Elizabeth confronted with Wyat in the Torture-Chamber — George Cruikshank. Final, double-number, December 1840. Eighty-seventh illustration in William Harrison Ainsworth's The Tower of London. A Historical Romance. Illustration for Book the Second, Chapter XXXIV. 10.3 cm high x 14.3 wide, framed, facing p. 361: running head, "Elizabeth Confronted with Wyat." Elizabeth, fighting for her life, must counter accusations of her having supported and even instigated Sir Thomas Wyat's rebellion; Cruikshank describes her not merely as authoritative, but heroic. [Click on the image to enlarge it.]

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Passage Illustrated

Placed on the corner of a leathern couch, and supported by Wolfytt and Sorrocold, the latter of whom bathed his temples with some restorative, Wyat fixed his heavy eyes upon the princess. But her attention was speedily diverted from him to another person, whose presence checked her feelings. This was the queen, who stood on one side, with Gardiner and Renard. Opposite them was Courtenay, with his arms folded upon his breast. The latter looked up as Elizabeth entered the chamber; and after gazing at her for a moment, turned his regards, with an irrepressible shudder, to Wyat. Knowing that her safety depended upon her firmness, though her heart bled for the tortured man, Elizabeth disguised all appearance of compassion, and throwing herself at the queen's feet, cried, "Heaven bless your highness, for granting me this interview! I can now prove my innocence."

"In what way?" demanded Mary coldly. "It would indeed rejoice me to find I have been deceived. But I cannot shut my ears to the truth. Yon traitor," she continued, pointing to Wyat, "who dared to rise in arms against his sovereign, distinctly charges you with participation in his rebellious designs. I have his confession, taken from his own lips, and signed with his own hand, wherein he affirms, by his hopes of mercy from the Supreme Judge before whom he will shortly appear to answer for his offences, that you encouraged his plans for my dethronement, and sought to win the crown for yourself, in order to bestow it with your hand upon your lover, Courtenay.”

"It is false," cried Elizabeth; — "false as the caitiff who invented it — false as the mischievous councillor who stands beside you, and who trusts to work my ruin,—but, by our father's soul it shall go hard if I do not requite him! Your majesty has not a more loyal subject than myself, nor has any of your subjects a more loving sister. This wretched Wyat, whose condition would move my pity were he not so heinous a traitor, may have written to me, but, on my faith, I have never received his letters."

"Lord Russell's son declares that he delivered them into your own hands," observed Mary.

"Another he, as false as the first," replied Elizabeth. "It is a plot, your highness — a contrivance of my enemy, Simon Renard. Where is Lord Russell's son? Why is he not here?"

"You shall see him anon, since you desire it," replied Mary. "Like yourself, he is a prisoner in the Tower. But these assertions do not clear you."

"Your highness says you have Wyat's confession," rejoined Elizabeth. "What faith is to be attached to it? It has been wrung from him by the severity of the torture to which he has been subjected. Look at his shattered frame, and say whether it is not likely he would purchase relief from such suffering as he must have endured at any cost. The sworn tormentors are here. Let them declare how often they have stretched him on the rack — how often applied the thumbscrew, — how often delivered him to the deadly embraces of the scavenger's daughter, before this false charge was wrung from him. Speak, fellows! how often have you racked him?"

But the tormentors did not dare to reply. A stifled groan broke from Wyat, and a sharp convulsion passed over his frame.

"The question has only extorted the truth," observed Mary.

"If the accusation so obtained be availing, the retraction must be equally so," replied Elizabeth. "Sir Thomas Wyat," she exclaimed, in aloud and authoritative tone, and stepping towards him, "if you would not render your name for ever infamous, you will declare my innocence." [Book Two, Chapter XXXIIV. — "How the Princess Elizabeth was Confronted with Sir Thomas Wyat in the Torture-Chamber," pp. 360-61]


Ainsworth has already revealed Elizabeth's extreme anxiety as to how she can convince Mary of her innocence of the charge of treason. Incarcerated without attendants in the cramped quarters of the Bell Tower, Elizabeth has been worried that the Council may not even permit her to have a hearing with her half-sister, but may condemn her on the flimsy evidence derived from torturing Wyat and the son of Lord Russell. Prior to the reader's encountering the illustration in which Elizabeth takes charge of the interrogation of Sir Thomas Wyat in the torture-chamber, the reader knows that she has struggled with depression resulting from the apparent hopelessness of her position and Renard's determination to have her executed with Wyat. When an outwardly self-confident Elizabeth receives the opportunity for which she has been hoping, an interview with Mary in the presence of Wyat and Courtenay, she makes the most of the situation in order to demonstrate her innocence. Indeed, in the Cruikshank illustration Elizabeth rather than Mary appears to be in charge. In particular, she appeals to Wyat's sense of honour to elicit a complete retraction of his previous testimony (extracted under torture) that Elizabeth had colluded with him in the recent insurrection because she intended to replace Mary on the throne. Since he would likely die if racked a third time, Elizabeth cleverly argues, he has nothing to fear since Mary naturally wishes to have him healthy enough for a public execution. Elizabeth's strategy involves going on the offensive against Simon Renard, whom Wyat has the courage to denounce as falsely holding out the possibility of a pardon if he will implicate Elizabeth in the plot. Having succeeded thus far, Elizabeth must now compel her other accuser, Lord Russell's son, who has testified that Elizabeth corresponded with the rebel reader, rather than merely received letters to which she did not reply.

In the Cruikshank illustration, an emaciated Wyat, a shadow of his former self, is propped up on a chair (as opposed to a leather couch in the text) and attended by the prison surgeon, Sorrocold (right) and the jailor's assistant, Wolfytt (behind him). Although Ainsworth does not explain why Courtenay, arms crossed, is positioned to the far left, but Cruikshank has let the text be his guide, placing Nightgall well in the back. Elizabeth, with a reproving gesture, rather Mary commands centre stage. The Queen (identified by her position and her richly embroidered dress), Bishop Gardiner, and ambassador Renard are to the right. Renard, hand to chin, looks apprehensive, as if worried that Mary will accept both Wyat's recantation and his accusation of the Spanish ambassador as the originator of the false testimony against Elizabeth.

When Sir Thomas Wyat, whom Mary Tudor had condemned to a traitor's death, went to the scaffold on 11 April 1554, he used his farewell speech to exonerate the Princess Elizabeth of any involvement in the recent plot: "And whereas it is said and whistled abroad that I should accuse my lady Elizabeth’s grace and my lord Courtenay; it is not so, good people. For I assure you neither they nor any other now in yonder hold or durance was privy of my rising or commotion before I began. As I have declared no less to the queen's council. And this is most true."​ His death was even more grisly than Ainsworth's and Cruikshank's descriptions: Wyatt's head was severed, his body was quartered and his bowels and genitals burned. His head and body quarters were parboiled and nailed up. His head was placed on a post —​and later stolen.​Vindictive despite Wyat's nobility of character, Queen Mary confiscated his estates and titles, causing severe hardship for his widow and children.

Earlier illustrations of the Princess Elizabeth

Left: The steel-engraving which shows Mary chastizing her lover Courtenay for romancing the her half-sister after Mary and Renard have overheard their​conversation in Mary surprising Courtenay and the Princess Elizabeth (July 1840). Right: The steel engraving in which the Lord Lieutenant conducts the Protestant Princess through Traitor's Gate, Elizabeth brought a prisoner to the Tower (November 1840). [Click on images to enlarge them.]

Cruikshank shows a certain degree of character development in his presentations of the adolescent Elizabeth, contrasting her sharply with the acquiescent, highly moral Jane and the testy, sometimes vindictive and always proud Mary. Elizabeth in these three illustrations is already a shrewd strategist and every inch a Queen of England, developing from the young woman enamoured of the handsome Courtney, through the Protestant claimant to the throne escorted under guard to the Tower after Wyat's insurrection, to the rhetorical tactician interrogating Wyat in the torture-chamber in hopes of exonerating herself of the treason charge by compelling him to recant his testimony against her. Cruikshank implies in these images of Gloriana that the strongest weapon is a shrewd combined with a strong argument.

Blanchard Jerrold on these Rembrandt-like scenes

Blanchard Jerrold, Cruikshank's first biographer, recalls the relationship of the illustrator and Ainsworth during their collaboration, and extols Cruikshank's historical canvasses in The Tower of London:

On the retirement of Ainsworth from Bentley's Miscellany, business relations were resumed between himself and the artist; and Cruikshank was advertised as illustrator of Ainsworth's Magazine. And at this point Cruikshank passed from his humorous to his more ambitious and higher phase.

The Tower of London appears to have made a strong effect on Cruikshank's mind. In the Omnibus​he drew some curious bits of observation of the wreck of that part of the Tower which the fire had attacked, and in his illustrations to Ainsworth's story he manifested a desire to express the historical power as an artist that was in him. He composed pictures free from exaggeration, and grand and impressive both in conception and treatment. Having substituted steel plates for copper, he felt that he was upon more lasting work, and he laboured hard to produce pictures of the highest finish. He was right: some of the finest work he has left lies between Ainsworth's pages, and indicates a range of power in the artist which he was never destined to prove fully. The fates had been against him in early life; and he was, although even much later he could not bring his eager and intrepid mind to admit it, too old to take his seat in an academy, and get through the drudgery, without which not even the most bountifully gifted artist can do himself justice. In these Rembrandt-like scenes in the Tower, he taught the world that his idea that he was a great historical painter who had lost his way, was no wild and vain fancy.​[Blanchard Jerrold, Chapter 9, "Illustrations to Harrison Ainsworth's Romances"]


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Last modified 31 October 2017