Queen Elizabeth I was the long-ruling queen of England, governing with relative stability and prosperity for 44 years. The Elizabethan era is named for her.
Queen Elizabeth I was born on the September 7, 1533 in Greenwich England. She was a princess but declared illegitimate through political machinations. She eventually claimed the throne at the age of 25 and held it for 44 years, keeping England in the ascendant through wars, and political and religious turmoil. She died in 1603.
Elizabeth I, perhaps England’s most famous monarch, grew up in complex and sometimes difficult circumstances. The daughter of King Henry VIII and his second wife, Anne Boleyn, she was only two years old when she lost her mother. Anne Boleyn was beheaded on the orders of her husband, based on questionable charges of adultery and conspiracy. Before long, Elizabeth and her older half-sister Mary were declared to be illegitimate as her father sought to pave the way for a male heir. The two were later reinstated as potential heirs. Their half-brother Edward was born in 1537 by Henry VIII’s third wife, Jane Seymour.
Elizabeth was raised much like any other royal child. She received tutoring and excelled at languages and music. After her father’s death in 1547, Elizabeth spent some time under the care of her stepmother Catherine Parr. Parr hired tutors on Elizabeth’s behalf, including William Grindal and Roger Ascham. Tensions with Parr over Parr’s new husband, Thomas Seymour, led Elizabeth to return to the royal estate at Hatfield, away from the court. Her relationship with Seymour later came under scrutiny, and Seymour was later tried for conspiring to wed Elizabeth in a bid to gain power. Found guilty, Seymour was executed.
Elizabeth once again found herself embroiled in political intrigue after Edward’s death in 1553. Her older half-sister Mary and their cousin, Lady Jane Grey, both were in line for the crown. Edward had appointed Grey to be his successor, but her reign proved to be short-lived. Mary gained the support of the English people and unseated Grey after only nine days on the throne.
Even though Elizabeth supported Mary in her coup, she was not free from suspicion. A staunch Roman Catholic, Mary sought to restore her country back to her faith, undoing her father’s break from the Pope. While Elizabeth went along with the religious change, she remained a candidate for the throne for those who wanted a return to Protestantism. Thomas Wyatt organized a rebellion against Mary in 1554 with the hopes of making Protestant-raised Elizabeth queen. But his plot was uncovered, and Elizabeth was quickly imprisoned by Mary. Elizabeth disputed any involvement in the conspiracy, but her sister was not wholly convinced.
While she was soon released, Elizabeth’s life was firmly in her sister’s hands. Wyatt was executed, but he maintained that Elizabeth was not aware of the rebellion. Elizabeth eventually returned to Hatfield and continued with her studies.
In 1558, Elizabeth took the reins of her country after the death of her sister. She inherited a number of problems stirred up by Mary. The country was at war with France, which proved to be a tremendous drain on the royal coffers. There was also great tension between different religious factions after Mary worked to restore England to Roman Catholicism by any means necessary. In fact, she earned the nickname Bloody Mary for ordering the execution of 300 Protestants as heretics.
Elizabeth acted swiftly to address these two pressing issues. During her first session of Parliament in 1559, she called for the passage of the Act of Supremacy, which re-established the Church of England, and the Act of Uniformity, which created a common prayer book. Elizabeth took a moderate approach to the divisive religious conflict in her country. “There is one Jesus Christ,” she once said. “The rest is a dispute over trifles.” However, Catholics did suffer religious persecution and some were executed under her reign, though historians differ on the extent. The Roman Catholic Church took a dim view of her actions, and in 1570, Pope Pius V excommunicated Elizabeth.
With the assistance of her key advisor, William Cecil, Elizabeth ended the war with France. She was able to avoid clashing with the other superpower of the age, Spain, for much of her reign. Finally, in 1585, Elizabeth entered the fray to support the Protestant rebellion against Spain in the Netherlands. Spain then set its sights on England, but the English navy was able to defeat the infamous Spanish Armada in 1588. According to several reports, the weather proved to be a deciding factor in England’s victory.
Elizabeth also had to fend off internal efforts to remove her from the throne. One of the greatest threats came from Mary Stuart, queen of Scots. The daughter of King James V of Scotland, she united her country with France in 1558 when she married the future King Francis II. After Francis’s death, Mary returned to Scotland in 1561. She was raised Catholic and was considered by many English Catholics to be the rightful monarch of England. Elizabeth and Mary were cousins, and Mary had previously lay claim to the English crown. Elizabeth jailed her cousin in 1567 in connection with several assassination attempts, including the Babington Plot. Elizabeth kept Mary imprisoned for nearly 20 years before she finally agreed to have her cousin executed in 1587.
Succession became another pressing issue for Elizabeth once she took the throne. She showed her talents as a diplomat, managing a number of suitors and potential royal matches during her reign. Through her father and her sister, Elizabeth had seen the troubles and challenges of royal marriages. Mary had made an unpopular choice in marrying Phillip II of Spain, who shared her devotion to the Roman Catholic faith. In the hopes of reuniting their two countries once more, Phillip even offered to wed Elizabeth at one time.
Other suitors for Elizabeth’s hand included the king of Sweden, Archduke Charles of Austria, and the future King Henry III of France. She used her availability as a means to political ends, but she never agreed to marriage. She herself seemed to have some interest in a member of her court, Robert Dudley, and their relationship was the subject of much gossip and speculation. Both parties came under suspicion after the mysterious death of Dudley’s wife.
Elizabeth, however, seemed to have no interest in sharing power with a spouse. Over time, she cultivated her image as a queen married to her job and her people. For this dedication Elizabeth earned the nickname the “Virgin Queen.”
While she worked hard at court, Elizabeth took time for leisurely pursuits. She loved music and could play the lute. Thomas Tallis and William Byrd were among her court musicians. Elizabeth also enjoyed dancing and watching plays. The arts flourished during Elizabeth’s time with the creation of works by such greats as William Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe. Writers paid tribute to the queen in many literary forms. The poet Edmund Spenser based his character of Gloriana in The Faerie Queen on Elizabeth, and she was sometimes referred to by this name.
Artists also honored Elizabeth by painting her portrait. These images reveal that she was an early fashionista in many ways. She loved beautiful clothing and jewelry. Her garments were often made with gold and silver. With the help of makeup, Elizabeth cultivated a dramatically pale look. Unfortunately, her cosmetic concoction, called the spirits of Saturn, was made by mixing white lead and vinegar, which may have impacted her health.
Troubled times marked the final years of Elizabeth’s reign. The country suffered from failed crops, unemployment and inflation. There were riots over food shortages and rebellions in Ireland. Elizabeth faced many challenges to her authority, including from one of her favorites, Robert Devereaux, the Earl of Essex. She had sent him to Ireland to quell the rebellion led by Hugh O’Neill. Instead Essex returned to England and sought to start his own rebellion. He was executed for treason in 1601.
Despite her fading power, Elizabeth still showed her devotion to her people. She gave one of her most famous speeches in 1601 to the Parliament. During what is referred to as her “Golden Speech,” a self-reflective Elizabeth seemed to look back on her long reign. “Of myself I must say this, I was never any greedy, scraping grasper, nor a strait, fast-holding prince, nor yet a waster. My heart was never set on worldly goods but for my subjects’ good.”
Queen Elizabeth drew her final breath on March 24, 1603, at Richmond Palace in Surrey. With her death came the end of the house of Tudor, a royal family that had ruled England since the late 1400s. The son of her former rival, Mary Stuart, succeeded her on the throne as James I.
While the end of her reign had been difficult, Elizabeth has largely been remembered as being a queen who supported her people. Her lengthy time on the throne provided her subjects with stability and consistency, and her sharp wits and clever mind helped navigate the nation through religious and political challenges. Sometimes referred to as the Golden Age, the arts had a chance to blossom with Elizabeth’s support.
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