(b. Sept. 7, 1533, Greenwich, near London, Eng.—d. March 24, 1603, Richmond, Surrey)
Elizabeth I was queen of England (1558–1603) during a period, often called the Elizabethan Age, when England asserted itself vigorously as a major European power in politics, commerce, and the arts.
Although her small kingdom was threatened by grave internal divisions, Elizabeth’s blend of shrewdness, courage, and majestic self-display inspired ardent expressions of loyalty and helped unify the nation against foreign enemies.
The adu-lation bestowed upon her both in her lifetime and in the ensuing centuries was not altogether a spontaneous effu-sion; it was the result of a carefully crafted, brilliantly executed campaign in which the queen fashioned herself as the glittering symbol of the nation’s destiny.
This political symbolism, common to monarchies, had more substance than usual, for the queen was by no means a mere ﬁgurehead.
While she did not wield the absolute power of which Renaissance rulers dreamed, she tenaciously upheld her authority to make critical decisions and to set the central policies of both state and church.
The latter half of the 16th century in England is justly called the Elizabethan Age. Rarely has the collective life of a whole era been given so distinctively personal a stamp.
Elizabeth was the daughter of the Tudor king Henry VIII and his second wife, Anne Boleyn. Henry had deﬁed the pope and broken England from the authority of the Roman Catholic church in order to dissolve his marriage with his ﬁrst wife, Catherine of Aragon, who had borne him a daughter, Mary.
Since the king ardently hoped that Anne Boleyn would give birth to the male heir regarded as the key to stable dynastic succession, the birth of a second daughter was a bitter disappointment that dangerously weakened the new queen’s position. Before Elizabeth reached her third birthday, her father had her mother beheaded on charges of adultery and treason.
Moreover, at Henry’s instigation, an act of Parliament declared his marriage with Anne Boleyn invalid from the beginning, thus making their daughter Elizabeth illegitimate, as Roman Catholics had all along claimed her to be.
When in 1537 Henry’s third wife, Jane Seymour, gave birth to a son, Edward, Elizabeth receded still further into relative obscurity, but she was not neglected.
Despite his capacity for monstrous cruelty, Henry VIII treated all his children with what contemporaries regarded as affection; Elizabeth was present at ceremonial occasions and was declared third in line to the throne.
She spent much of the time with her half brother Edward and, from her 10th year onward, proﬁted from the loving attention of her stepmother, Catherine Parr, the king’s sixth and last wife.
Under a series of distinguished tutors, of whom the best known is the Cambridge humanist Roger Ascham, Elizabeth received the rigorous education normally reserved for male heirs, consisting of a course of studies centring on classical languages, history, rhetoric, and moral philosophy. “Her mind has no womanly weakness,”
Ascham wrote with the unselfconscious sexism of the age, “her perseverance is equal to that of a man, and her memory long keeps what it quickly picks up.” In addition to Greek and Latin, she became ﬂuent in French and Italian, attain-ments of which she was proud and which were in later years to serve her well in the conduct of diplomacy.
Thus steeped in the secular learning of the Renaissance, the quick-witted and intellectually serious princess also studied theology, imbibing the tenets of English Pro-testantism in its formative period. Her association with the Reformation is critically important, for it shaped the future course of the nation, but it does not appear to have been a personal passion.
Position Under Edward VI and Mary
With her father’s death in 1547 and the accession to the throne of her frail 10-year-old brother Edward, Elizabeth’s life took a perilous turn. Her guardian, the dowager queen Catherine Parr, almost immediately married Thomas Seymour, the lord high admiral.
Handsome, ambitious, and discontented, Seymour began to scheme against his powerful older brother, Edward Seymour, protector of the realm during Edward VI’s minority.
In January 1549, shortly after the death of Catherine Parr, Thomas Seymour was arrested for treason and accused of plotting to marry Elizabeth in order to rule the kingdom.
Repeated inter-rogations of Elizabeth and her servants led to the charge that even when his wife was alive Seymour had on several occasions behaved in a ﬂirtatious and overly familiar man-ner toward the young princess.
Under humiliating close questioning and in some danger, Elizabeth was extraordi-narily circumspect and poised. When she was told that Seymour had been beheaded, she betrayed no emotion.
The need for circumspection, self-control, and political acumen became even greater after the death of the Protestant Edward in 1553 and the accession of Elizabeth’s older half sister Mary, a religious zealot set on returning England, by force if necessary, to the Roman Catholic faith.
This attempt, along with her unpopular marriage to the ardently Catholic king Philip II of Spain, aroused bitter Protestant opposition. In a charged atmosphere of treasonous rebellion and inquisitorial repression, Elizabeth’s life was in grave danger.
For though, as her sister demanded, she conformed outwardly to ofﬁcial Catholic observance, she inevitably became the focus and the obvious beneﬁciary of plots to overthrow the government and restore Protestantism.Arrested and sent to the Tower of London after Sir Thomas Wyatt’s rebellion in January 1554, Elizabeth narrowly escaped her mother’s fate.
Two months later, after exten-sive interrogation and spying had revealed no conclusive evidence of treason on her part, she was released from the Tower and placed in close custody for a year at Woodstock. The difﬁculty of her situation eased somewhat, though she was never far from suspicious scrutiny.
Throughout the unhappy years of Mary’s childless reign, with its burn-ing of Protestants and its military disasters, Elizabeth had continued to protest her innocence, afﬁrm her unwavering loyalty, and proclaim her pious abhorrence of heresy. It was a sustained lesson in survival through self-discipline and the tactful manipulation of appearances.
At the death of Mary on Nov. 17, 1558, Elizabeth came to the throne amid bells, bonﬁres, patriotic demonstrations, and other signs of public jubilation. Her entry into London and the great coronation procession that followed were masterpieces of political courtship.
Elizabeth’s smallest gestures were scrutinized for signs of the policies and tone of the new regime: When an old man in the crowd turned his back on the new queen and wept.
Elizabeth exclaimed conﬁdently that he did so out of gladness; when a girl in an allegorical pageant presented her with a Bible in English translation—banned under Mary’s reign—Elizabeth kissed the book, held it up reverently, and then laid it on her breast.
When the abbot and monks of Westminster Abbey came to greet her in broad daylight with candles in their hands, she briskly dismissed them with the words, “Away with those torches! We can see well enough.” Spectators were thus assured that under Elizabeth England had returned, cautiously but decisively, to the Reformation.
The ﬁrst weeks of her reign were not entirely given over to symbolic gestures and public ceremonial. The queen began at once to form her government and issue proclamations.
She reduced the size of the Privy Council, in part to purge some of its Catholic members and in part to make it more efﬁcient as an advisory body; she began a restructuring of the enormous royal household.
She carefully balanced the need for substantial administrative and judicial continuity with the desire for change; and she assembled a core of experienced and trustworthy advisers, including William Cecil, Nicholas Bacon, Francis Walsingham, and Nicholas Throckmorton.
Chief among these was Cecil (afterward Lord Burghley), whom Elizabeth appointed her principal secretary of state on the morning of her accession and who was to serve her (ï¬rst in this capacity and after 1571 as lord treasurer) with remarkable sagacity and skill for 40 years.
The Woman Ruler in a Patriarchal World
Custom and teaching had reinforced a widespread con-viction, that while men were naturally endowed with authority, women were temperamentally, intellectually, and morally unt to govern.
Apologists for the queen countered that there had always been signicant exceptions, such as the biblical Deborah, the prophetess who had judged Israel.
Crown lawyers, moreover, elaborated a mystical legal theory known as the kings two bodies. When she ascended the throne, according to this theory, the queens whole being was profoundly altered: her mortal body natural was wedded to an immortal body politic.
Her physical body was subject to the imperfections of all human beings (including those specic to womankind), but the body politic was timeless and perfect. Hence in theory the queens gender was no threat to the stability and glory of the nation.
Elizabeth made it immediately clear that she intended to rule in more than name only and that she would not subordinate her judgment to that of any one individual or faction.
This she managed in large part through her cultivation of the role of the Virgin Queen wedded to her kingdom; the cult she established around this persona was a gradual creation that unfolded over many years, but its roots may be glimpsed at least as early as 1555.
At that time, Queen Mary had proposed to marry her sister to the staunchly Catholic duke of Savoy; the usually cautious and impassive Elizabeth burst into tears, declaring that she had no wish for any husband.
Other matches were pro-posed and summarily rejected. But in this vulnerable period of her life there were obvious reasons for Elizabeth to bide her time and keep her options open.
When she herself became queen, speculation about a suitable match immediately intensiﬁed, for if she died childless, the Tudor line would come to an end. The nearest heir was the Catholic Mary, Queen of Scots, the granddaughter of Henry VIII’s sister Margaret.
The queen’s marriage was critical not only for the question of succession but also for the tangled web of international diplomacy. England, isolated and militarily weak, was sorely in need of the major alliances that an advantageous marriage could forge.
Important suitors eagerly came forward: Philip II of Spain, who hoped to renew the link between Catholic Spain and England; Archduke Charles of Austria; Erik XIV, king of Sweden; Henry, duke d’Anjou and later king of France; François, duke d’Alençon; and others.
Many scholars think it unlikely that Elizabeth ever seriously intended to marry any of these aspirants to her hand, for the dangers always outweighed the possible beneﬁts, but she skillfully played one off against another and kept the marriage negotiations going for months, even years, at one moment seeming on the brink of acceptance, at the next veering away toward vows of perpetual virginity.
Elizabeth was courted by English suitors as well, most assiduously by her principal favourite, Robert Dudley, earl of Leicester. As master of the horse and a member of the Privy Council, Leicester was constantly in attendance on the queen, who displayed toward him all the signs of an ardent romantic attachment.
When in September 1560 Leicester’s wife, Amy Robsart, died in a suspicious fall, the favourite seemed poised to marry his royal mistress—so at least widespread rumours had it—but, though the queen’s behaviour toward him continued to generate scandalous gossip, the decisive step was never taken.
Elizabeth’s resistance to a marriage she herself seemed to desire may have been politically motivated, for Leicester had many enemies at court and an unsavory reputation in the country at large.
But in October 1562 the queen nearly died of smallpox, and, faced with the real possibility of a contested succession and a civil war, even rival factions were likely to have countenanced the marriage.
Probably at the core of Elizabeth’s decision to remain single was an unwillingness to compromise her power. Though she patiently received petitions and listened to anxious advice, she zealously retained her power to make the ﬁnal decision in all crucial affairs of state.
Unsolicited advice could at times be dangerous: when in 1579 a pam-phlet was published vehemently denouncing the queen’s proposed marriage to the Catholic duke d’Alençon, its author John Stubbs and his publisher William Page were arrested and had their right hands chopped off.
Elizabeth’s performances—her displays of infatuation, her apparent inclination to marry the suitor of the moment—often convinced even close advisers, so that the level of intrigue and anxiety, always high in royal courts, often rose to a feverish pitch.
Far from trying to allay the anxiety, the queen seemed to augment and use it, for she was skilled at manipulating factions. This skill extended beyond marriage negotiations and became one of the hall-marks of her regime.
A powerful nobleman would be led to believe that he possessed unique inﬂuence over the queen, only to discover that a hated rival had been led to a comparable belief.
Royal favour—apparent intimacies, public honours, the bestowal of such valuable perquisites as land grants and monopoliesâ€”would give way to royal aloofness or, still worse, to royal anger.
A similar blend of charm and imperiousness character-ized the queenâ€™s relations with Parliament, on which she had to depend for revenue.
Many sessions of Parliament, particularly in the early years of her rule, were more than cooperative with the queen; they had the rhetorical air of celebrations.
But under the strain of the marriage-and-succession question, the celebratory tone, which masked serious policy differences, began over the years to wear thin, and the sessions involved complicated, often acrimonious negotiations between crown and commons.
Elizabeth had a rare gift for combining calculated displays of intransigence with equally calculated displays of graciousness and, on rare occasions, a prudent willingness to concede. Whenever possible, she transformed the language of politics into the language of love, likening herself to the spouse or the mother of her kingdom.
Religious Questions and the Fate of Mary, Queen of Scots
Elizabeth restored England to Protestantism. The Act of Supremacy, passed by Parliament and approved in 1559, revived the antipapal statutes of Henry VIII and declared the queen supreme governor of the church, while the Act of Uniformity established a slightly revised version of the second Edwardian prayer book as the ofï¬cial order of worship.
Priests, temporal ofï¬cers, and men proceeding to university degrees were required to swear an oath to the royal supremacy or lose their positions; absence from Sunday church service was punishable by a ï¬ne; royal commissioners sought to ensure doctrinal and liturgical conformity.
Many of the nobles and gentry, along with a majority of the common people, remained loyal to the old faith, but all the key positions in the government and church were held by Protestants who employed patronage, pressure, and propaganda, as well as threats, to secure an outward observance of the religious settlement.
Yet she shunned the demands of militant Protestants, who pressed for a drastic reform of the church hierarchy and church courts, a purging of residual Catholic elements in the prayer book and ritual, and a vigorous searching out and persecution of recusants.
Elizabeth had no interest in probing the inward convictions of her subjects; provided that she could obtain public uniformity and obedience, she was willing to let the private beliefs of the heart remain hidden.
This policy was consistent with her own survival strategy, her deep conservatism, and her personal dislike of evangelical fervour.If Elizabeth’s religious settlement was threatened by Protestant dissidents, it was equally threatened by the recalcitrance and opposition of English Catholics.
In 1569 a rebellion of feudal aristocrats and their followers in the staunchly Catholic north of England was put down by savage military force; while in 1571 the queen’s informers and spies uncovered an international conspiracy against her life, known as the Ridolﬁ Plot.
Both threats were linked at least indirectly to Mary, Queen of Scots, who had been driven from her own kingdom in 1568 and had taken refuge in England.
The presence, more prisoner than guest, of the woman whom the Roman Catholic church regarded as the rightful queen of England posed a serious political and diplomatic problem for Elizabeth, a problem greatly exacerbated by Mary’s restless ambition and pen-chant for conspiracy.
Elizabeth judged that it was too dangerous to let Mary leave the country, but at the same time she ﬁrmly rejected the advice of Parliament and many of her councillors that Mary should be executed. So a captive, at once ominous, malevolent, and pathetic, Mary remained.
The alarming increase in religious tension, political intrigue, and violence was not only an internal, English concern. In 1570 Pope Pius V excommunicated Elizabeth and absolved her subjects from any oath of allegiance that they might have taken to her.
The immediate effect was to make life more difﬁcult for English Catholics, who were the objects of a suspicion that greatly intensiﬁed in 1572 after word reached England of the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre of Protestants (Huguenots) in France.
Tension and ofﬁcial persecution of recusants increased in the wake of the daring clandestine missionary activities of English Jesuits, trained on the Continent and smuggled back to England.
Elizabeth was under great pressure to become more involved in the continental struggle between Roman Catholics and Protestants, in particular to aid the rebels ﬁghting the Spanish armies in the Netherlands.
But she was very reluctant to become involved, in part because she detested rebellion, even rebellion undertaken in the name of Protestantism, and in part because she detested expenditures.
Eventually, after vacillations that drove her councillors to despair, she agreed ﬁrst to provide some limited funds and then, in 1585, to send a small expeditionary force to the Netherlands.
Fears of an assassination attempt against Elizabeth increased after Pope Gregory XIII proclaimed in 1580 that it would be no sin to rid the world of such a miserable heretic.
In 1584 Europe’s other major Protestant leader, William of Orange, was assassinated. Elizabeth herself showed few signs of concern—throughout her life she was a person of remarkable personal courage—but the anxiety of the ruling elite was intense.
Government spies under the direction of Sir Francis Walsingham had by this time discovered Mary to be thoroughly implicated in plots against the queen’s life.
When Walsingham’s men in 1586 uncovered the Babington Plot, another conspiracy to murder Elizabeth, the wretched queen of Scots, her secret correspondence intercepted and her involvement clearly proved, was doomed. Mary was tried and sentenced to death. Parliament petitioned that the sentence be carried out without delay.
For three months the queen hesitated and then with every sign of extreme reluctance signed the death warrant. When the news was brought to her that on Feb. 8, 1587, Mary had been beheaded, Elizabeth responded with an impressive show of grief and rage. It is impossible to know how many people believed Elizabeth’s professions of grief.
For years Elizabeth had cannily played a complex diplomatic game with the rival interests of France and Spain. State-sanctioned privateering raids, led by Sir Francis Drake and others, on Spanish shipping and ports alternated with conciliatory gestures and peace talks.
But by the mid-1580s word reached London that the Spanish king, Philip II, had begun to assemble an enormous ﬂeet that would sail to the Netherlands, join forces with a waiting Spanish army led by the duke of Parma, and then proceed to an invasion and conquest of Protestant England.
Always reluctant to spend money, the queen had none-theless authorized sufﬁcient funds during her reign to maintain a ﬂeet of maneuverable, well-armed ﬁghting ships.
When in July 1588 the Armada reached English waters, the queen’s ships, in one of the most famous naval encounters of history, defeated the enemy ﬂeet, which then was all but destroyed by terrible storms.
The Queen’s Image
Elizabeth possessed a vast repertory of fantastically elaborate dresses and rich jewels. Her passion for dress was bound up with political calculation and an acute self-consciousness about her image.
She tried to control the royal portraits that circulated widely in England and abroad, and her appearances in public were dazzling dis-plays of wealth and magniﬁcence.
Artists, including poets like Edmund Spenser and painters like Nicholas Hilliard, celebrated her in a variety of mythological guises—as Diana, the chaste goddess of the moon; Astraea, the goddess of justice; Gloriana, the queen of the fairies—and Elizabeth, in addition to adopting these fanciful roles, appropriated to herself some of the veneration that pious Englishmen had directed to the Virgin Mary.
Nevertheless the last decade of Elizabeth’s reign began to reveal a severe strain in her ability to control not only her own image, but also her country’s political, religious, and economic forces.
Bad harvests, persistent inﬂation, and unemployment caused hardship and a loss of public morale. Charges of corruption and greed led to widespread popular hatred of many of the queen’s favourites.
A series of disastrous military attempts to subjugate the Irish cul-minated in a crisis of authority with her last great favourite, Robert Devereux, the proud earl of Essex, who had under-taken to defeat rebel forces led by Hugh O’Neill, earl of Tyrone.
Essex returned from Ireland against the queen’s orders, insulted her in her presence, and then made a des-perate, foolhardy attempt to raise an insurrection. He was tried for treason and executed on Feb. 25, 1601.
Elizabeth continued to make brilliant speeches, to exercise her authority, and to receive the extravagant compliments of her admirers, but she was, as Sir Walter Raleigh remarked, “a lady surprised by time,” and her long reign was drawing to a close.
She suffered from bouts of melancholy and ill health and showed signs of increasing debility. Her more astute advisers—among them Lord Burghley’s son, Sir Robert Cecil, who had succeeded his father as her principal counselor—secretly entered into correspondence with the likeliest claimant to the throne, James VI of Scotland.
Having reportedly indicated James as her successor, Elizabeth died quietly. The nation enthusiastically wel-comed its new king. But in a very few years the English began to express nostalgia for the rule of “Good Queen Bess.” Long before her death she had transformed herself into a powerful image of female authority, regal magniﬁ-cence, and national pride, and that image has endured to the present.