Queen Elizabeth 1 The reign of Queen Elizabeth I is often referred to as 'The Golden Age' of English history. Elizabeth was an immensely popular Queen, and her popularity has waned little with the passing of four hundred years. She is still one of the best-loved monarchs, and one of the most admired rulers of all time. She became a legend in her own lifetime, famed for her remarkable abilities and achievements. Yet, about Elizabeth the woman, we know very little.
She is an enigma, and was an enigma to her own people. Elizabeth was the daughter of King Henry V and his second wife, Anne Boleyn. She was born on 7 September 1533 at Greenwich Palace. Her birth was possibly the greatest disappointment of her father's life. He had wanted a son and heir to succeed him as he already had a daughter, Mary, by his first wife, Katherine of Aragon. He had not divorced Katherine, and changed the religion of the country in the process, to have only another daughter.
Elizabeth's early life was consequently troubled. Her mother failed to provide the King with a son and was executed on false charges of incest and adultery on 19 May 1536. Her marriage to the King was declared null and void, and Elizabeth, like her half-sister, Mary, was declared illegitimate and deprived of her place in the line of succession. The next eight years of her life saw a quick succession of stepmothers. There was Jane Seymour who died giving birth to the King's longed for son, Edward; Anne of Cleves who was divorced; Catherine Howard who was beheaded; and finally Catherine Parr. For generations, historians have debated whether the constant bride changing of her father was responsible for Elizabeth's apparent refusal to marry.
It is certainly possible that the tragic fates of Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard impressed upon her a certain fear of marriage, but there may have been other reasons for the Queen's single state, such as a fear of childbirth, which claimed the lives of a significant number of women in this period. Even if the Queen had no personal reservations about marriage, there were political problems with almost every contender for her hand. Religion was a major divisive issue, and there was also the problem of whether Elizabeth would have to relinquish any of her royal powers to a husband in an age when the political sphere was exclusively male. As a child, Elizabeth was given a very impressive education. It had become popular amongst the nobility to educate daughters as well as sons and Elizabeth excelled at her studies. Famous scholars such as William Grindal and Roger A sham taught her, and from an early age it was clear that she was remarkably gifted.
She had an especial flare for languages, and by adulthood, she could reputedly speak five languages fluently. Elizabeth's adolescence was no easier than her childhood. While the King lived, she was safe from political opportunists, but when he died in the January of 1547, she became vulnerable to those who saw her as a political pawn. Despite being officially illegitimate, Henry had reinstated his daughters in the line of succession.
Mary was to follow Edward, and Elizabeth was to follow Mary. This meant that Elizabeth was now second in line to the throne. Edward was too young to rule himself, as he was only nine years old, so his uncle, Edward Seymour, became Protector of England. His younger brother, Thomas Seymour, was jealous of his position and attempted to overthrow him. His scheme, which involved an attempted kidnapping of the Boy King, cost him his life. He had made no secret of his desire to marry Elizabeth (in Tudor times a girl was considered of marriageable age at twelve) so she was implicated in his plot.
It was treason for an heir to the throne to marry without the consent of the King and his counsel, and at only fifteen years of age, Elizabeth had to persuade her interrogators that she knew nothing of the plot and had not consented to marry the King's uncle. She succeeded in defending her innocence, but rumors of an illicit affair with Seymour, all the more scandalous because he had been married to her last step-mother, Katherine Parr, before she died in childbirth, plagued her long afterwards. Elizabeth again found herself implicated in treason after the Wyatt rebellion of 1554. Edward had died in the summer of 1553 from prolonged ill health, and Elizabeth's half-sister, Mary, was now Queen of England after a brief fight for the throne against the scheme of John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland, to make his daughter in law, Jane Grey, Queen. Mary was not a particularly popular monarch, and was suspicious of her Protestant half-sister. It was thus not difficult to persuade her that Elizabeth may have been conspiring with Thomas Wyatt and his men to seize the throne.
Whether or not the rebellion was to make Elizabeth queen, is uncertain, and it is also unknown whether Elizabeth had any knowledge of it. Even if she did have knowledge of it, there is no evidence that she approved of the actions of Wyatt and his followers. Elizabeth said she was innocent of the accusations made against her, but she was still arrested and sent to the Tower of London as a prisoner. Many of those surrounding the Queen would have liked Elizabeth to be executed, but there was no evidence against her and she was popular with the people. Elizabeth was kept a captive at the Tower for two months and then removed to Woodstock Manor in Oxfordhsire, where she was kept a prisoner for a year. The house itself was uninhabitable so she had to be lodged in the gatehouse with her servants.
It was only at the behest of the Queen's husband, Philip of Spain that she was allowed to return to her childhood home of Hatfield in Hertfordshire. Philip was aware of the Queen's poor health and wanted to gain the friendship of Elizabeth to ensure peaceable relations between England and Spain should his wife die and Elizabeth succeed to the throne. Elizabeth did finally succeed to the throne on 17th November 1558. It was a moment of supreme triumph for the unwanted daughter who had spent her life in the shadow of the court, cast aside and forgotten. The years following the death of her father had called for sobriety and caution, but now that she was Queen, Elizabeth was determined to enjoy her newfound freedom and live life to the full. She loved all kinds of sports, especially horse riding, and in the early years of her reign spent many an hour riding.
She also loved hunting, hawking, bear baiting, and watching the male courtiers excel at jousts or other sporting contests. She loved music and dancing, pageantry and masques, and could even play the virginals and the lute herself with skill. She had no time for the Puritan theologians who deemed such things impious. She also loved watching plays and created the atmosphere responsible for the flourishing of the literary masterpieces of the period against the Puritan demands for the closure of all theatres and playhouses.
Elizabeth was crowned Queen on Sunday 15th January 1559. In the months that followed, Elizabeth re-established the Protestant Church in England and restored the debased coinage. Perhaps to appease Catholics or to appease those who did not believe a woman could become head of the church, Elizabeth became Supreme Governor of the Church of England, rather than Supreme Head as her father had been. While it is impossible to know what exactly the Queen's personal religious beliefs were, the Church she established is an indication of them.
She was a committed Protestant, and reputedly spent time in prayer every day, but she was probably a conservative Protestant. She liked candles and crucifixes in her private chapel, liked church music, and enjoyed the more traditional style of worship in contrast to the sermon-based service that was becoming popular in some Protestant circles. She did not like religious extremism and did not want to persecute any of her people for their religious beliefs. However, the tenacious political nature of the Catholic / Protestant split meant that her government had to take a harsher line towards Catholics than she wanted. Now that Elizabeth was Queen, proposals of marriage flooded in, but Elizabeth committed herself to none of them.
In a genius of political wheeling and dealing, she managed to use her single state to benefit the country by using the bait of marriage to draw in enemies, or to frighten them by suggesting she would marry one of their foes. Whatever Elizabeth's personal feelings towards marriage, on two occasions she did come close to matrimony. For many years, the most serious contender for her hand was Robert Dudley, created Earl of Leicester in 1564. He and Elizabeth had known each other for years and had been imprisoned in the Tower of London at the same time. He was the only serious personal love interest of the Queen's life. Politically, however, marrying him would have been a disaster.
He was unpopular as he was the son of the traitor Northumberland, and was loathed even more after his wife was found dead in mysterious circumstances. It was thought he had murdered her so he would be free to marry Elizabeth. The other serious contender for the Queen's hand was Francis, Duke of Alen con / Anjou, heir to the French throne. But again, political considerations made the match ultimately impossible. Not marrying and having a child of her own meant that the succession was unsettled. Elizabeth did not like to talk about the succession and tried to have talk of it suppressed, but people were anxious about what would happen to the country when she died.
However, having a child of her own may not have been an end to all problems. In the eyes of Catholics, Elizabeth was illegitimate and had no right to the throne. To them, Mary, Queen of Scots was the rightful Queen of England. Plots were made to make Mary queen and these would have been formed regardless of whether Elizabeth had a child or not.
This is perhaps especially so when Mary was Elizabeth's prisoner following her disastrous reign in Scotland. Forced to flee her own country, having abdicated her throne in favor of her son, she landed in England, seeking Elizabeth's help in restoring her to her kingdom. She was immediately imprisoned. This was as much to protect her as to minimize the danger she posed to Elizabeth. Mary was kept a prisoner for almost twenty years. In that time, Elizabeth refused to hear about executing her cousin, but Mary's complicity in the Babington plot of 1586 made the execution, in the eyes of many, unavoidable.
It was a traumatic time for Elizabeth, and for a while it seemed that she would not have the strength to go ahead with the execution, but she did, and Mary was executed at Fotheringhay Castle on 8 February 1587. Relations between Elizabeth and Philip, now King of Spain, had begun amicably, but had deteriorated over the years as their different political and religious agendas clashed. By 1588 they were enemies of the first-rate. Philip had spoken of invading England and dethroning Elizabeth for years but the execution of the Queen of Scots gave him an added incentive.
Now he could claim the English throne for himself and not for her. In the summer of 1588 he sent his mighty fleet against England. But by superior tactics, ship design, and sheer good fortune, the English defeated them. Elizabeth's popularity reached its zenith. It was also another personal triumph as she had proved that she, a woman, could lead in war as well as any man. Elizabeth was dedicated to her country in a way few monarchs had been or have been since.
Elizabeth had the mind of a political genius and nurtured her country through careful leadership and by choosing capable men to assist her, such as Sir William Cecil and Sir Francis Walsingham. Elizabeth was a determined woman, but she was not obstinate. She listened to the advice of those around her, and would change a policy if it were unpopular. In appearance she was extravagant, in behavior sometimes flippant and frivolous, but her approach to politics was serious, conservative, and cautious.
When she ascended the throne in 1558, England was an impoverished country torn apart by religious squabbles. When she died at Richmond Palace on the 24th March 1603, England was one of the most powerful and prosperous countries in the world.