The earliest song in praise of Queen Elizabeth I is not a madrigal, lute song, consort song or anthem – the genres most widely associated with her reign – but a modest broadside ballad by one William Birche. His A Songe Betweene the Quenes Maiestie and England (now in the library of the Society of Antiquaries) is a charming love song between Bessy (Elizabeth) and her realm. The surviving copy was published in 1564, but it this was probably a reprinting on an earlier version published in 1558-9, shortly after her Coronation. As a broadside ballad it would have circulated widely. Printed on a single sheet it would have been sold cheaply and could also have been learnt orally through hearing the ballad seller singing his wares or his customers enjoying their purchases. Ballads were found pasted up in alehouses and private homes, and were enjoyed by nobility and poor husbandmen alike. 
Birche adapted a popular song melody, ‘Come over the born, Bessy’, which refers to one of two similar tunes: either ‘Ouer the Broome Bessy’ or a minor mode variant, ‘Brown Bessy, Sweet Bessy, Come Over to Me’ : Musical setting of A Songe Betweene the Queenes Maiestie and England
As early as her coronation day, Elizabeth’s reputation as a monarch who loved and was loved by her people was being forged. Richard Mulcaster described London during her pre-Coronation procession as ‘a stage wherein was showed the wonderful spectacle, of a noble hearted princess toward her most loving people’ (The Passage of Our Most Drad Soueraigne, 1559). Birche’s song too emphasises the intimate bond between Queen and kingdom. In the first verse tells how Elizabeth was supposedly called by England to be Queen, and then England asks Bessy to give her hand in marriage:
I am thy lover fair
hath chose thee to mine heir
and my name is Merry England
Therefore come away
and make no more delay
Sweet Bessy give me thy hand
Here is my hand
My dear lover England
I am thine both with mind and heart
for ever to endure
thou mayest be sure
Until death us two depart.
With the character of Merry England, Birche looks ahead to a new golden age of English prosperity. Yet the ballad presents a complex and paradoxical set of relationships between Bessy and England: she is England’s ‘dear lady’, lover, wife and heir.
Elizabeth’s role as lover and ‘dear lady’ suggests the same true affection between kingdom and monarch evoked by Mulcaster. This is followed by the bond of marriage, suggesting the official coronation ceremony that has bound monarch and country and in which the monarch also received a ring. This metaphor of a monarch marrying their kingdom dated back to at least 1300, and had been employed by Elizabeth herself in her speech to Parliament in 1559 . Finally her representation as heir underlines her legitimate claim to the throne. The emphasis on her Englishness both distanced her from her sister, Mary I, who was popularly perceived as Spanish (because of her Spanish mother and marriage to Philip II), and also used her subjects’ sense of national identity to encourage a bond of loyalty with their new queen.
The ballad also recognises that Elizabeth has not always been treated with such affection and it stages a scene of forgiveness and reconciliation. Bessy describes her imprisonment during in the Tower and at Woodstock during Mary’s reign. England makes its excuses for her treatment (tyrants and fear), painting a picture of a country that had lamented the reign of Mary and waited eagerly for Elizabeth’s Accession. Expressing disbelief at her treatment, England confirms her legitimacy: surely these enemies were mad men who did not know she was daughter of Henry, princess by birth and sister to Mary? Bessy responds by graciously offering her forgiveness to all those who amend their ways. Her quasi-religious persona becomes increasingly explicit until the final verses hail her as ‘sweet virgin pure’ and ‘handmaid of the Lord’. Elizabeth/Bessy becomes a second Virgin Mary. The image presents her piety, purity and divine appointment as the crowning arguments for her authority. The charmingly informal image of two lovers has formalised into one of Queen and Kingdom, with the monarch bidding the realm to be obedient and the subjects praying for her long reign. They end united in praise and prayer to God:
All honour, laud and praise
be to the Lord God always
Who has all princes’ hearts in his hands
That by his power and might
he may give them a right
For the wealth of all Christian lands.
What does this song represent? Was this official propaganda instructed by Elizabeth or a member of her government in a format that could carry across the country as both printed broadside and orally-circulated song? Or was Birche’s song an enthusiastic outpouring from an enthusiastic Protestant thrilled to be rid of the Catholic Mary and hoping to gain some early favour with the new Queen?
Birche’s Protestantism is evident from his other godly ballads: A warnyng to England, let London begin:To repent their iniquitie, & flie from their sin (1565?) ending with a prayer for Elizabeth; The complaint of a sinner, vexed with paine (1563?); and A free admonition without any fees/To warne the Papistes to beware of three trees (1571) which ends with a resolute ‘God save our Queene Elizabeth.’ Or are we perhaps in danger of being taken in by the very rhetoric of mutual love Birche’s song pours forth? One can hardly imagine Birche being allowed to print (and reprint) a song that goes as far as putting words in the Queen’s mouth if it did not at least have royal approval.
Yet if it was officially instigated by Elizabeth’s government, it was not a strategy that Elizabeth was quick to repeat. Not until 1577-8 were official broadside songs of praise produced, this time by royal printer Christopher Barker to commemorate her Accession Day on 17 November. These, however, were sung prayers and thanksgivings of a more sober nature than Birche’s charming dialogue.
Whether officially instigated or merely royally approved, Birche’s ballad certainly started the process of constructing and disseminating across the kingdom aspects of the royal image that were to become characteristic of her reign: Elizabeth’s status as one divinely appointed by God and under his direct protection, and the ideal of a mutual affection between the Queen and her subjects.
1. Christopher Marsh, Music and Society in Early Modern England (Cambridge, 2010), chap.5 and Tessa Watt, Cheap Print and Popular Piety (Cambridge, 1991), chap.1
2. Frederick Sternfeld, Music in Shakespearean Tragedy (London, 1963), 180-88
3. William Camden, Annales, The True and Royall History of the Famous Empresse Elizabeth. Queene of England (London, 1625), p.28; Judith Richards, ‘Mary Tudor as “Sole Quene”?: Gendering Tudor Monarchy,’ The Historical Journal 40 (1997): 895-924 (p.912).