Elizabeth I 1533–1603

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Elizabeth I

Elizabeth I, who became queen of England in 1558 at the age of twenty-five, was the first English queen since the Norman Conquest who not only ruled but ruled alone, unmarried. Her older half-sister Mary was queen before her, but Mary married her cousin Philip II of Spain, and she faced great hostility to the foreign marriage and to her insistence on England becoming Catholic once again. Elizabeth's reign, while it had its problems, also was remarkable for its successes in establishing a religious settlement, in defeating the Spanish Armada, and in encouraging a cultural renaissance. Many of the English people adored their queen, but her unmarried state and her assertion of living her life as she wished, including flirtations and a refusal to deal with the succession, led to much cultural anxiety during her reign that expressed itself in gossip, rumors, and slander concerning her gender and sexuality.

From her very early childhood, Elizabeth had to learn to navigate the dangers of sexuality and power. She was not even three years old when her mother, Anne Boleyn, second wife of Henry VIII, was executed for adultery—on highly doubtful evidence—with five different men. Elizabeth was declared illegitimate, and less than two weeks later her father married Jane Seymour, who gave him the son, Edward, he so craved. Jane died soon after the birth. Henry divorced his next wife, Anne of Cleves, in part because he did not find her attractive. His fifth wife, Catherine Howard, was also executed for adultery when Elizabeth was eight. Perhaps it is little wonder that that year she said to Robert Dudley, her childhood friend who was to be her romantic favorite at court for much of her reign, "I will never marry."

Henry VIII died in 1547. Elizabeth was in danger in the reign of her younger brother Edward, particularly when she was accused of planning to marry Thomas Seymour, brother of Henry's third wife, Jane, and widower of Henry's sixth and last wife, Catherine Parr, without the Privy Council's consent. While Seymour was executed for other conspiracies, the fifteen-year-old Elizabeth protected herself and her servants. Told there were rumors she was pregnant by Seymour, instead of falling apart she insisted the council send out a proclamation that cleared her name.

But the rumors about Elizabeth's supposed pregnancies and lovers, which began circulating when she was in her early teens, continued to be discussed throughout the rest of her life, particularly once she became queen. Some English were arrested for publicly claiming Elizabeth had lovers and illegitimate children. The most frequently mentioned supposed lover was Dudley, whom she even-tually created Earl of Leicester, but others included Sir Christopher Hatton and, toward the end of her life, Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex. Especially the Queen's Catholic enemies on the Continent described Elizabeth as a "whore" because of her many lovers. At the same time other rumors circulated that "she was not like other women," that her monthly periods were not only irregular but came from a wound in the thigh, or that she was unable to actually have intercourse.

Some argued that Elizabeth did not listen to her male councilors as a woman ought to do, while others were concerned that the men at court who were thought to be her lovers, or a foreign husband should she marry, would overly dominate Elizabeth, even while many were begging Elizabeth to marry. But Elizabeth in the end made her own decisions. Elizabeth's refusal to marry, though she flirted with the idea for more than twenty years, and her equal refusal to name an heir, added to the cultural anxiety and to the rumors that spread. But Elizabeth was also a greatly loved monarch who kept England at peace for many years; her country was not torn apart by religious civil wars as happened to neighboring Scotland and France. At her death in 1603 there was a smooth transition to her cousin James VI of Scotland and I of England, and many sighed with relief that England again had a king. Yet within a few years there was a great nostalgia for "Good Queen Bess," and such distress about the Stuart dynasty that by the mid-seventeenth century some wished wistfully that Elizabeth had had a child—legitimate or no, it did not matter.

see also Allegory; Gender Roles: I. Overview; Royalty.


Frye, Susan. 1993. Elizabeth I: The Competition for Representation. New York: Oxford University Press.

Levin, Carole. 1994. The Heart and Stomach of a King: Elizabeth I and the Politics of Sex and Power. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Levin, Carole; Jo Eldridge Carney; and Debra Barrett-Graves, eds. 2003. Elizabeth I: Always Her Own Free Woman. Aldershot, UK: Ashgate.

Marcus, Leah S.; Janel Mueller; and Mary Beth Rose, eds. 2000. Elizabeth I: Collected Works. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Watkins, John. 2002. Representing Elizabeth in Stuart England: Literature, History, Sovereignty. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

                                            Carole Levin

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Elizabeth I 1533–1603

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Elizabeth I 1533–1603