Queen Elizabeth I

England's Virgin Queen

Queen Elizabeth I - from the Armada portrait attributed to George Gower
Queen Elizabeth I - from the Armada portrait attributed to George Gower. Hulton Fine Art Collection/Ann Ronan Pictures/Print Collector/Getty Images

Elizabeth I Facts

Known For: Elizabeth was the queen of England and accomplished many things during her reign (1558-1603), including defeating the Spanish Armada.
Dates: 1533-1603
Parentage: Henry VIII, king of England and France, and his second wife, Anne Boleyn, queen of England, daughter of Thomas Boleyn, earl of Wiltshire and Ormond, courtier and nobleman. Elizabeth had a half-sister, Mary (daughter of Catherine of Aragon) and a brother, Edward VI (son of Jane Seymour, Henry’s only legitimate son)
Also Known As: Elizabeth Tudor, Good Queen Bess

Early Years

Elizabeth I was born on September 7, 1533 and would be the only surviving child of Anne Boleyn. She was baptized on September 10th and was named after her grandmother, Elizabeth of York. Elizabeth I was a bitter disappointment as her parents had been certain that she would be a boy, the one Henry VIII so desperately wanted.

Elizabeth rarely saw her mother and before she was three, Anne Boleyn was executed on trumped up charges of adultery and treason. Elizabeth was then declared illegitimate, as her half-sister, Mary, had been. 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, and even composed a little.

An act of Parliament in 1543 restored Mary and Elizabeth to the line of succession though it did not restore their legitimacy.

Henry died in 1547 and 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, having become uncomfortable with her husband’s over familiarity with young Elizabeth.

After Parr’s death in 1548, Seymour began scheming to achieve more power and one of his plans was to marry Elizabeth. After he was executed for treason, Elizabeth experienced her first brush with scandal and had to endure rigorous investigation. Not being allowed to show herself in court, Elizabeth was forced to wait out the scandal. After it had passed, Elizabeth spent the rest of her brother’s reign living quietly and dressing simplistically, eschewing jewelry and gaining a reputation as a respectable lady.

Succession to the Throne

Edward 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 procession. Unfortunately, Elizabeth soon lost favor with her Catholic sister, likely due to England seeing her as the Protestant alternative to Mary.

When Mary wed her cousin, Philip II of Spain, Thomas Wyatt led a rebellion, which Mary blamed on Elizabeth. She sent Elizabeth to the Tower. Staying in the same apartments that her mother had waited in during her own trial and before her execution, Elizabeth feared the same fate.

After two months, nothing could be proven and likely at the urging of her husband, Mary released her sister. After Mary’s death, Elizabeth peacefully inherited the throne.

After experiencing constant religious persecution and war under Mary, the English hoped for a new beginning with Elizabeth. She began her reign with a theme of national unity. Her first act was to appoint William Cecil as her principle secretary, which would prove to be a long and fruitful partnership.

Elizabeth decided to follow a path of reform in the church settlement in 1559. She favored restoring the Edwardian religious settlement. The nation at large accepted the reestablishing of Protestant worship. Elizabeth demanded only outward obedience, unwilling to force consciences. She was mostly easygoing about this decision and it was only after a number of plots on her life that she enacted harsher legislation.

There are a number of historical perspectives on Elizabeth’s own faith. Many Elizabethan historians have pointed out that if she was a Protestant, she was a strange sort of Protestant. She disliked preaching immensely, which is an important part of the faith. Many Protestants were disappointed in her legislation, but Elizabeth was not concerned about doctrine or practice. Her primary concern was always public order, which required religious uniformity. Instability in religion would unsettle political order.

The Question of Marriage

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. Elizabeth was often confronted with such sexist ideas and believed to be unable to comprehend such matters of governance. Men often gave her unsolicited advice, particularly in regards to the will of God, which only men were believed to be able to interpret.

Despite the frustration this must have caused, 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 and she often used her unmarried status to her advantage. The closest she came to marriage was likely with Robert Dudley, a relationship that rumors swirled around for years.

In the end, she refused to marry and also refused to name a political successor. Many have speculated that her reluctance to marry could have been due to her own father’s example. It is possible that from an early age, Elizabeth equated marriage with death. Elizabeth herself declared that she was married to her kingdom and England would be fine with an unmarried ruler.

Her problems with religion and succession would become interconnected in the Mary Queen of Scots affair. Mary Stuart, Elizabeth’s Catholic cousin, was the granddaughter of Henry’s sister and seen by many to be the rightful heir to the throne. At the beginning of Elizabeth’s reign, Mary had asserted her claim to English succession. After returning to her homeland in 1562, the two queens had an uneasy but civil relationship. Elizabeth had even offered her favorite courtier to Mary as a husband.

In 1568, Mary fled Scotland after her marriage to Lord Darnley ended in bloody drama and she put herself in Elizabeth’s hands, hoping 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 nineteen years, but her presence in England proved to be detrimental to the precarious religious balance within the country.

After Mary became involved in a plot against the queen’s life, the Court clamored for her death and Elizabeth found it impossible to resist. She fought against signing the execution warrant until the bitter end, going so far as to encourage private assassination.

After a momentary yielding, that Elizabeth would likely have had a change of heart about, her ministers had Mary beheaded. Elizabeth was infuriated at them, but could do little after the execution had been carried out.

The execution 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.

With the launching of the Armada, Elizabeth experienced one of the greatest moments in her reign. In 1588, she went to Tilbury Camp to encourage the troops, infamously declaring that though she had “the body of a weak and feeble woman, 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…” (Tudor England: An Encyclopedia, 225). In the end, England defeated the Armada and Elizabeth was victorious. This would prove to be the climax of Elizabeth’s reign.

Later Years

The last fifteen years of her reign were the hardest on Elizabeth. Her most trusted advisers died. Some of the younger men in court began to struggle for power. Most infamously, Essex led a poorly planned and executed rebellion against the queen in 1601. It failed miserably and he was executed.

Towards 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. Aside from literature, architecture, music, and painting were also experiencing much popularity.

Elizabeth held her final Parliament in 1601. She died on March 24th, 1603. She had never named an heir. Her cousin, James VI, the son of Mary Stuart, ascended to the throne after Elizabeth.


Elizabeth has been remembered more for her successes. She is mostly remembered 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 Diana, the Virgin Mary, and even a Vestal Virgin (Tuccia).

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 shows wit and intelligence. Throughout her reign, she proved to be a capable politician.

Against all the odds, Elizabeth managed to use her gender to her advantage. She was able to face the numerous problems her confronting her kingdom in 1558. She reigned for almost half a century, always surmounting whatever challenges stood in her way. Keenly aware of the increased burdens due to her gender, Elizabeth managed to construct a complex personality that awed and charmed her subjects. She impresses people even today and her name has become synonymous with strong women.

Sources Consulted

Collinson, Patrick. "Elizabeth I." Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 2004. 95-129. Print.

Dewald, Jonathan, and Wallace MacCaffrey. "Elizabeth I (England)." Europe 1450 to 1789: Encyclopedia of the Early Modern World. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 2004. 447-250. Print.

Kinney, Arthur F., David W. Swain, and Carol Levin. "Elizabeth I." Tudor England: an encyclopedia. New York: Garland, 2001. 223-226. Print.

Gilbert, Sandra M., and Susan Gubar. "Queen Elizabeth I." The Norton Anthology of Literature by Women: The Traditions in English. 3. ed. New York: Norton, 2007. 65-68. Print.

Recommended Reading

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

Weir, Alison. The Life of Elizabeth I. New York: Ballantine, 1998. Print.