How the news of Elizabeth I’s death in the 17th century was communicated in ballads and proclamations

When Queen Elizabeth II died on September 8, 2022, there couldn’t have been many people in the UK who wouldn’t have heard of it within hours of her death. The media was on high alert from around noon when an announcement from Buckingham Palace made it clear that the monarch’s health was in danger.

The BBC replaced normal programming with rolling coverage. And once the announcement of the Queen’s death was posted on the gates of Buckingham Palace, just before 6:30 p.m., news anchors interrupted programs across the board to inform the public. After all, the news is at your fingertips 24/7.

By contrast, when Queen Elizabeth I died at Richmond Palace, near London, on March 24, 1603, the news came two days later at Berwick-upon-Tweed in Northumberland, about 350 miles away. The proclamation bringing news of her death and of James I’s accession took nearly two weeks to reach Ireland.

In the days before the mass media and high levels of literacy, the news traveled slowly. However, like our current press, early instruments for communicating these kinds of momentous events walked the same tricky path of celebrating the reign of the late queen, mourning her passing, and announcing the arrival of the new king. It has always been crucial to strike the right note to reflect the nation’s grief and commemorate a great life.

A white poster in a wooden frame attached to metal gates with bunches of flowers.
The official message on the gates of Buckingham Palace announcing the death of Queen Elizabeth II.
Matt Crossick | alamy

How news spread in the 17th century

When Elizabeth I died in 1603, James VI of Scotland also became James I, King of England and Ireland. We know that many people in England, Wales and Ireland learned this through proclamations, songs and other forms of oral communication.

Research shows that even pamphlets are often designed to be read aloud, for example by using punctuation marks to tell readers when to pause or breathe. They recognized that printed texts were shared socially among groups of family and friends.

A painted portrait of a young queen wearing a crown and an ermine-trimmed cape over a gold dress.
A 17th-century copy of a 16th-century portrait of Elizabeth I by an unknown author.
Wikimedia Commons

These items can be described as the social media of their time. The simple, popular songs known as ballads could be composed and printed within days. They were easy to distribute and cheap to buy. Above all, they were based on personal communication and public performance.

Fanfares of drums and trumpets of the sort that preceded King Charles III’s main proclamation at St James Court on 10 September 2022 were also often used to draw people’s attention to the proclamations heard at the Tudor and Stuart markets.

Ballads were also ideal for spreading this kind of news and information. Like proclamations, they were performed in marketplaces, but they could also be heard at fairgrounds and taverns—anywhere the public could gather. Although the lyrics were often printed, they mostly spread through word of mouth. And they deliberately used techniques that made them easy to remember, such as rhyme, rhythm, and repetition.

The chorus of a ballad about the death of Elizabeth I called A Mournful Ditty combined repetition, alliteration and rhyme with a melody. It was perfectly made for singers to join:

Lament, lament, lament your English colleagues, lament your loss that you have had for so many years.

A double focus

These days, of course, it would be rare to hear about a major news event through a song. But the text of that ballad shows how the fundamental problems facing the media today at the death of a sovereign 400 years ago were the same.

The direct focus is on grief. In order to grieve, there must also be a sense that something cherished has been lost. So even while celebrating the peace and stability of her impressive 44-year reign, the song praised Elizabeth I as “the epitome of the times” and urged its listeners to:

Cry, wring your hands, all dressed in mourning

But the death of one monarch marks the accession of another. And the focus of the cheapest print — ballads — soon shifted to the new monarch. This is probably because James I faced a problem that Charles III does not have.

A historically painted portrait of a king wearing jewels.
Portrait of James I of England with the jewel called the Three Brothers in his hat, c. 1605, by John de Critz.
Wikimedia Commons

Unlike Charles III – a well-known figure from his many years as heir to the throne – James was the king of a foreign state to the English, Welsh and Irish. In addition, Elizabeth I had refused to name him as her successor. There were a number of rival claims to her throne.

Several ballads combined mourning the Queen’s death with introducing the Scottish king to his new subjects. They emphasized continuities, including James’ English ancestry as the great-great-grandson of Henry VII.

Pamphlets described his journey from Edinburgh and the ceremonial entry into London in detail. One song went so far as to falsely claim that Elizabeth I had “assigned all her state to our noble King James”. Supposedly, this was part of a story that eased his accession by appointing him as the rightful heir to the throne.

A printed sheet, Weep with Joy, described Elizabeth as an example of piety, humility and mercy whose loss should be mourned. It also noted that James’s entry was cause for celebration. His proclamation, the pamphlet says, was “read and received with great applause from the people”.

How true this was is debatable. A diarist noted that the proclamation was heard with “quiet joy”, although this was in part due to the relief that James had passed peacefully.

This story of continuity can now be seen in the way Charles III’s speeches and sayings draw on his mother’s reputation. While there was never a succession crisis, his accession was greeted with doubts by some. Perhaps even in the 21st century, the dual focus of news helps to strengthen the bond between the new monarch and the old, smoothing the transfer of power even as it creates tensions for the media.

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