Biography of Queen Elizabeth I, Virgin Queen of England

Queen Elizabeth I

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Elizabeth I (Born Princess Elizabeth; September 7, 1533–March 24, 1603) was Queen of England and Ireland from 1558 to 1603, the last of the Tudor monarchs. She never married and consciously styled herself as the Virgin Queen, wedded to the nation. Her reign was marked by immense growth for England, especially in world power and cultural influence.

Fast Facts: Queen Elizabeth I

  • Known For: Queen of England from 1558–1603, known for defeating the Spanish Armada and encouraging cultural growth
  • Also Known As: Princess Elizabeth, the Virgin Queen
  • Born: September 7, 1533 in Greenwich, England
  • Parents: King Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn
  • Died: March 24, 1603 in Richmond, England
  • Education: Educated by William Grindal and Roger Ascham, among others
  • Published Works: Letters, speeches, and poems (collected in modern times in the volume, Elizabeth I: Collected Works
  • Notable Quote: "I know I have the body of a weak and feeble woman, but I have the heart and stomach of a king and of a king of England too.”

Early Life

On September 7, 1533, Anne Boleyn, then Queen of England, gave birth to the Princess Elizabeth. She was baptized three days later and was named after her paternal grandmother, Elizabeth of York. The princess's arrival was a bitter disappointment, as her parents had been certain that she would be a boy, the son Henry VIII so desperately wanted and had married Anne to have.

Elizabeth rarely saw her mother and before she was 3, Anne Boleyn was executed on trumped-up charges of adultery and treason. The marriage was declared invalid and Elizabeth was then declared illegitimate, as her half-sister, Mary, had been, and reduced to the title of "Lady" instead of "Princess."

Despite this, Elizabeth was educated under some of the most highly regarded educators of the time, including William Grindal and Roger Ascham. By the time she had reached her teens, Elizabeth knew Latin, Greek, French, and Italian. She was also a talented musician, able to play the spinet and lute. She even composed a little.

Restored to the Line of Succession

After Henry fathered a son, an act of Parliament in 1543 restored Mary and Elizabeth to the line of succession, though it did not restore their legitimacy. When Henry died in 1547, Edward, his only son, succeeded to the throne.

Elizabeth went to live with Henry’s widow, Catherine Parr. When Parr became pregnant in 1548, she sent Elizabeth away to set up her own household, following incidents of her husband, Thomas Seymour, apparently attempting to groom or seduce Elizabeth.

After Parr’s death in 1548, Seymour began scheming to achieve more power and secretly plotted to marry Elizabeth. After he was executed for treason, Elizabeth experienced her first brush with scandal and had to endure rigorous investigation. After the scandal passed, Elizabeth spent the rest of her brother’s reign living quietly and respectably, 

A Focal Point for Discontent

Edward VI attempted to disinherit both his sisters, favoring his cousin Lady Jane Grey for the throne. However, he did so without the backing of Parliament and his will was patently illegal, as well as unpopular. After his death in 1533, Mary succeeded to the throne and Elizabeth joined her triumphant procession. Unfortunately, Elizabeth soon lost favor with her Catholic sister, likely due to English Protestants seeing her as an alternative to Mary.

Because Mary wed her Catholic cousin, Philip II of Spain, Thomas Wyatt (the son of one of Anne Boleyn's friends) led a rebellion, which Mary blamed on Elizabeth. She sent Elizabeth to the Tower of London, where criminals including Elizabeth's mother had awaited execution. With no evidence found against her, and Queen Mary’s husband viewing her as an asset for a political marriage, Elizabeth avoided execution and was released. Mary suffered a false pregnancy in 1555, leaving Elizabeth all but certain to inherit.

Elizabeth I Becomes Queen

Mary died on November 17, 1558, and Elizabeth inherited the throne, the third and final of Henry VIII’s children to do so. Her procession into London and coronation were masterpieces of political statement and planning, and her accession was treated warmly by many in England who hoped for greater religious toleration.

Elizabeth quickly assembled a Privy Council and promoted a number of key advisors: One, William Cecil (later Lord Burghley), was appointed principal secretary. Their partnership would prove to be fruitful and he remained in her service for 40 years.

The Marriage Question

One question that dogged Elizabeth, particularly in the early part of her reign, was the question of succession. Numerous times, the parliament presented her with official requests that she marry. Most of the English population hoped that marriage would solve the problem of a woman ruling.

Women were not believed to be capable of leading forces into battle. Their mental powers were considered to be inferior to men. Men often gave Elizabeth unsolicited advice, particularly in regards to the will of God, which only men were believed to be able to interpret.

Elizabeth I’s Image

Despite the frustration, Elizabeth governed with her head. She knew how to use courtship as a useful political tool, and she wielded it masterfully. Throughout her life, Elizabeth had a variety of suitors. The closest she came to marriage was likely with longtime friend Robert Dudley, but that hope ended when his first wife died mysteriously and Elizabeth had to distance herself from scandal. In the end, she refused to marry and also refused to name a political successor.

Elizabeth cultivated the image of herself as the Virgin Queen wedded to her kingdom, and her speeches made great use of romantic languages, such as "love," in defining her role. The campaign was entirely successful, maintaining Elizabeth as one of England’s best-loved monarchs.

Religion

Elizabeth’s reign marked a change from Mary’s Catholicism and a return to the policies of Henry VIII, whereby the English monarch was head of an English church. The Act of Supremacy in 1559 began a process of gradual reform, effectively creating the Church of England.

As part of her path of reform in the church, Elizabeth famously declared that she would tolerate all but the most radical sects. She demanded only outward obedience, unwilling to force consciences. This wasn’t enough for more extreme Protestants, and Elizabeth faced criticism from them.

Mary, Queen of Scots and Catholic Intrigue

Elizabeth’s decision to adopt Protestantism earned her condemnation from the pope, who gave permission for her subjects to disobey and even kill her. This inflamed numerous plots against Elizabeth’s life, a situation exacerbated by Mary, Queen of Scots. Mary Stuart, Elizabeth’s Catholic cousin, was the granddaughter of Henry’s sister and was seen by many to be a Catholic heir to the throne.

In 1568, Mary fled Scotland after her marriage to Lord Darnley ended in murder and a suspicious remarriage, and she begged for Elizabeth's help to be restored to power. Elizabeth didn’t want to return Mary to full power in Scotland, but she didn’t want the Scots to execute her, either. She kept Mary in confinement for 19 years, but her presence in England proved to be detrimental to the precarious religious balance within the country, as Catholics used her as a rallying point.

Mary was the focus of plots to kill Elizabeth during the 1580s. Although Elizabeth resisted calls to accuse and execute Mary at first, ultimately, she was persuaded by evidence that Mary had been party to the plots, not just an unwilling figurehead. Still, Elizabeth fought against signing the execution warrant until the bitter end, going so far as to encourage private assassination. After the execution, Elizabeth claimed that the warrant was dispatched against her wishes; whether that was true or not is unknown.

War and the Spanish Armada

England’s Protestant religion put it at odds with neighboring Catholic Spain and, to a lesser extent, France. Spain was involved in military plots against England and Elizabeth came under pressure from home to become involved with defending other Protestants on the continent, which on occasion she did.

The execution of Mary Stuart convinced Philip in Spain that it was time to conquer England and restore Catholicism within the country. Stuart’s execution also meant that he would not have to put an ally of France on the throne. In 1588, he launched the infamous Armada.

Elizabeth went to Tilbury Camp to encourage her troops, declaring:

“I know I have the body of a weak and feeble woman, but I have the heart and stomach of a king, and a king of England too, and think foul scorn that Parma or Spain, or any prince of Europe, should dare invade the borders of my realm…” 

In the end, England defeated the Armada and Elizabeth was victorious. This would prove to be the climax of her reign: Only a year later, the same Armada all but destroyed the English Navy.

Ruler of the Golden Age

The years of Elizabeth’s rule are often referred to simply using her name—The Elizabethan Age. Such was her profound effect on the nation. The period is also called the Golden Age, for these years saw England rise to the status of world power thanks to voyages of exploration and economic expansion.

Toward the end of her reign, England experienced a blossoming literary culture. Edward Spenser and William Shakespeare were both supported by the queen and likely drew inspiration from their regal leader. Architecture, music, and painting also experienced a boom in popularity and innovation. The presence of her strong and balanced rule facilitated this. Elizabeth herself wrote and translated works.

Problems and Decline

The last 15 years of her reign were the hardest on Elizabeth, as her most trusted advisers died and younger courtiers struggled for power. Most infamously, a former favorite, the Earl of Essex, led a poorly-plotted rebellion against the queen in 1601. It failed miserably and he was executed.

Toward the very end of Elizabeth’s long reign, national problems began to grow. Consistently poor harvests and high inflation damaged both the economic situation and belief in the queen, as did anger at the alleged greed of court favorites.

Death

Elizabeth held her final Parliament in 1601. In 1602 and 1603, she lost several dear friends, including her cousin Lady Knollys (granddaughter of Elizabeth's aunt Mary Boleyn). Elizabeth experienced ever more depression, something she had experienced her entire life.

She declined notably in health and died on March 24, 1603. She was buried in Westminster Abbey in the same tomb as her sister Mary. She had never named an heir, but her cousin James VI, the Protestant son of Mary Stuart, succeeded to the throne and was likely her preferred successor.

Legacy

Elizabeth has been remembered more for her successes than her failures and as a monarch that loved her people and was much loved in return. Elizabeth was always revered and seen as almost divine. Her unmarried status often led to comparisons of Elizabeth with the Roman goddess Diana, the Virgin Mary, and even a Vestal Virgin.

Elizabeth went out of her way to cultivate a wider public. In the early years of her reign, she often went out to the country on annual visits to aristocratic houses, showing herself to most of the public along the road in the country and townsfolk of southern England.

In poetry, she has been celebrated as an English embodiment of feminine strength associated with such mythic heroines as Judith, Esther, Diana, Astraea, Gloriana, and Minerva. In her personal writings, she showed wit and intelligence.

Throughout her reign, she proved to be a capable politician and she reigned for almost half a century. She consistently maintained her control on government, remaining cordial with parliament and ministers, but never allowing them to control her. Much of Elizabeth’s reign was a careful balancing act between both factions of her own court as well as with other nations.

Keenly aware of the increased burdens due to her gender, Elizabeth managed to construct a complex persona that awed and charmed her subjects. She portrayed herself very much as her father’s daughter, fierce if need be. Elizabeth was lavish in her presentation, part of her brilliantly orchestrated campaign to mold her image and retain power. She impresses people even today and her name has become synonymous with strong women.

Sources

  • Collinson, Patrick. "Elizabeth I." Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford University Press, 2004. 
  • Dewald, Jonathan, and Wallace MacCaffrey. "Elizabeth I (England)." Europe 1450 to 1789: Encyclopedia of the Early Modern World. Charles Scribner's Sons, 2004. 
  • Kinney, Arthur F., David W. Swain, and Carol Levin. "Elizabeth I." Tudor England: an encyclopedia. Garland, 2001. 
  • Gilbert, Sandra M., and Susan Gubar. "Queen Elizabeth I." The Norton Anthology of Literature by Women: The Traditions in English. 3. ed. Norton, 2007.