Queen Elizabeth I – known also as ‘The Virgin Queen’, ‘Gloriana’ or ‘Good Queen Bess’ – ruled as Queen of England and Ireland from 17 November 1558 until her death in 1603. Tall, slender and with the characteristic Tudor red hair Elizabeth was a woman of intelligence, fickleness and sometimes temper.
Ascending to the throne at the age of twenty-five Elizabeth was a cautious and suspicious ruler having been raised in a world of conspiracy and fraught tensions over the throne. However, she chose capable people to serve the crown and as the fifth and final monarch of the Tudor dynasty one of her greatest achievements was the establishment of a secure Church of England whose doctrines were laid down in the 39 Articles of 1563. A compromise between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism, the settlement ultimately saved England from the religious wars which plagued the continent in the second half of the 16th century.
Only the third queen to rule England in her own right Elizabeth learned much from the disastrous reigns of her half-sister Mary I and cousin, Lady Jane Grey, and ruled proudly and independently as The Virgin Queen. Her 45-year reign is generally considered ‘one of the most glorious in English history’.
Elizabeth was born at Greenwich Palace on 7 September 1533 to King Henry VIII and his second wife, Anne Boleyn. Though her birth was celebrated across the country as one of the most exciting political events in 16th century Europe, her arrival was a bitter disappointment to her father who was desperate for a son. Having defied the Pope and the Holy Roman Emperor to divorce his first wife, Katherine of Aragon, and marry Anne Boleyn whom he was in love with he was distraught that she had not delivered him the legitimate male heir he needed.
Many people had dismissed Anne as a concubine and remained devoted to their ‘true’ queen – Katherine – but Elizabeth’s mother held the king’s favour for longer than anyone expected and it was only after her second miscarriage that her position in the Henry’s heart and bed became tenuous.
With Katherine’s death in January 1536 Henry was for the first time in a position of being able to legitimately marry again in the eyes of the church but Anne stood in the way. Very swiftly Anne found her world collapsing around her as she was accused of adultery and soon after beheaded on 19 May 1536, when Elizabeth was not quite three years old.
A week after Anne’s death Henry married lady-in-waiting Jane Seymour and Elizabeth was declared illegitimate and removed from the royal succession, downgraded from ‘Princess Elizabeth’ to ‘Lady Elizabeth’. Jane was the first and only of Henry’s wives to deliver him the son he had long awaited but she died of childbirth complications only days after the birth of Prince Edward. Completely devastated Elizabeth’s father spent the rest of his life moving from marriage to marriage – first to Anne of Cleves, then Katherine Howard and finally Catherine Parr.
At the age of thirteen Elizabeth’s father died and her nine-year-old half-brother Edward became king. At this point Elizabeth was living with her stepmother – Henry’s sixth wife, Catherine Parr – who gave her access to tutors and education. Elizabeth displayed a genuine love and aptitude for her studies and was seen as a serious young woman who was preternaturally composed.
But Elizabeth’s stable world did not last long as the attentions of Catherine’s new husband, Thomas Seymour, increased and the two were caught in an embrace which led her to be banished from Catherine’s household.
Following Edward’s death in 1553 Elizabeth’s older half-sister, Mary, ascended the throne as Mary I, returning Catholicism to England and embarking on a bloody purge of Protestants. Mary’s reign was a fraught period for Elizabeth who was imprisoned in the Tower of London as a traitor to the crown and interrogated for two months about her involvement with a Protestant plot to overthrow Mary in the wake of her announcement of her betrothal to the Catholic Prince Philip of Spain. Elizabeth only narrowly escaped execution and was put under house arrest in Woodstock, Oxfordshire.
Elizabeth as Queen
Mary I died childless in 1558 and Elizabeth was crowned as Queen of England and Ireland at the age of twenty-five. The most immediate threat to Elizabeth’s throne was the country’s religious division which was only compounded by antagonism with the Catholic powers of France and Spain. She was determined to find a means of resolving the conflict though she herself didn’t have particularly strong religious convictions and rarely attended church services.
In 1559 Queen Elizabeth reinstated the Church of England declaring she did not want to make ‘windows into men’s souls’. The Pope was removed as Head of the English Church and instead made its ‘Supreme Governor’. A new Book of Common Prayer was introduced and an English translation of the Bible was republished.
The Virgin Queen
The Queen’s single status quickly came to define her reign and preoccupied her subjects and other rulers in Europe. Though it was not uncommon for women in this era to remain unmarried it was unusual for a queen to not seek marriage and an heir to secure the succession of her family line.
Though the queen had many suitors who attempted to court her it was Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester who is believed to have come the closest to winning the queen’s heart. Appointed as one of Elizabeth’s most trusted advisors the suspicious death of his wife in 1560 sent rumours about the nature of his relationship with the Queen into overdrive but the exact nature of their relationship and what they meant to one another is still a mystery today.
Though Elizabeth entered into several marriage negotiations – the most serious of which were to the first and then the second Duke of Anjou – none were ultimately fruitful for a number of reasons. Unsurprisingly, as Elizabeth had seen how Mary’s choice of husband had sparked dissent and rebellion, she had hesitations about choosing a foreign prince as it was likely he would draw England into foreign conflicts. Conversely, marrying a fellow countryman could have drawn her into factional fighting which left her in a difficult position.
Tensions came to a head in 1566 when the queen’s parliament refused to grant her any funds until the matter of her marriage was settled. Using her skills of rhetoric, however, Elizabeth made it clear in no uncertain terms that the welfare of her country was and always would be her priority and Parliament had no right to comment on her personal matters. She would marry if and when it was convenient to her.
The Elizabethan Era
Elizabeth’s reign saw a flourishing of English theatre as she took an interest in plays and commanded the formation of the Queen Elizabeth’s Men in 1583. By the 1590s the dominant acting company was the Lord Chamberlain’s Men for whom Shakespeare wrote and performed.
Under Elizabeth’s guidance the reach and efficiency of the English state bloomed. Though she found the crown’s financial situation bleak upon her ascension to the throne she was able to exercise frugality and increase taxation which replenished the crown’s coffers even in spite of a decade and a half of expensive warfare against Spain.
Part of this financial growth also came from her forward-thinking plans to look beyond Europe for opportunities to expand trade and increase the nation’s wealth. Under Elizabeth’s patronage Francis Drake became the first Englishman to circumnavigate the globe in 1580 and Sir Walter Raleigh set up a colony on the east coast of North America which he named Virginia after Elizabeth, ‘the Virgin Queen’ in 1585. These explorations prepared England for an era of colonisation and trade expansion – something which Elizabeth formally recognised with the establishment of the East India Company in 1599.
In 1587 Elizabeth’s cousin Mary, Queen of Scots, was beheaded at Fotheringhay Castle for her role in a plot to depose Elizabeth. Mary had initially fled to England to seek her cousin’s protection after uprisings in Scotland in 1568 but as Elizabeth’s most likely successor she was captured and spent nineteen years as England’s prisoner. Elizabeth was reluctant to set a precedent by executing an anointed monarch but the threat she posed was such that Elizabeth finally agreed to have Mary permanently removed.
Following this difficult time, the bitter religious war between Protestant England and Catholic Spain took a turn as Philip of Spain, at the urging of the Pope, invaded England with the Spanish Armada in August 1588. Elizabeth was adamant that she would retain her crown and England would remain free.
Reviewing her troops at Tilbury wearing a breastplate and carrying a sword Elizabeth made a speech that has become infamous, saying ‘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; and think foul scorn that Parma or Spain or any Prince of Europe should dare invade the border of my real.’ The Armada fought a losing battle against the Royal Fleet in the channel with only half of the 130 ships returning to Spain.
Elizabeth’s health began a slow decline and was only exacerbated by continuing problems in Ireland and the question of succession. When she died on 24 March 1603 at Richmond Palace, at the age of 69, she left no direct heir.
James VI of Scotland – the son of Mary, Queen of Scots – was named king and the Tudor dynasty came to an end after ruling England for 118 years. The mourning that followed Elizabeth’s death was unprecedented and she remains an iconic, beloved figure in British and European history to this day.