The Mysticism of Astrologers & Astronomers in the Late Renaissance

For the historical novel I’m currently working on, I’m researching all things Elizabethan. I also have a short fiction workshop starting in two weeks, and my research is giving me a lot of fodder for short stories. I’m amazed by how liberal Elizabeth I was in her beliefs in astrology, astronomy, and even alchemy. The Queen’s interest in “magic” and “mysticism,” as it was viewed at the time, is seen in how she chose the date of her coronation. John Dee, one of the most fascinating men of the Elizabethan Era, was an astrologer, alchemist, mathematician, and astronomer (among other things).

John Dee, 1527-1609

John Dee, 1527-1609

Dee forecasted Elizabeth’s horoscope and told her that January 15, 1559 should be her coronation date. That was, in fact, the day of her coronation. I’m assuming that Elizabeth’s Protestantism allowed her to explore scientific beliefs. But I’m a writer first and only an aspiring historian working towards a B.A. in History. Considering the European Renaissance was a “rebirth” that promoted forward-thinking, I can see how Elizabeth would be interested in mysticism and having her horoscope forecasted. Yet, when England was ruled under her half-sister, Mary Tudor, the devout Catholic queen who reigned before Elizabeth, such “magical” practices and books were banned. People were burned at the stake for owning books relating to astrology or for forecasting the future.

What’s more fascinating is that in Italy, Church officials sentenced Italian astronomer Galileo to life in prison.  And this was in 1633, thirty years after Elizabeth’s death.  Galileo resided in Catholic Italy and Elizabeth in Protestant England, but it’s thought-provoking to consider how religious divides affected the Scientific Revolution in different parts of Europe.

Portrait of Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) by Giusto Sustermans

Portrait of Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) by Giusto Sustermans

Galileo wasn’t even dabbling in magical subjects like alchemy, that I know of.  Nonetheless, I would think that scientific practices would’ve been more acceptable three decades later.  When Galileo visited Rome in 1611 with his telescope, authorities in the city wouldn’t even look through it.  Since a telescope showed things that weren’t visible to the naked eye, they considered it devil’s work and comparable to hearing voices and seeing apparitions.

I would love to hear others’ views on this topic.  It’s fascinating to see the differences between Protestant England, where Elizabeth employed John Dee, and yet, in Rome, the Catholic Church imprisoned Galileo for his research, writings,  and beliefs.

Historical Tidbit: Elizabethan Era Personal Hygiene

Personal Hygiene wasn’t a priority in sixteenth century England.  The poor bathed about three times a year.  The middle class bathed about once a month, and the noble and royal classes bathed every other week.southwark16

Elizabethan Death Penalty: Hung, Drawn, and Quartered

I should be working on my novel, but I can’t seem to stop my researching process. I’ve gotten caught up in the research for my historical novel set in Elizabethan England. What I’ve found has been fascinating and has generated ideas for historical short stories too. I’m not a sadist, by any means, by I’m intrigued by sixteenth century Elizabethan forms of torture and capital punishment. The advice I’ve read from other writers on story, plot, and characterization has said to “kill your darlings,” or torture your characters. I may be taking that too literally, but my novel is set in the sixteenth century, so why not have them face the worse case scenarios? My character is accused of murder, so she has to face the possibility of some kind of punishment.

By working towards my B.A. in history, I became aware of various forms of the death penalty during the Medieval and English Renaissance periods. The most common documented cases of the penalty include victims burned alive at the stake, hangings, and beheadings. Burnings were usually for heretics practicing different religions than the Church established. Most beheadings were for the upper classes or the nobility and done by an ax. Unless you were Anne Boleyn, Henry VIII’s second of six wives, in which case he summoned a French swordsman to take Anne’s head of in one full swipe. Heads weren’t always taken off in one chop with an ax. It could take an axeman two or three blows to completely sever the head from the body.

Hung, drawn, and quartered.  "Execution of thomas armstrong 1683" by unknown artist.

Hung, drawn, and quartered. “Execution of thomas armstrong 1683” by unknown artist.

Among the various methods of putting a convicted criminal to death, I’d also heard of victims being hung, drawn, and quartered. I didn’t know the exact process until I began researching for my current novel. The process is extremely gruesome and was one of the most humiliating ways for a victim to die. Executions were public and often performed in a town square for all to see.

To be hung, drawn, and quartered involved hanging the victim, but cutting them down while they were still alive. The executioner then disemboweled the victim by slicing them down the middle of the torso and removing the internal organs. The organs were set on fire in front of the still alive victim. If they were lucky, death would ensue shortly after the removal of the organs, because the process gets worse. After burning the organs, the executioner cut the arms, legs, and head from the body. The head was usually placed on a pole and set atop the London Bridge or other high traffic areas for all to see in an attempt to deter would-be criminals.

My main character is a female commoner (not of the noble class) and accused of poisoning. This means she faces the death penalty of being boiled alive in water, oil, or lead. I’m still researching this form of the death penalty, but I’m beginning to believe that being boiled is better than being hung, drawn, and quartered.

Queen Elizabeth I & Robert Dudley: True Love?

I’ve been researching about Elizabethan England and Elizabeth’s reign for my novel-in-progress. I’m spending far too much time researching and not writing, since there are many fascinating stories surrounding Elizabeth I. I keep seeing short stories I could carve out of the Queen’s life and reign. One aspect of Elizabeth’s personal life particularly stands out to me: Her close relationship with Robert Dudley.

How Elizabeth and Dudley Met


Elizabeth I of England in Parliament Robes, Helmingham Hall, Stowmarket (c. 1585-90).

Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester (c.1533-1588) was most likely the only man Queen Elizabeth I (1533-1603) ever truly loved. Elizabeth’s relationship with Dudley, makes their story quite fantastical, yet tragic, when Dudley’s death parted the pair. Having been born the same year, Elizabeth and Dudley were close childhood friends, and Dudley may have shared lessons with Elizabeth in a group of aristocratic children. Dudley himself was known to say, ‘I have known her better than any man alive since she was eight years old.’ Almost immediately after her coronation, Elizabeth appointed Dudley as Master of the Horse, which placed him in contact with her on a daily basis, as the two rode out together every day and enjoyed hunting.  He was probably the only man to physically touch the Queen, as he helped her on and off her horse.

A Perfect Love for the Queen


Elizabeth and her favourite, Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, c. 1575. Pair of stamp-sized miniatures by Nicholas Hilliard. The Queen’s friendship with Dudley lasted for over thirty years, until his death.

Elizabeth and Dudley’s relationship wasn’t without its ups and downs. One day the Queen would be screaming at him and banishing him from court, but she soon realized that she missed him and never wanted another day without him by her side. Out of all Elizabeth’s many suitors, Dudley was a perfect match for the Queen. He could not offer marriage, as he was already married to Amy Dudley, and therefore, Elizabeth could have the benefits of a romantic relationship with him, all without having to deal with marriage and rule her kingdom alongside a husband. Staying unwed also allowed Elizabeth to maintain her image as the Virgin Queen.

The Proposal

Even after Amy Dudley’s suspicious death in 1560, Elizabeth refrained from not marrying Dudley, especially since many among her council, her court, and her subjects viewed him as his wife’s murderer. Some even thought Elizabeth conspired with Dudley in ridding of Amy so that the Queen could marry him. In the political realm, marriage to Dudley just wasn’t an option for Elizabeth. But that didn’t stop him from going as far as petitioning the aid of his friend, and once potential suitor for the Queen, Philip II of Spain. In 1562, Dudley asked the Spanish King for a handwritten recommendation nominating him for Elizabeth’s hand in marriage. As with all her other marriage proposals, Elizabeth stalled in giving Dudley an answer. He proposed yet again in 1565, only to be strung along once more.



Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester (c. 1560-1565).

Knowing Elizabeth would never marry him, Dudley married in secret, not once, but two times.  After being by Elizabeth’s side every day for thirteen years, their relationship was never the same after his marriages, yet they still continued to love and support one another until his death. It’s said that when she learned of Dudley’s death, she was heartbroken and locked herself in her room for several days. He had written a letter to her six days prior to his death, which Elizabeth kept in a box by her bed for the rest of her life.

Dudley’s Final Letter to Elizabeth:

I most humbly beseech your Majesty to pardon your poor old servant to be thus bold in sending to know how my gracious lady doth, and what ease of her late pain she finds, being the chiefest thing in the world I do pray for, for her to have good health and long life. For my own poor case, I continue still your medicine and find that [it] amends much better than any other thing that hath been given me. Thus hoping to find perfect cure at the bath, with the continuance of my wonted prayer for your Majesty’s most happy preservation, I humbly kiss your foot. From your old lodging at Rycote, this Thursday morning, ready to take on my Journey, by Your Majesty’s most faithful and obedient servant, 

R. Leicester

Even as I had writ thus much, I received Your Majesty’s token by Young Tracey.



“Last Letter Of Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester (c.1533-1588).”

Weir, Alison. The Life of Elizabeth I. New York: Ballantine, 1998.

Queen Elizabeth I & Mary Stuart: The Struggle Among Cousins

A Bond Through Letter-writing

While researching Elizabeth I (1533 –1603) I became intrigued by the Queen’s relationship with her cousin, Mary Stuart (1542–1587).  Also known as Mary, Queen of Scots, while she was living in Scotland, the cousins formed a bond through writing letters, but their relationship was tested once Mary arrived in England after being accused of murdering her husband in Scotland.  Many people believed Mary Stuart as the rightful heir to the English throne, including Mary herself.  Shortly after Elizabeth succeeded the throne of England in 1558, Mary made it her goal to push Elizabeth into naming her as her successor to the throne, but Elizabeth refused.  Mary also conspired to overthrow Elizabeth, yet was never successful.

Elizabeth I in coronation robes.

Elizabeth I in coronation robes.

Mary, the Murderess

Mary Stuart was full of schemes, affairs, and murder plots.  She poisoned her first husband, collaborated in the murder of her second husband, then MARRIED the murderer, who she hoped would die in battle.  It was after the accusation of murdering her husband, Lord Darnley, that Mary escaped to England.  Upon her arrival, Mary was placed and watched under guard, where she caused Elizabeth much grief for twenty years.  However, the Queen could not put Mary on trial in England for murder.  Since Mary was a foreign ruler, she was not subjected to English law.  While Elizabeth’s council did a thorough inquiry, the January 1569 decision was that there wasn’t enough evidence against Mary.

Elizabeth I’s Big Decision

Elizabeth continued to keep her cousin as a prisoner.  Rightfully so, considering Mary had Catholic support in the north and was collaborating with the devout Catholic, Philip II of Spain, to stage an invasion of England.  Elizabeth’s spies gathered evidence by having Mary’s letters intercepted.  Just when her councilors thought Elizabeth would send Mary to the execution block, the Queen stalled.  By 1584, Mary was still held prisoner, yet continued to get secret letters to Philip encouraging him to continue the plan to invade England.  Mary was finally tried in 1587 and beheaded. Elizabeth was deeply saddened by her cousin’s execution and blamed her councilors for forcing her hand in signing Mary’s death warrant.  Being a Queen who deeply cared for her subjects, Elizabeth knew that in order to keep herself and her people safe, she had to bring herself to execute her own cousin.

Mary, Queen of Scots in captivity, by Nicholas Hilliard 1578

Mary, Queen of Scots in captivity, by Nicholas Hilliard 1578

Sources:  Weir, Alison.  The Life of Elizabeth I.  New York: Ballantine, 1998.