Elizabeth the Great

by Elizabeth Jenkins

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Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 546

Although a historical treatment of such complexity as Elizabeth the Great often breaks chronology, Elizabeth Jenkins maintains a focus on Elizabeth and on the events and personages that figured significantly in her life and reign. Her task is difficult because, while keeping the narrative eye on Elizabeth’s personal life, Jenkins must also make clear the political, social, and religious events that molded and motivated her. The result is a pattern that moves forward with events involving Elizabeth but that occasionally leaps about to fill in background details, to make sense of events, or to connect the ongoing narrative with subsequent events.

Despite such occasional lapses in time order, the overall progression of Elizabeth the Great is basically chronological. The book begins with the personal and political complications that affected Henry VIII’s choice and rejection of wives and the place of Elizabeth in his household, moves through the difficulties of a childhood and an adolescence spent in fear of exile or execution as first Edward IV and then Bloody Mary ruled, and then studies Elizabeth as queen. She is described securing her throne and establishing her policy; defending her position against would-be usurpers, alien invaders, and ambitious men at home; and winning the love of her people by her thrift, courage, wisdom, tolerance, and struggle for peace.

While considering questions of state, Jenkins explores Elizabeth’s personal history. She begins with Thomas Seymour’s political maneuvering to control the fourteen-year-old Elizabeth, whose affections his sexual horseplay engaged; his lack of judgment later cost him his head and Elizabeth much trauma, which made her wary thereafter. Jenkins next considers Elizabeth’s lifelong affair with her childhood friend Robert Dudley, whom she made earl of Leicester and whom she loved throughout a lifetime. Personally ambitious but genuinely devoted to her, Dudley sought her hand in marriage, but the unexplained death of his first wife provoked too much scandal, and his later secret marriage to Lettice Devereux alienated the queen’s affection for a time. He nevertheless remained one of the most powerful figures in her kingdom, her devoted servant, and the only man she ever seriously considered marrying. Jenkins also records Elizabeth’s flirtations with the young men in her court, such as Christopher Hatton, and her delight in marriage negotiations, particularly with Catherine de Médicis’ sons, especially the courtly Alençon. Central to this study is Elizabeth’s flirtation and then disillusionment with the handsome, spoiled, and erratic earl of Essex, Robert Devereux. He was an ambitious youth who abused privilege, wasted money in Ireland, disobeyed orders, and threatened queen and crown by marching on London.

Jenkins traces the psychology of Elizabeth’s difficulties with and leniency toward Mary, Queen of Scots, a foolish woman whose lust for power led her to a series of politically expedient marriages and murders as she plotted Elizabeth’s overthrow and her own coronation. Jenkins contrasts with Elizabeth’s other relationships her friendship with and dependence on the sound counsel of William Cecil. As her most trusted confidant and adviser, he guided her steps to reestablish the national credit, protect the kingdom, and maintain a Cold War balance. Ultimately, Jenkins demonstrates that, for Elizabeth, the private and public merged, causing private relationships to be dealt with in public terms.

Historical Context

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Tudor England and the English Reformation In the historical context of the Protestant Reformation throughout Europe, and the English Reformation at home, Elizabeth’s life and reign were characterized by continual conflict between Catholics and Protestants.

King Henry VIII Breaks with the Catholic Church For personal and political, rather than religious, reasons, King Henry VIII...

(This entire section contains 843 words.)

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launched the English Reformation when he instigated England’s break with the Catholic Church. From 1527 to 1533, Henry VIII tried unsuccessfully to obtain from the Pope an annulment of his first marriage, to Catherine of Aragon. Henry VIII wished to dissolve the marriage in order to marry Anne Boleyn. In 1533, Henry VIII obtained an annulment from the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer. That year, Pope Clement VII excommunicated Henry VIII from the Catholic Church. In 1534, Henry VIII named himself, rather than the Pope in Rome, head of the Church of England, by the passage of the Act of Supremacy. This break was by no means religiously motivated on the part of Henry VIII, who had always been opposed to the Protestant Reformation launched by Luther in Germany. Nonetheless, Henry VIII inadvertently brought the Protestant Reformation to England, thereby creating a rift between Catholics and Protestants in England. Between 1536 and 1540, the monasteries throughout England were legally dissolved, a policy which inspired acts of rebellion on the part of adherents to the Catholic faith.

The Protestant King Edward VI Because Henry VIII’s three children were from three different mothers, they each had different religious affiliations and orientations. Edward VI was a devout Protestant, although his youthful age during his reign meant that he had little effect on the policies of the nation. Nevertheless, during the reign of Edward VI, from 1547 to 1553, those in charge of the English government enacted stricter enforcement of Protestantism throughout the land. These policies sparked further uprisings by Catholics against anti-Catholic religious policy.

Bloody Mary and the Persecution of Protestants When Mary I ascended the throne she was determined to make England once again a Catholic nation. Mary earned the name Bloody Mary because she oversaw the burning of some 300 Protestants during her reign. Because her half-sister Elizabeth was Protestant, Mary I feared plots against her by Protestants to place Elizabeth on the throne. A Protestant insurrection against Mary I in 1554, led by Thomas Wyat, was put down and the instigators executed. Although it seems Elizabeth engaged in no such conspiracies, Mary kept her imprisoned for the rest of her reign. Despite these religious differences, however, Mary I named Elizabeth her heir to the throne.

Queen Elizabeth and Religious Conflict Upon ascending the throne in 1558, Elizabeth immediately took action to restore England to Protestantism. In 1559, the Act of Supremacy and Act of Uniformity once again named the monarch as head of the Church of England, and imposed adherence to government religious policy upon all citizens. Elizabeth, though Protestant, was not a deeply religious person, and had an aversion to religious extremism. She understood the political need to enforce Protestantism throughout the nation, in order to maintain any rebellious impulses on the part of Catholics. Fines were imposed on those who did not attend Protestant church services on Sundays; however, Elizabeth was not concerned with the true inner beliefs of her citizens, as long as they maintained an outward appearance of complying with the Church of England. At the other extreme, Elizabeth was equally opposed to extremist Protestants, and considered the Puritans a threat to her sovereignty over religious matters within the church.

Throughout her reign, Elizabeth struggled to contain both Catholic and Protestant opposition to the Church of England. In 1569, a rebellion of Catholics in the north of England was put down. In 1570, Elizabeth was excommunicated by the Pope Pius V, who declared it an almost religious duty of English Catholics to oppose their queen. In 1572, the murder of many French Protestants (known as Huguenots) was carried out in the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, which began in Paris and spread throughout France.

Elizabeth responded to the perceived threat by imposing greater repression and punishment of Catholics in England. When Elizabeth’s religious policy was opposed by Archbishop of Canterbury Edmund Grindal in 1576, the queen dismissed him from his post and named Whitgift the new Archbishop of Canterbury. In 1580, Pope Gregory XIII proclaimed that it would not be a sin for Catholics to rebel against the Protestant Queen Elizabeth in the name of Catholicism. Elizabeth responded by imposing a crackdown on Jesuit clergymen whom she saw as an increased threat to her authority. The constant threat posed by Mary Queen of Scots to Elizabeth’s reign was due mainly to these ongoing religious conflicts. Catholics in England and Scotland, as well as in the Catholic countries of Spain and France, were continually plotting to depose Elizabeth and place a Catholic queen on the English throne. This threat was neutralized with the execution of Mary Queen of Scots for treason in 1586.

The problem of reconciling Catholics and Protestants continued to be a major political issue throughout the reign of Elizabeth’s successor, King James I of England.

Literary Style

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Genres: History and Biography Jenkins’s Elizabeth the Great can be categorized in the genres, or categories, of both history and biography. As biography, it focuses on the life of Queen Elizabeth I of England. Jenkins focuses particularly on the significance of Queen Elizabeth as a great woman in history, explaining her unusual status as a female monarch at a time in history when women were not expected to hold political power. Jenkins also offers some psychological analysis of the queen, explaining some of her political and personal decisions as consequences of traumatic events in her childhood. As a history of England during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, Elizabeth the Great provides historical accounts of important events affecting the reign of Elizabeth. Jenkins also focuses on the element of cultural history in the life of Queen Elizabeth I, spending considerable space describing the lifestyles of the nobility and privileged classes in Elizabethan England.

Sources An important element of any book of history is the sources from which the author obtained her or his information. In her three years of researching for Elizabeth the Great, Jenkins used only what are called ‘‘secondary sources’’—that is, she herself did not delve into archives or original letters or other historical documents to gather historical information about Queen Elizabeth. Rather, Jenkins drew from already-published books of historical information. Jenkins states in the preface to Elizabeth the Great: ‘‘There is nothing in the book which has not already been published in some form,’’ although she adds that some of the information is, ‘‘I believe, very little known.’’

Jenkins goes on to state that she has included various details of interest to the general reader which may not be considered significant information from the perspective of the academic scholarly historian. For instance, Jenkins goes into some discussion within the Preface of the commonly held notion that Queen Elizabeth was bald. Jenkins draws her own conclusions about these matters, based on both written material and observations of various paintings of the queen. Jenkins thus uses available secondary sources to weave an original narrative of the life of Queen Elizabeth I.

Narrative Perspective Modern historians are well aware that any historical or biographical account can never be completely ‘‘objective,’’ as the author inevitably represents her or his material from a particular perspective. Therefore, it is not accurate to say that even the best biography is ‘‘objective.’’ Instead, the reader may determine both the method by which the author obtained the information included in the book and the particular perspective of the author. The author’s perspective is expressed through her narrative voice—that is, the tone and manner in which she relates the factual information in her narrative.

Jenkins makes clear in her Preface to Elizabeth the Great that her narrative perspective in writing the book was aimed at portraying the life and personality of Queen Elizabeth in a manner which would be of interest to the general reader. As Jenkins states in the opening sentence of her Preface, ‘‘The aim of this book was to collect interesting personal information about Queen Elizabeth I.’’ Within her Preface, and throughout the book, Jenkins indicates that she has written this historical biography of Queen Elizabeth I for the general reader, bringing to light various points of interest, while glossing over less interesting information which may be deemed important from a scholarly point of view.

Compare and Contrast

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1500s: The population of England is approximately 50 percent Protestant and 50 percent Catholic.

1950s: In the post-World War II era there is a large-scale influx of immigrants from many nations to England, bringing a variety of religious faiths, especially Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, and Sikh, into the predominantly Christian culture of the United Kingdom.

Today: The population of the United Kingdom is approximately 53 percent Protestant, 10 percent Catholic, 3 percent Muslim, .5 percent Jewish, .5 percent Hindu, and .5 percent Sikh. Approximately 32.5 percent of the population either has no religious affiliation or is one of many other affililations.

1500s: Under the Tudor dynasty, the English monarchy is at the height of its power. The monarchy is served by a parliament consisting of a House of Lords and a House of Commons. The House of Lords holds greater power than the House of Commons. There is no prime minister. Although there are several female monarchs, women are not allowed as members of Parliament.

1950s: The United Kingdom is a parliamentary democracy. The monarchy now functions as a national figurehead, rather than a source of political power or decision-making. Parliament is headed by a prime minister, and the House of Commons, comprised of elected officials, now holds greater political power than the House of Lords, which is made up of appointed and hereditary officials. As of 1918, women can vote and be elected to political office. Queen Elizabeth II is crowned in 1952.

Today: Elizabeth II remains a national figurehead as queen of England and of the Commonwealth of Nations. Various legislation is passed during the 1990s to reduce the power of the House of Lords; effective in 1999, hereditary peers in the House of Lords are no longer allowed to vote in Parliament. Margaret Thatcher, who served as the first female prime minister of the United Kingdom from 1979 to 1990, has paved the way for women to become elected to the highest governmental post in the United Kingdom.

1500s and 1600s: The union of nations which later formed the United Kingdom are in a state of flux regarding their political relationship to one another. Under the rule of King Henry VIII, Wales is incorporated into England in 1536. In 1586, Scotland, under King James VI, concludes a league with England, promising cooperation and peace between the two nations. In 1603, King James VI of Scotland is also named King James I of England and Ireland. However, England and Scotland, although under one monarch, remain separate nations with separate parliaments and governmental structures. As of 1541, Ireland officially recognizes the English crown as its sovereign.

1950s: Scotland joins England and Wales to form Great Britain in 1707 and, in 1801, the United Kingdom is formed when Ireland joins. In 1920, Ireland is divided into Northern Ireland, which is under British rule, and the Republic of Ireland, a sovereign state. In the 1950s, the nations of Great Britain maintain a stable union while Northern Ireland continues to be a region of conflict over issues of national sovereignty.

Today: Various alterations in government structure during the 1990s tend toward granting greater political independence for each country within the United Kingdom. Referendums in 1997 provide for an independent national assembly for Wales and a separate parliament for Scotland, which are formed in 1999. In 1998, a peace agreement is signed between the prime minister of the United Kingdom and leaders of the Irish Republican Army providing for self-rule of Northern Ireland; however, conflict in Northern Ireland continues.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Sources Abbott, Elizabeth, ‘‘Defying the Natural Order: Elizabeth I, the Virgin Queen,’’ in The History of Celibacy, Da Capo Press, 2001, pp. 239–45.

Bassnett, Susan, ‘‘Introduction,’’ in Elizabeth I: A Feminist Perspective, Berg Publishers Limited, 1988, pp. 1–15.

‘‘The British Question 1559–69,’’ in The New Cambridge Modern History, Vol. 3, The Counter-Reformation and Price Revolution1559–1610, edited by R. B. Wernham, Cambridge University Press, 1968, pp. 210–21.

Calder, Charles, ‘‘Elizabeth Jenkins,’’ in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 155, Twentieth-Century British Literary Biographers, edited by Steven Serafin, Gale Research, 1995, pp. 180–85.

Erickson, Carolly, The First Elizabeth, Summit Books, 1983.

‘‘The Famous History of the Life of King Henry the Eighth,’’ in Great Books of the Western World, Vol. 27, The Plays and Sonnets of William Shakespeare, edited by William George Clarke and William Aldis Wright, Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc., 1952, pp. 549–85.

Jenkins, Elizabeth, Elizabeth the Great, Coward-McCann, 1958.

Miles, Rosalind, ‘‘A Little Learning,’’ in The Women’s History of the World, Salem House Publishers, 1988, pp. 104–05.

Morton, Andrew, ‘‘Such Hope in My Heart,’’ in Diana: Her True Story—In Her Own Words, Simon & Schuster, 1997, pp. 119–31.

Rowse, A. L., Chicago Sunday Tribune, March 1, 1959.

Williams, Neville, ‘‘Sovereigns of England, Genealogical Tree,’’ in Elizabeth the First Queen of England, E. P. Dutton Company, Inc., 1968, p. 355.

Further Reading Bruce, Marie Louise, Anne Boleyn, Coward, McCann and Geoghegan, 1972. Bruce provides a biographical account of the life of Anne Boleyn, the mother of Queen Elizabeth I and second wife of King Henry VIII.

Dickens, A. G., The English Reformation, Schocken Books, 1964. Dickens provides an historical account of the English Protestant Reformation which results from the reign of Henry VIII (the father of Queen Elizabeth I).

Fraser, Antonia, Mary Queen of Scots, Delacorte, 1969. Fraser provides a biography of Mary Queen of Scots, the Catholic Queen of Scotland who posed a threat to Queen Elizabeth I throughout her reign. Mary Queen of Scots was implicated in many plots against the life and crown of Elizabeth, and as a result she was eventually executed.

Greenblatt, Stephen, Renaissance Self-Fashioning: From More to Shakespeare, University of Chicago, 1980. Greenblatt offers an analysis of the public image of major figures from Renaissance England, including a discussion of Queen Elizabeth I.

Loades, D. M., The Reign of Mary Tudor: Politics, Government, and Religions in England, 1553–1558, Ernest Benn, 1979.


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