The Cambridge Connections

Posted By on June 15, 2010

Matthew Parker

Back at the beginning of May, I wrote an article entitled “The Fall of Anne Boleyn” where I mentioned the fact that Anne Boleyn asked her chaplain, Matthew Parker, on the 26th April 1536 to ensure that her daughter, the future Elizabeth I, was looked after if anything happened to Anne. This request is important in three ways:-

  • It shows that Anne was aware that her future was precarious and that something might happen to her
  • It shows how much Anne cared for her daughter
  • It shows Anne’s wisdom and the potential she saw in her small daughter – By entrusting Elizabeth’s care to Parker, a member of a group of wise Cambridge men, she was ensuring that Elizabeth would have the connections she needed to become a formidable woman and queen.

In the following article, Robert Parry, author of one of my favourite novels, “Virgin and the Crab”, explains the importance of one of Anne’s final acts and the connection between Anne Boleyn and Elizabeth I, which is deeper than simple genetics…

Thank you Claire for inviting me to write a few words on the Cambridge connections that helped to shape Elizabeth’s formative years, connections which I believe can also provide us with an attractive picture of continuity and shared purpose between Elizabeth as Queen and the life of her mother Anne Boleyn.

It’s easy to think of the two most prominent females of Tudor history, Elizabeth and Anne Boleyn, as being distinct and separate entities – and even today people are sometimes surprised to discover that Elizabeth was Anne Boleyn’s daughter. No doubt this is because we have so very few records of the two ever having been together, with Anne executed when Elizabeth was not even three years old. During her lifetime, moreover, Elizabeth made scant references to her mother, preferring – perhaps quite cleverly – to associate herself as being more her father’s daughter, in other words the daughter of a powerful king rather than of someone who ended her days under a cloud of dubious charges of adultery and treason. The connections are there, however, if we care to look a little deeper at the academic background of those who guided and educated Elizabeth during her childhood – connections that served her equally as effectively later on during her long and successful reign. The ones dealt with in this article can be summed up in one word: ‘Cambridge.’

For those who don’t live in Britain, a word of explanation might be in order about Cambridge. It is an old university town in the East of England and has been a major seat of learning for centuries. Rather like the friendly rivalry between Harvard and Yale universities in the US, in England we have had (since as far back as at least the 13th century) the two big universities of Oxford and Cambridge. Cambridge has been associated with many radical and influential thinkers over the years, including Erasmus, Francis Bacon, John Dee, Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin right up to our present day Stephen Hawkin. As many as 9 Poet Laureates and 15 British Prime Ministers have been graduates of Cambridge. It is also a place that became synonymous with radicalism during the cold war period of the 20th century when it was revealed that a network of Russian spies and double agents, including the infamous Philby, Burgess and Mclean had flourished there. It has, arguably, always been rather a hot-bed of intrigue and alternative thinking, therefore. And of course, during the 16th century there was not much that could be viewed as more ‘alternative’ than Protestantism.

Anne Boleyn was an early champion of the reformed religion, as has been made clear often in many of Claire’s excellent and revealing articles on The Anne Boleyn Files. When Anne believed she was about to be arrested and that possibly her days were numbered she placed her baby Elizabeth’s spiritual destiny into the hands of her then chaplain Matthew Parker (1504–1575). When in 1559 Elizabeth was finally crowned Queen, she eventually chose Parker to become her first Archbishop of Canterbury – the most senior post in the Anglican Church still to this day.

Matthew Parker was a Cambridge educated man. Born in 1504, he graduated BA in 1525 and thereafter continued what was to become a life-long association with the University. In 1544, on Henry VIII’s recommendation, he was elected master of Corpus Christi College and became vice-chancellor of the university itself in 1545. Parker was one of the primary architects of the emerging Anglican Doctrine that shaped the English Reformation and after the death of Henry VIII, he continued to rise to prominence under the reforming governments of Edward VI and was a close associate of the two most powerful statesmen of Edwards reign – Edward Seymour and John Dudley. He would have been intimately associated, therefore, with the influential Humanist movement of the first part of the 16th century that was centred on Cambridge and consisted of scholars such as John Cheke (1514–1557), William Grindal (d. 1548), Anthony Cooke (1504-1576); Roger Ascham (1515–1568), John Dee (1527–1608/9) and, perhaps most significantly of all, William Cecil (1520–1598).

The importance of Elizabeth’s Secretary of State William Cecil and, later, his son Robert during the reign of Elizabeth is well-documented and cannot really ever be overstated. In many respects he was the ‘prime minister’ of his times, and was involved in every important decision and political move that took place within the governing Privy Council. He was on intimate terms with everyone of importance, from Robert Dudley to Walter Raleigh, from Francis Walsingham to the Earl of Essex.

Archbishop Parker and William Cecil were life-long friends (though Cecil was younger). When Anne entrusted her daughter’s welfare and intellectual destiny to Parker, therefore, she was at the same time aligning herself with the very people who seem to have guided and protected Elizabeth during her most difficult days – during the dangerous and turbulent decade preceding her coronation, for example.

The Cambridge set associated with Cecil and Parker included three of Elizabeth’s earliest tutors, namely William Grindal, John Cheke and Roger Ascham, and also quite possibly a fourth, John Dee – educated in Greek, mathematics and astronomy at St. John’s, Cambridge and who is believed to have taught Edward VI and Robert Dudley. He was one of the most important players during the early years of Elizabeth’s reign and is famous for setting the date of her coronation according to astrological principles. Dee later became the architect of the burgeoning overseas Empire (he was the first to coin the term ‘British Empire’) and advised just about every one of the great Elizabethan seafarers and explorers on matters of navigation and geography. He was also associated with ideas and movements that strove towards reform and an enlightened, humanist approach towards seeking harmony between all religious persuasions. Numbered among his friends and colleagues were Cecil, Cheke and Ascham.

The children of Henry VIII (those born in wedlock, that is, and who each became a reigning monarch in their own time) tended to be taught by the Cambridge set, and in particular, in the case of Edward and Elizabeth, by those of a more reformed, humanist or protestant leaning. The Cambridge men would also be employed as tutors to children of the various noble families, ambassadors and privy councillors who were resident at court. Robert Dudley and Jane Grey, for example, were taught by the very same people who tutored Princess Elizabeth and the young King Edward. In the company of the two most important and influential women in the young Elizabeth’s life, namely Kat Ashley and Blanche Parry, these ‘gentlemen schoolmasters’ included Grindal, Cooke, Ascham, Cheke and (probably) John Dee at various times – all associates or friends of William Cecil and/or Matthew Parker. So the connections are plentiful and their significance impossible to ignore. There was almost certainly a common purpose and aim behind their work, and Elizabeth came to embody their aims and intellectual ambitions. This was the case even before she became Queen. It was apparently a jest at the time that Hatfield (her home as a young woman) was really an outpost of Cambridge University.

Sometimes it is not sufficiently appreciated in some quarters the extent of Elizabeth’s intellectual achievements and skills. She was not only accomplished in the sciences of mathematics, geography and astronomy – able to converse at the highest levels on these subjects with the scholars of the times – but was also fluent in six languages (French, Spanish, Italian, Latin, German and Greek, and even a little Welsh and Portuguese). Her capabilities as a writer of letters and poetry were considerable, and she was also a gifted musician, able to perform well on both the lute and virginals (an early form of keyboard instrument). She enjoyed and promoted drama at court and, even during the time of the Armada and the various plots against her at home, she was broad-minded and tolerant enough to allow herself to be a devotee and supporter of Catholic composers such as William Byrd – whom she encouraged and protected despite his religious persuasion. She was fascinated and curious about astronomy and alchemy, medicine and geometry. Yet for all her intellectual brilliance and devotion to lofty thoughts, the ring she wore to her dying day contained, when opened, miniature portraits of herself and her mother side by side. That was important to her, and there is surely good reason for it.

All of this tends to suggest that an ambitious reformist undercurrent was established early on in the Tudor era, and that Elizabeth’s mother, Queen Anne, would have been well-aware of it when she entrusted her child into the care of one of its leading lights. It is also, therefore, surely no exaggeration to say that the Elizabethan age (still known fondly as England’s golden age), was likely constructed upon the very same principles that people like Parker and Cecil embodied. Certainly, the statement made at the beginning of Elizabeth’s reign that she had no wish to open windows into men’s souls is a very good example of humanist ideals in practice. Yes, it had its darker side, the Elizabethan era, and it had its fair share of brutality – at a time and in an age when darkness and brutality were common place – but it also prized human dignity and the power of the intellect. It had a wonderful mood of optimism, a sense of adventure and artistic purpose, a striving towards excellence and a bold, swaggering kind of self-confidence that we can only envy and wonder at today.

I hope this article has demonstrated that Anne and Elizabeth might have been linked not just in their shared DNA but also in ways which run far deeper than is generally assumed and which were based on the highest human ideals. It certainly is an attractive thought to entertain.

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