(Updated February 2022)
(Part of our series on the Kings & Queens of England)
Elizabeth Tudor was born September 7, 1533 to King Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn. Anne was the second wife of Henry , and executed by beheading when Elizabeth I was only two and a half years old.
After her mother’s death, she was declared illegitimate and exiled from court for several years.
When Elizabeth was eventually allowed back, she received an education of a much higher standard than her female peers. By the time her instruction was complete, she could speak or write ten languages: Scottish, Irish, Welsh, Cornish, Flemish, French, Italian, Spanish, Latin and Greek.
Raised as a Protestant but now under the rule of her Catholic half-sister, Queen Mary — also known as Bloody Mary — Elizabeth was forced to practice Catholicism publicly and support her sister’s agendas or face the punishment of a traitor.
Mary was constantly suspicions of Elizabeth’s beliefs, and when Wyatt’s rebellion occurred she was questioned and held in the Tower of London. When moved to another location for what would become a year of house arrest, crowds gathered to cheer for her.
Though it isn’t believed that Elizabeth plotted against her sister, it is known that she was popular with those who sought to return England to the Protestant faith. Elizabeth was a hope to those who dreamed of a Protestant England.
Elizabeth I took the crown in 1558. Just before her death, Queen Mary claimed Elizabeth as her heir.
Elizabeth’s graciousness and openness ensured her of the people’s love and devotion. Determined to do her best by her country, after her coronation at the age of twenty-five, Elizabeth quickly restored the Church of England and was instrumental in creating a communal prayer book.
She is quoted saying, “There is one Jesus Christ. The rest is a dispute over trifles.” This eventually led to Pope Pius V excommunicating her in 1570.
Unlucky In love
Unlucky in love, perhaps Elizabeth’s first brush with romance came from her widowed stepmother’s husband, Thomas Seymour. He was executed for attempting to gain power with his plot to marry Elizabeth.
This may very well have set the stage for her prolonged single state, for though she had many suitors—including the king of Sweden and the future king of France—she never married.
England’s welfare seemed to be Elizabeth’s focus, rather than providing an heir to carry on her reign. Her prolonged single status earned her the nickname Virgin Queen, though she had no qualms in using her single standing to help her politically.
Her love of peace was a welcome contrast to her father and sister’s reigns, which were punctuated by many executions.
There was much talk at court over her relationship with her married childhood friend, Robert Dudley, creating scandalous gossip embroiled with the people’s dislike of their association.
After Dudley’s wife’s fatal fall down a flight of stairs, he was suspected of conspiring to kill her so that he could marry the queen. Though Elizabeth considered a union with him, it never came to be.
It is unknown whether Queen Elizabeth I simply didn’t desire a marriage, wished to avoid the political unrest a new king would bring to the throne or if she was unwilling to relinquish control to a husband. Her father, King Henry VIII’s many marriages and execution of two of his wives may have had a factor in her determination to remain alone.
Ultimately, she was married to her role as queen and her responsibility to the people of England.
Elizabeth I had a love for culture and was responsible for the thriving art culture throughout her reign. She played the lute and enjoyed court musicians, including the well-known William Byrd. Plays and dances were also relished by the queen and she was paid tribute to by artists and writers; she gained her nickname Gloriana when Edmund Spenser based his poem The Faerie Queen on her.
Her love of fashion can be seen in the many portraits painted of her. Known for her ornate silver and gold costumes, Elizabeth’s face is striking in her portraits due to her use of spirits of Saturn, which was an unfortunate blend of vinegar and white lead. With her golden crown set atop her vivid red hair, the collar known as a “ruff,” and her heavily adorned gowns, Elizabeth was the picture of a successful ruler.
Mostly known as moderate and tolerant, as well as more lucky than successful, Queen Elizabeth I ended the war with France that her sister, Bloody Mary, had stirred up. She succeeded in a lengthy peaceful reign, which continued until her support of the Netherlands in a Protestant rebellion against Spain, which earned her Spain’s attention.
She went on to defeat the Spanish Armada and others who sought to overthrow her, including her cousin, Mary Stuart, the queen of Scotland, who she had imprisoned and ultimately executed. Another usurper was Robert Devereaux, the Earl of Essex, who was also executed for plotting a rebellion against her.
Near the end of her reign, troubles plagued her country: failed crops led to food riots, inflation soared along with unemployment. Elizabeth remained steadfast, her reign best described in her own words:
“Of myself I must say this, I was never any greedy, scraping grasper, nor a straight, fast-holding prince, nor yet a waster. My heart was never set on worldly goods but for my subjects’ good.”
A beloved queen, Elizabeth’s focus was on her people and their peaceful wellbeing, concentrating her efforts there rather than on her own gain as many rulers had before her, forsaking even marriage and children. Her devotion didn’t go unnoticed by her countrymen.
The more than one-hundred-year rule of the house of Tudor came to an end with Elizabeth I’s death on March 24, 1603. After nearly a half century of holding the crown, Queen Elizabeth I left her country in political and religious stability, and a flourishing art culture so rich that it is known as the Golden Age.
An overcomer, Queen Elizabeth I was known for her stable ruling hand, which allowed her country to prosper during her forty-four-year reign. She faced nearly constant friction in her life, but defeated each obstacle.
Despite plots against her, attempts on her life and her ex-communication by the pope, she managed to successfully retain her crown in an age that limited the rights of women. Her reign gave England a rich cultural past punctuated by William Shakespeare, Christopher Marlowe and Francis Drake. She remains one of the most well-loved queens in England’s history for her devotion to her country.
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