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Great Englishwomen by  M. B. Synge


 

 

PRINCESS ELIZABETH (1596-1662)

[61]

E
LIZABETH, eldest daughter of James I., was one of the most heroic women of her time; first an English princess, then a foreign queen, and lastly almost a beggar in a strange land, she always managed to be bright, and to cheer those around her, when she could.

She was born in August, 1596, in a Scotch palace, and as she was the first daughter of the Scotch king, a regular establishment of nurses, rockers, and attendants was provided for her; she was given everything that could make her happy, supplied with costly dolls, and dressed in velvet or plush.

When Elizabeth was only seven, her godmother, the Queen of England, died, and James I., her father, went to England to be crowned king, thus uniting the two countries of Scotland and England. Elizabeth and her elder brother Henry went with their father and mother, and all were received with great joy in England. The children only stayed at court three weeks, when they were sent to an old abbey in the country with tutors and governesses. Here they were very happy; they played about the lovely grounds round the abbey, rode and hunted, breathed the free country air, and learnt their lessons in large spacious rooms. Elizabeth [62] could write very well even at seven, and whenever her brother was away, she wrote him charming little letters between lines ruled in red ink. When she was nine the Gunpowder Plot was discovered.

"I can easily enter by the gate yonder, and with the aid of a dozen men carry off the princess, while the rest catch her attendants," were words heard by the children one clay while playing near the high road. It was clear she must be taken away at once.

"No, I can never leave my dear Henry," cried the child, when told they must part, and so tightly did she cling to him, that it was with difficulty her arms were unclasped.

Soon after this a suite of rooms were fitted up for her at court, and there for a short time she enjoyed the splendours of court life. But when only fourteen, little more than a child, a husband was chosen for her from a foreign country. Frederick, the future Elector Palatine, was only sixteen himself, when he was sent for to come over to England and marry the Princess Elizabeth.

The whole family were assembled to welcome him when he arrived.

Elizabeth stood by her brother Henry on a raised platform, her eyes fixed on the ground, while Frederick with a firm step and beaming face walked up the long hall. When he reached the king and queen, Elizabeth looked up to see a dark handsome boy with a pleasant face and manly figure. He bowed very low and kissed her hand, and apologized in broken English for appearing in his travelling clothes and not in court dress.

[63] The month before her marriage her brother Henry was seized with a severe fever, and it soon became evident that he could not live. Elizabeth was in despair, she refused to obey the order not to enter the sick room of her beloved brother, and one evening she stole away from the festivities of the court, disguised herself, and hurried eagerly to him, but only to be sent back by the watchful attendants, who were more anxious for her safety than pitiful of her sisterly love. "Do not be so cruel. Take me to him, if only for a minute." There was a hungry, yearning look in her brown eyes, the tears rolled down her cheeks, and it was hard to refuse such a request. But the guards were firm.

"Oh, where is my dear sister?" were Henry's last words. This was the first great sorrow in Elizabeth's life, and the beginning of the darker days in store for her, which were to bring out all the courage of her womanly nature

On St. Valentine's Day, 1613, the wedding took place. Prince Frederick was dressed in cloth of silver embroidered with diamonds; his bride wore cloth of silver too, shining with pearls and diamonds, and her long and beautiful hair hung over her shoulders to her waist.

After a few months of English festivities the young couple made their way to their new home at Heidelberg, where they were received with great joy.

Now Frederick was, by his father's death, Elector Palatine, that is, he ruled over part of Germany under the Emperor. The Emperor had made a cousin of his King of Bohemia, but that cousin was a Roman Catholic, and the people of Bohemia did not like him, so they [64] dethroned him, and sent to Frederick to ask him to come to help them and be their king. It was a critical position for Frederick; he saw it might, and probably would, lead to war; his mother begged him to refuse, but his wife Elizabeth would not hear of such a thing. The sparkle of a crown glittered before her eyes; she trusted Frederick to keep peace and reign well over the people who had chosen him as king. "I had rather feed on a dry crust at a king's table than feed on dainties at that of an elector!" cried Elizabeth. Thirty years later she knew what it was to eat a dry crust, but not at a king's table.

So Frederick consented to become King of Bohemia, and he, Elizabeth, and their three little children left their beautiful Heidelberg home to be crowned king and queen. Great were the rejoicings; bells rang, bonfires were lit, cheers of "Long live King Frederick!" echoed through the air, while those who were near enough kissed the hem of the new queen's robes, for Elizabeth had already won their hearts; she ordered bread and wine to be given to all who came to the castle, and by her goodness and generosity won the name of "Queen of Hearts." But their position of King and Queen of Bohemia was not secure; jealousy began to show itself in the princes round them, and Frederick felt that at any moment the threatened storm might burst. He had been growing more and more unpopular, and at last war was declared.

The more critical Frederick's position, the firmer grew Elizabeth.

"I persuaded you to be crowned king, I was with you in those happy and joyous days, I will stand by you [65] in trouble," she said, and not only said, but did. She sent away her children, only keeping Prince Rupert, a baby of but a year old. The first battle was lost, and in anguish Frederick hastened to his wife, begging her to escape at once. But she would not leave him. If he would come, she would go; if not, they would stay together. His subjects begged their king to stand firm; they reminded him of his oath to guard his kingdom to the last; a raid on the enemy might yet turn the scale. But where his wife's life was in danger, Frederick refused to stay, and together they escaped from their kingdom. Still relying on help from England, they hoped on, and Frederick again joined the army. Leaving behind her a baby of a month old and her other children, Elizabeth again followed her husband, knowing that she alone could cheer him and keep up his spirits. Once more she travelled through parts of the country where, only six years ago, she had been welcomed as a happy bride; now she wandered an outcast and an exile, with but the empty title of queen to make up for the loss of a home, country, friends. When Heidelberg, their lovely home, fell into the hands of the enemy, Elizabeth cried piteously,

"My poor Heidelberg taken! Oh! God visits us very severely; the misery of these poor people distresses me sadly!"

Still the war, known as the Thirty Years' War, went on, and Frederick was often away for many months together.

In 1629, a terrible grief befell Elizabeth in the death of her eldest son Henry. He was in a yacht with his father one day, when a large vessel bore down upon [66] them, and struck them; the yacht filled with water, and in a moment sank. All on board perished save King Frederick.

"Save me, father, save me!" was the drowning cry of the boy, but all efforts to save him were in vain, and the distracted father had but to go back, and break the news to his wife. The mother's grief was so violent, that she became very ill, but when she found how heart broken Frederick was with the thought that he was saved and his boy drowned, she roused herself to comfort him.

Things were looking brighter; a new hero had come to the aid of the unhappy king, when his troubled life was suddenly ended. A bad fever set in, and as he was weak and anxious it took deadly hold on him. His last effort was a letter to his wife. "Can I but live to see you once again, I shall die content," he wrote—but they did not meet.

The blow fell heavily on Elizabeth; for three days she neither ate, drank, slept, nor shed a single tear. She could hardly realize that all hope of regaining the kingdom was gone, and that he whom she had loved so devotedly through the twenty years of her married life was dead. Her comfort was in her children; her second son Rupert was specially dear to her. While still a boy, the future hero of Edgehill and Marston Moor distinguished himself by fighting to get back his father's rights; a wild, reckless youth, he was taken prisoner fighting for his father's cause rather than give up, or flee, as his elder brother had done. When in prison he managed to scribble a few words of comfort to his mother, assuring her he was well, [67] and would come back to her as soon as he was released.

When the sudden news arrived that Elizabeth's brother Charles had been executed, and Cromwell made Protector of the kingdom, Prince Rupert, the daring royalist, was one of the first to offer himself to the future Charles II. to help to regain the kingdom.

Meanwhile, Elizabeth was almost penniless. "Next week I shall have no meat to eat, and this week, if there be no money found, I shall have neither meat, nor bread, nor candles," she wrote piteously to her son Charles. Rupert would have given her his last crust, but Charles, Elector Palatine, refused to supply her wants.

At last the exiled queen made up her mind to return to England, and end her days in the land of her childhood.

Sophia, her youngest child, was married, and lived with her husband, the Prince of Hanover, in his own country. She was a beautiful and clever woman, and constantly went back to see her mother, and cheer her solitude. Sophia's son was George I. of England, from whom is descended Queen Victoria. She and Prince Rupert came to bid farewell to their mother before she left their land for ever.

What a different return to England; no crowds lined the coast, no shouts resounded from the citizens as on her departure, forty years before, as a happy young bride. When the widowed queen stepped on English soil, her heart revived. She had lived to see Charles II., her nephew, restored to the throne of England—her son restored to the Palatinate. Craven, [68] her faithful friend, took her to his home, but she did not live long. The passionate love of her son Rupert, the wild and daring royalist, comforted her to the end, and "Prince Rupert of the Rhine" was the only one of her many children who followed her to the grave. She was buried by night at Westminster. While the long torchlight procession moved up the Abbey, a fierce gale raged; some thought it was a foreboding of future troubles to England; some thought it was like the troubled life of the Bohemian Queen; the faithful Craven bowed his head, and thanked God that his lady was beyond the wild storms of the world.


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