465 years ago today, on November 17, 1558, “Elizabeth the Bastard,” the product of the oft-disputed marriage of Henry VIII and his second wife, Ann Boleyn, accessed to the throne on England on the death of her half-sister Queen Mary.
As did many of her subjects, I admire and even love “Good Queen Bess,” who brought stability and prosperity to her island nation after the 50 years of chaos and upheaval spawned by the reigns of her father and two older siblings (and the enthronement of the 16-year-old Lady Jane Grey, unfortunate winner of what may have been the world’s first reality entertainment show, Queen for Nine Days, and Then Off With Her Head).
Only 25 years old herself when she was crowned, and in addition to her father’s death, Elizabeth had already seen her mother and one of Henry’s subsequent wives beheaded, the death of a young and kind stepmother, Henry’s second royal divorce, the death of her young and invalid brother after a short and ineffectual reign, and her half-sister “Bloody” Mary’s persecution of those abjuring the Catholic faith. (And I thought I had a chaotic family life.) She resolved to bring stability and peace to her country, and, largely, she did.
No one doubts her intellect or her political skill. Or her ability to dissemble when necessary. Was she really, as she is almost universally known, “The Virgin Queen?” Ahem. I can’t say. All I know is that she was fond of saying that she was married to her country and that she played her suitors like fiddles, to her own and England’s advantage at every chance she got. And when one of those former suitors (Philip of Spain, her erstwhile brother-in-law, and King of England himself for a time) incurred her wrath by sending his “invincible” Armada to invade a country that Philip thought was displaying too much interest in, and influence on, continental Europe, she shamed him with one of the greatest naval defeats in history.
Elizabeth also had, as many could (and did) attest, a fine turn with a phrase, a keen fount of wisdom and common sense, and a ready wit. Some of her bon mots (or should that be bons mot?) include:
Do not tell secrets to those whose faith and silence you have not already tested–To Erik, King of Sweden. (Lord. Should have paid more attention to this one myself. LOL.)
Little man. The word “must” is not to be used to princes–To Robert Cecil, on his instructing her, during her final illness, that she “must” go to bed
I know I have but the body of a weak and feeble woman; but I have the heart and stomach of a king, and of a king of England, too; and think foul scorn that Parma or Spain, or any prince of Europe, should dare to invade the borders of my realms: to which, rather than any dishonor should grow by me, I myself will take up arms; I myself will be your general, judge, and rewarder of every one of your virtues in the field–Tilbury speech, prior to the Royal Navy setting sail to meet the Spanish Armada
I do consider a multitude doth make rather discord and confusion than good counsel–On her decision not to enlarge the Privy Council
There is no marvel in a woman learning to speak, but there would be in teaching her to hold her tongue–To the French Ambassador after he had praised her linguistic skills
Today’s Quote of the Day,** though, has to do with something which used to be known as “noblesse oblige.” It’s a clapped-out old concept in this egalitarian time, this idea that our “betters” should act with generosity and nobility towards those less privileged than themselves. (For a primer on what might be called Ignoblesse Disoblige, look no further than the “basket of deplorables” remark by our self-selected “better,” Hillary Clinton. Or perhaps the recent comment by Democrat Presidential Nominee Joe Biden that ten to fifteen percent of us “aren’t very good people.” (So, upwards of fifty million of us? Bet he’s sure we all voted for Trump, whoever we are.)
So. Here’s poor Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, gentleman, poet, hothead, courtier, rake, (and favored-by-many candidate for authorship of Shakespeare’s plays). And one day, he presents himself to the Queen, bowing low and making the required formal obeisance. And, while doing so, he has what we might in the twenty-first century refer to as an “intestinal malfunction,” as he loudly, and fruitily, breaks wind.
He is so mortified and embarrassed by this terrible faux pas and show of disrespect to Her Majesty that he runs from the Court, and does not show his face again there for seven years, spending them (enjoyably, I’m sure) traveling on the Continent. (Just imagine this, BTW. And long for the day that a politician in Washington DC could feel the same sense of shame for one of his non-stop verbal eructions and would, as a result, take himself out of our sight for the better part of a decade. Dream on.)
Meanwhile, back in the sixteenth century, our hero finally plucks up the courage to return to Court, presents himself to the Queen, practically crawling to her feet (without eruptive incident, this time), apologizing yet again, and begging her forgiveness for being absent from her side for so long.
And Elizabeth looks down at him, poor shamed worm that he is, and, obviously wanting to put him at his ease, smiles, and delivers herself of today’s Quote:
“My Lord, I had quite forgott the Fart.”
Ah. Noblesse Oblige.
**Story as told by John Aubrey in his 1693 edition of Brief Lives, a gossipy account of life among the noble, the entitled, and the famous.