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

Born Elizabeth Tudor, Queen Elizabeth I of England (September 7, 1533 - March 24, 1603) was one of the most influential English monarchs and the last Tudor ruler. Her reign was marked by immense growth for England, especially in world power and cultural influence.

Early Years

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 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, 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, 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, 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, 

Succession to the Throne

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 Protestant 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, where criminals including Elizabeth's mother had awaited execution. After two months, nothing could be proven, so Mary released her sister.

Mary suffered a false pregnancy in 1555, leaving Elizabeth all but certain to inherit. After Mary’s death in 1558, Elizabeth peacefully inherited the throne. She began her reign with a hope of national unity. Her first act was to appoint William Cecil as her principal secretary, which would prove to be a long and fruitful partnership.

Elizabeth decided to follow a path of reform in the church, famously declaring that she would tolerate all but the most radical sects. Elizabeth demanded only outward obedience, unwilling to force consciences. After a number of Catholic plots against her later in her reign, however, she enacted harsher legislation. Ultimately, her primary concern was always public order, which required religious uniformity to some degree. Instability in religious matters 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. Men often gave Elizabeth unsolicited advice, particularly in regards to the will of God, which only men were believed to be able to interpret.

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 and she often used her unmarried status to her advantage. 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, declaring that she was married to her kingdom alone.

Cousins and Queens

Elizabeth's problems with religion and succession became 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 a Catholic heir to the throne. After returning to her homeland in 1562, the two queens had an uneasy but civil relationship. Elizabeth had even offered Robert Dudley to Mary as a husband.

In 1568, Mary fled Scotland after her marriage to Lord Darnley ended in murder and 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 nineteen 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.

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.

Elizabeth went to Tilbury Camp to encourage her 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…” 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.

Later Years

The last fifteen 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.

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. Architecture, music, and painting also experienced a boom in popularity and innovation.

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 died on March 24, 1603 and 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 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 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 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.

Elizabeth I Fast Facts

Known For: Elizabeth was the queen of England and accomplished many things during her reign (1558-1603), including defeating the Spanish Armada and encouraging cultural growth.
Born: September 7, 1533 in Greenwich, England
Died: March 24, 1603 in Richmond, England
Occupation: Queen regnant of England and Ireland

Sources

  • Collinson, Patrick. "Elizabeth I." Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 2004. 
  • 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. 
  • Kinney, Arthur F., David W. Swain, and Carol Levin. "Elizabeth I." Tudor England: an encyclopedia. New York: Garland, 2001. 
  • 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.