Elizabeth I

(History of the World: The Renaissance)

Article abstract: The last of the five Tudor monarchs, Queen Elizabeth I earned the respect of her associates and the love of her subjects while ruling her people longer and more capably than most kings of her time.

Early Life

The second child of King Henry VIII, Elizabeth, was born on September 7, 1533, at Greenwich Palace. Before she was three years old, her father nullified his marriage to her mother, Anne Boleyn, whom he then had tried for adultery and conspiracy, convicted, and beheaded. Like her older half sister, Mary, before her, Elizabeth was declared to be illegitimate, and Henry immediately took another wife, Jane Seymour. A statute of 1544, while not reversing the earlier decree, nevertheless placed Elizabeth third in line to the throne after Edward, born to Henry and Jane in 1537, and Mary, daughter of Henry’s first wife, Catherine of Aragon.

Elizabeth’s education commenced under several eminent Cambridge scholars, one of whom, Roger Ascham, wrote a distinguished educational treatise called The Schoolmaster (1570). She proved an apt student, studying Greek and Latin and attaining fluency in French and Italian. Languages were the key to familiarity not only with literature but also with the New Testament and the scholarship of Europe. Because of her linguistic aptitude, Elizabeth would not later have to rely on translators, as did many sovereigns, when dealing with foreign ambassadors.

Elizabeth learned other practical lessons during the years from 1547, when her father died, until 1558, when she succeeded. While she lived with Catherine Parr, Henry’s last wife and the closest approach to a mother she would ever know, Catherine’s marriage to the promiscuous Thomas Seymour taught her the importance of being on her guard, for Seymour made advances to the now attractive teenager. Her subsequent determination not to allow men to manipulate her became an important factor in her forty-five-year reign. Political events tested her mettle early. Seymour fell under suspicion of treason against his brother Edward, Lord Protector of Edward, the boy king, and Elizabeth was sharply questioned about possible complicity. The fifteen-year-old princess responded shrewdly and prudently, and though Seymour was executed, she was permitted to live quietly until Edward’s death in 1553.

Those who saw Elizabeth take part in her sister’s coronation ceremony saw a young woman somewhat taller than average, with reddish-gold hair and light skin. Although her portrait was often painted, the stylized likenesses of Renaissance royalty often prove unreliable, and even eyewitnesses disagreed considerably about the details of her physical appearance, but everyone credited her with beautiful hands. While not a particularly religious person, Elizabeth deplored Mary’s Roman Catholicism and, like many English patriots, was apprehensive about Mary’s decision to marry the Catholic Prince Philip of Spain. Again, in Mary’s reign, Elizabeth was suspected of treason, this time in connection with Sir Thomas Wyatt the Younger’s plan to depose Mary in favor of her, for presumably Elizabeth would marry an Englishman and a Protestant and thus avert the danger of the crown passing to an offspring of Philip and Mary. Though imprisoned in the Tower of London for a time, Elizabeth again dodged the extreme penalty; she emerged understanding thoroughly, however, the danger of even the appearance of treason.

Eventually, Philip, seeing his wife childless and ill and viewing Elizabeth as preferable to such a claimant as Mary Stuart, wife of French Dauphin, became the protector of the future queen. This precarious period in the princess’ life ended on November 17, 1558, when the unpopular Mary died and Elizabeth, at the age of twenty-five, became the third of Henry VIII’s children to wear the English crown.

Life’s Work

Elizabeth understood the presumably modern art of public relations, and from her coronation onward she worked to gain the admiration of her subjects. She also surrounded herself with able advisers, the most faithful of whom was William Cecil (from 1571, Lord Burghley), and he served her well for forty years. The domestic question—whom would she marry?—early became a question of foreign relations also, for the most ambitious bachelors of Western Europe recognized her as the greatest available prize. The Archduke Charles of Austria offered a politically advantageous match, but both Elizabeth and her subjects shied away from his Roman Catholicism. Elizabeth appeared to prefer one of her own subjects, Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, eligible in 1560 after the death of his wife Amy Robsart, but the mystery surrounding her fatal fall down a flight of stairs cast a shadow over his name. There was no lack of other suitors, and all England expected Elizabeth to avert the disorder likely at the death of an unmarried and childless queen, but the strong-willed sovereign did not intend to yield an iota of her sovereignty to any man, and the sort of man who would content himself with being a mere consort probably appealed little to her imagination. Throughout the early years of her reign, she kept everyone guessing about her marriage plans, but she made no commitments.

Mary, Queen of Scots, whose grandmother—Henry VIII’s sister—had married the Scottish King James IV, posed one threat to England’s security, particularly after her first husband became King Francis II of France in 1559, for France was England’s traditional enemy. To neutralize the French threat, Elizabeth encouraged Scottish fears of foreign authority, even suggesting the possibility of her own marriage to the Earl of Arran, whose family ranked high in the Scottish succession. When Francis died in 1560, however, Mary’s influence declined, and her subsequent marriage to her kinsman, the unstable Lord Darnley, led to her undoing. Eventually, she was deposed, Darnley died, and for many years Mary languished, a virtual prisoner of Elizabeth in England. For nearly two decades, Elizabeth allowed no harm to come to her Scottish cousin, but neither did she intend to allow conspirators to build upon Mary’s claim to the English throne.

For the first decade of her reign, with much of the European continent in turmoil, Elizabeth kept England at peace, but in 1569 she was forced to put down a rebellion in the North fomented by Thomas Howard, Duke of Norfolk, whose ambitions spurred him to seek marriage to the deposed Queen of Scots. The rebellion was speedily checked, and Elizabeth merely placed...

(The entire section is 2697 words.)