"I know I have the body of a weak and feeble woman, but I have the heart and stomach of a king, and a king of England too."
The last of the Tudor monarchs ruled for 45 very lively years, inheriting a country at odds with itself and leaving one that was confident with its own identity and place in the world. The third of Henry VIII’s children to become monarch, she is rightly remembered as one of England’s finest rulers.
Survival. Elizabeth’s ascendency to the throne was no sure run thing. Though in many ways a privileged one, her early life was an inordinately turbulent time. Her father Henry VIII’s excessive behaviour and lust meant that Elizabeth lost her birth mother Anne Boleyn, to the executioners axe while she was only two years old. With Anne’s execution, young Elizabeth was declared illegitimate and written out of the Royal succession. It would be her fourth step-mother, Catherine Parr who eventually reconciled Elizabeth and her elder sister Mary with their Father.
After the death of Henry VIII, Elizabeth lived with Catherine who remarried to Thomas Seymour, 1st Baron of Sudeley. Thomas’ relationship with 14 year old Elizabeth was quite sinister as he sought to control the Royal family through his connection with her. His own schemes caught up with him in 1549 when it emerged that he had been caught by Catherine attempting to molest Elizabeth. He was promptly executed. Elizabeth meanwhile was passed into the tutelage of numerous adept educators. An intelligent and ready pupil, by the end of her life she would be competent in 11 languages. In 1553, Edward VI died of Tuberculosis to be succeeded via a brief usurpation, by his sister Mary I. Seeing her younger sister as a threat to her plan for a Catholic rejuvenation, Mary had Elizabeth thrown in the tower of London as her mother Anne had been years earlier. Only influential Protestants at court prevented her trial and execution.
Early rule. “Those who appear the most sanctified, are the worst.” Elizabeth became Queen after the death of Mary in 1558. She was only too aware of the horrendous sectarian persecutions that had taken place under her sister’s rule. By contrast, Elizabeth was pragmatic and sought to incorporate a moderate Protestant reform that would satisfy Protestants at court while at the same time keep the Catholics from rebelling. She rejected the appeals of those calling for Puritan reform (the Puritan revolution would not happen for another 60 years – [English Civil War) and revoked the Heresy Laws that Mary I had used to such devastating effect. The Church Settlement took place with the passing of the Act of Supremacy of 1559, making the monarch the Supreme Governor of the Church of England while retaining some older customs of the Catholics.
Cult of Virginity. In contrast to her father, Elizabeth never married and became known and revered throughout Europe as the Virgin Queen. It was a part that suited Elizabeth quite well as she was able to play her suitors off against one another to the benefit of her realm for the best part of 25 years! There are many speculative theories as to why she chose not to marry and provide an heir. Her molestation at the hands of Thomas Seymour; her father’s lust and mother’s downfall; the apparent fact that she already had a true love, Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester who was already married. In all probability it was a combination of factors but nonetheless, Elizabeth always used her distaste of marriage for one political end or another. She once famously announced that she was married to her kingdom. The sentiment was not lost on her subjects.
The Golden Years. The latter half of Elizabethan England is viewed as a Golden Age when English identity was established and the malevolent, foreign Catholic ideals were brought to heel. These were ingrained in the English consciousness by a combination of historic events and legendary figures. After coming unstuck in the savage politics of Scotland, Mary, Queen of Scots arrived into exile in England to seek the help of her cousin and fellow queen. Elizabeth played safe by rejecting a parley and placing her under house arrest. It was a tactic for time that Elizabeth played for the next 19 years of Mary’s life. Mary became the focus of many a Catholic plot to place her as a Catholic figurehead on the English throne and this proved of great value to Elizabeth and her trusted council who were able to track the activities of Catholic plotters. The seeming threat of an impending Catholic crusade rallied English subjects behind the Protestant cause. After the eventual trial and execution of Mary in 1587, Catholic Spain made the decision to invade England. The resulting defeat of the Spanish Armada of 1588 became one of England’s greatest military victories and the reputation of great Protestant heroes such as Sir Charles Howard and Sir Francis Drake were cemented. Determined to avert the attention of Catholic aggression elsewhere, Elizabeth also oversaw the supply of arms to the expansionist Ottoman Turks who were at war with Catholic Europe in the East.
Legacy. The Elizabethan era is generally regarded as the time of the English Renaissance but in reality this had little to do with the Queen who was not a great lover of the arts. Yet it was at this time when William Shakespeare, Christopher Marlow and Thomas Tallis all produced their masterpieces and as such her rule is often viewed with great nostalgia. Her rule is seen as one where the crown, parliament and the church operated in harmony yet in reality it was complicated and fractious. The hundreds of executions and thousands of war dead are testament to this but ultimately, Elizabeth guided England through a troublesome period to emerge on the other side united as an island and ready to rise to become an Empire.