CHAPTER XVI. ELIZABETH (i), 1558-61 - A PASSAGE PERILOUS
[1558 Accession of Elizabeth]
On November 17th 1558, the sun had not yet risen when Mary passed away; within a few hours, Elizabeth had been proclaimed Queen. No dissentient voice was raised in England. Heath, Mary's Chancellor and Archbishop of York, announced her accession to the Houses of Parliament; the proclamation was drawn up by Sir William Cecil, the Council's Secretary under Edward VI. From one quarter, and only one, could a colourable challenge come. In the legitimate course of succession by blood, the claim lay with Mary Stewart, Queen of Scots and now Dauphiness of France. But the Will of Henry VIII., authorised by Parliament, was paramount. That Will had given priority to the two children of his body who had both been declared illegitimate - not born in wedlock - by the national courts. The Papal pronouncement in an opposite sense in Mary's case would have made nugatory any attempt on the part of a Catholic to question her rights; but that difficulty did not apply in the case of Elizabeth. As a matter of practical politics, the Scots Queen might waive her claim; as a matter of high theory, no personal disclaimers could cancel the validity of her title; as a matter of English Constitutional theory, Elizabeth's legal title rested on the superior validity of a Parliamentary enactment as compared with the divine right of inheritance. And in the minds of the entire English nation, there was unanimity as to the acceptable doctrine. But the rejected doctrine remained to fall back on if discontent should arise.
[The claim of Mary Stewart]
The English people might settle the antagonistic claims of Mary and Elizabeth to their own satisfaction: but the rivalry also of the very strongest interest to the European Powers. was actually queen of Scotland; prospectively she was also queen of France. If to these two crowns she united that of England, the hegemony of the empire thus formed would inevitably fall to France, and France would become the premier European Power. That position was now occupied by Spain, [Footnote: See Appendix A, ii.] which, in the face of such a combination, would lose its naval ascendancy, and be cut off from the Netherlands both by sea and land. For Philip therefore it was absolutely imperative to support Elizabeth at ail costs.
[Strength of Elizabeth's position]
Here then lay the strength of Elizabeth's position, which she and her chosen counsellors were quick to grasp. The only alternative to Elizabeth was the Queen of Scots; her accession would mean virtually the conversion of England into an appanage of France. Of Elizabeth's subjects none - whatever their creed might be, or whatever creed she might adopt - would be prepared to rebel at the price of subjection to France; the few hot-heads who had ventured on that line when Mary Tudor was at the height of her unpopularity had found themselves utterly without support. For the same reason, do what she would, Philip could not afford to act against her - more than that, he had no choice but to interfere on her behalf if Henry of France acted against her. He might advise - dictate - threaten - but he must, as against France, remain her champion, whether she submitted or no. As long as she kept her head, this young woman of five and twenty, with an empty treasury, with no army, a wasted navy, and with counsellors whose reputation for statesmanship was still to make, was nevertheless mistress of the situation. Mary Stewart's claim presented no immediate danger, though it might become dangerous enough in the future.
There were two things then on which Elizabeth knew she could count; her own ability to keep her head, and the capacity for loyalty of the great bulk of her subjects. If either of those failed her, she would have no one but herself to blame. The former had been shrewdly tested during her sister's reign, when a single false step would have ruined her. The latter had borne the strain even of the Marian persecution - nay, of the alarm engendered by the Spanish marriage, which showed incidentally that fear of domination by a foreign power was the most deeply rooted of all popular sentiments; a sentiment now altogether in Elizabeth's favour, unless she should threaten a dangerous marriage.
But the cool head and the clear brain, and unlimited self-reliance, were necessary to realise how much might be dared in safety; to distinguish also the course least likely to arouse the one incalculable factor in domestic politics - religious fanaticism; which, if it once broke loose, might count for more than patriotic or insular sentiment. And these were precisely the qualities in which the queen herself excelled, and which marked also the man whom from the first she distinguished with her father's perspicacity as her chief counsellor.