Elizabeth I, Queen of England
By Wes Weems and Christopher W. Taylor
Elizabeth Tudor was born on September 7, 1533 to Henry VIII (1491-1547), King of England, and Anne Boleyn (c. 1504-36). Though Henry was very affectionate to Elizabeth during the first years of her life, he had been hoping that his second wife would give birth to a male heir to the throne of England. Henry had already gone to great ends to divorce his first wife, Catherine of Aragon (1485-1536), due in part to the fact that he believed her unable to produce for him a son.
Anne did become pregnant again, and the child was male. The child was stillborn, however; thus, Henry’s wish for an heir to his throne again went unanswered. It was due to her inability to produce and heir, as well as Henry’s growing disinterest in Anne, that Henry had, by what on all accounts are erroneous, charges of adultery and incest brought against Anne. Regardless of the validity of the charges, Anne was executed on May 19, 1536. After Anne’s execution Henry distanced himself from Elizabeth, who was of course, a constant reminder to him of Anne. Elizabeth would spend the next several years moving to and from various estates with her half-half sister Mary (1516-58); who, much to her dismay, was made one of her younger sister’s ladies in waiting. During this time Henry’s new wife, Jane Seymour (c. 1507-37), produced a male heir, Edward (1537-53), who later became Edward VI. Jane Seymour died of puerperal fever after having Edward.
Eventually Elizabeth, along with Mary, was taken into the household of, who would be her last stepmother Catherine Parr (c. 1512-48). Catherine Parr made sure that Henry’s various children received an education befitting royalty. When Henry past away, leaving the throne to his then ten year old son Edward, Elizabeth left court and continued to live with the now Queen Dowager Catherine Parr.
While Edward VI was King of England, Elizabeth became acquainted the Lord High Admiral of England, Thomas Seymour (1508-49). Although Seymour was married to the Queen Dowager, he still crept into the bedroom of Princess Elizabeth and openly flirted with her in front of his wife. Indeed, he had once asked the Privy Council if he could marry Elizabeth. Seymour got Elizabeth and some members of her household in trouble when he attempted to kidnap Edward VI and proclaim himself Lord Protector of England. On March 20, 1549, when Seymour was beheaded, Elizabeth said, “This day died a man with much wit and very little judgment” (qtd. in Hibbert 34).
After being King for only six years, Edward VI died and the Duke of Northumberland proclaimed Lady Jane Grey (1537-54) Queen of England. Her reign ended within a fortnight due to the popular belief that Mary had the legitimate claim to the throne. With this, a very turbulent part of Elizabeth’s life began. The accession of Mary I to the throne brought about the return of Catholicism as the primary religion of England. Mary’s marriage to the Prince Philip of Spain (1527-98), who later became Philip II, King of Spain, only strengthened the Catholicism’s hold on England. Mary became notorious for her persecution of Protestants during her reign and, as a result, earned the nickname “Bloody Mary.” Protestants viewed Elizabeth as their savior, and many sought to see her ascend to the throne sooner rather than later. Because of this, Mary and her advisors saw Elizabeth as a threat to Mary’s throne. Due to Mary’s constant suspicion, Elizabeth spent much of her time under house arrest at her residence in Hatfield and was even imprisoned in the Tower of London under the accusation that she conspired against her sister, the Queen. The level of knowledge that Elizabeth had pertaining to plots to overthrow her sister will remain a matter of contention among scholars.
Elizabeth probably thought that her chance of being Queen of England was nullified when Mary I appeared pregnant. No child, however, ever materialized. Some biographers of Elizabeth, such as Christopher Hibbert, believe that Mary had cancer of the ovaries (Hibbert 59). On November 17, 1558 Elizabeth learned of her sister’s death, and acceded to the throne. According to popular legend, Elizabeth, who was sitting under an oak tree, declared, in Latin, from the 118th psalm, “This is the Lord’s doing; it is marvelous in our eyes” (qtd. in Hibbert 60).
One of the first things Elizabeth did was reward the people who were faithful to her and Protestantism. Katherine Ashley (d. 1565), Elizabeth’s childhood caretaker, for instance, was appointed First Lady of the Bedchamber. Thomas Parry (c. 1515-60), Elizabeth’s cofferer, assumed the position of Treasurer of the Household. Sir Francis Knollys (c. 1514-96) was appointed to the Privy Council and made the Vice-Chamberlain of the Household. The ardent Protestant, Sir Nicholas Throckmorton (1515-71) was appointed Chief Butler and Chamberlain of the Exchequer. Elizabeth appointed others, such as Sir William Cecil (1520-98), based on merit.
Elizabeth’s subjects constantly vied for her attention and favor. The Englishman who was most fervent in his attachment to Elizabeth was Robert Dudley (c. 1532-88), Earl of Leicester. According to him, they had been childhood friends. The relationship between Elizabeth and him aroused much suspicion in the minds of English people in the Elizabethan Age. This was particularly pronounced when Amy Robsart (d. 1560), Dudley’s husband was, apparently, murdered. Because of this incidence, any chance Dudley had for marrying Elizabeth was eliminated. This is why some scholars, such as Alison Weir, speculate that Elizabeth’s wise and cautious Principle Secretary of State, Cecil, had Amy killed (Weir 108). Christopher Hatton (1540-91) was another admired subject of Elizabeth who flattered her frequently. He even stayed single while he was flattering her. Because of his good looks and talents, Elizabeth rewarded him with several positions at court, such as Captain of the Bodyguard and Lord Chancellor, and a pension. Sir Walter Ralegh (c. 1552-1618), one of the chief Elizabethan sea knights, was also admired by Elizabeth. He loved her, too. She asked him, “When will you cease to be a beggar?” And he replied, “When your Majesty ceases to be a benefactor” (qtd. in Hibbert 129). Elizabeth’s last major admired subject was Robert Devereux (1567-1601), Earl of Essex. Although his relationship with Elizabeth started out great, a feud soon developed after Essex disobeyed Elizabeth several times. Eventually, she had him executed.
Elizabeth had several possible suitors. Her most prominent suitors were Philip II, Sir Thomas Seymour, Price Eric of Sweden (later King Eric XIV of Sweden), Robert Dudley, Henry (Duke of Anjou), Archduke Charles, and Francis (Duke of AlenÇon/Anjou). Elizabeth considered the suits of Dudley and the Duke of AlenÇon/Anjou most seriously.
Elizabeth’s courage was tried several times with conflicts in religion, with foreign countries, with her marriage, and with internal power struggles. She had trouble with religion because of the break with the Roman Catholic Church that her father initiated and her sister’s attempts to reinstate Catholicism. During the Elizabethan Age, England was involved in military conflicts in Scotland, France, Ireland, Scotland, the Netherlands, France, and Spain. The feud with Spain was especially prominent after Elizabeth’s relationship with Phillip II soured. Indeed, Philip sent an entire armada against England, but with a lot of luck and great ship design England won the day against what the Spanish called “The Enterprise of England.” Elizabeth was particularly loved by her people when she delivered her famous Speech to the Troops at Tilbury. The English Parliament and Elizabeth’s Privy Council desperately wanted Elizabeth to marry so that a man would rule England. Elizabeth, however, begrudgingly refused to marry. She said that her tombstone would say that she had reigned for a long time but still died a virgin (qtd. in Hibbert 118). Her refusal to marry was exemplified in one of her greatest speeches called the Golden Speech. The major internal power struggles that Elizabeth successfully put down involved a nobleman named Anthony Babington (1561-86), the former Queen of Scots, Mary Stuart (1542-87), and the Earl of Essex. For the successful dissolution of these plots, Elizabeth was especially reliant on the efforts of Sir Francis Walsingham (1530-90), one of her chief advisors.
Despite her early troubles, Elizabeth went on to become one of the greatest, if not the greatest, monarch in British history. With her accession to the throne Elizabeth inherited a country consumed by debt, and with little or no army to speak of, and many, many enemies both religious and political (Weir 1). Even with all of these obstacles Elizabeth I’s reign would see England to the most productive, powerful and prosperous period in its history and give England the foothold it would need to become one of the most powerful empires in world history. Elizabeth died on March 24, 1603 at Richmond Palace. She was succeeded by the son of Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots, her most bitter rival, James VI of Scotland.
Hibbert, Christopher. The Virgin Queen: Elizabeth I, Genius of the Golden Age. Cambridge: Perseus Books. 1991
Thomas, Heather. “Elizabeth I Biography.” The Life and Times of Queen Elizabeth I. 25 Apr. 2007 <http://www.elizabethi.org/us/biography.html>.
Walker, Julia M. The Elizabeth Icon, 1603-2003. New York: Palgrave, 2004.
Weir, Alison. The Life of Elizabeth I. New York: Ballantine Books, 1998.