparition vanished away. Lady Guildford returned, terrified, to the chamber; but there lay Queen Elizabeth, still in the same lethargic motionless slumber in which she had left her."

It is really rather appalling, -- this atmosphere of superstitious fear that lay round the Queen. Whether Lady Guildford was mistaken, or whether that uneasy spirit in some manner manifested itself in the gloom of the gallery, it is impossible to know. But at least we know the mood in which the Court found itself -- this Court which dared not run from this dreadful old woman as its predecessor had run from her sister, to pay homage to the rising sun.

As regards her attitude to her own Church ministers we have the following significant facts. "When she was near her end," writes Miss Strickland, "the Council sent to her the Archbishop of Canterbury and other prelates, at the sight of whom she was much offended, cholericly rating them, 'bidding them be packing,' saying 'she was no atheist, but she knew full well they were but hedge-priests.' "

Did she think then, one wonders, of men who were not "hedge-priests" of her making, but of a Church which claims to rule, not to be ruled by princes: a Church, too, to which she had promised allegiance and with whose rites she had been crowned -- men who under her orders had suffered a death, compared with which the "fires of Smithfield" were mercy itself, for no other crime than that of ministering to the souls of men the Word and Sacraments that were still all but universal in Christendom? Mary had, indeed, burned men for heresy, according to the laws of the realm; it had been left for tolerant Elizabeth, the champion of Private Judgement, to strip and disembowell living priests and laymen for the crime of allowing their Private Judgement to differ from her own. One cannot help wondering whether she now remembered Campion, Briant, Sherwin, and the rest -- and the rack, and the rope, and the butcher's knife, and cauldron; whether the thought crossed her mind that perhaps such men as these might have had a message to her soul that others could not have.

However, it was too late, and as death became imminent, even "hedge-priests" were better than none at all. At least they might soothe her for a few minutes, even if they could no more.

"About six at night," writes Sir Robert Carey, "she made signs for the Archbishop and her chaplains to come to her. . . . Her Majesty lay upon her back, with one hand in the bed, and the other without. The Bishop kneeled by her and examined her first of her faith, and she so punctually observed all his several questions, by lifting up her eyes and holding up her hand, as it was a comfort to all beholders. Then the good man told her plainly what she was, and what she was to come to; and though she had been long a great Queen here upon earth, yet shortly she was to yield an account of her stewardship to the King of kings. After this he began to pray, and all that were by did answer him. . . . The Queen made a sign with her hand. My sister Scrope, knowing the meaning, told the Bishop the Queen desired he would pray still. He did so for a long half-hour after, and then thought to leave her. The second time she made sign to have him continue in prayer. He did so for half an hour more, with earnest cries to God for her soul's health, which he uttered with that fervency of spirit as the Queen to all our sight much rejoiced thereat, and gave testimony to us all of her Christian and comfortable end."

For even such dumb signs as these, interpreted by Carey's charity, I suppose all sincere Christians must be thankful, but they are all the reassurance we can get.

There is no word of repentance or of her desire for God's pardon; there is no suggestion apparentiy from her or from any other that it would be at least seemly for a dying woman to receive what she would have called "the most comfortable sacrament of Christ's body and blood." No; the "hedge-priests" prayed long and loud by the bed; the Queen made occasional signs for them to continue; and the bystanders rejoiced at such a "Christian and comfortable end." That, then, was what the "Reformed Religion," the "glorious light" of which Henry VIII of matrimonial memory was the dawn and Virgin Elizabeth the full-orbed day -- this was all that it could do for her: and, at three o'clock in the morning, "Good Queen Bess" died and appeared before God.

As regards her care for the future and the disposition of her property, we read in Nichols's Progresses that "she made no will, neither gave anything away; so that they which come after find a well-furnished jewel-house, and a rich wardrobe of more than 2,000 gowns, with all things else answerable," -- which must have been a great satisfaction to all concerned.

But all this proves nothing?

Oh, no! it proves nothing!

May, 1906.

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