Elizabeth the Great

by Elizabeth Jenkins

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Last Updated on May 13, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1126

Female Monarchy
A major factor in the reign of Queen Elizabeth I was that Elizabeth was one of the first female monarchs to rule England. Both her government and her citizens were initially skeptical about being ruled by a woman in an era when women were considered inferior to men, particularly in the realm of politics. Historians generally agree that the success of Queen Elizabeth I’s reign was due largely to her skillful rendering of her own public image so as to win the confidence of her nation, despite the fact that she was a woman.

Elizabeth created an image for herself that included both masculine and feminine elements, to effectively play upon the emotions of her nation. On the one hand, Elizabeth frequently referred to herself as a prince or a king, thus instilling in the minds of the people an image of the queen as a political force as powerful as any man could be. She added to this image by reference to her father, King Henry VIII, who had been considered a strong masculine ruler. On the other hand, Elizabeth played up her citizens. She described herself as the wife of the English nation and often described her relationship to her government and citizens using the language of love. Through her effective self-publicity, Queen Elizabeth I earned the love and devotion of the nation, despite their concerns about being ruled by a woman.

Royal Lineage
Throughout Elizabeth’s life and reign, questions of royal lineage continued to plague the nation. When Henry VIII died he named his only son, Edward VI, as heir to the throne, with his two daughters, Mary I and Elizabeth I, next in line. Since Edward was only nine years old when he ascended the throne, the nation was ruled during his five-year reign by a regency headed by a protector, designated by Henry VIII. Thus, Edward was easily manipulated, and those in charge of the nation schemed to place members of their own families on the throne. The teenaged Elizabeth was kept away from her half-brother, although they had always been close, because the regency feared her influence on Edward.

Meanwhile, Thomas Seymour attempted to seduce the young Elizabeth in hopes of marrying her and one day gaining the throne. Upon the death of Edward, his regents schemed to place their relative, Jane Seymour, on the throne in place of Mary I. However, popular opinion considered Mary the legitimate heir to the throne, and quickly defeated this scheme. As Mary I died without sons, she named her half-sister Elizabeth as heir to the throne.

The reign of Elizabeth I posed further questions of royal lineage, partly because she never married or bore children. Throughout Elizabeth’s reign, she was under constant pressure by her Parliament to marry and produce an heir, so as to avoid political chaos upon her death. Also during her reign, many Catholics in England, Scotland, France, and Spain considered Mary Queen of Scots as the rightful queen of England. Many Catholics considered Elizabeth an illegitimate child because they did not recognize Henry VIII’s annulment from his first wife as valid. Therefore, these Catholics did not consider Elizabeth to be a legitimate heir to the throne.

Elizabeth frequently came into conflict with Parliament over her refusal to marry and often cleverly allowed herself to be courted by foreign princes to appease them, but always backed out at the last minute. Upon her death, Elizabeth named King James VI of Scotland to become King James I of England, thus solving the problem of royal lineage caused by her lack of children. This decision meant that Elizabeth was the last ruler of the Tudor dynasty. James I became the first of the Stuart dynasty to rule England.

Treason, Conspiracy, and Execution
The reign of Elizabeth I was plagued by plots and conspiracies against her person and her rule, mostly on the part of Catholic supporters of Mary Queen of Scots. All of these efforts to depose Elizabeth I from the throne were discovered and thwarted before any decisive action had taken place, including the Ridolfi Plot of 1571, the Throckmorton Plot of 1583, and the Babington Plot of 1586. After Mary Queen of Scots was forced to abdicate the throne in Scotland and fled to England, Elizabeth kept her imprisoned for the next eighteen years in order to contain the threat she posed. However, Mary Queen of Scots was sufficiently implicated in the Babington Plot that Elizabeth had no choice but to order her execution. Many others were tortured, tried, and beheaded for treason and conspiracy in these plots against Elizabeth’s life and reign.

Love, Relationships, and Marriage
Although she never married, Elizabeth I, engaged in various forms of courtship and romance throughout her reign. Her lifelong favorite male romantic companion was Robert Dudley. As soon as she was made queen, Elizabeth named Dudley Master of Horse, a position of some authority in the royal court. Dudley, however, was married already at this point. When his wife was found dead, controversy surrounded Dudley, as many believed he had killed his wife in order to marry Elizabeth. Elizabeth, however, indicated that she had no interest in marrying Dudley.

Many believed Dudley was still hoping to one day marry Elizabeth, although he secretly remarried without the knowledge of the queen. When Elizabeth learned of this secret marriage some time later, she did not display a strong reaction and continued her close association with Dudley. Nonetheless, her Parliament and advisors were deeply concerned that she would either marry Dudley, whom they considered unfit for a royal marriage, or that she would not marry at all, therefore depriving the throne of an heir upon her death. Elizabeth skillfully used courtship by various royalty, both English and foreign, for political diplomacy. She sometimes allowed a court ship with a foreign prince to go on for several years, before coming up with a reasonable excuse not to go through with the marriage. I n her later years Elizabeth took on Robert Devereux, the stepson of Dudley, as her favorite male companion. Devereux was still a young man at this time, while Elizabeth was some thirty-four years his senior. Devereux was not afraid to stand up to the queen, and often incurred her wrath, although she seemed perpetually willing to forgive him and continue their association. But poor performance of his military duties in a conflict with Ireland led the queen to remove him from his post and put him under house arrest. When he rose up in an attempted rebellion against the queen, he was executed for treason. No one knows the exact nature of Elizabeth’s relations with Dudley and Devereux, and her personal romantic life remains a source of much speculation.

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