Elizabeth I (1533-1603) was queen of England and Ireland from 1558 to 1603. She preserved stability in a nation rent by political and religious dissension and maintained the authority of the Crown against the growing pressures of Parliament.
Born at Greenwich, on Sept. 7, 1533, Elizabeth I was the daughter of Henry VIII and his second wife, Anne Boleyn. Because of her father's continuing search for a male heir, Elizabeth's early life was precarious. In May 1536 her mother was beheaded to clear the way for Henry's third marriage, and on July 1 Parliament declared that Elizabeth and her older sister, Mary, the daughter of Henry's first queen, were illegitimate and that the succession should pass to the issue of his third wife, Jane Seymour. Jane did produce a male heir, Edward, but even though Elizabeth had been declared illegitimate, she was brought up in the royal household. She received an excellent education and was reputed to be remarkably precocious, notably in languages (of which she learned Latin, French, and Italian) and music.
Edward VI and Mary
During the short reign of her brother, Edward VI, Elizabeth survived precariously, especially in 1549 when the principal persons in her household were arrested and she was to all practical purposes a prisoner at Hatfield. In this period she experienced ill health but pursued her studies under her tutor, Roger Ascham.
In 1553, following the death of Edward VI, her sister Mary I came to the throne with the intention of leading the country back to Catholicism. The young Elizabeth found herself involved in the complicated intrigue that accompanied these changes. Without her knowledge the Protestant Sir Thomas Wyatt plotted to put her on the throne by overthrowing Mary. The rebellion failed, and though Elizabeth maintained her innocence, she was sent to the Tower. After 2 months she was released against the wishes of Mary's advisers and was removed to an old royal palace at Woodstock. In 1555 she was brought to Hampton Court, still in custody, but on October 18 was allowed to take up residence at Hatfield, where she resumed her studies with Ascham.
On Nov. 17, 1558, Mary died, and Elizabeth succeeded to the throne. Elizabeth's reign was to be looked back on as a golden age, when England began to assert itself internationally through the mastery of sea power. The condition of the country seemed far different, however, when she came to the throne. A contemporary noted: "The Queen poor. The realm exhausted. The nobility poor and decayed. Want of good captains and soldiers. The people out of order. Justice not executed." Both internationally and internally, the condition of the country was far from stable.
At the age of 25 Elizabeth was a rather tall and well-poised woman; what she lacked in feminine warmth, she made up for in the worldly wisdom she had gained from a difficult and unhappy youth. It is significant that one of her first actions as queen was to appoint Sir William Cecil (later Lord Burghley) as her chief secretary. Cecil was to remain her closest adviser; like Elizabeth, he was a political pragmatist, cautious and essentially conservative. They both appreciated England's limited position in the face of France and Spain, and both knew that the key to England's success lay in balancing the two great Continental powers off against each other, so that neither could bring its full force to bear against England.
Since Elizabeth was unmarried, the question of the succession and the actions of other claimants to the throne bulked large. She toyed with a large number of suitors, including Philip II of Spain; Eric of Sweden; Adolphus, Duke of Holstein; and the Archduke Charles. From her first Parliament she received a petition concerning her marriage. Her answer was, in effect, her final one: "this shall be for me sufficient, that a marble stone shall declare that a Queen, having reigned such a time died a virgin." But it would be many years before the search for a suitable husband ended, and the Parliament reconciled itself to the fact that the Queen would not marry.
Elizabeth maintained what many thought were dangerously close relations with her favorite, Robert Dudley, whom she raised to the earldom of Leicester. She abandoned this flirtation when scandal arising from the mysterious death of Dudley's wife in 1560 made the connection politically disadvantageous. In the late 1570s and early 1580s she was courted in turn by the French Duke of Anjou and the Duke of Alençon. But by the mid-1580s it was clear she would not marry.
Many have praised Elizabeth for her skillful handling of the courtships. To be sure, her hand was perhaps her greatest diplomatic weapon, and any one of the proposed marriages, if carried out, would have had strong repercussions on English foreign relations. By refusing to marry, Elizabeth could further her general policy of balancing the Continental powers. Against this must be set the realization that it was a very dangerous policy. Had Elizabeth succumbed to illness, as she nearly did early in her reign, or had any one of the many assassination plots against her succeeded, the country would have been plunged into the chaos of a disputed succession. That the accession of James I on her death was peaceful was due as much to the luck of her survival as it was to the wisdom of her policy.
England had experienced both a sharp swing to Protestantism under Edward VI and a Catholic reaction under Mary. The question of the nature of the Church needed to be settled immediately, and it was hammered out in Elizabeth's first Parliament in 1559. A retention of Catholicism was not politically feasible, as the events of Mary's reign showed, but the settlement achieved in 1559 represented something more of a Puritan victory than the Queen desired. The settlement enshrined in the Acts of Supremacy and Conformity may in the long run have worked out as a compromise, but in 1559 it indicated to Elizabeth that her control of Parliament was not complete.
Though the settlement achieved in 1559 remained essentially unchanged throughout Elizabeth's reign, the conflict over religion was not stilled. The Church of England, of which Elizabeth stood as supreme governor, was attacked by both Catholics and Puritans. Estimates of Catholic strength in Elizabethan England are difficult to make, but it is clear that a number of Englishmen remained at least residual Catholics. Because of the danger of a Catholic rising against the Crown on behalf of the rival claimant, Mary, Queen of Scots, who was in custody in England from 1568 until her execution in 1587, Parliament pressed the Queen repeatedly for harsher legislation to control the recusants. It is apparent that the Queen resisted, on the whole successfully, these pressures for political repression of the English Catholics. While the legislation against the Catholics did become progressively sterner, the Queen was able to mitigate the severity of its enforcement and retain the patriotic loyalty of many Englishmen who were Catholic in sympathy.
For their part the Puritans waged a long battle in the Church, in Parliament, and in the country at large to make the religious settlement more radical. Under the influence of leaders like Thomas Cartwright and John Field, and supported in Parliament by the brothers Paul and Peter Wentworth, the Puritans subjected the Elizabethan religious settlement to great stress.
The Queen found that she could control Parliament through the agency of her privy councilors and the force of her own personality. It was, however, some time before she could control the Church and the countryside as effectively. It was only with the promotion of John Whitgift to the archbishopric of Canterbury that she found her most effective clerical weapon against the Puritans. With apparent royal support but some criticism from Burghley, Whitgift was able to use the machinery of the Church courts to curb the Puritans. By the 1590s the Puritan movement was in some considerable disarray. Many of its prominent patrons were dead, and by the publication of the bitterly satirical Marprelate Tracts, some Puritan leaders brought the movement into general disfavor.
At Elizabeth's accession England was not strong enough, either in men or money, to oppose vigorously either of the Continental powers, France or Spain. England was, however, at war with France. Elizabeth quickly brought this conflict to a close on more favorable terms than might have been expected.
Throughout the early years of the reign, France appeared to be the chief foreign threat to England because of the French connections of Mary, Queen of Scots. By the Treaty of Edinburgh in 1560, Elizabeth was able to close off a good part of the French threat as posed through Scotland.
The internal religious disorders of France also aided the English cause. Equally crucial was the fact that Philip II of Spain was not anxious to further the Catholic cause in England so long as its chief beneficiary would be Mary, Queen of Scots, and through her, his own French rivals.
In the 1580s Spain emerged as the chief threat to England. The years from 1570 to 1585 were ones of neither war nor peace, but Elizabeth found herself under increasing pressure from Protestant activists to take a firmer line against Catholic Spain. Increasingly she connived in privateering voyages against Spanish shipping; her decision in 1585 to intervene on behalf of the Netherlands in its revolt against Spain by sending an expeditionary force under the Earl of Leicester meant the temporary end of the Queen's policy of balance and peace.
The struggle against Spain culminated in the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588. The Queen showed a considerable ability to rally the people around herself. At Tilbury, where the English army massed in preparation for the threatened invasion, the Queen herself appeared to deliver one of her most stirring speeches: "I am come amongst you … resolved in the midst and heat of battle, to live and die amongst you all…. I know I have the body but of a weak and feeble woman, but I have the heart and stomach of a king and of a King of England too."
That the Armada was dispersed owed as much to luck and Spanish incapacity as it did to English skill. In some ways it marked the high point of Elizabeth's reign, for the years which followed have properly been called "the darker years." The Spanish threat did not immediately subside, and English counteroffensives proved ineffectual because of poor leadership and insufficient funds. Under the strain of war expenditure, the country suffered in the 1590s prolonged economic crisis. Moreover, the atmosphere of the court seemed to decline in the closing stages of the reign; evident corruption and sordid struggling for patronage became more common.
Difficulties in Ireland
The latter years of Elizabeth's reign were marked by increasing difficulties in Ireland. The English had never effectively controlled Ireland, and under Elizabeth the situation became acute. Given Ireland's position on England's flank and its potential use by the Spanish, it seemed essential for England to control the island. It was no easy task; four major rebellions (the rebellion of Shane O'Neill, 1559-1566; the Fitzmaurice confederacy, 1569-1572; the Desmond rebellion, 1579-1583; and Tyrone's rebellion, 1594-1603) tell the story of Ireland in this period. Fortunately, the Spaniards were slow to take advantage of Tyrone's rebellion. The 2d Earl of Essex was incapable of coping with this revolt and returned to England to lead a futile rebellion against the Queen (1601). But Lord Mountjoy, one of the few great Elizabethan land commanders, was able to break the back of the rising and bring peace in the same month in which the Queen died (March, 1603).
The latter years of Elizabeth also saw tensions emerge in domestic politics. The long-term dominance of the house of Cecil, perpetuated after Burghley's death by his son, Sir Robert Cecil, was strongly contested by others, like the Earl of Essex, who sought the Queen's patronage. The Parliament of 1601 saw Elizabeth involved in a considerable fight over the granting of monopolies. Elizabeth was able to head off the conflict by promising that she herself would institute reforms. Her famous "Golden Speech" delivered to this, her last Parliament, indicated that even in old age she had the power to win her people to her side: "Though God hath raised me high, yet this I count the glory of my crown, that I have reigned with your loves…. It is my desire to live nor reign no longer than my life and reign shall be for your good. And though you have had, and may have, many princes more mighty and wise sitting in this seat, yet you never had, nor shall have, any that will be more careful and loving."
The words concealed the reality of the end of Elizabeth's reign. It is apparent, on retrospect, that severe tensions existed. The finances of the Crown, exhausted by war since the 1580s, were in sorry condition; the economic plight of the country was not much better. The Parliament was already sensing its power to contest issues with the monarchy, though they now held back, perhaps out of respect for their elderly queen. Religious tensions were hidden rather than removed. For all the greatness of her reign, the reign that witnessed the naval feats of Sir Francis Drake and Sir John Hawkins and the literary accomplishments of Sir Philip Sidney, Edmund Spenser, William Shakespeare, and Christopher Marlowe, it was a shaky inheritance that Elizabeth would pass on to her successor, the son of her rival claimant, Mary, Queen of Scots. On March 24, 1603, the Queen died; as one contemporary noted, she "departed this life, mildly like a lamb, easily like a ripe apple from the tree."
The standard biography of Elizabeth is J. E. Neale, Queen Elizabeth (1934), which is sometimes eulogistic. Neville Williams, Elizabeth, Queen of England (1967), although interesting, is not likely to replace Neale. Elizabeth Jenkins, Elizabeth the Great (1958), has been highly praised but contains little new information. B. W. Beckinsale, Elizabeth I (1963), is a useful study that indicates a cautious break from the traditional Neale view. Hilaire Belloc's well-known Elizabeth: Creature of Circumstance (1942) is a biased study written from the Catholic viewpoint.
Frederick Chamberlin, The Private Character of Queen Elizabeth (1922), is useful in some respects, such as the queen's medical history, but should be used with caution. More useful on Elizabeth's medical history is Arthur S. MacNalty, Elizabeth Tudor: The Lonely Queen (1954). Mandell Creighton, Queen Elizabeth (1899; repr. 1966), though dated, repays careful study for its assessment of the Queen. Joel Hurstfield, Elizabeth I and the Unity of England (1960), is a highly compressed, valuable study stressing Elizabeth's concern to achieve unity in England. Joseph M. Levine, ed., Elizabeth I (1969), is an able compilation of writings on Elizabeth by her contemporaries; Levine contributes an introduction, a chronology of the life of Elizabeth I, and a bibliographical note.
Important studies of aspects of Elizabeth's reign include J. E. Neale, Elizabeth I and Her Parliaments, 1559-1581 (1952) and Elizabeth I and Her Parliaments, 1584-1601 (1957), the best works on parliamentary politics and the role of the Queen in government; Conyers Read, Mr. Secretary Cecil and Queen Elizabeth (1955) and Lord Burghley and Queen Elizabeth (1960), which is useful on diplomacy as well as the partnership with Burghley; Mortimer Levine, The Early Elizabethan Succession Question, 1558-1568 (1966); and Wallace MacCaffrey, The Shaping of the Elizabethan Regime (1968), a major new study of the early years of the reign.
Elizabeth figures prominently in many of the surviving documents of the period and in nearly all secondary accounts. Two useful bibliographies are Conyers Read, ed., Bibliography of British History: Tudor Period, 1485-1603 (2d ed. 1959), and Mortimer Levine, Tudor England, 1485-1603 (1968).
Recommended for general historical background are J. B. Black, The Reign of Elizabeth, 1558-1603 (1936; 2d ed. 1959); S. T. Bindoff, Tudor England (1951); A. L. Rowse, The England of Elizabeth: The Structure of Society (1951) and The Expansion of Elizabethan England (1955); James A. Williamson, The Tudor Age (1953); and G. R. Elton, England under the Tudors (1955; repr. with a new bibliography, 1962). □
"Elizabeth I." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (June 23, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/elizabeth-i-0
"Elizabeth I." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Retrieved June 23, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/elizabeth-i-0
Elizabeth's early years were even more turbulent than those of Mary, but with different results. While Mary retreated into her religion, Elizabeth grew up wary and dexterous. Her position as heir was confirmed by the Act of Succession of 1534 but her favoured situation lasted less than three years. In May 1536 her mother was executed and a new Act of Succession declared Anne's marriage void, Elizabeth illegitimate, and recognized Henry's third marriage to Jane Seymour as ‘without spot, doubt or impediment’. The birth of her half-brother Edward in October 1537 made her chances of succeeding to the throne appear remote. After Henry's three last marriages had failed to produce more children, a third Act of Succession in 1543 reinstated his daughters, declaring that if Edward died without heirs, the throne would pass to Mary and then Elizabeth. The king's will in 1546 confirmed that arrangement and accordingly Edward succeeded in 1547. Elizabeth was then 13.
She had spent most of her girlhood at Hatfield. She received a high-powered classical education which left her in command of Latin and Greek and speaking French, Spanish, and Italian ‘most perfectly’. ‘My illustrious mistress shines like a star,’ wrote Roger Ascham, one of her tutors. She was on good terms with Catherine Parr, Henry's last wife, and when, after his death, Catherine married Lord Seymour, Somerset's younger brother, Elizabeth moved into the household. The arrangement ended when Seymour made playful advances to Elizabeth which were not totally unwelcome. After Catherine died in childbirth, Seymour suggested marriage to Elizabeth, who replied prudently that such a matter should be laid before the council. Seymour was arrested in 1549 on a charge of treason and Elizabeth closely questioned by Sir Robert Tyrwhitt, who confessed himself baffled that she would not ‘cough out’ anything: ‘she hath a very good wit and nothing is to be got from her but by great policy.’
During the rest of Edward's reign she was in good standing at court and sympathetic towards the religious changes. But there are few mentions of Elizabeth in Edward's journal and they do not seem to have been very close. Consequently, when he was dying in the spring of 1553 and could not bear the thought of a catholic succession, Edward bypassed Elizabeth and named Lady Jane Grey, Northumberland's daughter-in-law, as his successor. During the ensuing crisis which placed Mary on the throne, Elizabeth stayed at Hatfield on the plea of illness. She was not well rewarded for her acquiescence in Mary's triumph. Within a month Mary was urging her to attend mass and Elizabeth, in floods of tears, real or simulated, begged for time to study the question. The following month, Mary's first Parliament acknowledged the validity of Catherine of Aragon's marriage, by implication bastardizing Elizabeth once more. Yet Mary did not take the next step of removing her formally from the succession, presumably because, until six months before her death, she hoped for children of her own.
In February 1554 Wyatt's rising against Mary's Spanish marriage brought Elizabeth to the brink of disaster. Summoned urgently to court as the Kentish rebels advanced upon London, she pleaded more illness, then reluctantly obeyed. In March she was sent to the Tower while the conspirators were racked to provide evidence against her. ‘She will have to be executed,’ wrote the emperor's envoy Mendoza briskly, ‘as while she lives it will be very difficult to make the Prince's [Philip] entry here safe.’ But no evidence could be found and after two months she was sent off to Woodstock under house arrest. It was not an experience Elizabeth forgot: twelve years later she told her Parliament, ‘I stood in danger of my life, my sister was so incensed against me.’ While she was at Woodstock, Soranzo the Venetian ambassador sent a long description of her: ‘her figure and face are very handsome, and such an air of dignified majesty pervades all her actions that no one can fail to suppose she is a queen … her manners are very modest and affable.’ Ultimately she returned to Hatfield, kept her head down, attended mass regularly, and refused all offers of marriage. ‘She is too clever to get herself caught,’ Renard, the imperial ambassador, told the emperor. Elizabeth received some protection from an unexpected quarter— Philip, who, increasingly aware that his marriage to Mary would be neither fruitful nor lengthy, was thinking of long-term investments. Mary, queen of Scots, the next heir, though a catholic, was betrothed to the dauphin and would certainly carry England, Scotland, and Ireland into the camp of his French enemies.
In the event, Elizabeth's accession, on 17 November 1558, passed off without incident. Even Mary, in her last weeks, had conceded its inevitability. Elizabeth was faced at once with the same problems that had confronted Mary on her accession five years before—the religious question and her own marriage.
The outlines of her religious policy were signalled at an early stage when she pointedly absented herself from the elevation of the host, placed two of Mary's bishops under arrest for intemperate sermons, and in her first Parliament took back the governorship of the church. It would have been surprising had she done anything else. Her mother had sympathized with the reformers, and Elizabeth herself, educated with her brother Edward by protestant tutors, shared his views, though not his zeal. To adopt a catholic posture would have meant accepting her own bastardy and admitting that she had no right to the throne. It might, of course, have been possible in the intricate ecclesiastical politics of 1558 to come to some arrangement with the papacy, but since the pope was at that time a staunch ally of the French, whose new queen, Mary, was a genuine catholic and had just claimed the English throne, it might seem a thin chance. The famous via media was to a great extent forced upon her. Catholicism certainly would have meant giving up the headship and possibly the throne as well: calvinism, as James VI of Scotland was to discover, meant being hectored by godly presbyters. By the end of 1559 the whole bench of catholic bishops had been replaced.
The second problem, marriage, had already caused trouble. There has been considerable speculation about the nature of Elizabeth's sexuality. But the romping with Seymour, the long attachment to Leicester, her sad coquetry with Anjou in the late 1570s, and her appreciation of ‘proper men’ like Raleigh and Essex suggest normal heterosexuality. Nor is there any reason to believe that she could not have borne children. The political objections to marriage were overwhelming and her council and Parliament urged in vain. Any husband would certainly interfere and possibly dominate, and opinion would support him. A foreign husband would drag the country into continental disputes and reawaken religious animosities: marriage to a subject would be an act of condescension and a formula for faction. Though her reasons for virginity were largely negative, she turned it to her own advantage, declaring that she was married to her people. Elizabeth's decision may have been wrong. But her sister's marriage had scarcely been a success and though Mary, queen of Scots, can hardly be accused of being against matrimony, the results were not encouraging. Elizabeth's cautious attitude extended to naming a successor. No doubt she postponed doing so for the reason that many people postpone making their wills, but essentially it was political—a named successor would create a rival centre of power and an invitation to intrigue. ‘I know the inconstancy of the people of England,’ she observed privately in 1561, ‘how they ever mislike the present government and have their eyes fixed upon that person who is next to succeed.’
Two other decisions could not be delayed—her choice of advisers and her attitude towards the war with France which she had inherited from her sister. On the very first day of her reign she appointed as secretary William Cecil (Burghley), whom she had employed as her estates surveyor. He was yoked with Knollys as vice-chamberlain, Nicholas Bacon as lord keeper, Clinton as lord high admiral, and Howard as lord chamberlain. Despite internal rivalries and some very rough treatment from the queen, they stayed in service until they died and, joined in 1559 by Dudley (Leicester) and from 1573 by Walsingham, formed a remarkable team.
Elizabeth was anxious to wind up the war against France, but dared not risk alienating her ally Philip, lest the nightmare possibility of a grand catholic coalition of Spain, France, and Scotland should come into existence. Nor could she easily reconcile herself to losing Calais and in the end a face-saving formula had to be devised. No sooner had she escaped from one conflict than another emerged—in Scotland where she was persuaded to intervene in 1560 on behalf of the protestant lords against the French. Though the assault on the French-held Leith castle was a dismal failure, the death of Mary of Guise took the heart out of the French resistance and by the treaty of Edinburgh they agreed to withdraw. Elizabeth's initial reluctance was due in part to natural caution, concern for the cost of the enterprise, but also to the thought that helping subjects to resist their lawful monarch was a bad example. She showed less reluctance in her next adventure, which was an unmitigated fiasco. Religious wars in France in 1562 held out the hope of strengthening the protestant cause there and of regaining Calais. An expedition to assist the Huguenots took possession of Le Havre, to be exchanged for Calais. The French factions then made peace to unite against the English, the English force was decimated by disease, and obliged to surrender.
The next developments in foreign affairs were on a totally different scale—no limited interventions, but the great crisis of her reign. Three problems ran together in the 1570s and 1580s—the international religious question, the problem of Mary, queen of Scots, and the developing rift with Philip over the revolt of the Low Countries. For some time, even after the readoption of the governorship of the church, the reaction of the papacy was restrained, since it was not clear that the breach would be permanent and there were suggestions that Elizabeth was sympathetic to catholicism. But immediately after the failure of the rising of the northern earls, Pius V, far less moderate than his predecessor Pius IV who had extended an invitation to Elizabeth to send representatives to the Council of Trent, issued in 1570 a bull deposing her and absolving her catholic subjects from allegiance. The result was a series of plots against Elizabeth's life—Ridolfi 1572, Throckmorton 1584, Parry 1585, and Babington 1586. The second element of the worsening storm was the decision of Mary, queen of Scots, after her disastrous marriages to Darnley and Bothwell, to flee her country in 1568 and place herself under Elizabeth's protection. She was soon under close arrest. Despair at ever being released led Mary to dabble in plots and each plot produced fresh demands from ardent protestants for her execution. For many years Elizabeth resisted but the Babington plot sealed Mary's fate and she was executed in 1587. Elizabeth, characteristically, blamed her secretary Davidson for a misunderstanding but the confusion was largely diplomatic. The third factor was that relations with her erstwhile ally Philip broke down and from 1585 Elizabeth sent help to the Dutch rebels. Philip's retort was to begin planning the invasion of England and in July 1588 the great Armada left Corunna. At Tilbury, Elizabeth delivered the most famous of all her speeches, ‘not doubting that by your obedience to my general, by your concord in the camp, and your valour in the field, we shall shortly have a famous victory over those enemies of my God, of my Kingdom and of my People.’
The defeat of the Armada turned her into a living legend and the most famous of all English monarchs. It was a fame she nurtured carefully, devoting great attention to the presentation of her image. Inevitably the later years were something of an anticlimax. Philip launched more attacks, the plots against her life continued, and the centre of anxiety moved to Ireland, where Tyrone's rebellion had Spanish support. Many of her counter-measures were unsuccessful and Essex's foolish behaviour in Ireland, followed by his abortive insurrection, darkened her last days. But she died still in charge, capable of putting on performances and, at the end, naming ‘our cousin of Scotland’, James VI, as her successor.
Though her character was that of her father—a tempestuous personality with sunshine and heavy showers—her policies were more akin to those of her grandfather Henry VII—an attention to money bordering on meanness, reluctance to summon Parliament, and a disinclination to foreign adventure which would not only be expensive but place her at the mercy of the military. After the usual dip immediately after her death, her reputation soared and as the Stuarts floundered, the great days of Good Queen Bess seemed more and more golden. Lord Cobham at Stowe in the 18th cent. placed her in his temple of British worthies, along with Alfred the Great, Shakespeare, and Newton. The late 20th cent. saw criticism from historians, to whom admiration does not come easily. ‘The defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588 solved nothing’, we are told—a very odd verdict. The love she claimed to have for her people was shallow and insincere; she outstayed her welcome until the gap between image and reality became grotesque; the young men at her court in the 1590s were impatient and ribald; many of her policies were muddled and she made procrastination an art-form; she took little interest in the mechanics of government; her religious policy pleased nobody. In most of these criticisms there is a grain of truth, but collectively they suggest a determination not to be pleased. It is easier to attack her religious policy than to suggest how ardent catholic and zealous calvinist could be reconciled, nor were many of her contemporary rulers conspicuously successful. Images are always inflated—that is their purpose—but it is to her credit that she understood the importance of imagery. Like all sensible rulers she was, of course, interested primarily in her own survival: dead monarchs have no policy. But though her treatment of men was often bad, her judgement of them was usually good. Essex captivated her but Cecil and his son ran the country. Her religious settlement may have been a patchwork of compromises but the Church of England took root and earned respect and affection. It is, of course, perfectly permissible to prefer the wisdom of her predecessor Mary, or the political skills of her successors James and Charles, but it would be a little strange.
J. A. Cannon
Haigh, C. , Elizabeth I (1988);
Johnson, P. , Elizabeth: A Study in Power and Intellect (1974);
Ridley, J. , Elizabeth I (1987);
Strong, R. , The Cult of Elizabeth: Elizabethan Portraiture and Pageantry (1977);
Somerset, A. , Elizabeth I (1997).
"Elizabeth I." The Oxford Companion to British History. . Encyclopedia.com. (June 23, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/elizabeth-i
"Elizabeth I." The Oxford Companion to British History. . Retrieved June 23, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/elizabeth-i
Born: September 7, 1533
Died: March 24, 1603
Elizabeth I was queen of England and Ireland from 1558 to 1603. She preserved stability in a nation torn by political and religious tension and led the country during a time of great exploration and achievement.
Ruled by her siblings
Born in Greenwich, England, on September 7, 1533, Elizabeth I was the daughter of Henry VIII and his second wife, Anne Boleyn. In May 1536, her mother was beheaded to clear the way for Henry to marry Jane Seymour. Parliament declared that the throne would pass to any children born from this marriage, rather than to Elizabeth or her older sister Mary. Jane did produce a son, Edward, but Elizabeth continued to be brought up in the royal household. She received a good education and was an excellent student, especially in languages (she learned Latin, French, and Italian) and music.
Elizabeth barely survived the short reign of her brother, Edward VI (1537–1553). All of the people in her household were arrested, and she was a prisoner in her own home. In this period she also experienced ill health but pursued her studies under her tutor, Roger Ascham. In 1553, following the death of Edward VI, her sister Mary I (1516–1558) came to the throne with the intention of leading the country back to the Catholic faith. Under Edward, the Protestants had become the major religious group in the country. They opposed many decisions made by the pope (the leader of the Catholic Church) and placed less emphasis on ceremonies than Catholics did. After a Protestant attempt to overthrow Mary, Elizabeth was imprisoned, although she had played no part in the plan. She was held for two months before being released, but Mary continued to have her people keep an eye on Elizabeth.
The new queen
In November 1558, Mary died, and Elizabeth took over the throne. At the age of twenty-five, Elizabeth was a tall and well-poised woman. What she lacked in feminine warmth, she made up for in the wisdom she had gained from a difficult and unhappy youth. One of her first actions as queen was to appoint Sir William Cecil (1520–1598; later Lord Burghley) as her chief secretary. Cecil was to remain her closest adviser; like Elizabeth, he was politically cautious. They both knew that the key to England's success lay in balancing the two great continental powers, France and Spain, against each other, so that neither could bring its full force against England.
When Elizabeth took the throne, conditions in England were very bad. The country was not strong enough, either in men or money, to oppose either France or Spain. By the Treaty of Edinburgh in 1560, though, Elizabeth was able to decrease French control of Scotland, which helped the English. She also worked to improve the country from within. Industry and trade were expanded, and there was an increase in the development of natural resources. This was the beginning of what came to be known as the Elizabethan Age, a time of great adventure and exploration and the creation of much famous literature.
Since Elizabeth was unmarried, many were interested in the question of the succession (who would be next in line for the throne). She had a large number of suitors, but as the years passed it became clear that she would not marry and take the chance of losing her power. Many praised Elizabeth for her skillful handling of her courtships. Her hand in marriage was an important tool in foreign relations. By refusing to marry, Elizabeth could further her general policy of balancing the continental powers. Yet, this was a very dangerous policy. Had Elizabeth died, as she nearly did early in her reign, or had any one of the many assassination plots against her succeeded, the country would have been plunged into chaos trying to decide who would take over for her.
After the increase in Protestantism under Edward VI and the Catholic reaction under Mary, the question of the nature of the Church needed to be settled immediately. The Acts of Unity and Supremacy of 1559 provided an answer. Protestantism was established as the national faith, and Elizabeth enforced it as the supreme governor of the Church of England. A number of English people remained Catholic. The Church of England was attacked by both Catholics and Puritans (Protestants who wanted to make the church "pure" by throwing out Catholic policies). Because of the fear that a Catholic, such as Elizabeth's cousin, Mary, Queen of Scots (1542–1587), would rise against the government, Parliament urged Elizabeth to use harsh measures to control the Catholic opposition. For the most part the queen resisted these pressures. While laws relating to the Catholics did become more strict over time, the queen preferred to promote a feeling of tolerance that would allow her to retain the patriotic loyalty of many of the English Catholics.
The Puritans continued to wage a long battle in the Church, in Parliament, and in the country at large to make the religious settlement more strict. Elizabeth found that she could control Parliament through the force of her own personality. It was, however, some time before she could control the Church and the countryside as effectively. It was only with the promotion of John Whitgift to the post of archbishop of Canterbury that she found her most effective weapon against the Puritans. With apparent royal support but some criticism from Burghley, Whitgift was able to use the Church courts to keep the Puritans in line. By the later years of Elizabeth's reign, the Puritan movement was much weaker than it had been, mainly because many of its prominent supporters had died.
In the 1580s Spain emerged as the chief threat to England. Elizabeth found herself under increasing pressure from Protestants to take a firm stand against Catholic Spain. After waiting until England's naval power could be built up, she began to approve attacks on Spanish ships. Her decision in 1585 to send a force under the Earl of Leicester (c. 1532–1588) to intervene on behalf of the Netherlands in its revolt against Spain meant the temporary end of her planned policy of balance and peace. The struggle against Spain ended with the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588. The victory, however, owed as much to luck and Spanish mistakes as it did to English skill.
Elizabeth's ability to speak many languages came in handy when dealing with representatives of foreign governments. She also showed a considerable ability to rally the people around her. At Tilbury, for instance, when the English army gathered in preparation for an attack on Spain, the queen appeared to deliver one of her most stirring speeches: "I am come amongst you … to live and die amongst you all.… I know I have the body but of a weak and feeble woman, but I have the heart and stomach of a king and of a King of England too."
Difficulties and decline
In some ways, the defeat of the Spanish Armada marked the high point of Elizabeth's reign; the time that followed has been referred to as "the darker years." The Spanish threat never really went away, and further English military operations suffered from poor leadership and low funds. Catholic plots to oust Elizabeth continued, and one such attempt led to the execution of Mary, Queen of Scots, in 1587. The latter years of Elizabeth's reign were also marked by increasing difficulties in Ireland. The English had never effectively controlled Ireland, and under Elizabeth the situation became worse.
The latter years of Elizabeth's reign were also a time when severe tensions emerged in domestic politics. The finances of the Crown, exhausted by war since the 1580s, were in bad shape. The economic plight of the country as a whole was not much better. Moreover, problems in the court seemed to increase in the closing stages of her reign, as corruption (unlawful activity) and struggling for patronage (the power to make appointments to government jobs for political advantage) became common. For all the greatness of her reign—one that had witnessed the naval feats of Sir Francis Drake (c. 1541–1596) and Sir John Hawkins (1532–1595), and the literary accomplishments of Sir Philip Sidney (1554–1586), Edmund Spenser (c. 1552–1599), William Shakespeare (1564–1616), and Christopher Marlowe (1564–1593)—Elizabeth left behind quite a mess for her successor, James VI (1566–1625) of Scotland, the son of Mary, Queen of Scots. On March 24, 1603, Elizabeth died. According to one account, she "departed this life, mildly like a lamb, easily like a ripe apple from the tree."
For More Information
Hibbert, Christopher. The Virgin Queen: The Personal History of Elizabeth I. New York: Viking Penguin, 1990.
Thomas, Jane Resh. Behind the Mask: The Life of Elizabeth I. New York: Clarion Books, 1998.
Weir, Alison. The Life of Elizabeth I. New York: Ballantine, 1997.
"Elizabeth I." UXL Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (June 23, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/elizabeth-i-1
"Elizabeth I." UXL Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Retrieved June 23, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/elizabeth-i-1
Elizabeth I (queen of England)
Elizabeth I, 1533–1603, queen of England (1558–1603).
The daughter of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, she was declared illegitimate just before the execution of her mother in 1536, but in 1544 Parliament reestablished her in the succession after her half-brother, Edward (later Edward VI), and her half-sister, Mary (later Mary I). Elizabeth was well educated by a series of tutors, most notably Roger Ascham.
In 1553 she supported the claims of Mary I over Lady Jane Grey. After Mary was crowned, Elizabeth was careful to avoid implication in the plot of the younger Sir Thomas Wyatt (1554). Nevertheless, since Elizabeth's potential succession to the throne inevitably furnished a rallying point for discontented Protestants, she was imprisoned. She later regained a measure of freedom through outward conformity to Roman Catholicism.
When Elizabeth succeeded her sister to the throne in 1558, religious strife, a huge government debt, and failures in the war with France had brought England's fortunes to a low ebb. Elizabeth came to the throne with the Tudor concept of strong rule and the realization that effective rule depended upon popular support. She was able to select and work well with the most competent of counselors. Sir William Cecil (Lord Burghley) was appointed immediately, and Sir Francis Walsingham in 1573.
At her death 45 years later, England had passed through one of the greatest periods of its history—a period that produced William Shakespeare, Edmund Spenser, Francis Bacon, Walter Raleigh, Martin Frobisher, Francis Drake, and other notable figures in literature and exploration; a period that saw England, united as a nation, become a major European power with a great navy; a period in which English commerce and industry prospered and English colonization was begun.
Although Elizabeth has been accused, with some justice, of being vain, fickle, vacillating, prejudiced, and miserly, she was nonetheless exceedingly successful as a queen. Endowed with immense personal courage and a keen awareness of her responsibility as a ruler, she commanded throughout her reign the unwavering respect and allegiance of her subjects.
One of Elizabeth's first acts was to reestablish Protestantism (see England, Church of) through the acts of Supremacy and Uniformity (1559). The measures against Roman Catholics (see Penal Laws) grew harsher over the course of her reign, particularly after the rebellion of the Catholic earls of Northumberland and Westmorland (1569), Elizabeth's excommunication by the pope (1570), and the coming of the Jesuit missionaries (1580). But the persecution of the Catholics was due, at least in part, to a series of plots to murder Elizabeth and seat the Catholic Mary Queen of Scots on the throne. English Puritans, like the Catholics, objected to the Established Church, and a severe law against conventicles (unauthorized religious assemblies) in 1593 kept the separatist movement underground for the time.
At the beginning of her reign, Elizabeth's government enacted needed currency reforms and took steps to mend English credit abroad. Other legislation of the reign dealt with new social and economic developments—the Statute of Apprentices (1563) to stabilize labor conditions; the poor laws (1563–1601) to attempt some remedy of widespread poverty; and various acts to encourage agriculture, commerce, and manufacturing.
Foreign Affairs and the Spanish War
Elizabeth had many suitors, including King Philip II of Spain; Francis, duke of Alençon and Anjou; and her own favorite, Robert Dudley, earl of Leicester. For a combination of personal and political reasons, she was reluctant to choose a husband and remained unmarried, although she often used the lure of marriage as a weapon of diplomacy. Elizabeth engaged in a long series of diplomatic maneuvers against England's old enemy, France, and the new enemy, Spain, but for 30 years she managed to keep the country at peace.
In 1559 she concluded a treaty ending her sister's unfortunate war with France and refused the marriage offer of Philip of Spain. The next year the Treaty of Edinburgh initiated a policy toward Scotland, successful in the long run, of supporting the Protestant lords against the Catholic party. By lending unofficial aid to French Huguenots she managed for some time to harass France and Spain without involving England in an actual war. As part of her marriage negotiations she later supported the duke of Alençon's participation in the Dutch war against Spain.
The major problem posed by Elizabeth's refusal to marry was that of the succession. The chief claimant was Mary Queen of Scots, but her Catholicism made her a threat to Elizabeth. In 1568 after Mary's forced abdication from the Scottish throne, Elizabeth gave her refuge but then kept her prisoner for nearly 19 years. Despite the numerous plots, both real and alleged, on Mary's behalf, Elizabeth resisted until 1587 her counselors' advice that Mary be executed.
By that time Spain had emerged as England's main enemy. English sailors had been unofficially encouraged to encroach on Spanish monopolies and raid Spanish shipping. In 1588, Philip launched the long-planned expedition of the Spanish Armada as a great Catholic crusade against Protestant England. The Armada was defeated by the skill of such leaders as John Hawkins and Francis Drake and by storms, rather than planning on Elizabeth's part, but the victory strengthened English national pride and lowered the prestige of Spain. An indecisive war with Spain dragged on until Elizabeth's death. From the beginning of the reign Ireland had been the scene of civil wars and severe rebellions, culminating with that of the earl of Tyrone, which was suppressed by the campaigns of Lord Mountjoy from 1600 to 1603.
After the Armada, Elizabeth's popularity began to wane. Parliament became less tractable and began to object to the abuse of royally granted monopolies. The rash uprising of Elizabeth's favorite, Robert Devereux, 2d earl of Essex, darkened her last years. She refused until on her deathbed to name her successor—the son of Mary Queen of Scots, James VI of Scotland, who became James I of England.
See biographies by T. Maynard (1940), E. Jenkins (1958), P. Johnson (1974), A. Somerset (1992), and A. Weir (1998, repr. 2008); A. L. Rowse, The England of Elizabeth (1950) and The Expansion of Elizabethan England (1955); J. E. Neale, Elizabeth I and Her Parliaments (2 vol., 1953–57); J. Hurstfield, Elizabeth I and the Unity of England (1960); N. Williams, The Life and Times of Elizabeth I (1972); A. Plowden, The Catholics under Elizabeth I (1973).
"Elizabeth I (queen of England)." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. (June 23, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/elizabeth-i-queen-england
"Elizabeth I (queen of England)." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Retrieved June 23, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/elizabeth-i-queen-england
"Elizabeth I." World Encyclopedia. . Encyclopedia.com. (June 23, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/environment/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/elizabeth-i
"Elizabeth I." World Encyclopedia. . Retrieved June 23, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/environment/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/elizabeth-i