Elizabeth I of England

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Queen Elizabeth
The coronation of Elizabeth
Reign November 17, 1558 - March 24, 1603
Predecessor Mary I
Successor James I
Spouse Never married
Issue None
Royal House Tudor
Father Henry VIII
Mother Anne Boleyn
Born September 7, 1533
Died March 24, 1603

Elizabeth I (September 7, 1533 – March 24, 1603) was Queen of England and Queen of Ireland from November 17, 1558, until her death. Sometimes referred to as The Virgin Queen (since she never married), Gloriana, or Good Queen Bess, Elizabeth I was the fifth and final monarch of the Tudor dynasty, having succeeded her half-sister, Mary I. She steadied England during a period of political and religious turmoil and set her nation's course to become the leading Protestant world power for the next three centuries.

Elizabeth's reign is referred to as the Elizabethan era or the Golden Age. Playwrights William Shakespeare, Christopher Marlowe, and Ben Jonson all flourished during this period. It is also referred to as the English Renaissance. Francis Drake became the first Englishman to circumnavigate the globe; Francis Bacon laid out his philosophical and political views; and English colonization of North America took place under Sir Walter Raleigh and Sir Humphrey Gilbert. This was a period of English disengagement from Europe and of turning towards overseas commerce, exploration, settlement and colonial conquest. The global theater—rather than the European theater—became the stage on which the English trod. Virginia, an English colony in North America and afterwards a member of the United States, was named after her, as the "Virgin Queen."

Did you know?
Elizabeth I, whose reign is called the Elizabethan era or the Golden Age, ruled England during a period of political and religious turmoil and set her nation's course to become the leading Protestant world power for the next three centuries

Elizabeth believed that she ruled by God's grace, and remained as she put it “married to England” rather than to any man. Like her father Henry VIII, she believed in a destiny for her country and she saw herself as the very personification of that divine, providential purpose. That purpose was perceived as the task of establishing a harmonious realm, ruled by laws derived from Biblical ethics, that would glorify God in its orderliness, industriousness, thrift, and sobriety (Calvinism was influencing English theology). Rulers and the ruled would be as one, although she did not doubt that rulers ruled because they were 'born' to the office (based on Mark 12:1-12 where the right of the landowner to get revenue from his tenants is unquestioned).

Elizabeth was a short-tempered and sometimes indecisive ruler. This last quality, viewed with impatience by her counselors, often saved her from political and marital misalliances. Like her father, she was a writer and poet. She granted Royal charters to several famous organizations, including Trinity College, Dublin (1592) and the British East India Company (1600).

Her rule as a woman at a time when women's rule, except when shared with men, was for many an abomination—did much to promote the advancement of women in society and eventually in civil and political life. Some say that she left an indelible feminine stamp on her nation, which has never been blotted out. She actually used her femininity very skillfully, and subsequent queens and women leaders in the United Kingdom have been able to point to the precedent of her rule as one that justifies female authority. More than anything, Elizabeth wanted to unite her country, and she used the Church of England as a tool, attempting to make it as inclusive as possible, trying to keep in its fold those with Roman tendencies (although Catholicism was outlawed) and Puritans, thus steering a middle course.

Early life

Elizabeth was the only surviving child of King Henry VIII by his second wife, Anne Boleyn, whom he secretly married sometime between the winter of 1532 and late January of 1533. She was born in the Palace of Placentia in Greenwich, on September 7, 1533. Henry would have preferred a son to ensure the Tudor succession, but upon her birth, Elizabeth was the heiress presumptive to the throne of England.

Her surviving paternal aunts included Margaret Tudor and Mary Tudor (queen consort of France). Her maternal aunt was Lady Mary Boleyn. Her maternal uncle was George Boleyn, Viscount Rochford.

After Queen Anne failed to produce a male heir, Henry had her executed on charges of treason (adultery against the King was considered treason), incest with her elder brother and witchcraft; ironically, Henry then married one of Anne's ladies in waiting. Elizabeth was three years old at that time and was also declared illegitimate and lost the title of princess. Thereafter she was addressed as Lady Elizabeth and lived in exile from her father as he married his succession of wives. Henry's last wife Catherine Parr helped reconcile the King with Elizabeth, and she, along with her half-sister, Mary, daughter of Catherine of Aragon, was reinstated in the line of succession after Prince Edward under the Act of Succession 1544.

Elizabeth's first governess was Lady Margaret Bryan, a baroness whom Elizabeth called "Muggie." At the age of four, Elizabeth had a new governess, Katherine Champernowne, who was often referred to as "Kat." Champernowne developed a close relationship with Elizabeth and remained her confidante and good friend for life. She had been appointed to Elizabeth's household before Anne Boleyn's execution. Matthew Parker, her mother's favorite priest, took a special interest in Elizabeth's well-being, particularly since a fearful Anne had entrusted her daughter's spiritual welfare to Parker before her death. Later, Parker would become the first Archbishop of Canterbury (Primate, or senior bishop, of England) after Elizabeth became queen in 1558. One companion, to whom she referred with affection throughout her life, was the Irishman Thomas Butler, later 3rd Earl of Ormonde (ob.1615).

In terms of personality, Elizabeth was far more like her mother than her father: neurotic, glamorous, flirtatious, and charismatic. Elizabeth also inherited her mother's delicate bone structure, physique, facial features, and onyx black eyes, and petite girth. She did not inherit her father's enormous weight, but from him she inherited her red hair.

Henry VIII died in 1547 and was succeeded by Edward VI. Catherine Parr married Thomas Seymour, 1st Baron Seymour of Sudeley, Edward VI's uncle, and took Elizabeth into her household. There, Elizabeth received her education under Roger Ascham. She came to speak or read six languages: her native English, as well as French, Italian, Spanish, Greek, and Latin. She had an outstanding intellect, like her father and mother. Under the influence of Catherine Parr and Ascham, Elizabeth was raised a Protestant. At this point, English Protestantism represented a break from Rome, with recognition of the King as head, or Supreme Governor, of the church, and the beginning of a process of indigenization in which English and a simplified Mass were replacing the Roman liturgy (in Latin). Much of the structure of the Church, its hierarchy (the three fold ministry of bishops, priests, and deacons), maintained what is called the 'historic episcopate' (ordination by bishops that can be traced back to St. Peter) parish system and routine of worship was retained but not obedience to Rome or monasteries or celibacy. Views of the mass were influenced by Martin Luther and John Calvin though it remained a more central aspect of worship than it was for Continental Protestants. Later, in its 39 Articles (1671) it would cite the Bible as the chief authority for all matters of faith and order but sola scriptura was not stressed at this early period. Sola Fides, or salvation by faith alone, not by purchasing indulgences or as the gift of the pope, was stressed. Clerical dress became simplified as Roman vestments were linked with the idea that Christ dies again for our sins every time the mass is celebrated, which was one of the doctrines that was rejected by all Protestants, including Anglicans. Puritans within as well as outside the Church of England wanted even simpler services, even fewer vestments and a greater stress on prayer, Bible study and preaching, and objected to the retention of bishops and of the mass as papist paganism. Others, influenced by Calvin, wanted more lay participation in running the Church. These struggles would emerge especially during the Civil War, and during the rule of Oliver Cromwell. For Elizabeth, it was a matter of keeping the Church independent of Rome and of Europe as a symbol of England's emerging economic, cultural and imperial distinctiveness.

As long as her Protestant half-brother remained on the throne, Elizabeth's own position remained secure. In 1553, however, Edward died at the age of fifteen, having left a will that purported to supersede his father's. Contravening the Act of Succession, 1544, it excluded both Mary and Elizabeth from succeeding to the throne and declared Lady Jane Grey to be his heiress. Lady Jane ascended the throne, but was deposed less than two weeks later. Backed by popular support, Mary rode triumphantly into London, her half-sister Elizabeth at her side.

Mary I contracted a marriage with the Spanish prince Philip, later King Philip II of Spain, and she worried that the people might depose her and put Elizabeth on the throne in her stead. Wyatt's Rebellion in 1554 sought to prevent Mary from marrying Philip and, after its failure, Elizabeth was imprisoned in the Tower of London. There were demands for Elizabeth's execution, but Mary did not wish to put her sister to death. Mary attempted to remove Elizabeth from the line of succession, but Parliament would not allow it. After two months in the Tower, Elizabeth was put under house arrest under the guard of Sir Henry Bedingfield; by the end of that year, when Mary was falsely rumored to be pregnant, Elizabeth was allowed to return to court at Philip's behest, as he worried that his wife might die in childbirth, in which case he preferred Lady Elizabeth to succeed rather than her next-closest relative, Mary I of Scotland. For the remainder of her reign, Mary persecuted Protestants, and came to be known as "Bloody Mary" among her enemies; although her sister Elizabeth would execute more Catholics than Mary did Protestants, she would do so over a reign many times longer. Mary urged Elizabeth to take the faith, but the princess lied about her intentions and kept up a skillful show of allegiance to suit her own conscience and ambitions.

Early reign

In 1558, upon Mary I's death, Elizabeth ascended the throne. She was crowned on January 15, 1559. There was no Archbishop of Canterbury at the time; Reginald Cardinal Pole, the last Catholic holder of the office, had died only a few hours after Queen Mary. Because the senior bishops declined to participate in the coronation (since Elizabeth was illegitimate under both canon law and statute and since she was a Protestant), the relatively unimportant Owen Oglethorpe, Bishop of Carlisle crowned her. The communion was celebrated not by Oglethorpe, but by the Queen's personal chaplain, to avoid the usage of the Roman rites. Elizabeth I's coronation was the last one during which the Latin service was used; future coronations used the English service. She later persuaded her mother's chaplain, Matthew Parker, to become Archbishop. He only accepted out of loyalty to Anne Boleyn's memory, since he found working with Elizabeth difficult.


One of the most important concerns during Elizabeth's early reign was religion; she relied primarily on the Machiavellian William Cecil, 1st Baron Burghley for advice on the matter. The Act of Uniformity 1559 required the use of the Protestant Book of Common Prayer in church services. The Book of Common Prayer evolved from the original work of Thomas Cranmer, though in its various forms it removed more and more 'papish' practices, such as any reference to sacrifice. Cranmer had set out to Protestantize the Church that his king had separated from Rome. One significant difference in the 1559 book was the offering of both bread and wine to communicants. Citing scripture, the emphasis was on communion as an act of remembrance. The previous ban on kneeling while receiving Communion was omitted and became widely practiced.

Papal control over the Church of England had been reinstated under Mary I, but was ended by Elizabeth. The Queen assumed the title "Supreme Governor of the Church of England," rather than "Supreme Head," primarily because several bishops and many members of the public felt that a woman could not be the head of the Church. The Act of Supremacy 1559 required public officials to take an oath acknowledging the Sovereign's control over the Church or face execution for treason. This would become problematic within a few decades for the emerging Free Church men and women of Congregational and Presbyterian and later Baptist persuasion, who advocated separation of church and state and moreover who objected to any creed being made a condition of church membership, or of being a communicant.

Many bishops were unwilling to conform to the Elizabethan religious policy, and were removed from the ecclesiastical bench and replaced by appointees who would submit to the Queen's policies. Her aim, though, was to unite—not divide. She did not always succeed. She also appointed a new Privy Council, removing many Catholic counselors in the process. Under Elizabeth, factionalism in the council and conflicts at court were greatly silenced. Elizabeth's chief advisors were Sir William Cecil, a Secretary of State, and Sir Nicholas Bacon, the Lord Keeper of the Great Seal. Elizabeth also reduced Spanish influence in England. Though Philip II aided her in ending the Italian Wars with the Peace of Cateau Cambrésis, Elizabeth remained independent in her diplomacy. She adopted a principle of "England for the English." Her other realm, Ireland, never benefited from such a philosophy. The enforcement of English customs in and the efforts to eradicate Catholicism from Ireland proved unpopular with its inhabitants, as did the Queen's religious policies. Some have theorized that the more Protestant England became, the more Catholic Ireland became.


Soon after her accession, many questioned whom Elizabeth would marry. Her reasons for never marrying are many. It has been suggested she may have felt repulsed by the mistreatment of Henry VIII's wives, or perhaps psychologically scarred by her rumored childhood relationship with Lord Seymour. Contemporary gossip was that she had suffered from a physical defect that she was afraid to reveal, perhaps scarring from smallpox, although this seems unlikely, as she did not contract smallpox until several years into her reign. There were also contemporary rumors that she would only marry one man, Robert Dudley, 1st Earl of Leicester, with whom she was deeply in love, but whom her council refused to sanction a marriage with, partly due to his family's participation in the Lady Jane Grey matter, and partly what was viewed in some circles as the suspicious death of his first wife.

It is also possible that Elizabeth did not wish to share the power of the Crown with another, or, given the unstable political situation, she feared an armed struggle among aristocratic factions if she married someone not seen as equally favorable to all factions. Or, she could have remained unmarried and instead used the hint of marriage to her country's benefit when dealing with powerful suitors from Europe. Further, marrying anyone would have cost Elizabeth large amounts of money and independence, as all of the estates and incomes Elizabeth inherited from her father, Henry VIII, were only hers until she wed. A consort would have shared power.

Remaining unmarried was a tactic to avoid becoming entangled in European politics once again at the very time that England was beginning to look beyond Europe. She once told Parliament that she was already married, to England. Indeed, she saw herself as personifying England; by loving England, she made England beloved. Later, the monarchs would be known as “their Britannic majestys,” stressing the relationship between sovereign and nation. Elizabeth wore regal clothes, often with a miniature BCP attached to her belt to emphasize her sovereignty, and her whitened face may have been intended to make her appear to be above gender, though it may also have covered smallpox scars. In her speeches, as well as stressing that she was her father's daughter, who intended to rule as firmly as he had, she constantly described herself as a “prince”; she might not be as strong or as healthy as other princes, but she was a Prince and rule as a prince she would. See her Speech to the Troops at Tilbury, where she said that she had “the heart and stomach of a king.” Yet she always tried to rule with love, recognizing that a higher court would hold her to account:

There is no jewel, be it of never so rich a price, which I set before this jewel; I mean your love.

Though God hath raised me high, yet this I account the glory of my reign, that I have reigned with your loves.

I have ever used to set the last Judgement Day before mine eyes, and so to rule as I shall be judged to answer before a higher judge …. For it is my desire to live nor reign no longer than my life and reign shall be for your good… (her golden or farewell speech to Parliament; Nov. 30, 1601).


Levin (1994) and Dunn (2004) discuss Elizabeth within the context of understandings of femininity, sexuality and power at the time. They discuss how beliefs about sexuality influenced Elizabeth's self-presentation and how she was perceived by others as both a female and as a Protestant ruler. As a ruler, men deplored her on the one hand, but on the other, the same men courted her and wanted to serve her. She was also involved in competition with Mary. She used her sexual attraction to dominate men, often flirting with them. There is no evidence that she did not die a virgin but she was not unconscious of sexuality as a tool to use in her dealings with men. Erickson says that her flirtatious manner aroused gossip and the criticism that she stole husbands from their wives. Erickson's study suggests that she imitated her father in as much as her shameless liaison with Dudley scandalized people as much as her father's womanizing did, though she remained a virgin. She depicts a court in which men were competing for the Queen's favors, as conscious of their sexuality and physical appearance as she was of her own. Erickson explodes the myth of prudish, neurotic, frigid woman that has so often been associated with the cult of the Virgin Queen.

Conflict with France and Scotland

The Queen found a rival in her cousin, the Catholic Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots and wife of the French King Francis II. In 1559, Mary had declared herself Queen of England with French support. In Scotland, Mary Stuart's mother, Mary of Guise, attempted to cement French influence by providing for army fortification against English aggression. A group of Scottish lords allied to Elizabeth deposed Mary of Guise and, under pressure from the English, Mary's representatives signed the Treaty of Edinburgh, which led to the withdrawal of French troops. Though Mary vehemently refused to ratify the treaty, it had the desired effect, and French influence was greatly reduced in Scotland.

Upon the death of her husband Francis II, Mary Stuart had returned to Scotland. In France, meanwhile, conflict between the Catholics and the Huguenots (Protestants) led to the outbreak of the French Wars of Religion. Elizabeth secretly gave aid to the Huguenots. She made peace with France in 1564; she agreed to give up her claims to the last English possession on the French mainland, Calais, after the defeat of an English expedition at Le Havre. She did not, however, give up her claim to the French Crown, which had been maintained since the reign of Edward III during the period of the Hundred Years' War in the fourteenth century, and was not renounced until the reign of George III during the eighteenth century. However, it was the loss of Calais that contributed to Elizabeth's support for the voyages of Sir Walter Raleigh, and to her colonization of North America. As the door to European empire closed, that to a global empire on which the sun never set, was opening. Now, competition on the high seas with Spain and Portugal had the added dimension that they were Catholic, while England and Holland, which emerged as the two competing North European maritime powers, were Protestant. Elizabeth aided the Dutch in their revolt against Spanish rule. After her defeat of the Spanish Armada, artistic portraits would depict her with her hand resting on a globe, symbolic of her emerging international power. This sea battle firmly established Britain's reputation as a naval power, one that continued through until the end of World War II.

Plots and rebellions

At the end of 1562, Elizabeth fell ill with smallpox, but later recovered. In 1563, alarmed by the Queen's near-fatal illness, parliament demanded that she marry or nominate an heir to prevent civil war upon her death. She refused to do either, and in April, she prorogued parliament. Parliament did not reconvene until Elizabeth needed its assent to raise taxes in 1566. The House of Commons threatened to withhold funds until the Queen agreed to provide for the succession, but Elizabeth still refused.

Different lines of succession were considered during Elizabeth's reign. One possible line was that of Margaret Tudor, Henry VIII's elder sister, which led to Mary I, Queen of Scots. The alternative line descended from Henry VIII's younger sister, Mary Tudor (queen consort of France); the heir in this line would be the Lady Catherine Grey, Lady Jane Grey's sister. An even more distant possible successor was Henry Hastings, 3rd Earl of Huntingdon, who could claim descent only from Edward III of England, who reigned during the fourteenth century. Each possible heir had his or her disadvantages: Mary I was a Catholic, Lady Catherine Grey had married without the Queen's consent, and the Puritan Lord Huntingdon was unwilling to accept the Crown.

Mary, Queen of Scots, had to suffer her own troubles in Scotland. Elizabeth had suggested that if she married the Protestant Robert Dudley, 1st Earl of Leicester, then Elizabeth would "proceed to the inquisition of her right and title to be our next cousin and heir." Mary Stuart refused, and in 1565 married a Catholic, Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley. Lord Darnley was murdered in 1567, and Mary then married the alleged murderer, James Hepburn, 4th Earl of Bothwell. Scottish nobles then rebelled, imprisoning Mary and forcing her to abdicate in favor of her infant son, who consequently became James VI.

The succession question was becoming a heated issue in Parliament and 30 MP's were assigned to a special committee to debate the matter. On October 19, 1566, Sir Robert Bell boldly pursued Elizabeth for the royal answer despite her command to leave it alone; in her own words "Mr. Bell with his complices must needs prefer their speeches to the upper house to have you my lords, consent with them, whereby you were seduced, and of simplicity did assent unto it.” Sir Robert Bell would revisit this matter in 1575, as Speaker of the House of Commons, where he humbly petitioned Elizabeth "to make the kingdom further happy in her marriage, so that they might hope for a continual succession of benefits in her posterity.” This event had been preceded by the death of the last viable English heir to the throne, Catherine Grey, who died in 1568. Catherine had left a son, but he was deemed illegitimate. Catherine's heiress was her sister, the Lady Mary Grey, a hunchbacked dwarf. Elizabeth was once again forced to consider a Scottish successor, from the line of her father's sister, Margaret Tudor, Queen of Scots. Mary I, however, was unpopular in Scotland, where she had been imprisoned. She later escaped from her prison and fled to England, where English forces captured her.

Elizabeth was faced with a conundrum: sending her back to the Scottish nobles would create political problems; sending her to France would put a powerful pawn in the hands of the French king; forcefully restoring her to the Scottish Throne may have been seen as an heroic gesture, but would cause too much conflict with the Scots; and imprisoning her in England would allow her to participate in plots against the Queen. Elizabeth chose the last option: Mary was kept confined for eighteen years, much of it in Sheffield Castle and Sheffield Manor in the custody of George Talbot, 6th Earl of Shrewsbury, and his redoubtable wife Bess of Hardwick.

In 1569, Elizabeth faced a major uprising, known as the Northern Rebellion, instigated by Thomas Howard, 4th Duke of Norfolk, Charles Neville, 6th Earl of Westmorland and Thomas Percy, 7th Earl of Northumberland. Pope Pius V excommunicated Elizabeth for apostasy and for her persecution of Catholics; he declared her deposed in a papal bull. The Bull of Deposition, Regnans in Excelsis, was only issued in 1570, arriving after the Rebellion had been put down. After the Bull of Deposition was issued, however, Elizabeth escalated her policy of religious persecution.

Elizabeth then found a new enemy in her brother-in-law, Philip II, King of Spain. After Philip had launched a surprise attack on the English pirates Sir Francis Drake and John Hawkins in 1568, Elizabeth assented to the detention of a Spanish treasure ship in 1569. Philip was already involved in putting down a rebellion in the Netherlands, and could not afford to declare war on England.

Philip II participated in some conspiracies to remove Elizabeth, albeit reluctantly. The 4th Duke of Norfolk was also involved in the first of these plots, the Ridolfi Plot of 1571. After the Catholic Ridolfi Plot was discovered (much to Elizabeth's shock) and foiled, the Duke of Norfolk was executed and Mary lost the little liberty she had remaining. Spain, which had been friendly to England since Philip's marriage to Elizabeth's predecessor, ceased to be on cordial terms.

In 1571, Sir William Cecil was created Baron Burghley; a shrewd man, who always advised caution in international relations, he had been Elizabeth's chief advisor from the earliest days, and he remained so until his death in 1598. In 1572, Burghley was raised to the powerful position of Lord High Treasurer; his post as Secretary of State was taken up by the head of Elizabeth's spy network, Sir Francis Walsingham.

Also in 1572, Elizabeth made an alliance with France. The Saint Bartholomew's Day massacre, in which many French Protestants (Huguenots) were killed, strained the alliance but did not break it. Elizabeth even began marriage negotiations with Henry, Duke of Anjou]] (later King Henry III of France and of Poland), and afterwards with his younger brother François, Duke of Anjou. During the latter's visit in 1581, it is said that Elizabeth "drew off a ring from her finger and put it upon the Duke of Anjou's upon certain conditions betwixt them two." The Spanish Ambassador reported that she actually declared that the Duke of Anjou would be her husband. However, Anjou, who is in any case said to have preferred men to women, returned to France and died in 1584 before he could be married.

Conflict with Spain and Ireland

In 1580, Pope Gregory XIII sent a force to aid the Desmond Rebellions in Ireland; but by 1583, the rebellion had been put down after a campaign waged by fire, sword and famine, in which a large part of the population of the western part of the province of Munster appears to have died; chilling, albeit approving, observations on the campaign are set out in A View of the Present State of Ireland by the poet Edmund Spenser (first licensed for publication in 1633, four decades after it was written).

Also in 1580, Philip II annexed Portugal, and with the Portuguese throne came the command of the high seas. After the assassination of the Dutch Stadholder William I of Orange, England began to side openly with the United Provinces of the Netherlands, who were at the time rebelling against Spanish rule. This, together with economic conflict with Spain and English piracy against Spanish colonies (which included an English alliance with Islamic Morocco), led to the outbreak of the Anglo-Spanish War in 1585, and in 1586 the Spanish ambassador was expelled from England for his participation in conspiracies against Elizabeth. Fearing such conspiracies, Parliament had passed the Act of Association 1584, under which anyone associated with a plot to murder the Sovereign would be excluded from the line of succession. However, a further scheme against Elizabeth, the Babington plot, was revealed by the spymaster, Sir Francis Walsingham. Having put the court on full proof of the charge, Mary Stuart was convicted of complicity in the plot on production of evidence produced by one of the earliest non-trivial code-breaking endeavors. She was subsequently executed against Elizabeth's wishes at Fotheringhay Castle on February 8, 1587.

Elizabeth had stalled on the question of Mary's execution until this final, undeniable, evidence because she feared that establishing the principle that a monarch theoretically chosen by God could be tried—much less executed—for temporal crimes could lead to the end of the monarchy. In this she was to be proven correct, and it was less than 50 years after her own death that Charles the First was executed by a parliament of "commoners."

The above portrait was made in approximately 1588 to commemorate the defeat of the Spanish Armada (depicted in the background). Elizabeth I's international power is reflected by the hand resting on the globe.

In her will, Mary had left Philip her claim to the English Throne; under force of the threat from Elizabeth's policies in the Netherlands and the east Atlantic, Philip set out his plans for an invasion of England. In April 1587, Sir Francis Drake burned part of the Spanish fleet at Cádiz, delaying Philip's plans. In July 1588, the Spanish Armada, a grand fleet of 130 ships bearing over 30,000 men, set sail in the expectation of conveying a Spanish invasion force across the English Channel from the Netherlands. Elizabeth encouraged her troops with a notable speech, known as the Speech to the Troops at Tilbury, in which she famously declared, "I know I have the body but of a weak and feeble woman; but I have the heart and stomach of a King, and of a King of England too."

The Spanish attempt was defeated by the English fleet under Charles Howard, 1st Earl of Nottingham and Sir Francis Drake, aided by bad weather. The Spanish Armada was forced to return to Spain, with appalling losses on the north and west coasts of Scotland and Ireland; the victory tremendously increased Elizabeth's popularity.

The battle, however, was not decisive, and the war continued in the Netherlands, where the Dutch Estates were seeking independence from Spain. The English government was also concerned with the conflict in France and the claim to the throne of a protestant heir, Henry (later Henry IV). Elizabeth sent 20,000 troops and subsidies of over £300,000 to Henry, and 8,000 troops and subsidies of over £1,000,000 to the Dutch. Emboldened by the defeat of the ominous Armada, a massive English expedition in 1589, the Drake-Norris Expedition, was repulsed by Spain, with great losses.

English privateers continued to attack Spanish treasure ships from the Americas; the most famous privateers included Sir John Hawkins and Sir Martin Frobisher. In 1595 and 1596, a disastrous expedition on the Spanish Main led to the deaths of the aging Sir John Hawkins and Sir Francis Drake. Also in 1595, Spanish troops under the command of Don Carlos de Amesquita landed in Cornwall, where they routed a large English militia and burned several villages, before celebrating a mass and retiring in the face of a naval force led by Sir Walter Raleigh.

In 1596, England finally withdrew from France, with Henry IV firmly in control. He had assumed the throne, commenting with double-edged irony that, "Paris is worth a mass;" the Catholic Holy League, which opposed him, had been demolished, and Elizabeth's diplomacy was beset with new problems: at the same time, the Spanish had landed a considerable force of tercios in Brittany, which had expelled the English forces that were present and presented a new front in the war, with an added threat of invasion across the channel. Elizabeth sent a further 2,000 troops to France after the Spanish took Calais. Then she authorized an attack on the Azores in 1597, but the attempt was a disastrous failure. Further battles continued until 1598, when France and Spain finally made peace. The Anglo-Spanish War (1585), meanwhile, reached a stalemate after Philip II died later in the year. In part because of the war, Raleigh and Gilbert's overseas colonization attempts came to nothing, and the English settlement of North America was stalled, until James I negotiated peace in the Treaty of London, 1604.

Later years

Portrait by Nicholas Hilliard, c. 1590

In 1598, Elizabeth's chief advisor, Lord Burghley, died. His political mantle was inherited by his son, Robert Cecil, 1st Earl of Salisbury, who had previously become Secretary of State in 1590. Elizabeth became somewhat unpopular because of her practice of granting royal monopolies, the abolition of which Parliament continued to demand. In her famous "Golden Speech," Elizabeth promised reforms. Shortly thereafter, 12 royal monopolies were ended by royal proclamation; further sanctions could be sought in the courts of common law. These reforms, however, were only superficial; the practice of deriving funds from the grants of monopolies continued.

At the same time as England was fighting Spain, it also faced a rebellion in Ireland, known as the Nine Years War (Ireland). The chief executor of Crown authority in the north of Ireland, Hugh O’Neill, 2nd Earl of Tyrone, was declared a traitor in 1595. Seeking to avoid further war, Elizabeth made a series of truces with the earl, but during this period, Spain attempted two further armada expeditions against northern Europe, although both failed owing to adverse weather conditions. In 1598, O’Neill offered a truce, while benefiting from Spanish aid in the form of arms and training; upon expiration of the truce, the English suffered their worst defeat in Ireland at the Battle of the Yellow Ford.

In 1599, one of the leading members of the navy, Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex, was appointed Lord Lieutenant of Ireland and given command of the largest army ever sent to Ireland, in an attempt to defeat the rebels. Essex's campaign was soon dissipated, and after a private parley with O'Neill—in which the latter sat on horseback in the middle of a river—it became clear that victory was out of reach. In 1600, Essex returned to England without the Queen's permission, where he was punished by the loss of all political offices and of the trade monopolies, which were his principal income.

The succession to the throne had been the ultimate political concern in England since Mary Stuart's arrival in Scotland in the 1560s, and by the end of the century there was only one question in the minds of Elizabeth's advisers: who next? It is in this context that the behavior of Essex is best explained. In 1601, he led a revolt against the Queen, but popular support was curiously lacking, and the former darling of the masses was executed.

Charles Blount, 8th Baron Mountjoy, a bookish man who liked to wrap himself up in scarves, was sent to Ireland to replace Essex. With ruthless intent, Mountjoy attempted to blockade O'Neill's troops and starve his people into submission; the campaign effectively cast the English strategy of the earlier Desmond Rebellion (1580-1583) into a larger theatre, with proportionately greater casualties. In 1601, The Spanish sent over 3,000 troops to aid the Irish, with the justification that their intervention countered Elizabeth's previous aid to the Dutch rebels in the campaign against Spanish rule. After a devastating winter siege, Mountjoy defeated both the Spanish and the Irish forces at the Battle of Kinsale; O'Neill surrendered a few days after Elizabeth's death in 1603, although the fact of her death was concealed from the supplicant rebel with great skill and irony on Mountjoy's part.

During her last ailment, the Queen is reported to have declared that she had sent "wolves, not shepherds, to govern Ireland, for they have left me nothing to govern over but ashes and carcasses" (The Sayings of Queen Elizabeth, 1925). Elizabeth's successor promoted Mountjoy to the office of Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, an office in which he showed skill and moderation, until his early death in 1605.


Elizabeth I fell ill in February 1603, suffering from frailty and insomnia. After a period of distressing reflection, she died on March 24 at Richmond Palace, aged 69, the oldest English Sovereign ever to have reigned; the mark was not surpassed until George II of Great Britain turned 70 in 1753; he would die in his seventy-seventh year in 1760. Elizabeth was buried in Westminster Abbey, immediately next to her sister Mary I. The Latin inscription on their tomb translates to "Partners both in Throne and grave, here rest we two sisters, Elizabeth and Mary, in the hope of one resurrection."

The will of Henry VIII declared that Elizabeth was to be succeeded by the descendants of his younger sister, Mary Tudor, Duchess of Suffolk, rather than by the Scottish descendants of his elder sister, Margaret Tudor. If the will were upheld, then Elizabeth would have been succeeded by Lady Anne Stanley. If, however, the rules of male primogeniture were upheld, the successor would be James VI, King of Scots. Still other claimants were possible. They included Edward Seymour, Baron Beauchamp (the illegitimate son of the Lady Catherine Grey) and William Stanley, 6th Earl of Derby (Lady Anne Stanley's uncle).

It is sometimes claimed that Elizabeth named James her heir on her deathbed. According to one story, when asked whom she would name her heir, she replied, "Who could that be but my cousin Scotland?" According to another, she said, "Who but a King could succeed a Queen?" Finally, a third legend suggests that she remained silent until her death. There is no evidence to prove any of these tales. In any event, none of the alternative heirs pressed their claims to the Throne. James VI was proclaimed King of England as James I a few hours after Elizabeth's death. James I's proclamation broke precedent because it was issued not by the new Sovereign himself, but by Council of Accession, as James was in Scotland at the time. Accession Councils, rather than new Sovereigns, continue to issue proclamations in modern practice.


Autograph of Elizabeth I of England

Elizabeth proved to be one of the most popular monarchs in English or British history. She placed seventh in the 100 Greatest Britons poll, which was conducted by the British Broadcasting Corporation in 2002, outranking all other British monarchs. In 2005, in the History Channel documentary Britain's Greatest Monarch, a group of historians and commentators analyzed 12 British monarchs and gave them overall marks out of 60 for greatness (they were marked out of 10 in six categories, such as military prowess and legacy). Elizabeth I was the winner, with 48 points.

Many historians, however, have downplayed Elizabeth's reign. Though England achieved military victories, Elizabeth was far less pivotal than other monarchs, such as Henry V. Elizabeth has also been criticized for supporting the English slave trade, and her problems in Ireland also serve to blemish her record. On the other hand, she steered England towards its overseas role that succeeded its disentanglement, in the main, from Europe. Elizabeth proved that women could be effective leaders, paving the way for future female monarchs. She did much to strengthen the Protestant course England had taken, which at its best would be an inclusive tradition—although it would be a long time before Catholics were to be tolerated.

Elizabeth was a genuinely successful monarch, helping steady the nation even after inheriting an enormous national debt from her sister Mary. Under her, England managed to avoid a crippling Spanish invasion. Elizabeth was also able to prevent the outbreak of a religious civil war on English soil despite inheriting probably the greatest potential for such a war in the country's history. In addition, all that she did was often done in the face of an all-male council and parliament that was often openly hostile to the idea of a female monarch.

Her achievements, however, were greatly magnified after her death. She was depicted in later years as a great defender of Protestantism in Europe. In reality, however, she often wavered before coming to the aid of her Protestant allies. As Sir Walter Raleigh said in relation to her foreign policy, "Her Majesty did all by halves."

Many artists glorified Elizabeth I and masked her age in their portraits. Elizabeth was often painted in rich and stylized gowns and is often shown holding a sieve, a symbol of virginity.

Benjamin Britten wrote an opera, Gloriana, about the relationship between Elizabeth and Lord Essex, composed for the coronation of Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom.

Notable portrayals of Queen Elizabeth in film and television have been plentiful; in fact, she is the most filmed British monarch. Some notable portrayals include:

  • In 1998, Australian actress Cate Blanchett received an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress for her critically acclaimed performance in Elizabeth.
  • Also in 1998 British actress Judi Dench won an Academy Award for her supporting performance as the Virgin Queen in the popular Shakespeare in Love, a performance of only eleven minutes.
  • Miranda Richardson (in the 1987 classic BBC sitcom Blackadder — a comic interpretation of Elizabeth known fondly as Queenie) both played the role with consummate talent, creating memorable (if wildly contrasting) portraits of Elizabeth I.

There have been many novels written about Elizabeth. They include: I, Elizabeth by Rosalind Miles, The Virgin's Lover and The Queen's Fool by Philippa Gregory, Queen of This Realm by Jean Plaidy, and Virgin: Prelude to the Throne by Robin Maxwell. Elizabeth's story is spliced with her mother's in Maxwell's book The Secret Diary of Anne Boleyn. Maxwell also writes of a fictional child Elizabeth and Dudley had in The Queen's Bastard. Decades ago, Margaret Irwin produced a trilogy based on Elizabeth's youth: Young Bess, Elizabeth, Captive Princess and Elizabeth and the Prince of Spain. Lytton Strachey's Elizabeth and Essex is a reliable romantic reconstruction of the Queen's last political amour. Most fictional accounts of the reign "share too much" of the authors' private enthusiasms. In children's and young adults' fiction, Elizabeth's story is told in Elizabeth I, Red Rose of the House of Tudor, a book in the Royal Diaries series published by Scholastic, and also in Beware, Princess Elizabeth by Carolyn Meyer.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Dunn, Jane. Elizabeth and Mary: Cousins, Rivals, Queens. New York, NY: Vintage Books, 2004. ISBN 978-0375708206
  • Erickson, Carolly. The First Elizabeth. New York, NY: St. Martin's Griffin; Reprint edition, 1997 (original 1984). ISBN 978-0312168421
  • Haigh, Christopher. Elizabeth I, 2nd ed. London: Longman, 2005 (original 1989). ISBN 0582437547
  • Jokinen, Anniina. Elizabeth I (1533–1603). (2004). Retrieved December 30, 2021.
  • Levin, Carole. The Heart and Stomach of a King: Elizabeth I and the Politics of Sex and Power. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1994. ISBN 0812215338
  • Neale, J. E. Queen Elizabeth I: A Biography. Chicago, IL: Academy Chicago Publishers, 2005 (original 1934). ISBN 978-0897333627
  • Perry, Maria. The Word of a Prince: A Life of Elizabeth I from Contemporary Documents. Woodbridge, Suffolk: Boydell Press, 1990. ISBN 0851156339
  • Ridley, Jasper Godwin. Elizabeth I. London: Constable, 1987. ISBN 088064110X
  • Somerset, Anne. Elizabeth I. London: Knopf, 2003 (original 1991). ISBN 0385721579
  • Starkey, David. Elizabeth : The Struggle for the Throne. New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers, 2001. ISBN 0060959517
  • Thomas, Heather. Elizabeth I. (2004). Retrieved December 30, 2021.
  • Weir, Alison. The Life of Elizabeth I. (1st American edition) New York, NY: Ballantine Books, 1998. ISBN 0345425502
  • Weir, Alison. The Six Wives of Henry VIII. New York, NY: Grove Press, 1991. ISBN 978-0802136831

External links

All links retrieved February 13, 2024.


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