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'noe priviledge against death'
She hath been in a manner speechless for two days, very pensive and silent…
I’ve covered the death of a monarch before in Histories – in that case Henry VIII. Whatever your views about the monarchy and however much its role has diminished since Henry’s time, yesterday’s death of Elizabeth II is a moment in history. Henry’s daughter and the late queen’s namesake was another long-reigning monarch who presided over interesting times, so this week I give you a contemporary account of her own death, by a lawyer named John Manningham.
Elizabeth I (1533–1603) grew up in times of great turmoil: her mother Anne Boleyn was executed when she was only two, and she herself was imprisoned by her half-sister Mary before succeeding to the throne. As queen, Elizabeth sought to moderate, particularly between the divisions of Catholic vs Protestant faiths, and she adopted a motto of video et taceo – I see and keep silent (something Elizabeth II could probably have related to).
Elizabeth I never married, of course, so her later years were marked by concerns over who would succeed her. She didn’t name James VI of Scotland directly, but through the work of her adviser Robert Cecil, she tacitly seems to have approved of Cecil’s plans for James.
But now to our diarist. John Manningham (c.1575–1622) was a Cambridge-educated lawyer, from Cambridgeshire himself. After his father’s death, John was adopted by his great-uncle Richard, a wealthy textile merchant, and an inheritance from him ensured John lived comfortably off.
John’s copybook from January 1602 until April 1603 survives, and it’s a treasure trove of notes, thoughts, recipes, anecdotes, law student jokes and accounts of contemporary events. It is most known for mentioning William Shakespeare – he refers to seeing Twelfth Night on 2nd February 1602, and there’s even a bit of gossip about the Bard’s love life. The Dictionary of National Biography says “Manningham was no Pepys, but he left invaluable documentation of an ordinary life in the legendary London of Donne, Bacon, and Shakespeare” – and one such invaluable document is his short account of the queen’s death.1
23rd March, 1603
I dined with Dr. Parry in the Privy Chamber [this was Henry Parry, Elizabeth’s chaplain, who later became Bishop of Worcester], and understood by him, the Bishop of Chichester, the Dean of Canterbury, the Dean of Windsor, &c. that her Majesty hath been by fits troubled with melancholy some three or four months, but for this fortnight extreme oppressed with it, in so much that she refused to eat anything, to receive any physic, or admit any rest in bed, till within these two or three days. She hath been in a manner speechless for two days, very pensive and silent; since Shrovetide sitting sometimes with her eye fixed upon one object many hours together, yet she always had her perfect senses and memory, and yesterday signified by the lifting up of her hand and eyes to heaven, a sign which Dr. Parry entreated of her, that she believed that faith which she hath caused to be professed, and looked faithfully to be saved by Christ’s merits and mercy only, and no other means. She took great delight in hearing prayers, would often at the name of Jesus lift up her hands and eyes to Heaven. She would not hear the Archbishop speak of hope of her longer life, but when he prayed or spake of Heaven, and those joys, she would hug his hand, &c. It seems she might have lived if she would have used means; but she would not be persuaded, and princes must not be forced. Her physicians said she had a body of a firm and perfect constitution, likely to have lived many years. A royal Majesty is no privilege against death.
This morning about three at clock her Majesty departed this life, mildly like a lamb, easily like a ripe apple from the tree, cum leue quadam febre, absque gemitu [with a slight fever, without a sound]. Dr Parry told me that he was present, and sent his prayers before her soul; and I doubt not but she is amongst the royal saints in Heaven in eternal joys.
About ten at clock the Council and diverse noblemen having been a while in consultation, proclaimed James the 6, King of Scots, the King of England, France, and Ireland, beginning at Whitehall gates; where Sir Robert Cecil read the proclamation and after read again in Cheapside. Many noblemen, lords spiritual and temporal, knights, five trumpets, many heralds. The gates at Ludgate and portcullis were shut and down, by the Lord Mayor’s command, who was there present, with the Aldermen, &c. and until he had a token beside promise, the Lord Treasurer’s George, that they would proclaim the King of Scots King of England, he would not open.
Upon the death of a King or Queen in England the Lord Mayor of London is the greatest magistrate in England. All corporations and their governors continue, most of the other officers’ authority is expired with the prince’s breath. There was a diligent watch and ward kept at every gate and street, day and night, by householders, to prevent garboils [disorder]: which God be thanked were more feared than perceived.
The proclamation was heard with great expectation and silent joy, no great shouting. I think the sorrow for her Majesty’s departure was so deep in many hearts they could not so suddenly show any great joy, though it could not be less than exceeding great for the succession of so worthy a king. And at night they showed it by bonfires, and ringing. No tumult, no contradition, no disorder in the city; every man went about his business, as readily, as peaceably, as securely, as though there had been no change, nor any news ever heard of competitors. God be thanked, our king hath his right!
… The people is full of expectation, and great with hope of his worthiness, of our nation’s future greatness; everyone promises himself a share in some famous action to be hereafter performed for his prince and country.