Born: September 7, 1533
Died: March 24, 1603
Elizabeth I was queen of England and Ireland from 1558 to 1603. She preserved stability in a nation torn by political and religious tension and led the country during a time of great exploration and achievement.
Born in Greenwich, England, on September 7, 1533, Elizabeth I was the daughter of Henry VIII and his second wife, Anne Boleyn. In May 1536, her mother was beheaded to clear the way for Henry to marry Jane Seymour. Parliament declared that the throne would pass to any children born from this marriage, rather than to Elizabeth or her older sister Mary. Jane did produce a son, Edward, but Elizabeth continued to be brought up in the royal household. She received a good education and was an excellent student, especially in languages (she learned Latin, French, and Italian) and music.
Elizabeth barely survived the short reign of her brother, Edward VI (1537–1553). All of the people in her household were arrested, and she was a prisoner in her own home. In this period she also experienced ill health but pursued her studies under her tutor, Roger Ascham. In 1553, following the death of Edward VI, her sister Mary I (1516–1558) came to the throne with the intention of leading the country back to the Catholic faith. Under Edward, the Protestants had become the major religious group in the country. They opposed many decisions made by the pope (the leader of the Catholic Church) and placed less emphasis on ceremonies than Catholics did. After a Protestant attempt to overthrow Mary, Elizabeth was imprisoned, although she had played no part in the plan. She was held for two months before being released, but Mary continued to have her people keep an eye on Elizabeth.
In November 1558, Mary died, and Elizabeth took over the throne. At the age of twenty-five, Elizabeth was a tall and well-poised woman. What she lacked in feminine warmth, she made up for in the wisdom she had gained from a difficult and unhappy youth. One of her first actions as queen was to appoint Sir William Cecil (1520–1598; later Lord Burghley) as her chief secretary. Cecil was to remain her closest adviser; like Elizabeth, he was politically cautious. They both knew that the key to England's success lay in balancing the two great continental powers, France and Spain, against each other, so that neither could bring its full force against England.
When Elizabeth took the throne, conditions in England were very bad. The country was not strong enough, either in men or money, to oppose either France or Spain. By the Treaty of Edinburgh in 1560, though, Elizabeth was able to decrease French control of Scotland, which helped the English. She also worked to improve the country from within. Industry and trade were expanded, and there was an increase in the development of natural resources. This was the beginning of what came to be known as the Elizabethan Age, a time of great adventure and exploration and the creation of much famous literature.
Since Elizabeth was unmarried, many were interested in the question of the succession (who would be next in line for the throne). She had a large number of suitors, but as the years passed it became clear that she would not marry and take the chance of losing her power. Many praised Elizabeth for her skillful handling of her courtships. Her hand in marriage was an important tool in foreign relations. By refusing to marry, Elizabeth could further her general policy of balancing the continental powers. Yet, this was a very dangerous policy. Had Elizabeth died, as she nearly did early in her reign, or had any one of the many assassination plots against her succeeded, the country would have been plunged into chaos trying to decide who would take over for her.
After the increase in Protestantism under Edward VI and the Catholic reaction under Mary, the question of the nature of the Church needed to be settled immediately. The Acts of Unity and Supremacy of 1559 provided an answer. Protestantism was established as the national faith, and Elizabeth enforced it as the supreme governor of the Church of England. A number of English people remained Catholic. The Church of England was attacked by both Catholics and Puritans (Protestants who wanted to make the church "pure" by throwing out Catholic policies). Because of the fear that a Catholic, such as Elizabeth's cousin, Mary, Queen of Scots (1542–1587), would rise against the government, Parliament urged Elizabeth to use harsh measures to control the Catholic opposition. For the most part the queen resisted these pressures. While laws relating to the Catholics did become more strict over time, the queen preferred to promote a feeling of tolerance that would allow her to retain the patriotic loyalty of many of the English Catholics.
The Puritans continued to wage a long battle in the Church, in Parliament, and in the country at large to make the religious settlement more strict. Elizabeth found that she could control Parliament through the force of her own personality. It was, however, some time before she could control the Church and the countryside as effectively. It was only with the promotion of John Whitgift to the post of archbishop of Canterbury that she found her most effective weapon against the Puritans. With apparent royal support but some criticism from Burghley, Whitgift was able to use the Church courts to keep the Puritans in line. By the later years of Elizabeth's reign, the Puritan movement was much weaker than it had been, mainly because many of its prominent supporters had died.
In the 1580s Spain emerged as the chief threat to England. Elizabeth found herself under increasing pressure from Protestants to take a firm stand against Catholic Spain. After waiting until England's naval power could be built up, she began to approve attacks on Spanish ships. Her decision in 1585 to send a force under the Earl of Leicester (c. 1532–1588) to intervene on behalf of the Netherlands in its revolt against Spain meant the temporary end of her planned policy of balance and peace. The struggle against Spain ended with the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588. The victory, however, owed as much to luck and Spanish mistakes as it did to English skill.
Elizabeth's ability to speak many languages came in handy when dealing with representatives of foreign governments. She also showed a considerable ability to rally the people around her. At Tilbury, for instance, when the English army gathered in preparation for an attack on Spain, the queen appeared to deliver one of her most stirring speeches: "I am come amongst you … to live and die amongst you all.… 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."
In some ways, the defeat of the Spanish Armada marked the high point of Elizabeth's reign; the time that followed has been referred to as "the darker years." The Spanish threat never really went away, and further English military operations suffered from poor leadership and low funds. Catholic plots to oust Elizabeth continued, and one such attempt led to the execution of Mary, Queen of Scots, in 1587. The latter years of Elizabeth's reign were also marked by increasing difficulties in Ireland. The English had never effectively controlled Ireland, and under Elizabeth the situation became worse.
The latter years of Elizabeth's reign were also a time when severe tensions emerged in domestic politics. The finances of the Crown, exhausted by war since the 1580s, were in bad shape. The economic plight of the country as a whole was not much better. Moreover, problems in the court seemed to increase in the closing stages of her reign, as corruption (unlawful activity) and struggling for patronage (the power to make appointments to government jobs for political advantage) became common. For all the greatness of her reign—one that had witnessed the naval feats of Sir Francis Drake (c. 1541–1596) and Sir John Hawkins (1532–1595), and the literary accomplishments of Sir Philip Sidney (1554–1586), Edmund Spenser (c. 1552–1599), William Shakespeare (1564–1616), and Christopher Marlowe (1564–1593)—Elizabeth left behind quite a mess for her successor, James VI (1566–1625) of Scotland, the son of Mary, Queen of Scots. On March 24, 1603, Elizabeth died. According to one account, she "departed this life, mildly like a lamb, easily like a ripe apple from the tree."
Hibbert, Christopher. The Virgin Queen: The Personal History of Elizabeth I. New York: Viking Penguin, 1990.
Thomas, Jane Resh. Behind the Mask: The Life of Elizabeth I. New York: Clarion Books, 1998.
Weir, Alison. The Life of Elizabeth I. New York: Ballantine, 1997.