Elizabeth I 1533–1603 English Queen

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Elizabeth I
English queen

Daughter of one monarch and sister of two others, Elizabeth I became queen of England in 1558 and ruled for 45 years. Her long reign, often referred to as the Elizabethan Age, was notable for war with Spain, religious tension, and the flourishing of a brilliant Renaissance court.

Life and Reign. Elizabeth was born in 1533 to Henry VIII of England and Anne Boleyn, his second wife. Three years after Elizabeth's birth, her father accused her mother of adultery* and had her beheaded. In the years that followed, Elizabeth was raised to be married to a European king or prince, the usual life for princesses during the Renaissance. Hence, she received an excellent education that included training in the Greek, Latin, Italian, and French languages and exposure to classical* literature. She also received training in the Protestant faith—not surprising, because her father, the king, had broken off from the Roman Catholic Church over the issue of divorcing his first wife.

When Henry VIII died in 1547, Elizabeth's nine-year-old brother became Edward VI of England. The young king died six years later, and the throne passed to Elizabeth's older sister, Mary (Mary I). The new queen brought Catholicism back to England, and Elizabeth was in some danger of execution as a Protestant threat to the monarchy. However, Mary's closest advisers argued against such an act. A few years later, on the verge of death, Mary reluctantly acknowledged Elizabeth as her heir.

When Elizabeth assumed the throne of England in 1558, she assembled a team of advisers and officials who would govern the country for much of her reign. William Cecil, Lord Burghley, led the government until 1598. Francis Walsingham, one of Elizabeth's chief advisers on foreign affairs, managed a network of spies. He provided proof that Elizabeth's cousin Mary (Mary Stuart), the Catholic queen of Scotland, was involved in treasonous plots. Mary had fled to England in 1568, where she was imprisoned by Elizabeth and finally executed in 1587.

Robert Dudley, earl of Leicester, became the queen's favorite courtier in 1559. Her affection for Dudley, a married man whose wife died in suspicious circumstances, gave him great power in court. After Dudley's death in 1588, the earl of Essex emerged as Elizabeth's favorite. But then in 1599, returning from defeat in a war in Ireland, Essex rushed into the aging queen's chamber and saw her without her makeup and wig. Furious, the queen cast him off. Two years later Essex tried to seize control of the court and the queen. He was executed.

For the first 20 years of Elizabeth's reign, England's relations with other countries revolved around the question of which royal suitor the queen would marry. But Elizabeth did not marry, and she refused to name a successor. By about 1578, when her subjects assumed that the queen was past the years of childbearing, she began to be honored as an almost mythical figure. Admirers called her the Virgin Queen and referred to her poetically as Gloriana and Virginia (the American colony was named for her). By the time of her death in 1603, however, Elizabeth had grown unpopular with her subjects because of high taxes. Elizabeth refused to name a successor, but on her death the throne went to James I, the son of the Scottish queen whom Elizabeth had ordered killed.

Conflicts. The first task of Elizabeth's government was to restore the Protestant religion in England after her sister Mary's rule. At first she did not punish Catholics simply for their faith. But after English Catholics tried to mount a rebellion against her in 1569, she became more aggressively Protestant. Elizabeth considered it her right and duty to lead the Anglican Church, the official Protestant church in England, and would not allow Parliament to discuss further religious reforms. Her reign saw increasing tension between her determination to keep the Anglican Church as it was and the Puritans* and other groups who wished to change it. As Elizabeth grew older, she became less tolerant of both Catholics and Protestants who expressed disagreement with the established church.

During the first 20 years of her reign, the queen kept England out of wars on the European continent. Eventually, however, Elizabeth and England were drawn into conflict with Spain. In 1588 Spain sent a vast fleet of ships against England, but this Spanish Armada suffered a crushing defeat because of weather and the superior guns of the English ships. The victory was a glorious moment for England. Elizabeth won great affection by appearing before her troops in armor and declaring that she had "the heart and stomach of a king" and would stand by them in the fight. Yet war with Spain dragged on for another decade. In addition, the Spanish stirred up new uprisings in Ireland, an English possession where many costly and bloody rebellions erupted during Elizabeth's reign.

Court Culture. Elizabeth presided over a glittering court. In the early years, its members were influenced by models from ancient times. Later a guide to courtly behavior by the Italian writer Baldassare Castiglione, The Book of the Courtier (1561), became quite popular. English courtiers began adopting the manners and ideals of European courts.

The queen spent most of her summers traveling about southern England, visiting the homes of her courtiers. Although Elizabeth built no palaces, members of the court erected a number of huge homes and palaces to welcome her. Courtiers both sought and dreaded these visits. Entertaining the queen and her court could be devastatingly expensive—among other costs were the spectacles and pageants that hosts arranged to honor, amuse, and impress her. In 1591, for example, Elizabeth and the court visited the earl of Hertford and were entertained by an elaborate pageant enacted on an island crowned with a mock castle.

Elizabeth spent the early years of her reign concentrating on laying the foundations of her state, establishing the beliefs and practices of her church, and restocking her treasury. After the mid-1570s, however, cultural life gained importance as Elizabeth's court stimulated new literary, artistic, and musical achievements. Plays were popular at court, and when Elizabeth visited the university towns of Oxford and Cambridge, students presented plays on classical themes. Chivalry* was also an important theme of the Elizabethan court, and many Elizabethan masterpieces contained elements drawn from romances of the Middle Ages. Among these works are Edmund Spenser's long poem The Faerie Queene (1590–1596) and Sir Philip Sidney's Arcadia (1581–1584), in which knights fight for the love of a fair and chaste queen. Other artistic achievements of the age include the music of English composers William Byrd and Thomas Tallis and the paintings of Nicholas Hillyard.

(See alsoCourt; Drama, English; England; English Language and Literature; Espionage; Patronage; Protestant Reformation; Puritanism. )

* adultery

sexual relationship outside of marriage

* classical

in the tradition of ancient Greece and Rome

* Puritan

English Protestant group that wanted to simplify the ceremonies of the Church of England and eliminate all traces of Catholicism

* chivalry

rules and customs of medieval knighthood

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Elizabeth I 1533–1603 English Queen

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Elizabeth I 1533–1603 English Queen