Monday, 1 June 2009

Elizabeth of Bohemia and the Gunpowder Plot

In the UK current political climate where the scandal of MPs' expenses claims still rumbles on, newspapers have been drawing parallels with other historic political crises such as the Peasants' Revolt and the Gunpowder Plot. A lot of the comparisons aren't particularly valid - the Gunpowder Plotters, for example, may have planned to blow up the Houses of Parliament but they didn't have the support of the majority of the populace. It did remind me, however, of a connection to Ashdown House - and after all, that is what this blog is all about!

In November 1605, Princess Elizabeth, daughter of King James VI and I, was nine years old and was living at Coombe Abbey in Warwickshire (the house in the picture at the top), an estate which, coincidentally, the Craven family later bought. Lord and Lady Harington, staunch Protestants, had been charged with "the keeping and education" of the young Princess, as was the wont with royal children in those days. At Coombe, Elizabeth was taught amongst other things, French and Italian, music and dancing. King James did not approve of the education of women, stating that: "to make women learned and foxes tame had the same effect - to make them more cunning." However I think we may assume that by most people's standards Elizabeth was well educated.

In November 1605 strange rumours of a plot to overthrow the monarchy were circulating in Warwickshire, which was a stronghold of Catholicism. On 6th November 1605 Lord Harington was warned of a threat to the princess and Elizabeth was taken for her own safety to the city of Coventry, for it was suspected that she might be seized should a rebellion take place. She was lodged in the city with an armed guard. Later, after the gunpowder plotters had been arrested and tortured, it emerged that it had been their intention to kidnap "the person of the Lady Elizabeth, the king's daughter, in Warwickshire, and presently proclaim her queen." The plan had been to seize her from Coombe Abbey and carry her off to Ashby St Legers, the home of Lady Catesby, mother of one of the conspirators.

It is said that when Elizabeth heard of the plot she declared that she would rather have died with her father and brother than become queen under such circumstances. Of course the plot to blow up parliament failed and when Elizabeth did become a queen it was of Bohemia rather than England. How different matters might have been...

We stayed in Elizabeth of Bohemia's apartments at Coombe Abbey, which is now a wonderfully luxurious hotel. I didn't sleep a wink all night for fear (and excitement) of seeing her ghost!! There will be more about Coombe on the blog in future.