Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1443
Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn
Elizabeth I was born in 1533, the daughter of King Henry VIII of England and Anne Boleyn, his second wife. Henry’s first wife, Catherine of Aragon, had born him a daughter, Mary. When Elizabeth was two years old, Henry VIII ordered the beheading of Anne Boleyn, although Elizabeth did not learn of this fact until years later. Henry VIII’s third wife, Jane Seymour, was the mother of his only surviving son, Edward. Henry VIII later married, in succession, Anne of Cleves, Catherine Howard, and Catherine Parr.
Although all three children were of different mothers, Mary, Elizabeth, and Edward were raised together and generally treated well by their various stepmothers. Important early influences on Elizabeth were her governess, Mrs. Ashley, and her private tutor, the scholar Roger Ascham. Ascham was impressed with Elizabeth’s intelligence, eagerness for learning, and facility with learning foreign languages.
Reign of King Edward VI
In 1547, when Elizabeth was fourteen, Henry VIII died, leaving the nine-year old Edward as heir to the throne. Edward Seymour, duke of Somerset, was named Protector to the boy king. Soon afterward, Thomas Seymour (a brother of Edward Seymour), married Henry VIII’s widow, Catherine Parr. When Edward became king, Elizabeth went to live with Catherine Parr (her stepmother) and Thomas Seymour. During this time, Thomas Seymour developed a pattern of sexually harassing the teenaged Elizabeth. After his wife died, Seymour hoped to marry Elizabeth in order to gain political power. However, in 1549, Thomas Seymour was arrested for various political intrigues and beheaded on the order of his brother Edward Seymour. In 1552, Edward Seymour was in turn beheaded for treason. With the downfall of Edward Seymour, John Dudley, earl of Warwick, took over control of the government as a regent to the child king.
In 1553, King Edward VI died of tuberculosis. After Edward’s death, a conspiracy resulted in the reign of Lady Jane Grey as Queen of England for nine days. John Dudley had arranged the marriage of his son to Lady Jane Grey, and convinced the dying King Edward VI to name her heir to the throne. However, Elizabeth’s sister Mary, the rightful heir to the throne, had the popular support to overthrow Lady Jane Grey. The fifteen-year old Lady Jane Grey, who had been forced into the arrangement against her will by her parents, was executed for treason, along with her father, her husband, and her husband’s father.
Reign of Queen Mary I
The thirty-seven year old Mary was named Queen Mary I of England in 1553. In 1554, Sir Thomas Wyat organized an armed rebellion of some 3,000 men against Queen Mary I. The rebellion was swiftly put down, and Wyat was executed. These events, however, caused problems for Elizabeth, who was suspected of being an accomplice in the rebellion. Although there was no evidence against Elizabeth, Mary I’s suspicion of her half-sister led to harsh treatment of the princess throughout her reign. Elizabeth thus spent most of Mary I’s reign in various forms of imprisonment, first in the Tower of London, then as a prisoner in various households where she was held under constant suspicion of conspiracy.
In 1554, Mary I married King Philip II of Spain. The reign of Mary I created further difficulties for Elizabeth because, although they were halfsisters and had gotten along as children, Mary was a devout Catholic and Elizabeth was a Protestant. Mary’s primary concern as queen was to restore England to Catholicism. During her five-year reign, Mary I earned the name Bloody Mary because of her harsh treatment of Protestants. In all, she oversaw the burning at the stake of some 300 Protestants, sometimes as many as eight at once.
Elizabeth Ascends the Throne
When Mary I died in 1558, the twenty-five year old Elizabeth was named Queen Elizabeth I of England. Upon gaining power, Elizabeth named William Cecil her secretary, and he remained her primary and most trusted advisor in affairs of state until his death. Throughout her reign, Elizabeth faced several recurring challenges. A significant threat to the reign of Elizabeth I was Mary Queen of Scots, the Catholic Queen of Scotland who repeatedly plotted against Elizabeth’s life in efforts to secure the English throne for herself. Until her death, there was also constant struggle between Elizabeth and her parliament over the issue of producing an heir to the throne. Elizabeth never married or bore children, but cleverly kept her government and her nation guessing about whom she might choose to marry. Meanwhile, Elizabeth maintained a close romantic relationship with Robert Dudley, earl of Leicester, who was not considered a suitable match for the queen in marriage.
Robert Dudley was soon named by Elizabeth to various positions of importance within the court and eventually granted various prestigious titles. Dudley seemed to think he might one day marry the Queen, although she never indicated that she would ever accept such a proposal. Dudley was already married but in 1560, his wife died by falling down a flight of stairs and breaking her neck. Dudley later secretly married another woman. Elizabeth remained close to Dudley until his death, although he sometimes angered her.
The Threat of Mary Queen of Scots
Mary Queen of Scots was considered by many Catholics to be the rightful Queen of England, rather than Elizabeth. Mary thus remained a constant threat to Elizabeth’s life and throne. Throughout Elizabeth’s reign, Mary was engaged in a number of plots and conspiracies to gain the English throne. In 1565, Mary married Henry Stewart, earl of Darnley. Controversy was sparked when Darnley was strangled to death and his house blown up in 1567. Mary was suspected of having plotted the murder of her own husband to marry the earl of Bothwell, which she did three months later. As a result of this controversy, Mary was deposed as queen of Scotland, and her one-year-old son named King James VI of Scotland in her place. In desperation, Mary fled to England, where Elizabeth kept her in prison for the next eighteen years.
During this time, many plots against Elizabeth to place Mary Queen of Scots on the English throne were discovered and put down, as were several small rebellions in the name of Mary Queen of Scots. In 1569, the rebellion of English Catholics in the north of England was crushed by military force. In 1570, Pope Pius V excommunicated Elizabeth I and encouraged English Catholics to rebel against their Protestant queen. This pronouncement led to harsher crackdowns on Catholics in England.
In 1571, the Ridolfi Plot was exposed. The Ridolfi Plot was attempted by the Florentine Roberto Ridolfi, who arranged to murder Elizabeth and coordinate a Spanish invasion of England to place Mary Queen of Scots on the throne. Although Ridolfi was safely out of England at the time the plot was discovered, Thomas Norfolk, the earl of Surrey, was implicated, leading to his execution.
In 1580, Pope Gregory XIII publicly encouraged the assassination of the Protestant Queen Elizabeth. In 1583, another plot against Elizabeth was discovered. Francis Throckmorton was at the head of a plot involving the invasion of England by France to put Mary Queen of Scots on the throne. After Elizabeth’s secretary, Francis Walsingham, discovered the plot, Throckmorton was tortured on the rack until he confessed and was executed soon afterward. In 1586, Walsingham was instrumental in foiling the Babington Plot against the queen. Anthony Babington coordinated an attempted plot to murder Elizabeth and place Mary Queen of Scots on the throne, with the help of Spain. Babington, along with six other conspirators, were executed for high treason. Later evidence implicated Mary Queen of Scots in the Babington Plot, which resulted in her execution for treason in 1587. Elizabeth made a show of opposing the execution, although she herself had ordered it.
During the final ten years of her reign, Elizabeth’s age began to show, and her popularity with the public decreased some. Beginning in 1586, Elizabeth’s new favorite male companion was Robert Devereux, second earl of Essex, the stepson of Robert Dudley, who was some thirty-four years her junior. In 1600, Devereux failed in a military assignment to put down an Irish rebellion, as a result of which Elizabeth deprived him of his political post and put him under house arrest. Devereux, backed by 200 to 300 men, attempted a revolt against Elizabeth in 1601. His efforts failed and he was executed for treason.
Queen Elizabeth I died in 1603. She was the last monarch of the Tudor dynasty, which had begun in 1485 with the reign of King Henry VII. She named as her successor King James VI of Scotland (the son of Mary Queen of Scots) as King James I of England.