The BBC replaced normal programming with continuous news coverage. And as soon as the announcement of the Queen’s death was posted on the Buckingham Palace gates, just before 6.30pm, news presenters interrupted programs at all levels to inform the public. News, after all, is at your fingertips 24/7.
By contrast, when Queen Elizabeth I died at Richmond Palace, near London, on March 24, 1603, news did not reach Berwick-upon-Tweed in Northumberland, some 550 km away, until two days later. The proclamation who brought the news of his death and of the accession of James I took almost two weeks to reach Ireland.
In the days before mass media and high levels of literacy, news traveled slowly. Like our press today, however, the early communication tools for this type of momentous event followed the same delicate path of celebrating the reign of the late Queen, mourning her passing and announcing the arrival of the new king. Finding the right tone to reflect the nation’s grief and commemorate a distinguished life has always been crucial.
How news spread in the 17th century
On the death of Elizabeth I in 1603, James VI of Scotland became James I King of England and Ireland as well. We know that many people across England, Wales and Ireland learned about it through proclamations, songs and other forms of oral communication.
Research shows that even brochures were often designed to be read aloud, for example, using punctuation to tell readers when to pause or breathe. They recognized that printed texts were shared socially among groups of family and friends.
These articles could be described as the social media of their time. Simple, popular songs known as ballads could be composed and printed in days. They were easy to distribute and inexpensive to purchase. They relied primarily on face-to-face communication and public performance.
Drum and trumpet bands of the kind that preceded the main proclamation of King Charles III at St James Court on 10 September 2022 have also often been used to draw people’s attention to proclamations which have been heard in Tudor and Stuart Markets.
Ballads were also ideal for spreading this type of news and information. Like proclamations, they were performed in markets, but they could also be heard at fairs and in taverns – wherever an audience 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, including rhyme, rhythm and repetition. The chorus of a ballad on the death of Elizabeth I, titled A mournful song, combining repetition, alliteration and rhyme with a melody. It has been perfectly designed for singers to join in:
Lament, lament, lament you English peers, Lament your loss possessed for so many years.
A dual focus
These days, of course, it would be rare to learn a major news event from a song. But the lyrics of this ballad show how the fundamental issues facing the media today at the death of a ruler were the same 400 years ago.
The immediate focus is on mourning. For there to be mourning, there must also be the feeling that something dear has been lost. So, while celebrating the peace and stability of her impressive 44-year reign, the ditty praised Elizabeth I as “the paragon of time” and urged its listeners to:
Weep, wring your hands, all dressed in mourning
But the death of a monarch marks the advent of another. And the focus of the cheapest print – the ballads – quickly shifted to the new monarch. It’s probably because James I faced a problem that Charles III didn’t. Unlike Charles III – who is a familiar figure from his many years as heir apparent – James was, to the English, Welsh and Irish, the king of a foreign state. What’s more, Elizabeth I had refused to name him as her successor. There were a number of rival claims to his throne.
Several ballads combined the mourning of the queen and the introduction of the Scottish king to his new subjects. They highlighted the continuities, including James’ English ancestry as great-great-grandson of Henry VII.
Pamphlets described his journey from Edinburgh and the ceremonial entrance to london in detail. One song even went so far as to falsely claim that Elizabeth I had “assigned her entire estate to our Noble King James”. Presumably, this was part of a narrative that facilitated his accession by establishing him as the rightful heir to the throne.
A printed sheet, cry of joy, describes Elizabeth as an example of piety, humility and mercy whose loss is to be mourned. He also noted that James’ joining 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 columnist noted that the proclamation was heard with “silent joy”, although it was partly thanks to the relief that James had succeeded peacefully.
This story of continuity can now be read in the way Charles III speeches and statements draw on his mother’s reputation. Although a succession crisis was never contemplated, his accession was met with concern by some. Perhaps even in the 21st century, the dual focus of news is helping to strengthen the bond between the new monarch and the old, smoothing the transition of power while creating tension for the media.