“…. And the new social system was finally secure. Yet the spirit of the ancient feudalism was not quite exhausted. “ – Lytton Strachey
A prominent critic wrote about her two centuries after her death. Bette Davis played her in a melodramatic movie nominated for five Academy Awards. Today, millions of people attend traveling fairs that attempt to re-create the era in which she lived. The third longest reigning queen of England, Elizabeth I is widely regarded as one of the world’s greatest monarchs; she is certainly one of the best known. Her life story reads like a sensational novel, much stranger than fiction.
Elizabeth was born in 1533, at the nexus of what was possibly the world’s greatest intellectual cataclysm, the Protestant Revolution. In other countries, this insurgency arose from the minds of the clergy; in England, however, it was created by a man otherwise dedicated to the Catholic Church. Elizabeth’s father, Henry VIII, didn’t change his beliefs upon exposure to Luther, Zwingli, Calvin, or Knox – he simply wanted a divorce. When his wife, Katherine of Aragon, proved unable to bear him an heir, he turned to Anne Boleyn, a woman who refused his attentions outside of wedlock. Frustrated by Rome’s refusal to grant him a dispensation allowing him to leave his marriage, Henry tilted the world on its axis by leaving the Church and creating his own.
Elizabeth’s mother, Anne Boleyn, is immortalized in English history as “Anne of a Thousand Days.” Her relationship with the King would culminate in a secret marriage in 1533; she was already pregnant with Elizabeth at the time. Unable to conceive again, her relationship with the King turned sour. In 1536 she became the first English Queen to be publically executed. Whether Henry ever recovered from this emotionally is an open question; after at last fathering a son by his third wife, he would be married three more times before dying in 1547. At the time, Elizabeth was fourteen, and third in line for the throne.
Eleven years of upheaval would follow. Edward VI was nine at the time of his accession, and the next six years would see England ruled by a regency council that oversaw the institutionalization of Protestantism as the national faith. During this time, Elizabeth found herself wooed by the husband of Catherine Parr, Henry’s last wife; whether or not Elizabeth had an actual affair is in dispute. What is known is that England’s ruling clans were rapidly splitting between Protestant and Catholic factions, and Elizabeth was seen as a possible pawn in the chess game. Edward’s final illness was construed as a disaster for Protestant forces, who attempted to depose both Elizabeth and her sister Mary by naming Lady Jane Grey as his successor. This plot was foiled, and Mary became the first reigning Queen of England in 1553.
The tumult continued. Wyatt’s rebellion, in 1554, made Queen Mary suspicious of Elizabeth’s intentions, and Elizabeth lived under house arrest for the remainder of Mary’s reign. Committed to returning England to the ‘true faith’, “Bloody Mary”, who earned the sobriquet through her zeal in executing Protestants, had no love for her half-sister, whom she considered illegitimate and a heretic. While Mary’s marriage to Philip of Spain was an attempt to unite the two countries, there is no doubt that she loved him passionately. Her inability to become pregnant, and her fears for her country’s well-being, were quite possibly the only reasons she kept Elizabeth alive during her five-year reign.
Elizabeth ascended the throne at the age of twenty-five, inheriting a country torn apart by two decades of religious strife, economic insecurity, and political infighting. English Catholics believed that the crown rightfully belonged to Elizabeth’s cousin Mary, who was married to the French Dauphin. Protestants were elated at Elizabeth’s ascension, but worried that she would also die without issue. From the first, Elizabeth was pressured to find a husband, as her sister’s reign had convinced the nobility that a woman could not rule on her own.
To sum up: for her first twenty-five years, Elizabeth was whipped back and forth by her family, by the British nobility, and by the demands of the country. She was rejected by her father, who had her mother murdered. She was romantically (and possibly physically) abused by a man purporting to be her step-father, imprisoned on possible treason charges by her sister, and, upon her ascension, expected to find a man to run the country in her name. What followed could have been continuing strife for the country and personal tumult. From the moment of her birth, the forces on her never let up.
As scientists know, it takes immense pressure to produce a diamond.
Elizabeth became the most revered monarch in English history. Leading the country for forty-five years, she would prove instrumental in quelling religious conflict. She would oversee the beginnings of the British Empire. Across the ocean, a future American state would be named after her. Under her tutelage, music and the arts would flourish. And, during all of this, she would never share her power; learning from the errors of her father and sister, she would earn the sobriquets of “The Virgin Queen” and “Gloriana”.
The Elizabethan era would be a time of relative religious freedom. In 1559, Elizabeth’s coronation was closely followed by the Acts of Supremacy and Uniformity. While the former constituted a reversal of her sister’s attempt to restore England to the Catholic Church, the law was worded very carefully. Like her father, Elizabeth was to be the head of the Church of England; however, the phrase “Supreme Governor” suggested that she was to manage the church rather than supplant other authorities. This equivocation granted some breathing room for Catholics (who could not allow her to supersede the Pope) and to misogynists (who felt that women must not rule over men). In this way, the country once again became nominally Protestant; at the same time, however, dissenters were not overtly placed in a position of challenge. In such a way, Elizabeth was able to assert her power peacefully.
The Act of Uniformity also worked in a ‘win-win’ fashion. Elizabeth declared herself to have little desire to “make windows into men’s souls,” feeling that “there is only one Christ Jesus, one faith; the rest is a dispute over trifles.” At the same time, she valued order and peace in the kingdom, and realized that there need be some overarching canon to pacify those with more extreme views. Thus, she crafted the standardization of the Protestant faith in England, bringing the Book of Common Prayer into use for services across the county. While the Catholic mass was officially banned, Puritans were also expected to attend Anglican services upon risk of being fined. Loyalty to the crown became more important than one’s personal belief. As such, Elizabeth’s turn to relative tolerance for all worshippers can be seen as a fore-runner to the doctrine of ‘separation of church and state.’
While the laws of 1558 and 1559 (the Act of Supremacy was backdated to the time of her ascension) were for the benefit of Catholics, Anglicans, and Puritans, the relative tolerance of the time proved beneficial to Jewish people as well. Two hundred and sixty-eight years before Elizabeth’s advancement to power, in 1290, Edward I passed an “Edict of Expulsion” banning all those of Jewish faith from England. While the ban would technically remain in place until 1655, emigrant “Spaniards” fleeing the Inquisition began arriving in 1492; they were in fact welcomed by Henry VIII who hoped that their Biblical knowledge could help him find a loophole allowing for divorce. During Elizabeth’s time, this influx continued. With the Queen’s emphasis on national rather than religious loyalty, being of Spanish descent proved to be more of an issue than one’s religious beliefs. The official revocation of the edict would not occur during the Elizabethan era, but the growing tolerance of the nation certainly paved the way for such thinking.
Nobles across the country pressed Elizabeth to find a suitable consort, but Elizabeth proved intent on avoiding marriage completely. Perhaps she was jaded from the examples provided by her father and sister; certainly, she understood the subjugation pressed on a woman after wedlock. In any case, the Queen played one suitor against another and turned the subject of her nuptials into a series of witty jokes. When pushed financially by Parliament, she coolly announced her intention to marry only ‘at the proper time.’ As the years passed, it became understood that she considered herself married to her country, and the sobriquet “Virgin Queen” was born.
In the service of such a ruler, men sailed the globe to advance the grandeur of “Gloriana”, as she was also known. Sir Walter Raleigh, who began his career fighting for the Huguenots in France, battled the Irish under Elizabeth; later, he would sail several times across the Atlantic in the hope of finding the “Northwest Passage” to Asia. While this hope never materialized, Raleigh did initiate a colony in the New World, named “Virginia” in honor of the Queen. Another pirate knighted for his services, Sir Francis Drake became the first Englishman, and indeed only the second sailor, to circumnavigate the globe; he would also serve in the infamous Spanish Armada, the war that curtailed Spain’s supremacy on the high seas. The Elizabethan era saw the advancement of England from isolated island nation to world power, a position that it would hold for the next four hundred years.
Elizabeth’s reign is foremost celebrated for the arts that flourished under these conditions of relative peace and prosperity. A rarity in her time, Elizabeth was a well-educated woman, fluent in many languages in addition to English; she read for pleasure, and adored listening to music and attending theatrical performances. She granted patents for Thomas Tallis and William Byrd to print sheet music, thereby encouraging all subjects to gather together and enjoy madrigals, motets, and other forms of Renaissance melodies. In 1583, she decreed the formation of a theatre group named “The Queen Elizabeth’s Men,” thereby making theatre a mainstay of entertainment throughout the land. During the 1590’s, the Lord Chamberlain Players flourished, notable for the talents of its premier writer, William Shakespeare.
For the people of England, the rise of England as a cultural and military power was reason for rejoicing. For Elizabeth, however, the glorious nature of her reign was something that she continually worked to protect. Religious strife still lingered in the background (as indeed it would until the 18th century), and there were those who still believed that Elizabeth’s parentage rendered her unsuited to rule. Her cousin, Mary Queen of Scots, held a claim to the throne, and Catholics were all too ready to unite under her banner. While Mary was married to the Dauphin of France, she was far enough away for Elizabeth to be able to consolidate her rule; however, in 1561, Mary landed at Leith, returning to Scotland to rule over that country. Implicated in the murder of her husband, Lord Darnley, Mary was soon dethroned in Scotland; she came to England in exile, creating an ongoing problem for her cousin. Mary was implicated in the Babington Plot of 1567, which attempted to topple Elizabeth from her throne; Elizabeth had Mary put under house arrest, where she would remain for the better part of two decades. We can surmise that Elizabeth’s upbringing led her to sympathize with Mary’s plight, but the need to protect the fragile peace and prosperity that England enjoyed finally prevailed over Elizabeth’s disinclination to execute her cousin. In 1587, she had Mary executed.
Philip II of Spain would prove to be yet another threat to the kingdom. Married to Elizabeth’s sister Mary during her reign, he had been instrumental in arranging a reconciliation between the two before Mary’s death. Naturally, he wanted to continue this relationship with England after Elizabeth ascended the throne. In 1559, Philip proposed marriage to Elizabeth (a gesture bitterly opposed by his subjects), but was declined. Philip’s sense of being slighted by his former sister-in-law would become exacerbated by what he saw as English interference in his attempt to quell the revolt in the Netherlands, which at the time was under Spanish rule. Protestant England was of course more sympathetic to their Dutch co-religionists than to the Spanish King who had recently ruled England by proxy, and the relationship between Spain and England would remain tense for the first part of Elizabeth’s reign. War was never formally declared between the two countries, but in 1588, a Spanish fleet was amassed to sail to England and invade the country.
What happened next is the stuff of legends. The Queen gathered her troops at Tillbury to quell the attack, and delivered a speech to them that would be recorded in history. “Let tyrants fear,” she declared, “I have placed my chiefest strength and safeguard in the loyal hearts and good-will of my subjects…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, and think foul that Parma, or Spain, or any Prince of Europe, should dare to invade the borders of my realm…” The English troops, who then greeted the Armada with a barrage of fire, were ultimately aided by the weather. Blown off course by a stiff wind, the Spanish ships foundered, some forced to sail to Ireland for safety. The event was taken by Englishmen as a sign from God of Gloriana’s favor; the Spanish power severely weakened by this event, the country would not trouble England again during Elizabeth’s reign.
Titled “Queen of England and Ireland,” Elizabeth continued to have problems with her ‘subjects’ in that country. The country being Catholic, ongoing danger lay in the possibility of a treaty tying Ireland to Spain; in addition, the land was beset by warring chieftains united only in their hatred of English rule. One of these, a woman by the name of Grainne Ni Mhaille or Grace O’Malley in English, would prove herself to be the intellectual and administrative equal to Elizabeth. Originally the wife of a clan leader, Grace took control of her family’s business after she was widowed. Considered a traitor and a pirate by the English, she defiantly continued to wage war with other Irish rulers. Eventually, she looked to an alliance with England in order to continue her independent ways, venturing to London in July, 1593, to meet with the Queen.
Elizabeth’s learning and diplomatic skills proved useful during the meeting, which was conducted in Latin, the only language that both women spoke. Impressed with Grace’s fiery demeanor and ability to match wits, the Queen agreed to pardon Grace of all charges of piracy. In the end, the two admitted respect for each other as female leaders in a violently misogynistic era, and the consultation is remembered as a meeting between equals rather than as a Queen’s audience with her subject.
While Grace’s ships would no longer be considered an issue to the English throne, other Irish rebellions continued throughout Elizabeth’s reign. Robert Devereux, the Earl of Essex, was one nobleman sent to quell continuing unrest in that country. A favorite of the Queen for a decade, Devereux was three decades her junior but one of the few men who could match her spirit and wit. As a military leader, however, he proved to be unsuccessful and returned to England in relative disgrace. In an effort to right his fortunes, Essex staged an unsuccessful coup against the Queen; for this, he was beheaded. Other military leaders continued their efforts in Ireland on the Crown’s behalf; by the end of Elizabeth’s life, England had mostly overwhelmed the Irish rebels.
Amidst all this statecraft, the woman behind “Gloriana” remains a mystery. While she certainly had her favorite courtiers, all relationships stopped cold at the point of affecting statecraft. An outrageous flirt prone to jealous rages, she nonetheless was always aware of her position as Queen. Rumors abounded regarding the extent of her relationships with Robert Dudley, the Earl of Leicester, and Robert Devereux, the Earl of Essex, but no conclusive proof exists. We can conjecture, however. A woman as shrewd as Elizabeth would never have risked pregnancy, and there was no reliable birth control in her era. Whether or not she ever experienced physical intimacy, it’s unlikely that she ever had intercourse. She lived a long and fulfilling life; however, there is no doubt that she often felt lonely and isolated. Married to her kingdom, she gave to her subjects at the expense of her private longings.
By the beginning of the seventeenth century, a tired and elderly Queen gave what is remembered as ‘the Golden Speech.’ In 1601, at the age of sixty-eight, she used all of her elocutionary and rhetorical skills for what would be her last public address: “Though God hath raised me high, yet this I account the glory of my crown, that I have reigned with your loves…though you have had, and may have, many mightier and wiser princes sitting in this seat, yet you never had, nor shall have, any that will love you better.” In failing health, battling depression, and concerned for the future of her realm, she would carry on as Queen for two more years before finally passing in 1603, after reigning for forty-five years. Unprecedented mourning followed her death as the crown passed to the Stuart line.
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In the twenty-first century, we have many rulers throughout the world, but none with a story to match Elizabeth’s. Her forty-five year reign would be only exceeded by two other British queens, Victoria and Elizabeth II. The contested Tudor line, which sat on the English throne for one hundred and eighteen years, is remembered primarily for two individuals: the much-married father and the never-married daughter. In a time when princesses were expected to marry a King and give birth to future Kings, Elizabeth forged a third route – she became a King. At a personal cost that we can never fully understand, she forged the future of England. When next you attend a Renaissance Faire or a Shakespeare play, take a moment to reflect on the woman behind the persona.
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