Queen Elizabeth I
The Tudor dynasty produced some of Britain’s most famous monarchs. Many visitor sites ranging from palaces to parks have some connection with the Tudors.
We have all read stories and seen TV films about Queen Elizabeth I and her father King Henry VIII, the monarch responsible for separating the Church of England from the Roman Catholic Church and papal authority.
Elizabeth was born at a time of incredible religious upheaval, in an atmosphere of suspicion and betrayal. She was born a princess but lost this status when her father kept re-marrying in an effort to produce a healthy male heir.
Elizabeth grew up knowing that she could be used as a pawn in other men’s political ambitions and her safety depended entirely on her own wits and judgement.
Considering the first 25 years of her life was spent being declared illegitimate, imprisoned, and falsely accused of treason, it is not surprising that she did not always follow the counsel of her advisors. She never made rash or hurried decisions and has been criticised for being indecisive. Her motto was "I see, and say nothing".
Elizabeth was a strong, stubborn monarch, much loved by her people, and reigned for 44 years.
She is best known for never marrying, for not producing an heir, defeating the Spanish Armada and bringing religious harmony to England. Her nicknames were ‘The Virgin Queen’, ‘Gloriana’ and ‘’Good Queen Bess’.
Elizabeth was born to Henry’s second wife, Anne Boleyn, on 7 September 1553. She had her mother’s red hair and inherited her feisty temperament. She was next in line to the throne because her father’s first marriage had been declared illegal, making her half-sister Mary illegitimate.
Her mother was executed on trumped up charges of adultery and incest when Elizabeth was 2½ years old. The little girl was promptly pronounced illegitimate and her title of princess taken away. Henry married for the third time and this time his wife, Jane Seymour produced a healthy boy, Prince Edward.
Jane died shortly after Edward’s birth. Elizabeth was placed in his household and the two half-sisters were entrusted with roles in the heir’s christening. Mary was made godmother and Elizabeth carried the baptismal cloth.
Edward got on well with his half-sisters but Mary did not particularly like Elizabeth and was rather cold and spiteful to her.
Elizabeth was brought up by loving and sympathetic gentlewomen and at age 4 came under the guidance and teaching of ‘Kat’ Ashley who became a lifelong friend. Mistress Ashley clearly made a good job of Elizabeth’s early education. By the age of 11 Elizabeth could write in English, Latin and Italian. She went on to be taught by a talented and skilful male tutor, William Grindal, and learnt French and Greek. When she was 15 Grindal died and she joined Prince Edward’s tutor, Roger Ascham who believed learning should be fun.
She competed with her half-brother to be the best student and spurred him on in his studies. By the time her formal education ended in 1550 she was the best educated woman of her generation.
When Elizabeth was 13, her father Henry VIII died and her young half-brother became King Edward VI. Edward ruled with a Regency Council headed by his powerful uncle, Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset. Henry’s widow, Catherine Parr, married Edward Seymour's brother, Thomas and moved young Elizabeth into the Seymour household.
Although Thomas Seymour was 40 years old, he sexually molested the young 14-year old Elizabeth. His wife caught him in the act and banished Elizabeth to Hatfield House.
This traumatic sexual experience may well have influenced Elizabeth’s decision to remain a virgin. Certainly, when widower Thomas Seymour asked for her hand in marriage, she refused him. It was also her first experience of being accused of involvement in a plot to usurp the crown.
Elizabeth had been brought up a Protestant, just like her half-brother but her half-sister Mary remained a secret Roman Catholic. Elizabeth was never as zealous as her two siblings and believed in a moderate approach to religion.
When Edward died at the age of 15, the Protestant reformers tried an unsuccessful coup d’état by proclaiming Lady Jane Grey heir to the throne. She lasted 9 days before the 37-year old Mary claimed her throne and was crowned Queen Mary I.
As we all know, Mary tried to make England Roman Catholic again in a series of bloody persecutions throughout her 5 year reign. Mary became more and more unpopular particularly when she insisted on marrying Phillip II of Spain.
Her opponents wanted Elizabeth as their queen. Mary’s advisors convinced her that she would not be safe on the throne while Elizabeth was alive. Mary imprisoned her half-sister in the Tower of London to be put on trial for treason. The terrified Elizabeth fervently protested her innocence.
Mary was persuaded that there was no hard evidence against Elizabeth so she released her and placed her under house arrest for a year at Woodstock Palace in Oxfordshire.
Mary died in 1558
Mary was terminally ill for several months prior to her death on 17 November 1558 giving her half-sister plenty of time to plan her reign and how she was going to govern. Mary’s husband Phillip used the time to renew his acquaintance with Elizabeth, planning to marry her and retain his position as ‘King of England’.
Elizabeth was a hard headed, worldly-wise 25 year old when she became queen. She had decided she would govern with the aid of a few trusted counsellors and would be nobody’s puppet. She had the charm of her father and the temper of her mother.
As mentioned before, she was extremely well educated, clever and an articulate speaker. Her speeches were inspiring and could draw empathy from her audience. She was well aware of projecting the right ‘image’ wearing fabulous clothes and resplendent in jewels. A close study of many contemporary portraits shows her in clothes embroidered with symbols of her lineage, such as the Tudor rose and trimmed with ermine, the royal symbol of power.
The new queen was adored by her subjects and she showed herself to them in processions, accepting their cheers graciously. She often went on royal progress, visiting the aristocracy. It was a great honour to receive a visit from the queen but it could send a courtier bankrupt. It is said that these visits were one way of making others pay for her court. The splendid Elizabethan additions to Robert Dudley’s Kenilworth Castle in Warwickshire were built for just such a visit.
She made her first speech announcing her intentions to her Council and peers at Hatfield Palace referring to herself for the first time as being one person with two bodies – the body natural and the body politic.
“My lords, the law of nature moves me to sorrow for my sister; the burden that is fallen upon me makes me amazed, and yet, considering I am God's creature, ordained to obey His appointment, I will thereto yield, desiring from the bottom of my heart that I may have assistance of His grace to be the minister of His heavenly will in this office now committed to me. And as I am but one body naturally considered, though by His permission a body politic to govern, so shall I desire you all...to be assistant to me, that I with my ruling and you with your service may make a good account to Almighty God and leave some comfort to our posterity on earth. I mean to direct all my actions by good advice and counsel.”
One of the first things Elizabeth did on becoming Queen was to settle the religion question. She chose a middle path, keeping Edward’s Protestant reforms but allowing some Catholic elements, such as priestly vestments. A number of the vacant bishoprics were filled with Protestant adherents but radical Puritan ideas were not accepted.
Mary’s heresy laws were repealed at the same time as a new Act of Uniformity was passed. Attendance at church and use of an adapted version of the Book of Common Prayer were made compulsory but penalties for failure to comply were not extreme.
Elizabeth made one concession by agreeing to become Supreme Governor of the Church of England instead of bearing the title of Supreme Head.
Marriage with its political alliance implications, and the provision of an heir, was the next most important matter. Here there was a real difficulty and, as mentioned above, Elizabeth was not keen to marry. She may have known she was infertile; she was also wary of marrying a foreigner, risking a loss of control or foreign interference in her affairs, as had happened to her sister Mary. She could govern perfectly well without the help of a man. On the other hand, marriage offered the chance of an heir.
Several suitors were presented and she led them on without actually committing to an alliance. Some say that her real true love was her childhood friend, Lord Robert Dudley. It is certainly true that Elizabeth kept his letters amongst her most personal belongings. One written just before his death in 1588 is marked in her own handwriting "his last letter".
- Lord Dudley
Lord Dudley was certainly her favourite but he was already married. His wife was terminally ill but there was a secret understanding between Elizabeth and Robert that nothing could happen until his wife died.
The Queen’s advisors did not want to see a royal marriage wasted on sentiment with no political gain so they were against a marriage to Dudley. Things took a turn for the worst when Dudley’s wife died as a result of falling downstairs – did she fall or was she pushed! There was a terrible scandal and Dudley faded into the background.
For the next ten years Elizabeth continued to shower him with favours and titles, making him Earl of Leicester in 1564. She encouraged him into thinking she would marry him even though the idea was totally opposed by her Council.
In 1578 Dudley remarried and the Queen reacted with repeated scenes of displeasure towards him for having done so. His wife had to cope with the queen's lifelong hatred.
Despite the best efforts of her counsellors and Parliament she would not marry nor nominate a successor in the absence of an heir. As she got older she encouraged the cult image of a ‘Virgin Queen’. In 1559, she told the Commons, "And, in the end, this shall be for me sufficient, that a marble stone shall declare that a queen, having reigned such a time, lived and died a virgin".
The stubborn queen remained unmarried and there was nothing her counsellors could do about it. She was portrayed as married to her kingdom and subjects, under divine protection. In 1599, when Elizabeth was 66 years old, she spoke of "all my husbands, my good people".
With no political alliances to be gained by marriage, foreign policy had to be managed in a different way. Elizabeth favoured a defensive foreign policy. Her main problem was that England was surrounded by countries strongly allied with the Catholic League. Even her own kingdom of Ireland was making overtures to the Catholics.
Elizabeth was not interested in European domination but the aggressive Catholic League was threatening England and forced her to provide military support for countries battling to implement Protestantism such as the Netherlands and France.
She did not choose her military commanders wisely and did not adequately provision and support her armies. Obviously, her military campaigns were disastrous.
In 1585 Elizabeth sent an English army to aid the Dutch Protestants in their struggle against the Catholic League and King Phillip II of Spain. The Catholic League was gaining more and more control of the Channel coastline exposing England to Spanish invasion. So began the Anglo-Spanish War which resulted in Elizabeth’s most celebrated success, the defeat of the Spanish Armada.
On the home front, Protestant Scotland was being ruled by Mary Queen of Scots whose French Catholic alliances were a threat to England. Prior to Mary’s return in 1561 to take up the reins of power, Scotland had an established Protestant church and was run by a council of Protestant nobles supported by Elizabeth. This had all come about with the signing of a treaty which Mary refused to acknowledge.
Elizabeth tried to secure Mary’s cooperation by offering Robert Dudley as a marriage partner. Mary refused and married instead Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley who carried his own claim to the English throne.
The marriage was the first of a series of errors of judgement by Mary that handed the victory to the Scottish Protestants and to Elizabeth. From this marriage a son was born, later to become James VI of Scotland and James I of England.
Mary Stuart was a weak, foolish and easily manipulated monarch and got herself implicated in the murder of her husband, later marrying his murderer. The Scottish Lords imprisoned her in Loch Leven Castle and forced her to abdicate in favour of her son James. James was removed to Sitrling Castle and brought up a protestant.
Mary escaped from Loch Leven and fled across the border to England seeking help from her cousin Elizabeth. At first the English monarch’s response was to send her to Scotland with an English army, or return her to France. Sense prevailed and Mary was imprisoned in England.
Mary Stuart was always a focus for Catholic dissenters and knew about several plots to place her on the English throne. Elizabeth never wanted to execute her but by late 1586 she had been persuaded to sanction her trial and execution on the evidence of letters written during the Babington Plot.
Elizabeth's proclamation of the sentence announced that "the said Mary, pretending title to the same Crown, had compassed and imagined within the same realm divers things tending to the hurt, death and destruction of our royal person."
Mary Queen of Scots
After 19 years of imprisonment Mary was tried and executed on 8 February 1587 at Fotheringhay Castle.
Elizabeth tried to control rebel Catholic populations and sympathisers in Ireland by granting of land to her courtiers who pursued a ‘scorched earth’ policy preventing the rebels from giving Spain a base from which to attack England.
In 1582, an estimated 30,000 Irish people starved to death. Elizabeth advised her commanders that the Irish, "that rude and barbarous nation", be well treated; but she showed no remorse when force and bloodshed were deemed necessary. Rebellions did not cease until after Elizabeth died in 1603.
The Elizabethan era has been described as a Golden Age. England benefited from 44 years of stable government led by a charismatic queen. She had chosen wise and intelligent men as her counsellors and trusted their advice. On her death they arranged a smooth succession to Mary Queen of Scots’ son, James Stuart.
Her moderate policies encouraged poets such as Edmund Spenser, and playwrights such as William Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe to create some of the greatest plays ever written.
Some of the greatest sailors in English history flourished during her reign – Sir Francis Drake circumnavigated the globe, and her navy saved England from invasion by the Spanish. Foreign trade was increased and as a result she managed to lower taxes.
Towards the end of her long reign she fell into a deep depression. Most of her trusted advisors had died and she was tired of playing the role of a beautiful, virgin queen. In fact she was badly scarred by a bout of smallpox and was partially bald.
Buried in Westminster Abbey
When she died on 23 March 1603 the streets on the way to Westminster were thronged with sorrowing crowds. Elizabeth is buried n a magnificent tomb beside her sister Queen Mary I in Westminster Abbey.