Queen Elizabeth, the only surviving child of King Henry VIII and his second wife, Anne Boleyn, was born on September 7, 1533, at Greenwich. Until the execution of her mother in the spring of 1536, she lived well as a pampered princess. Because of her mother’s death, Parliament declared her illegitimate, and she spent several years in obscurity, away from court, in various manors around the country. When her half-brother Edward was born, they were cared for together. Her tutors gave her a fine humanist education, including learning French, Italian, Latin and Greek and studying moral philosophy, theology, history, music, genealogy and rhetoric.
Her father welcomed Elizabeth back to court and family life once he married his sixth wife, Catherine Parr. When Henry VIII died, Elizabeth lived with Parr and her new husband, Thomas Seymour. During this time, allegations arose, accusing Seymour of behaving inappropriately and lewdly with her. Elizabeth realized her reputation was at stake and managed to overcome any negative consequences of these allegations.
While her brother Edward VI reigned, she lived quietly at Hatfield House. When he died five years later, Elizabeth became the heir to her sister Queen Mary I, according to the will of their father. Mary was Catholic while Elizabeth was raised a Protestant and this caused considerable friction between the two sisters during Mary’s reign. In 1554, several men rose against Queen Mary in the so-called Wyatt’s Rebellion. Although no concrete evidence existed, they implicated Elizabeth in the uprising and she ended up in the Tower of London. Eventually released from the Tower, she remained under strict house arrest at Woodstock.
Queen Mary married King Philip II of Spain and England nominally returned to the Roman Catholic Church. Because of Elizabeth’s Protestant leanings, she had many supporters compelling her to navigate this politically dangerous state of affairs. In the spring of 1555, when Queen Mary believed she was pregnant, Elizabeth returned to court to witness the birth. However, no child appeared, and she returned to Hatfield House.
Mary’s reign witnessed many unfortunate events. There were poor harvests and incessantly bad weather. England lost the port of Calais when Mary was drawn into a war with France on the side of Spain. A terrible plague of deadly flu broke out in the summer of 1558, and Mary fell victim. She died on November 17, shortly after finally giving formal recognition of Elizabeth as her successor.
At twenty-five, Elizabeth acceded to the throne of England as the second Queen Regnant. She immediately appointed William Cecil her principal Secretary of State and on January 15, 1559, had a glorious coronation in Westminster Abbey. Elizabeth and Cecil enacted legislation and governed the kingdom with the help of Francis Walsingham and Elizabeth’s good friend and Master of the Horse, Robert Dudley, along with her great Council.
Elizabeth had inherited a kingdom in chaos. She never reversed the declaration of illegitimacy against her like her sister Mary had done, probably to avoid bringing up the subject. All English territory held in France had been lost, the treasury was bankrupt, and the politics of the realm continued to be dominated by men who expected Elizabeth to marry with all due speed. She had to tread carefully in this atmosphere, but she had surrounded herself with capable advisors and established her own personal approach of ruling and policy-making.
The first item on the agenda would be a settlement for the turbulent religious state of affairs in England. Elizabeth, with the support of Parliament, approved a revised Act of Supremacy, returning the Church of England to the reformed state as it was constituted under Edward VI. This act abolished papal supremacy but defined Elizabeth as Supreme Governor of the church, rather than Supreme Head. The agreed upon distinction placated those who believed a woman could not be head of the church.
The Act of Uniformity laid the groundwork for the practice of religion in the Elizabethan Church. Thomas Cranmer’s Protestant Book of Common Prayer dating from 1552 would be reinstated, and they kept many of the old familiar practices, with the added allowance for two interpretations of communion, one Catholic and one Protestant. This pragmatic, middle-of-the-road stance appealed to most of her subjects and allowed fervent Catholics to pursue their beliefs without interference.
They attempted to impose this religious settlement on Catholic Ireland, leading to frequent rebellion, with the Irish receiving the nominal support of Spain. Other Protestant countries looked to Elizabeth for support at various times during her reign and she would send money, arms and troops to the Huguenots in France and to the Protestants in the Netherlands. The pope eventually excommunicated Elizabeth in 1570.
Early on, Elizabeth’s advisors, as well as Parliament, urged her to marry, but Elizabeth would have none of it. She had witnessed her father’s disastrous marital history and her sister’s ill-advised marriage to the Spanish Catholic king. She no intention of sharing her power. Her erstwhile brother-in-law, King Philip II of Spain, offered to marry Elizabeth upon her succession, but he was summarily rejected. Other suitors included the King of Sweden, two Hapsburg archdukes and Francis de Valois, Duke of Anjou, brother of King Henri III of France. Elizabeth shrewdly used these marriage negotiations in conjunction with her foreign policy, all while never intending to go through with any wedding.
Elizabeth readily encouraged informal relationships with some of the dashing courtiers surrounding her. Robert Dudley and Elizabeth knew each other since childhood, and he would remain by her side until his death. Dudley was arguably the love of her life. He would repeatedly ask the Queen to marry him, even though he was already married. When his wife died mysteriously, the scandal would be too great to overcome.
They cleared Dudley of any charges in the death, but Elizabeth ruled out any prospect of marriage. Dudley would go on to have a mistress and another wife, straining his relationship with Elizabeth. Other favorites surrounding the Queen included the adventurer Sir Walter Raleigh, the Lord Chancellor Sir Christopher Hatton and the nobleman and cousin of the Queen, Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex, who was also the stepson of Robert Dudley. All these men competed for Elizabeth’s attention and for political power at court.
Elizabeth’s cousin, Mary Queen of Scots, had grown up at the French court and married the dauphin Francis in 1558. While in France, Mary’s father-in-law, King Henri II, along with her maternal relatives, the Guises, encouraged her to claim to be the legitimate heir to the throne of England, in effect becoming a direct threat to Elizabeth’s political position. Henri II died in the summer of 1559 from injuries sustained in a horrific jousting accident. Francis and Mary became king and queen of France, but their reign was cut short when Francis died in December 1560. Mary would return to rule her kingdom of Scotland in August 1561.
In 1562, Elizabeth nearly died when she contracted smallpox. She steadfastly refused to name her heir and this state of affairs caused a panic among her councilors, as they argued over who would succeed her. The crisis was averted when she recovered with some minor scarring on her face. In 1563, Elizabeth proposed Robert Dudley as a potential husband for Mary Queen of Scots and he was elevated to the title Earl of Leicester. Elizabeth also allowed Mary’s cousin, Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley, to travel to the Scottish court to visit his father. Mary soon fell in love with her handsome, lanky cousin, and she married him. It didn’t take long for Mary to learn her husband was a vicious drunk and womanizer.
Darnley conspired with other Scottish noblemen to murder Mary’s private secretary, David Rizzio, in the presence of his pregnant wife. Mary gave birth to her son James and in the following year, Darnley was murdered, creating a political crisis for the Scottish queen. She joined forces by marrying Patrick Hepburn, Earl of Bothwell, but was unsuccessful in battle and forced to abdicate. She escaped from her prison of Loch Leven Castle and crossed the border into England. Elizabeth had Mary held in genteel custody while deciding her fate.
In 1569, some of the Catholic earls in the north rose in rebellion intending to depose Queen Elizabeth and replace her with Mary Queen of Scots. By the fall, Thomas Howard, 4th Duke of Norfolk, was imprisoned for plotting to marry Queen Mary and they would eventually execute him. The Queen and her councilors forcefully put the rebellion of the Catholic earls down, but it was now unambiguously obvious keeping Mary Queen of Scots in custody in England was dangerous for Elizabeth’s safety. Sir Francis Walsingham used his well-organized and efficient spy network to sniff out other plots surrounding Mary over the next few years of the reign.
In 1575, Elizabeth turned down an offer to rule over the Low Countries. In 1577, Sir Francis Drake departed on the first English voyage around the world. From early in Elizabeth’s reign, she had patronized and supported various trade missions and piracy. In the early 1560’s, John Hawkins explored Guinea in West Africa and the Spanish West Indies, initiating England’s participation in the slave trade.
Elizabeth created charters for companies and various consortiums of merchants, allowing them exclusive trade rights in a designated area in return for payment to the Crown of a percentage of the profits. The most famous of these organizations would be the East India Company, given a charter to trade in India and the East Indian Ocean. In an attempt to find the legendary North-West passage to China, Martin Frobisher explored Labrador. Sir Walter Raleigh sent ships to North America and explored South America, searching for the mythical city of El Dorado. Sometimes these explorers and pirates plundered Spanish ships and ports, frequently stealing valuable cargo and causing relations with Spain to deteriorate.
Spies discovered another plot surrounding Mary Queen of Scots and planning the death of Elizabeth in 1583. In the following year, thousands pledged to defend the English Queen and retaliate against any assassination attempt. Elizabeth took the Low Countries under protection, sending troops, arms and money, essentially beginning a war with Spain. Because of the final plot against Elizabeth, called the Babington Plot, they charged Mary Queen of Scots with treason for her correspondence with the plotters. Put on trial at Fotheringhay Castle, they found her guilty and sentenced her to death.
Elizabeth’s councilors urged her to sign the death warrant, but the Queen was reluctant to execute a fellow crowned monarch. Once she signed the warrant, the councilors secretly carried out the execution quickly before she could change her mind. In the end, Elizabeth punished William Cecil and others for their hand in the matter, but they would eventually return to royal favor. This was one of the hardest decisions she would make during her long reign.
King Philip II of Spain had long been plotting to invade England to depose Elizabeth, whom he considered illegitimate and a heretic. Following the execution of the Catholic Mary Queen of Scots, he had his excuse, and he sent his mighty Armada of ships to meet up with troops in the Low Countries and attack England. Elizabeth put the Earl of Leicester in charge of the army, with Admiral Charles Howard and Sir Francis Drake in command of the Navy. She traveled to Tilbury to make a magnificent speech to galvanize her troops. Due to weather and inadequate planning, the Armada missed their opportunity to meet up with the Duke of Parma’s army in the Netherlands and were blown off course, to the north around England.
This was the first of several attempts by the Spanish to attack England, but none of them were successful. The Earl of Leicester died, leaving the Queen heartbroken, and Sir Francis Walsingham passed away in the spring of 1590. At the end of 1592, plague broke out in London with seventeen thousand deaths over the next twelve months. In 1594, Elizabeth’s long-time respected Portuguese physician, Rodrigo Lopez, found himself accused of trying to poison the Queen and executed for treason. In fact, he had been a part of the spy network of Walsingham and later for William and Robert Cecil and had inadvertently been implicated in a plot to kill Philip II of Spain’s discredited secretary, Antonio Perez.
Elizabeth’s trusted and faithful secretary, William Cecil, 1st Baron Burghley, died in the summer of 1598. He had been training his son Robert to take his place on the council and this caused friction with Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex and a political battle ensued. In March 1599, Essex was appointed Lord Lieutenant of Ireland and departed with the largest army ever assembled up to that point, to put down a rebellion. Essex squandered the army and made an inappropriate truce with the Irish leaders.
After this disastrous expedition, Elizabeth forbade Essex to return to England. He returned to London anyway and made an unexpected early morning visit to the Queen’s bedchamber at Nonsuch Palace, seeing Elizabeth before she was dressed, or had put on her makeup and wig. At first, it appeared Elizabeth was not upset and Essex left unscathed. However, he was later confined to his rooms, interrogated by the Privy Council and advised to retire from court life.
Essex’s fortunes seemed to turn around, but in June 1600, under pressure from Robert Cecil, he was tried and convicted, confined, deprived of his public offices and his lucrative monopoly of sweet wine proceeds taken from him. Acting increasingly unhinged, he began fortifying his house and gathered his followers. In early February, 1601, he marched through the streets of London demanding an audience with the Queen.
His motives seemed unclear, and the anticipated support of the people never materialized. Robert Cecil had him declared a traitor. Essex returned to his house and surrendered. He was tried, convicted, and executed a few weeks later. His earldom was forfeit until it was restored to his son in the next reign.
Later in the year, Elizabeth appeared before Parliament and gave an address called the Golden Speech. In the final years of her reign, Elizabeth cultivated a phenomenon that included the veneration of the Queen as a semi-divine figure. They declared the date of her accession, November 17, a national holiday, and celebrated with festivities, church services and bell-ringing. Poets called her ‘Gloriana’ and the ‘Virgin Queen’. She took increasing pains over her appearance, spending hours putting on her makeup and wigs. Her clothing and jewels became more extravagant and embellished. She even banned unofficial portraits, thus controlling and managing what images were available to the public.
With the relative peace in the realm and increase in trade, the arts made a resurgence during Elizabeth’s reign. The first playhouse opened in London in 1576. Plays by Christopher Marlowe, Ben Johnson and William Shakespeare began to be written and performed. Shakespeare opened the Globe Theater. The Queen enjoyed watching plays and other indoor and outdoor spectacles and patronized artists and playwrights. She frequently went on progress throughout her realm, lodging with various courtiers, hunting and being lavishly entertained.
With the death of her trusted friends, councilors and ladies-in-waiting, the Queen became increasingly depressed and ill. The population had risen exponentially during the years she ruled. Poverty grew at an alarming rate and they passed Poor Laws in 1597 and 1601 to ease the suffering. Food riots erupted in London and East Anglia. The Queen still refused to name her successor.
She fell ill in the spring of 1603 and went into a stupor at Richmond Palace. The death watch began, with her advisors entreating her to name her heir. There were several stories regarding who she actually named, if anyone. Some of her ministers had already been in contact with James VI, King of Scots and son of Mary Queen of Scots in Edinburgh. As soon as the Queen Elizabeth I expired on March 24, riders were on their way to Scotland to inform James he was now King James I of England. They buried Elizabeth in Westminster Abbey. The Tudor dynasty was no more and the Stuart dynasty had begun.
Historian Leanda de Lisle speculates that Elizabeth I died of Ludwig’s angina.
Further reading: “Elizabeth I” by Anne Somerset, “Elizabeth’s Women: Friends, Rivals and Foes Who Shaped the Virgin Queen” by Tracy Borman, “Burghley: William Cecil at the Court of Elizabeth I” by Stephen Alford, “Elizabeth: The Forgotten Years” by John Guy, “Tudor England” by John Guy, “Mary Queen of Scots: The True Life of Mary Stuart” by John Guy, “The Double Life of Dr. Lopez: The Real Merchant of Venice” by Dominic Green, “Imprudent King: A New Life of Philip II” by Geoffrey Parker, “The First Queen of England: The Myth of ‘Bloody Mary'” by Linda Porter, “Her Majesty’s Spymaster: Elizabeth I, Sir Francis Walsingham, and the Birth of Modern Espionage” by Stephen Budiansky