Queen Mary I died on 17th November 1558 at the age of 42. Her reputation as “Bloody Mary” was well deserved, following her determination, throughout her 5-year reign, to rid the country of Protestants and return England to what she saw as the true Church, namely the Roman Catholic one.
Her funeral in Westminster Abbey was both a first and a last. It was the first royal funeral for a Queen, as opposed to a King, and the last for a Catholic monarch. The authorities did not have a rule-book for interring a Queen, so her coffin was preceded up the nave by a carried helmet, sword and body-armour. The service was celebrated in Latin, as were all Roman Catholic religious ceremonies then and for centuries to come.
Catholic priests were used to preaching to congregations who did not understand a word of what they were saying, but that did not apply in this case to Mary’s half-sister, who was now the new Queen. Elizabeth spoke Latin as well as she did English, despite having brought up as a Protestant.
So Bishop John White’s funeral sermon did not slip under the radar as he might have hoped. His words, in Latin, included the somewhat tactless:
“Our late sovereign hath left a sister, a lady of great worth, behind her, whom we are bound to obey, for a living dog is better than a dead lion”.
Elizabeth’s anger at being called a dog was not only fully understandable but immediate. She ordered Bishop White to be arrested the moment he stepped down from the pulpit.
The scene that followed was not one that would have been expected at a solemn occasion like a royal funeral. The Bishop responded by threatening to excommunicate Queen Elizabeth, thus – in the eyes of everyone present – condemning her to Hell when she died. However, Elizabeth possessed considerably more tact and commonsense than either the Bishop or her late sister and realized that stirring up even more religious hatred at such an early stage of her reign would not be a good idea. She therefore backed down and pardoned Bishop White.
Elizabeth would not have to wait long before getting even with Bishop White. He was deprived of his see (that of Winchester) a few months later and replaced by the ultra-Protestant Robert Horne, who had fled to Europe during Mary’s reign and thus avoided being one of her victims. Ex-Bishop White was imprisoned and died early the following year.
Elizabeth would also “overcome” Mary in a different way when her own funeral was held 45 years later. Her lead coffin was buried in the same vault as Mary’s, but instead of the two coffins being placed side by side, Elizabeth’s was deposited right on top of Mary’s.© John Welford