Friday, January 27, 2012

Question from Stacey - Incidents with Elizabeth I and her ladies

I read on the Elizabeth files that she once stabbed someone with a fork and that she broke a lady in waiting's finger. Did this really happen & if so, who did they happen to & why?


Foose said...

These tales can be traced to the so-called "Scandal Letter" that Mary Queen of Scots allegedly wrote in about 1583 to her jailer Queen Elizabeth, in which she retailed a lot of smelly court scandals whose source was supposed to be the Countess of Shrewsbury - whose husband had custody of the Scottish queen in England.

The letter's quite a fab read. The original was in French, and various translations have been made. Elizabeth's dalliances with various gallants are enumerated, she is described as breaking the finger of her cousin "Skedmur" (Scudamore), and "gave another lady, who was waiting on you at table, a great blow with a knife" (not a fork; Elizabeth was apparently old-fashioned in her approach to discipline, and forks were just fancy novelties).

It's super-offensive. Historians in the 19th century - when adulation of Mary Queen of Scots was at its height - went into frenzies about this letter, with Agnes Strickland refusing to print it in full and deprecating it as a forgery, huffing that its coarse allusions were at variance with Mary's naturally "pure and delicate" style. Recent historians like Retha Warnicke and Sarah Gristwood appear to accept it as genuine. They point out that you have to distinguish what Mary is saying about Elizabeth from what Mary says the Countess of Shrewsbury and her sons were saying about the queen of England.

Most historians accept that Queen Elizabeth never saw the letter - some arguing that Cecil intercepted it before the queen could see it, and others (including Warnicke) saying it was never sent in the first place.

Is any of it true? Per the brutality suffered by Elizabeth's ladies - it was an age of aggressively physical discipline practiced by superiors upon their inferiors, with the full approval of Church and society. Administering "correction" to children, wives, and servants was pretty standard. Modern historians agree that Elizabeth could certainly slap and pinch when she was displeased - some of them arguing that she was emulating her father (Henry VIII liked to buffet Cromwell about the head and shoulders). I don't want to downplay physical violence, but the treatment was probably no worse than what her women would have experienced in attendance on other great ladies, although other great ladies did not have the option of sending people to the Tower.

Elizabeth, of course, led a largely public life and malicious gossip and ambassadorial reports could amplify the actual incidents considerably. According to Elizabeth Jenkins (Elizabeth the Great), the broken finger story had its origins in Elizabeth using "blows and words" on Mary Shelton, who failed to get the queen's consent before marrying James Scudamore. "Eight years later, when the story reached Mary Queen of Scots ... it ran, the Queen broke Mary Scudamore's finger and then gave out the injury was caused by a flying candlestick."

kb said...

I have a note in my research as follows:

In HMC Rutland, v. 1, p.107. Letter from Eleanor Bridges (or Brydges) to the Earl of Rutland 1576/7? January, Hampton Court. - "The Queen has used Mary Shelton very ill for her marriage. 'She hath telt liberall bothe with bloes and yevell wordes, and hath not yet graunted consent.' No one ever bought her husband more dearly."

As Fosse points out, this incident was later exaggerated and then repeated. The cause was indeed John Scudamore and Mary Shelton's secret marriage. Elizabeth did not approve of her ladies marrying without her permission. Additionally Mary Shelton was a Boleyn cousin and custom would have dictated that permission from the head of the family be granted prior to the marriage. Elizabeth was the head of that family.

John and Mary had been married in 1574 so this was a long standing secret. I can only imagine how angry Elizabeth must have been when she found out that not only had no one consulted her prior to the marriage but that she had been made a fool of - that the secret had been kept from her - for so long.

The temper tantrum subsided rather quickly. By October of the same year Mary was summoned back to court to be the queen's bed companion as Dorothy Stafford, who had been keeping the queen company in bed broke her leg. Over the long term Mary Shelton Scudamore remained a favorite of the queen's.

She was also known to be a good person to get on your side if you wanted something from Elizabeth. For example, Roland Whyte reported to Sidney that it was Mary Shelton who presented his suit to be warden of the Cinque-ports in 1597. Seems a case of 'no blood, no foul'.