BORN: September 7, 1533 • Greenwich, England
DIED: March 24, 1603 •Richmond, Surrey, England
When Elizabeth I became queen of England in 1558, she inherited a weak and backward island that had been severely divided by three religious upheavals in two decades. Most of her subjects doubted the ability of a woman to lead the troubled country and anxiously waited for her to marry. But Elizabeth chose to play her role as the monarch of the realm alone. Applying her instinct, intelligence, energy, and stubborn willfulness to the task, she would become the strongest and most beloved monarch the island had seen in centuries. During Elizabeth's reign England became one of Europe's most powerful and sophisticated countries and a growing empire. In military strength, exploration, commerce, and above all the arts, the nation experienced a golden age that changed the culture of England, as well that of Europe and North America, forever.
"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."
Birth and early childhood
Despite her royal birth, Elizabeth suffered some terrible hardships as a child. At the time of her conception (when her mother became pregnant with her) her father, Henry VIII (1491–1547; see entry), had been married to the Spanish princess Catherine of Aragon (1485–1536) for over twenty years. The royal couple had only one surviving child, Mary I (1516–1558; see entry). Henry, who desperately wanted a male heir to the throne, sought to get out of his marriage. He had developed a passion for Anne Boleyn (c. 1504–1536), his wife's well-educated and attractive lady-in-waiting, and he wished to marry her. (A lady-in-waiting is a woman in the queen's household who attends the queen.) Henry hoped the Catholic pope, the head of the Catholic Church, would quietly terminate his marriage. When the pope refused, Henry secretly married the already pregnant Boleyn, claiming his first marriage had been illegitimate. As the pope prepared to excommunicate the king, depriving him of membership in the church, Henry broke off England's centuries-old relationship with the Roman Catholic Church and named himself head of the church in England. English citizens who continued to practice Catholicism under the pope's leadership had their property taken away or were imprisoned.
Elizabeth was born on September 7, 1533. Her father had changed the course of English history in order to provide a male heir to the throne, so he was not happy to find out his child was a girl. Within a few months the infant Elizabeth, tended by a small group of noblewomen, or women born to families of high rank, was sent to live in her own household about twenty miles north of London. Boleyn visited her child and sent her gifts of clothing, but she had other challenges to face. It was not long before Henry lost interest in his new queen. Less than three years after their marriage Boleyn was arrested on charges of committing adultery. Few people, even those who disliked her, believed the charges, but Henry overpowered all objections. Boleyn was beheaded on May 19, 1536. Within two weeks of her death Henry married Jane Seymour (c. 1509–1537). From this third marriage he finally got a son, Edward VI (1537–1553), although his new wife died twelve days after giving birth.
Elizabeth was not yet three years old when her mother was executed. She never spoke publicly or wrote about her feelings about her mother's death or her father's part in it.
A royal education
Elizabeth was raised in a series of royal households under the loving care of her governess, Kat Ashley. Her older half-sister, Mary, often lived in her household, and the sisters got along well with each other. After years of separation from their father, Elizabeth and Mary were invited to Henry's sixth and final marriage to Katherine Parr (c. 1512–1548) in 1543. Parr was a loving stepmother, creating a warm family life Elizabeth had not experienced before. Under Parr's influence, the aging Henry made certain that both his daughters were in line to inherit the throne, making it official that upon his death the English throne was to pass to Edward. If Edward died without an heir, Mary was next in line, and then Elizabeth.
The top educators in England were hired to teach Edward, and Elizabeth, who was already an outstanding student, was allowed to study under them as well. The tutors had all participated in the new humanist movement that had spread from Italy to England's Cambridge University in the beginning of the century. Humanism stressed educating students in the ancient Latin and Greek languages, preparing them to study about human virtue and morality from the classic texts. Elizabeth surpassed all expectations as a student. Well before reaching her teens, she was fluent in Latin, French, Italian, and Welsh, and knew a considerable amount of Greek. She was fond of translating ancient Latin and Greek works into English or French, and she studied the Bible and the works of the classical philosophers as well as history on a daily basis. Revealing the prevailing notion of his day that women were inferior, her teacher, the humanist Roger Ascham (1515–1558), quoted in Simon Schama's A History of Britain: At the Edge of the World? 3500 bce–1603 ce wrote: "Her mind has no womanly weakness, her perseverance is equal to that of a man, and her memory long keeps what it quickly picks up." Ascham took the unusual step of teaching Elizabeth oratory, or the art of public speaking, which was not considered a useful skill for women. She excelled in it.
Katherine Parr had become intrigued with the era's religious reformers, people of the new Reformation movement who believed there was corruption in the Catholic Church and disliked some of its practices. This movement resulted in the establishment of several Protestant churches. The Protestants preferred a simple, pious study of the Bible and more personal experiences in seeking truth and faith. Parr held daily religious meetings, and both Elizabeth and Edward eagerly attended. Ascham was a Protestant as well.
The child king
When Henry VIII died in 1547, nine-year-old Edward took the throne as Edward VI. By the orders of Edward's regents, the people appointed to rule England in his name while he was under age, Catholic traditions and rituals (established ceremonies performed in precise ways according to the rules of the church) were forbidden and a new Protestant prayer book was introduced that outlined the services for all English churches. Catholics were expelled from the council of royal advisors, Catholic bishops were fired and replaced by Protestants, and those English people who would not accept the Protestant faith were persecuted. Faithful Catholics watched in silent horror as mobs destroyed their churches, smashing the altars and the images of the Virgin Mary and other Catholic symbols.
After her father's death, Elizabeth lived with Katherine Parr, who had hastily married a former love, Thomas Seymour (c. 1508–1549). Seymour was the ambitious and good-looking uncle of the young king. He was also the younger brother of Edward's first regent, the Duke of Somerset. Seymour began to make inappropriate romantic advances toward the fourteen-year-old Elizabeth, who evidently found him intriguing. Parr died due to complications in childbirth and Seymour began to consider the possibility of marrying Elizabeth. Though she never agreed to marriage, Elizabeth did not object to his attentions. In the end Seymour's ambitions got the better of him. He made plans to kidnap Edward and take over his brother's role as regent. The plot was uncovered, and Seymour was sent to the Tower of London. (The Tower was a fortress on the Thames River in London that was used as a royal residence, treasury, and, most famously, as a prison for the upper class.) Details of the relations between Elizabeth and Seymour quickly became a matter of public knowledge, and Edward's councilors questioned Elizabeth to find out if she had participated in Seymour's conspiracy. The young princess maintained a quiet dignity even when, two weeks later, Seymour was beheaded for treason. No one has ever known how Elizabeth felt about Seymour and his execution; she had learned at a very early age to keep her thoughts and feelings to herself.
Imprisoned during Mary's rule
In 1553 Edward died at the age of fifteen. Mary, a devout Catholic, took the throne, determined to restore England to Catholicism. She soon became engaged to marry the heir to the Spanish throne, Philip II (1526–1598; see entry). It was a very unpopular marriage in England. Spain was the richest and most powerful nation in Europe. The English people, Catholic and Protestant alike, feared that Philip would make England a province of Spain. A group of English noblemen hastily planned to overthrow Mary before she could wed Philip and place Elizabeth on the throne. The effort failed, but it left Mary suspicious that Elizabeth had participated in the plot. The queen imprisoned her younger sister in the Tower of London. There Elizabeth spent two miserable months, sick and afraid for her life. When she was released, she was placed under house arrest at the home of one of her sister's loyal followers. Mary married Philip in 1554.
After a failed pregnancy Mary turned her attention to forcing Protestants to conform to the Catholic Church, beginning by enacting harsh laws against heresy, religious opinions that conflict with the church's doctrines. The most prominent religious leaders and statesmen of Edward's reign as well as more humble Protestants who refused to deny their religious beliefs were sentenced to burn at the stake. About three hundred people died in this manner during Mary's short rule, earning her the nickname "Bloody Mary." Many Protestants fled to Europe.
Elizabeth, living under constant watch, attended Catholic masses and kept her ideas about religion to herself. For good reason, she spent much of Mary's reign wondering if she would live to see the next day. Despite fears for her life, Elizabeth was observing the reigns of her brother and sister. If she succeeded to throne, Elizabeth did not wish to repeat their mistakes.
Elizabeth takes the throne
Mary died of cancer in 1558. English legend has it that when the lords arrived to bring Elizabeth the news, they found her reading a Bible under an oak tree in her garden. (The oak tree is an English symbol of the nation's stability and duration.) Upon hearing of Mary's death, Elizabeth fell to her knees, and the messengers heard her recite a verse from Psalm 118 in Latin: "This is the Lord's doing: and it is marvelous in our eyes" (as quoted in Peter Brimacombe's All the Queen's Men).
Mary had left the nation in poor shape. Its military powers were diminished, the royal government was deeply in debt, poverty was widespread, and the population had become bitterly divided by the rapid religious changes imposed by three monarchs in a row. Elizabeth got to work before her sister was buried. She began by reorganizing the Privy Council, the board of advisors that carried out the administrative function of the government in matters of economy, defense, foreign policy, and law and order, and its members served as the king's or queen's chief advisors. Elizabeth dismissed thirty of Mary's councilors. Her first appointment to the council was William Cecil (Lord Burghley; 1520–1598; see entry) as secretary of state and her chief advisor. No one but Elizabeth herself was to have greater power during her reign. Though Cecil began his office holding the firm belief that a woman alone could not rule England, he would serve Elizabeth faithfully for forty years. He was a voice for caution and moderation and a valuable counterbalance to some of the dashing, but rash, statesmen that flocked to Elizabeth's court. One of these courtiers, or royal attendants, was her long-time favorite, Robert Dudley (Earl of Leicester; 1532–1588; see entry), a childhood companion who was, in these first days, named Master of Horse. Cecil and Dudley would be at odds with each other for many years to come. Elizabeth seemed to enjoy the conflict and valued both of their points of view.
At her coronation, or crowning as queen, Elizabeth immediately demonstrated her royal dignity and her understanding of her subjects. She knew that many viewed her as the illegitimate child of Anne Boleyn and that few believed a woman was fit to lead them, but she gave no sign of self-doubt as she appeared before thousands of Londoners. Observers noted that Elizabeth gave her attention to each person, listening to the speeches of children, attentively watching the plays in her honor, accepting gifts, smiling upon all, and constantly stopping to offer her thanks for the outpouring of love she received. Somehow she appeared as both goddess and warm personal friend. At twenty-five the red-haired Elizabeth was very attractive. She was tall and slender, with high cheekbones and piercing dark eyes, and she was very proud of her beautiful long-fingered hands. She created a worthy royal display, wearing Mary's coronation garments of silk, gold, and ermine (a type of fur) under her own purple velvet robes. Thousands of attendants waited upon her, and all of them had been exquisitely outfitted in silk, gold, silver, and velvet.
The religious settlement of 1559
No one was certain what Elizabeth's personal religious beliefs were, but her goal was clear: she wished to create a united church in which all English people could worship. In her 1559 religious settlement she devised a compromise between the Catholics and the Protestants. Elizabeth's church retained some of the religious objects of Catholicism—the candles, crucifixes, priests' robes, and altars. But in Elizabethan England there would be no Catholic Mass, the service at which an ordained priest performs transubstantiation, blessing the Eucharist (bread and wine) and miraculously changing it into the blood and body of Christ, while maintaining the appearance of bread and wine. Protestants objected to this ceremony because they believed that only God, not human priests, could perform such miracles. Elizabeth restored the Book of Common Prayer, which set out all the services, ceremonies, and rituals of the new church. The book was from Edward VI's Protestant reign, but the wording was made so vague that Protestants and Catholics alike could follow their own beliefs while using it. Services of the new church were conducted in English, as opposed to the Latin Catholic services, and the translated Bible was readily available to all. Elizabeth intended to be the head of the new Anglican Church, but Parliament, England's legislative body, objected strongly to a woman serving in this role. Elizabeth compromised, calling herself the supreme governor of the church and leaving final decisions on religious matters to the church authorities.
Elizabeth made it known that she meant to enforce an outward appearance of conformity, and that everyone could believe as they wished as long as they were private about it. "There is only one Jesus Christ. The rest is a dispute over trifles," Elizabeth told a French diplomat, as quoted by Alison Weir in The Life of Elizabeth I. Nevertheless, the act made Protestantism the religion of England. Everyone in England was required to attend the local Anglican Church. For Catholics, these changes were unwelcome and for many Protestant reformers, the changes were not nearly enough. But most people accepted the religious compromise.
The question of succession
As soon as Elizabeth took the throne, Parliament and her Privy Council urged her to marry. They wanted an heir to the throne when she died, but that was not the only reason. Most believed that no woman could be a capable ruler. There were many suitors for the young and attractive queen of England. Her sister's husband, Philip, now the king of Spain, asked for her hand, as did the king of Sweden and the archduke of Austria. Elizabeth seems to have enjoyed the attention and did her best to keep her suitors guessing what her intentions were. But she repeatedly said she did not want a husband. She accepted her role as England's ruler and had no intention of sharing it. Furthermore there were problems with almost any choice of husband for Elizabeth. The English people did not want a foreign king, as she had seen when her sister married Philip; and Elizabeth considered most English matches beneath her.
There was one other problem. Elizabeth was apparently in love with her Master of Horse, Robert Dudley, whom she called her "Bonny Robin." Though Dudley was married when he took his post, he and Elizabeth spent hours together every day. Their intimacy raised eyebrows around the court. One of the first scandals of Elizabeth's reign occurred when Dudley's wife, who was ill with cancer, died under suspicious circumstances. Although an investigation found the death to be an accident, Elizabeth knew that suspicion remained, making marriage between Dudley and herself impossible. She made Dudley the earl of Leicester and gave him many powers in her court, remaining close to him through the years. In the meantime Elizabeth began to promote her image as the Virgin Queen, married only to her kingdom.
The queen and her court
Elizabeth's court traveled with her to her many palaces, usually consisting of from one thousand to fifteen hundred attendants and servants. The royal court was England's main place of government, business, entertainment, and art—in fact some have called it the center of English culture. Attending court was vital for all who wanted to advance their careers or be noticed. Along with statesmen and foreign representatives, the best musicians, artists, philosophers, and explorers were found at court. Young women of England's highest-ranking families sought positions at court as maids of honor. Their reward for a job well done was a marriage arranged by the queen. All who attended court dressed in the latest fashions and knew the proper manners to use in the presence of royalty. Elizabeth maintained regal magnificence in her court night and day. She believed the strength of her rule depended on a lavish display of grandeur. She dressed extravagantly and followed the elaborate royal traditions.
Elizabeth spent most of her day in the well-guarded Privy Chamber, where she conducted her business or entertained herself. Only a few privileged attendants could enter the Privy Chamber. Others met with the queen in the more public Great Hall, usually gaining entrance by paying one of her staff for the privilege.
Elizabeth was remarkably energetic. She loved sports, especially riding horses and hunting. She also loved to dance. Well into her sixties, she was frequently seen on the dance floor executing intricate hops and twirls with one of her favorites. Elizabeth's favorites were the many bold and handsome young men that she kept in her presence. Most were able flatterers, as well as good dancers, dressers, or horsemen. The queen enjoyed interesting young men who could challenge her intellect, and she preferred them to be handsome. She was very vain about her own looks. Males who wished her favor acted as though they were in love with her, even as she got older. Elizabeth expected a great deal of time and loyalty from her favorites. She had a fiery temper, once throwing a shoe in a tantrum. With her intimates she swore like a sailor, and spared no one from her sharp tongue when annoyed. But the queen also showed warm and loyal affection to her closest associates. Most of her attendants were genuinely drawn to her magnetic presence. Writer Sir John Harington (1561–1612), as quoted by Brimacombe, summarized: "When she smiled, it was a pure sunshine, that everyone did chose [choose] to bask in if they could."
Elizabeth applied her vast energy wholeheartedly to her work, involving herself in every detail of her rule, often working late into the night. Elizabeth's work included propaganda, or creating a persuasive heroic image of herself. She carefully staged her public appearances and made an effort to travel regularly to be seen by her people. During the summer she often took her whole court on progresses, lengthy and expensive visits to the estates of favored attendants.
Plots for the throne
Elizabeth's councilors constantly feared conspiracies to overthrow her. No one caused them more alarm than Mary Stuart (Queen of Scots; 1542–1587; see entry). Mary had become the queen of Scotland as an infant, but she was raised in France and at the age of fifteen had married the heir to the French throne. She was the great-granddaughter of Henry VII (1457–1509), Elizabeth's grandfather, and had a strong claim to the English throne. Mary, a devout Catholic, returned to rule Scotland in 1560 after the death of her husband.
In 1565 Mary married Henry Stewart, Lord Darnley (1545–1567), the next heir after herself to the English throne. Darnley was an arrogant man who drank too much and offended everyone, including his wife. The couple had a son, James (1566–1625). A year after their child was born, Darnley was murdered. Many in Scotland suspected Mary had been involved. When she married the man suspected of committing the murder, the Scottish people rose up against her and forced her to give up the throne in favor of her infant son, who then became James VI of Scotland. Mary fled to England in 1568, where she asked Elizabeth for protection.
Elizabeth had much to fear from her Scottish cousin. Spain, France, the Catholic Church in Rome, Catholics in England, and exiled English Catholics abroad would all have liked to see Mary take the English throne and restore Catholicism as the nation's official religion. Elizabeth's Privy Council urged her to send Mary back to Scotland where she would be imprisoned, but Elizabeth believed strongly in the God-given authority of kings and queens. She also viewed Mary as family and did not want to be the instrument of her downfall. Elizabeth placed Mary in the watchful care of some loyal followers. As feared, Mary became a symbol of the Catholic cause and the focus of several conspiracies against Elizabeth.
The first conspiracy arose in 1569 in the distant and largely Catholic northern provinces. The rebels successfully restored some northern cathedrals to Catholicism before Elizabeth gathered a large army to suppress the rebellion, which became known as the Northern Rising. More than four hundred northern rebels were executed. The Catholic Church in Rome had supported the uprising, and in 1570 Pope Pius V (1504–1572) belatedly excommunicated Elizabeth, calling on her Catholic subjects to rise against her. At the same time Philip II became involved in a plan, known as the Ridolfi plot, for Spain to invade England and install Mary Stuart on the throne. This conspiracy failed quickly. An uneasy peace, with Mary living in captivity, continued for fifteen more years. In 1586 Elizabeth's spymaster Francis Walsingham (1532–1590; see entry) intercepted a letter in which Mary consented to a plan to kill Elizabeth. She was found guilty of treason and Elizabeth reluctantly signed the death warrant. In 1587 Mary was beheaded. After so many plots, Elizabeth's government became far less tolerant of Catholics. Hundreds of English Catholics, many of them priests, who worked to promote Catholicism were executed.
War with Spain
Spain and England had traditionally been friendly with each other, but by the 1580s, tensions between them were high. The major reason was that Philip had dedicated himself to defending the Catholic faith, and he began to feel it a point of honor that he would one day restore England to Catholicism. But there was more to it than that. England was beginning to resent Spain's monopoly (exclusive right) on trade with the Americas. Spain's monopoly had made it immensely rich and powerful. Elizabeth began allowing English privateers to attack Spanish ships. (Privateers are seafarers who own and operate their own ships independently but are authorized by their government to raid the ships of enemy nations, often capturing the entire ship with all its cargo.) This practice infuriated Philip.
Protestants in the Spanish-dominated Netherlands rose up against Philip in 1585. They asked for Elizabeth's help, and she sent them troops in a direct confrontation with Spain. Philip began planning an invasion of England immediately. By early July 1588 the Spaniards had assembled the Great Armada, a fleet of one hundred and thirty vessels, and sailed for the English Channel. The English navy of about sixty-six ships set out to meet the Armada. The sea battle began on July 19, 1588. Although the English were outnumbered, their ships were smaller, faster, and easier to maneuver. They carried cannons on their decks that could damage enemy boats from a distance. The two navies fought for more than a week without a decisive battle. Then the English waged a second attack, setting fire to several ships and sending them directly into the Spanish fleet. The Armada scattered to avoid fires. Just as they were about to get back into position, a fierce windstorm arose, further scattering the remaining Armada. The Spanish fleet retreated only to face a severe storm. About thirty-five of the Spanish ships were lost. The English had won the fight.
Meanwhile, not knowing who was winning the battle at sea, England prepared for a Spanish invasion on its soil. Elizabeth, attended by Dudley, fearlessly rode to Tilbury, a camp at the mouth of the Thames River, to appear before her troops. Dressed in silver and white velvet and holding a silver helmet and the sword of state, she spoke to the soldiers from her white horse. The speech at Tilbury enthralled her troops and became one of the defining moments of the queen's reign.
Having defeated Europe's most powerful navy, England could claim to be the greatest sea power in the world. But as her nation celebrated, Elizabeth was cast into mourning. Dudley died two weeks after escorting her to Tilbury, and this loss was only the beginning of difficult times for the queen. As the years passed and more of her closest advisors died, the aging Elizabeth sank into loneliness and depression. She mourned the loss of her old governess, Kat Ashley, and her trusted advisor, William Cecil.
The last years
In her last decades Elizabeth continued to have young favorites such as the renowned explorer, poet, and statesman Walter Raleigh (1552–1618; see entry). Her strongest affection was given to a handsome but temperamental and highly ambitious young man, Robert Devereux (Earl of Essex; 1566–1601; see entry). Elizabeth granted Devereux many favors, but she did not place him in the powerful positions he wanted, probably distrusting his abilities. In 1599 Devereux convinced Elizabeth, against her better judgment, to give him command of a force intended to stop a rebellion in Ireland. The mission failed, with Devereux unaccountably making a truce with the enemy and returning to England without orders to do so. He soon found himself out of the queen's favor and denied access to her presence. Devereux found this disgrace too humiliating to endure. He organized a poorly planned rebellion against his queen and was arrested in the act of treason. Elizabeth, in her late sixties, was forced to sign the death warrant of her last favorite. Devereux was beheaded in 1601.
Though she wore a red wig to cover her thinning hair and thick white powder to cover her wrinkles, Elizabeth's magnificence faded in her old age. In the winter of 1603 she became ill. Refusing medical treatment and food, she prepared herself for the end. She died in her bed in March. James VI of Scotland was proclaimed King James I (see entry) of England a few hours after Elizabeth's death.
At the time of her death Elizabeth was sixty-nine and had ruled England for forty-five years. Her reign was over, but the culture that had found its center in her court continued to inspire humankind with its spirit of adventure and conquest and its thirst for the arts and theater. The image that Elizabeth had cultivated over the years as "Gloriana," the symbol of a newly discovered national pride in England, survived long after the queen was gone.
For More Information
Brimacombe, Peter. All the Queen's Men: The World of Elizabeth I. London: Sutton Publishing, 2000.
Schama, Simon. A History of Britain: At the Edge of the World? 3500 bce–1603 ce. New York: Hyperion, 2000.
Starkey, David. Elizabeth: The Struggle for the Throne. New York: HarperCollins, 2001.
Weir, Alison. The Life of Elizabeth I. New York: Ballantine Books, 1998.
"Elizabeth I." Historic Figures: BBC. http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/historic_figures/elizabeth_i_queen.shtml (accessed on July 11, 2006).
"Elizabeth I: Biography." http://www.elizabethi.org/uk/biography.html (accessed on July 11, 2006).
Rodriguez-Salgado, Mia and Joan Pau Rubies. "England Under Elizabeth." Kingship in the Modern World. London School of Economics and Political Science. http://www.fathom.com/course/21701738/sessionl.html (accessed on July 11, 2006).
September 7, 1533
March 24, 1603
Queen of England
"Though God hath raised me high, yet this I count the glory of my crown, that I have reigned with your loves…"
Elizabeth I was queen of England and Ireland for forty-five years. During her reign she preserved stability in a nation divided by political and religious dissension, and she maintained the authority of the monarchy (government headed by one ruler) against the growing pressures of Parliament (British law-making body). Educated as a humanist, she supported the Protestant religion in England. (Humanism was a movement devoted to reviving the culture of ancient Greece and Rome, which gave rise to the Renaissance. Protestantism is a Christian religion that resulted from efforts to reform the Roman Catholic Church.) Elizabeth was not an active patron of Renaissance artists, choosing to focus more on politics than on culture. She was careful with her money and did not spend it on promoting art, architecture, and literature. Nevertheless, Elizabeth's court and her personal tastes inspired many of the creative efforts that mark her culturally successful reign.
Early life troubled by father's actions
Born at Greenwich, on September 7, 1533, Elizabeth I was the daughter of King Henry VIII (1491–1547; see entry) and his second wife, Anne Boleyn (c. 1507–1536). Henry VIII is best known today for establishing the Anglican Church (Church of England) after the pope, the head of the Roman Catholic Church, refused to let him get a divorce. Immediately after becoming king, Henry married his first wife, Catherine of Aragon (1485–1536) a staunch Catholic from Spain, and for more than a decade they were happy together. They had a daughter, Mary Tudor (1516–1558; ruled as Mary I, 1553–58), but the king wanted a son because he did not believe Mary would be accepted as the next monarch. (According to the so-called Salic Law, only a male could be the legitimate heir to the throne.) In 1527 Henry began demanding a divorce from Catherine so he could marry Anne Boleyn, who was an attendant in the court of Queen Claude of France. Henry was having a secret affair with Boleyn, and he hoped she might bear him a son. Henry incorrectly believed it was a woman's fault if she did not give birth to a boy.
Since England was still a Catholic country, the pope's consent was required before Henry could get a divorce. Pope Clement VII (1478–1534; reigned 1523–34) refused to grant Henry' request. Finally, the king acted on advice from his chief minister, Thomas Cromwell (c. 1485–1540), and simply announced that the pope had no authority in England. Laws passed by the Reformation Parliament in 1533 and 1534 named the king Supreme Head of the Church and cut all ties with Catholicism. The Anglican Church thus became an independent national body, based on some of the teachings of German reformer Martin Luther (1483–1546; see entry), who initiated the Protestant Reformation in 1517. (The Protestant Reformation was a movement that began as an effort to make reforms within the Roman Catholic Church and resulted in the establishment of the Protestant faith, which is separate from Catholicism.) Previously, Henry had opposed Luther and was rewarded by the pope with the title "Defender of the Faith." Now he accepted a number of Lutheran doctrines, such as rejection of the pope as God's sole representative on Earth, making the Church of England a part of the Reformation.
Henry's desire for a male heir made Elizabeth's early life very precarious. In May 1536 her mother was beheaded. Then on July 1 Parliament declared that Elizabeth and Mary were illegitimate (born to a man and woman who are not legally married) and that the right to the throne should pass to Edward (1537–1553; ruled as King Edward VI, 1547–53) Henry's son with his third wife, Jane Seymour (c. 1509–1537). 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 unusually talented, notably in languages (she learned Latin, French, and Italian) and music.
Elizabeth had a difficult time after her half-brother took the throne as King Edward VI in 1547. When Henry VIII died in 1547 Edward was crowned King Edward VI. Early in his reign, Elizabeth became romantically involved with Thomas Seymour (c. 1598–1549), the lord high admiral (highest-ranking officer in the British navy). Seymour was Edward's uncle and was involved in a number of schemes to gain more power. He wanted to marry Elizabeth, and he was attempting to replace his brother Edward Seymour, as the young king's protector. Thomas was also trying to arrange for his own ward (a young person under the care of a guardian), Lady Jane Grey (1537–1554), to marry King Edward. In January 1549 Edward Seymour had Thomas arrested for challenging his authority as protector of the king. As a result of Thomas's activities Elizabeth herself came under suspicion, and she and her entire household (attendants and advisers) were subjected to intense questioning. Thomas Seymour was executed for treason (betrayal of one's country) later in 1547. During this period she experienced ill health but pursued her studies under her tutor, Roger Ascham (1515–1568). In 1553, following the death of Edward VI, Mary became Queen Mary I with the intention of leading the country back to Catholicism (see accompanying box). The young Elizabeth found herself involved in the complicated situations that accompanied these changes. Without her knowledge Thomas Wyatt (1503–1542), a Protestant, 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 of London (a prison for members of the royalty and nobility). After two months she was released against the wishes of Mary's advisers and placed in an old royal palace at Woodstock. Later she was allowed to take up residence once again at Hatfield, where she resumed her studies with Ascham. On November 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. At the time she came to the throne, however, the condition of the country was far from stable, both internationally and internally.
Deals with Catholic opposition
At the age of twenty-five 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 William Cecil (1520–1598; later Lord Burghley) as her chief secretary. Cecil was to remain her closest adviser. They both knew that England faced political obstacles in France and Spain, the two great European powers at the time. Elizabeth and Cecil also knew that the key to England's success lay in balancing France and Spain against each other. This would ensure that neither country could bring its full force to bear against England.
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 in England needed to be settled immediately, and it was debated in Elizabeth's first Parliament in 1559. Members of Parliament knew that keeping Catholicism as the official religion was not politically possible, which had been proven during Mary's reign. In 1559 Parliament passed the Acts of Supremacy and Conformity, which declared the Church of England as the official faith. This settlement represented more of a victory for Puritans than the queen desired. (The Puritans were a group of strict Protestants). 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 was the 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 Catholics on the surface. There was constantly the danger of a Catholic trying to take the throne. Elizabeth's foremost rival was her second cousin, Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots (1542–1587; ruled 1542–87), who was held in custody in England from 1568 until Elizabeth ordered her execution in 1587 (see accompanying box). During this entire time, Parliament repeatedly pressed Elizabeth for harsher legislation to control the Catholics. It is apparent that she successfully resisted these pressures. While legislation against Catholics did become progressively sterner, the queen was able to limit the severity of its enforcement and retained the loyalty of many English people who were sympathetic to Catholicism.
Mary Tudor took the throne as Queen Mary I in 1553. Like her mother Catherine of Aragon, Mary was pro-Spanish and Catholic. Soon after being crowned, she married Philip of Spain (soon to be King Philip II), but Parliament prevented him from taking the English throne along with his wife. Mary had widespread popular support, and she immediately began undoing reforms initiated by her father, King Henry VIII, and her brother King Edward VI. In 1553 she recognized the jurisdiction of the pope (head of the Roman Catholic Church in England). Many people supported Mary's restoration of the Catholic faith, believing that Edward's reign had gone too far in abolishing cherished ceremonies and beliefs.
Today Mary is best known as "Bloody Mary" because of her persecution (repression with violence) of Protestants. During her brief five-year reign nearly three hundred people were burned at the stake. This method of punishment, which was introduced by the Inquisition (an official Catholic Church court charged with finding heretics, or people who violate or oppose the teachings of the church), supposedly drove evil spirits out of the sinners. Many who refused to reject Protestant beliefs continued to worship secretly or fled to countries on the European continent. Others became involved in a series of plots against Mary's government. Protestant leaders looked to the queen's half-sister, Elizabeth, as a possible Protestant replacement. Mary then had Elizabeth arrested and sent to the Tower of London and then to Woodstock. Five years later Mary, who was now near death, named Elizabeth to be her successor.
For their part the Puritans waged a long battle in the church, in Parliament, and in the country at large for stricter enforcement of the Acts of Supremacy and Conformity. 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 religious settlement to great stress. The queen found that she could control Parliament through her councilors and the force of her own personality. It was, however, some time before she could control the church and the country as effectively. It was only with the naming of John Whitgift (1530–1604) as the Archbishop of Canterbury (head administrator of the Church of England) that she found her most effective weapon against the Puritans. With the majority of royal support, Whitgift was able to use the machinery of church courts to curb the Puritans. By the 1590s the Puritan movement was in serious trouble. Many of its prominent patrons were dead, and with the publication of Marprelate Tracts, a bitter satire (criticism with humor) against the monarchy, some Puritan leaders brought the movement into great disfavor.
Conducts effective foreign policy
When Elizabeth became queen, England was not strong enough militarily or economically to oppose either France or Spain. England was already at war with France, however, and Elizabeth quickly brought this conflict to a close. Throughout the early years of her reign, France appeared to be the chief foreign threat to England because of the French connections of Mary, Queen of Scots. The Scottish queen had lived at the French court and was educated in France. In 1560 Elizabeth signed the Treaty of Edinburgh, an alliance between England and Scotland, which eliminated the threat that France posed through Scotland. Wars between Catholics and Huguenots (French Protestants) in 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. If he assisted her, he would essentially be aiding his French rivals.
In the 1580s Spain emerged as the chief threat to England. During the years 1570 to 1585 there was neither war nor peace, but Elizabeth found herself under increasing pressure from Protestant activists to take a firmer line against Catholic Spain. She authorized voyages of privateers (private ships commissioned by a government to attack enemy shipping vessels) against Spanish shipping, which only served to increase tensions between the two countries. In 1585 Elizabeth decided to intervene on behalf of the Netherlands (Holland) in its revolt against Spain. She sent an expeditionary force to the Netherlands, an act that meant the temporary end of the queen's policy of balance and peace. The struggle against Spain culminated in the English defeat of the Spanish Armada (a fleet of heavily armored war ships) in 1588. The victory was due to a combination of luck, poor Spanish military decisions, and English skill. In some ways it marked the high point of Elizabeth's reign, and the period that followed has been called "the darker years."
The Tale of Two Queens
In 1568 Mary, Queen of Scots, fled into England to escape religious and political revolt being stirred up in her home country. Elizabeth's second cousin, Mary was the granddaughter of King Henry VII's sister Margaret and King James IV of Scotland. Mary was the rightful heir to Elizabeth's throne, but she was also a Catholic. Her presence was a political threat, especially in light of the English Parliament's continued efforts to marry off Elizabeth. The question of Elizabeth's marriage was largely responsible for England's foreign policy for the first twenty years of her reign. After 1578 her status as the "Virgin Queen" was accepted and celebrated by the poets of her court. Throughout this time, however, the Scottish queen would remain in England and be a constant source of political trouble. Finally Elizabeth was convinced, after the discovery of a treasonous plot, that Mary was conspiring against her. Elizabeth had Mary, Queen of Scots, executed in 1587.
The queen confronts problems
In spite of the spectacular defeat of the Spanish Armada, which established English dominance of the seas, Elizabeth encountered problems in the last part of her reign. During the 1590s she struggled to keep her government from going bankrupt (becoming unable to pay bills because of lack of funds). Yet she also spent excessive amounts of money on the "Cult of Gloriana" ("Gloriana" was a nickname given her by admirers), staging grand pageants and spectacles to impress the English people. Her final years were dominated by controversy surrounding one of her favorite courtiers (members of the court), Robert Devereux (1566–1601), earl of Essex. Essex had numerous clashes with William Cecil and his son, Robert Cecil (1563–1612). When William Cecil died in 1598, Elizabeth snubbed Essex and awarded her highest council post to Robert Cecil. Then in 1599 she placed Essex in command of a military force and sent him to Ireland to subdue Tyrone's Rebellion. This was a movement, led by Hugh O'Neill (c. 1540–1616), earl of Tyrone, to gain Irish independence from England. But Essex botched the job miserably. Not only did he refuse to follow Elizabeth's orders but he also signed an unauthorized truce with the rebels.
When Essex returned to England, Elizabeth reluctantly withdrew her support from him. In 1601 he attempted to stage a coup (overthrow of government) that would oust Cecil's party and put his own party in power around the queen. Essex sought aid from the army in Ireland and from King James VI (1566–1625) of Scotland. The plot failed, however, and Essex was arrested. He was put on trial and sentenced to death. After Elizabeth reluctantly signed the death warrant (document that authorizes a death sentence), Essex was executed. Another domestic problem was Parliament's fight over the granting of monopolies (exclusive control or possession of a trade or business). Elizabeth was able to head off the conflict by promising that she herself would institute reforms. In her famous "Golden Speech," which she delivered to her last Parliament, she proved that even in old age she had the power to win her people to her side. She said:
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.
These words concealed the reality of the end of Elizabeth's reign. Severe tensions did exist. The finances of the monarchy, exhausted by war since the 1580s, were in a sorry state, and the economic plight of the country was not much better. Parliament was already testing its power to dispute issues with the monarchy, though members did hold back, perhaps out of respect for the elderly queen. Religious tensions were hidden rather than removed. For all the greatness of her reign, it was a shaky inheritance that Elizabeth passed on to her successor, King James I (1566–1625; see entry)—the son of her former rival, Mary, Queen of Scots—when she died on March 24, 1603.
Reign marked by achievements
The long reign of Elizabeth I was darkened by the executions of Mary, Queen of Scots and Essex. Yet Elizabeth is best remembered for her accomplishments, such as strengthening the Anglican Church and keeping government finances stable. Most of all, she embodied the spirit of her people—a determination to survive and indeed prosper in the face of enormous odds. Elizabeth's court became the cultural center of its day, and her era was a time of unparalleled literary achievement. Edmund Spenser (see box in William Shakespeare entry) dedicated his masterpiece, the epic poem The Fairie Queen, to Elizabeth. Dramas by the playwright William Shakespeare (1564–1616) and his contemporaries rank among the highest achievements of the Elizabethan age.
During Elizabeth's reign England also began emerging as a great sea power, which eventually gave rise to the expansion of the British Empire over the next three centuries. The most famous exploits were made by the navigators John Hawkins (1532–1595) and Francis Drake (c. 1543–1596). Hawkins opened up English trade with islands in the Caribbean Sea in the New World (the European term for the Americas), and Drake circumnavigated (sailed around) the globe between 1577 and 1580. There were efforts to colonize Virginia, the territory in North America named in Elizabeth's honor. English settlers made three failed attempts to start a colony at Roanoke, an island off the coast of Virginia. The last group of colonists mysteriously disappeared. The first successful English colony in North America was Jamestown, Virginia, which was started in 1607 during the reign of Elizabeth's successor, James I.
For More Information
Brimacombe, Peter. All the Queen's Men: The World of Elizabeth I. New York: St. Martin's Press, 2000.
Plowden, Alison. The Young Elizabeth: The First Twenty-Five years of Elizabeth I. Stroud, Gloucestershire: Sutton, 1999.
Starkey, David. Elizabeth: The Struggle for the Throne. New York: Harper-Collins, 2001.
Thomas, Jane Resh. Behind the Mask: The Life of Queen Elizabeth I. New York: Clarion Books, 1998.
"Elizabeth I." Tudor Royal History.http://www.royalty.nu/Europe/England/Tudor/ElizabethI.html, April 5, 2002.
Halsall, Paul. "Elizabeth I." Modern History Sourcebook.http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/mod/elizabeth1.html, April 5, 2002.
Jokinen, Anniina. "Elizabeth I." Luminarium. [Online] Available http://www.luminarium.org/renlit/eliza.htm, April 5, 2002.
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 (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). □
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.
Queen of england
The Good Queen. Elizabeth I, known as the Virgin Queen or Good Queen Bess, was the reigning monarch of England from 1558 to 1603. A shrewd, calculating, manipulative woman, she instilled deep loyalty in her subjects with her grave majestic poise. She preserved the English nation against internal as well as external threats, and during her forty-five-year reign the island kingdom emerged as a world power. It is because of her influence that the latter half of the sixteenth century in England is known as the Elizabethan Age.
Early Years. Elizabeth was born on 7 September 1533, the daughter of Tudor king Henry VIII and his second wife, Anne Boleyn. Because Henry VIII had defied the Pope and married Boleyn in the hope of producing a male heir to the throne, he was bitterly disappointed in the birth of a second daughter. Before Elizabeth was three, the king had her mother beheaded and their marriage declared invalid. Although now considered an illegitimate child, Elizabeth was still third in line to the throne (after her half brother Edward and half sister Mary). She received tutoring from leading Renaissance scholars who noted the child’s intellect and seriousness. The humanist Roger Ascham wrote: “Her mind has no womanly weakness, her perseverence is equal to that of a man, and her memory long keeps what it quickly picks up.” In time she became fluent in Greek, Latin, French, and Italian.
Court Intrigue. Upon his father’s death in 1547, Edward VI became king of England; when he died in 1553, Elizabeth’s older sister assumed the throne. Mary Tudor, wife of Philip II of Spain and a devout Catholic, did not endear herself to her Protestant subjects. Consequently, many nobles as well as commoners saw Elizabeth as their savior. As for the queen’s sister, she professed her own Catholicism in order to avoid suspicion, but in 1554 she was arrested for plotting to overthrow the government and narrowly escaped execution.
Accession. On 17 November 1558 Mary died and Elizabeth became queen of England. One observer of her coronation procession into London noted: “If ever any person had either the gift or the style to win the hearts of people, it was this Queen, and if ever she did express the same it was at that present, in coupling mildness with majesty as she did, and in stately stooping to the meanest sort.” Elizabeth quickly surrounded herself with experienced and loyal advisers, including William Cecil (afterward Lord Burghley) who served the queen for forty years as secretary of state and lord treasurer. She followed a policy of avoiding conflict with Parliament and curtailing state expenditures, although she did see the need for a strong navy.
A Woman’s World. During her years as monarch, Elizabeth refused to compromise her power by taking a husband, although arranged marriages to various foreign as well as English noblemen were proposed to her at times. Nonetheless, some evidence suggests that she did develop romantic attachments to two men, Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, and Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex. The notion of Elizabeth as the Virgin Queen wedded to her kingdom gradually developed. The powerful personal image she engineered was one of female authority and regal magnificence combined with extravagant dress and rich jewels.
Religious Issues. Under Elizabeth, England was restored to Protestantism. In 1559 Parliament passed the Act of Supremacy, which revived the statutes of Henry VIII proscribing Catholicism and declared the queen supreme governor of the Church. Some Catholic aristocrats protested these measures, and in 1569 Elizabeth brutally suppressed a rebellion in northern England. Two years later informers uncovered the Ridolfi Plot, an international conspiracy against her life. Possible links to Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots, the granddaughter of Henry VIII’s sister Margaret and the nearest heir to the throne, soon surfaced. (Mary had been driven from Scotland in 1568 and had taken refuge in England.) English Protestants reviled the Catholic Mary and saw her as a serious threat, especially since Elizabeth had not produced a male heir.
Eliminating Mary. In 1580 Pope Gregory XIII proclaimed that there was no sin in killing the heretic Elizabeth, who had been excommunicated by Pope Pius V ten years earlier. Tensions with the Papacy increased after the English sent a small military expedition to assist Dutch Protestant rebels. When the Babington Plot against the queen was uncovered in 1586, secret correspondence in Mary’s handwriting was intercepted. In February 1587 Elizabeth caved into the outcry against the Queen of Scots as a menace to the realm and had Mary beheaded.
Diplomacy. An astute observer of international affairs, Elizabeth played a diplomatic game with England’s two chief rivals, France and Spain. However, persecution of Mary’s adherents at home and a foreign policy of strengthening Protestant allies abroad ensured the wrath of the Roman Catholic nations, especially Spain. Privateers led by Sir Francis Drake and others raided Spanish shipping and ports, and by the mid 1580s it became clear that war was inevitable between the two countries. When Philip II launched the ill-fated Spanish Armada in 1588, the English navy quickly defeated it.
Successor. In her last years Elizabeth suffered much from ill health. Her principal counselor, Sir Robert Cecil, the son of Lord Burghley, secretly corresponded with the likeliest claimant to the throne, James VI of Scotland. Elizabeth supposedly indicated James VI as her successor before dying quietly on 24 March 1603.
Christopher Haigh, ed., The Reign of Elizabeth I (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1985).
Jasper Ridley, Elizabeth I: The Shrewdness of Virtue (New York: Fromm International, 1989).
Queen of England
The early years of Elizabeth's life were fraught with problems, largely brought about by the tempestuous marital career of her father, Henry VIII. Daughter of Henry's second wife, Anne Boleyn, Elizabeth had been conceived officially out of wedlock, and with the execution of her mother she grew up in the company of governesses and tutors, largely ignored by her father. Her early life was troubled, and during the reign of her sister, Mary Tudor, she was even suspected of treason. These problems left her ill-prepared for assuming the throne, but in 1558 Mary's death put Elizabeth in control of the state nonetheless, and despite ongoing problems she fashioned an enormously effective domination of her country.
Religion and Politics.
The advances that Elizabeth made in English government are too complex to be all but suggested here. In place of the religious factionalism and infighting that had dominated court and parliament during the previous 25 years, Elizabeth gradually achieved a mediating settlement that became styled as the via media or "middle way." In a famous statement she was alleged to have said that she had no intention of "making windows onto men's souls," and so she cautiously reintroduced the Protestant Book of Common Prayer, with conciliatory nods toward Catholics. As her policy matured, she threatened those who questioned her moderate religious policy with fines, rather than death, although a number of staunch and prominent Catholics were indeed executed during her reign. During the Elizabethan period, too, the Puritans grew as an opposition party in Parliament. Although Elizabeth I skillfully maintained power despite their demands for increasingly definite Protestant reforms, she left her successor James I with many issues unresolved in this regard. At court, Elizabeth often played nobles against one another, but she was criticized for her pattern of favoring a succession of male courtiers. Some of these, like Robert Dudley, were married, inspiring rumors about her sexual depravity. At home, Elizabeth tried unsuccessfully to curb the changing styles and expensive fashions of her subjects. On many occasions she reissued her sumptuary laws, which were designed to designate status by limiting the consumption of rare and expensive items to the upper nobility. The constant reissuing of these royal edicts, however, demonstrates their ineffectiveness, although their prohibitions against imported items stand as evidence of the growing mercantilist spirit of her day. Mercantilism promoted the economic self-sufficiency of a country by trying to drastically reduce a country's imports.
Although Elizabeth cut a rather austere figure at the outset of her reign, she adopted a fashion of dress that was increasingly grand as her reign progressed. An inventory conducted of her clothes before her death showed she had more than 500 gowns, and it was rumored that she had more than 3,000 of these elaborate dresses created during her reign. Tudor dress, like all sixteenth-century court clothing, was complex and many layered. Numerous items that made up an ensemble were reused year after year in new guises, thus much of the gem-embroidered finery in which Elizabeth was often depicted in her portraits were reusable. At the end of a season her maids carefully trimmed away the beads and other precious gems to be used in the next year's fashionable creations. Her clothing also had added use as costumes for the immensely popular court masques of the time or her dresses were passed on to courtiers for favors rendered. Thus while the scale of Tudor life was grand—clothing costs totaled almost £10,000 annually in the final years of Elizabeth's reign—the tenor of court life in England was more reserved than elsewhere in Europe.
Elizabeth I came to power in England at a time when feminine monarchy was controversial throughout Europe, and yet she managed in the 35 years of her reign to place her indelible stamp on the Tudor court and on her nation. She was more than adept at skillfully handling her opponents and in using faction to her own advantage. Internationally, Elizabeth largely kept England out of many continental intrigues, but in the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588 she placed a powerful imprint on the politics of the sixteenth century. That victory, although only momentary since England fought Spain for another ten years, provided an enormous boost to the morale of Protestant states in Northern Europe. Under Elizabeth's guidance, a Protestant prince had succeeded in taking on the greatest Catholic power of the age. Her period also coincided with an unprecedented growth in English literature and the rise of the professional theater in London. Both institutions benefited from the relative peace and stability that Elizabeth provided as well as from her tangible patronage. At the same time, the queen was also imperious, stubborn, and vain. In her old age, for example, she dismissed the Earl of Essex from her patronage after he surprised her in her chambers and saw her without her makeup and wig. By this date the bloom of Elizabeth's reign had long since faded, and her popularity had waned, both among her courtiers who rarely received financial advantage from her, and among her subjects, who were by this time heavily taxed to pay for the golden aura of her court.
P. Johnson, Elizabeth I (New York: Holt, 1974).
C. Levin, The Heart and Stomach of a King (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1994).
W. McCaffrey, Elizabeth I (London, England: 1993).
Elizabeth I ★★★ 2005
Mirren gives an outstanding performance as the imperious British monarch. In 1579, Elizabeth is being pressured to marry, but not her lover and confidante, the Earl of Leicester (Irons). Matters are complicated by the rebellion of her cousin, Mary Queen of Scots (Flynn), and war with Spain. On his deathbed, Leicester bequeaths his relationship to his handsome and arrogant stepson, the Earl of Essex (Dancy). Flattered and flustered, Elizabeth gradually realizes that the callow Essex is a threat to her throne. 220m/C DVD . Helen Mirren, Jeremy Irons, Hugh Dancy, Ian McDiarmid, Patrick Mala-hide, Barbara Flynn, Toby Jones; D: Tom Hooper; W: Nigel Williams; C: Larry Smith; M: Robert (Rob) Lane. CABLE