Queen Elizabeth Biography
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Elizabeth I, bynames the Virgin Queen and Good Queen Bess, (born September 7, 1533, Greenwich, near London, England—died March 24, 1603, Richmond, Surrey), 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 adulation bestowed upon her both in her lifetime and in the ensuing centuries was not altogether a spontaneous effusion. 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’s early years were not auspicious. She was born at Greenwich Palace, 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 a male heir, regarded as 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. (Apparently, the king was undeterred by the logical inconsistency of simultaneously invalidating the marriage and accusing his wife of adultery.) The emotional impact of these events on the little girl, who had been brought up from infancy in a separate household at Hatfield, is not known; presumably, no one thought it worth recording. What was noted was her precocious seriousness; at six years old, it was admiringly observed, she had as much gravity as if she had been 40.
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, attainments 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 Protestantism 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: observers noted the young princess’s fascination more with languages than with religious dogma.
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 interrogations 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 manner toward the young princess. Under humiliating close questioning and in some danger, Elizabeth was extraordinarily 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 extensive 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 burning of Protestants and its military disasters, Elizabeth had continually 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.
Many Protestants and Roman Catholics alike assumed that her self-presentation was deceptive, but Elizabeth managed to keep her inward convictions to herself, and in religion as in much else they have remained something of a mystery. There is with Elizabeth a continual gap between a dazzling surface and an interior that she kept carefully concealed. Observers were repeatedly tantalized with what they thought was a glimpse of the interior, only to find that they had been shown another facet of the surface. Everything in Elizabeth’s early life taught her to pay careful attention to how she represented herself and how she was represented by others. She learned her lesson well.
Accession of Elizabeth I
At the death of Mary on November 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. “If ever any person,” wrote one enthusiastic observer, “had either the gift or the style to win the hearts of people, it was this Queen, and if ever she did express the same it was at that present, in coupling mildness with majesty as she did, and in stately stooping to the meanest sort.” 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; and 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 (first in this capacity and after 1571 as lord treasurer) with remarkable sagacity and skill for 40 years.
The woman ruler in a patriarchal world
In the last year of Mary’s reign, the Scottish Calvinist preacher John Knox wrote in his The First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstruous Regiment of Women that “God hath revealed to some in this our age that it is more than a monster in nature that a woman should reign and bear empire above man.” With the accession of the Protestant Elizabeth, Knox’s trumpet was quickly muted, but there remained a widespread conviction, reinforced by both custom and teaching, that, while men were naturally endowed with authority, women were temperamentally, intellectually, and morally unfit to govern. Men saw themselves as rational beings; they saw women as creatures likely to be dominated by impulse and passion. Gentlemen were trained in eloquence and the arts of war; gentlewomen were urged to keep silent and attend to their needlework. In men of the upper classes a will to dominate was admired or at least assumed; in women it was viewed as dangerous or grotesque.
Apologists for the queen countered that there had always been significant exceptions, such as the biblical Deborah, the prophetess who had judged Israel. Crown lawyers, moreover, elaborated a mystical legal theory known as “the king’s two bodies.” When she ascended the throne, according to this theory, the queen’s whole being was profoundly altered: her mortal “body natural” was wedded to an immortal “body politic.” “I am but one body, naturally considered,” Elizabeth declared in her accession speech, “though by [God’s] permission a Body Politic to govern.” Her body of flesh was subject to the imperfections of all human beings (including those specific to womankind), but the body politic was timeless and perfect. Hence in theory the queen’s 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. Since her sister’s reign did not provide a satisfactory model for female authority, Elizabeth had to improvise a new model, one that would overcome the considerable cultural liability of her sex. Moreover, quite apart from this liability, any English ruler’s power to compel obedience had its limits. The monarch was at the pinnacle of the state, but that state was relatively impoverished and weak, without a standing army, an efficient police force, or a highly developed, effective bureaucracy. To obtain sufficient revenue to govern, the crown had to request subsidies and taxes from a potentially fractious and recalcitrant Parliament. Under these difficult circumstances, Elizabeth developed a strategy of rule that blended imperious command with an extravagant, histrionic cult of love.
The cult of Elizabeth as the Virgin Queen wedded to her kingdom was a gradual creation that unfolded over many years, but its roots may be glimpsed at least as early as 1555. At that time, according to a report that reached the French court, 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 proposed 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. No one—not even the princess herself—need have taken very seriously her professed desire to remain single. When she became queen, speculation about a suitable match immediately intensified, and the available options became a matter of grave national concern. Beyond the general conviction that the proper role for a woman was that of a wife, the dynastic and diplomatic stakes in the projected royal marriage were extremely high. If Elizabeth died childlessly, the Tudor line would come to an end. The nearest heir was Mary, Queen of Scots, the granddaughter of Henry VIII’s sister Margaret. Mary, a Catholic whose claim was supported by France and other powerful Catholic states, was regarded by Protestants as a nightmarish threat that could best be averted if Elizabeth produced a Protestant heir.
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 of Anjou and later king of France; François, duke of 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. “She is a Princess,” the French ambassador remarked, “who can act any part she pleases.”
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 unsavoury 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 frival 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. Sir Robert Naunton recorded that the queen once said angrily to Leicester, when he tried to insist upon a favour, “I will have here but one mistress and no master.” To her ministers she was steadfastly loyal, encouraging their frank counsel and weighing their advice, but she did not cede ultimate authority even to the most trusted. 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 the state. Unsolicited advice could at times be dangerous: when in 1579 a pamphlet was published vehemently denouncing the queen’s proposed marriage to the Catholic duke of 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 hallmarks 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. A golden shower of royal favour—apparent intimacies, public honors, the bestowal of such valuable perquisites as land grants and monopolies—would give way to royal aloofness or, still worse, to royal anger.
The queen’s anger was particularly aroused by challenges to what she regarded as her prerogative (whose scope she cannily left undefined) and indeed by any unwelcome signs of independence. The courtly atmosphere of vivacity, wit, and romance would then suddenly chill, and the queen’s behavior, as her godson Sir John Harington put it, “left no doubtings whose daughter she was.” This identification of Elizabeth with her father, and particularly with his capacity for wrath, is something that the queen herself—who never made mention of her mother—periodically invoked.
A similar blend of charm and imperiousness characterized the queen’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. More radical members of Parliament wanted to include in debate broad areas of public policy; the queen’s spokesmen struggled to restrict free discussion to government bills. 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. Characteristic of this rhetorical strategy was her famous “Golden Speech” of 1601, when, in the face of bitter parliamentary opposition to royal monopolies, she promised reforms:
I do assure you, there is no prince that loveth his subjects better, or whose love can countervail our love. There is no jewel, be it of never so rich a price, which I set before this jewel; I mean, your love: for I do more esteem of it, than of any treasure or riches.
A discourse of rights or interests thus became a discourse of mutual gratitude, obligation, and love. “We all loved her,” Harington wrote with just a trace of irony, “for she said she loved us.” In her dealings with parliamentary delegations, as with suitors and courtiers, the queen contrived to turn her gender from a serious liability into a distinct advantage.
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 official order of worship. Elizabeth’s government moved cautiously but steadily to transfer these structural and liturgical reforms from the statute books to the local parishes throughout the kingdom. Priests, temporal officers, 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 fine; 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.
But to militant Protestants, including exiles from the reign of Queen Mary newly returned to England from Calvinist Geneva and other centres of continental reform, these measures seemed hopelessly pusillanimous and inadequate. They 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. Each of these demands was repugnant to the queen. She felt that the reforms had gone far enough and that any further agitation would provoke public disorder, a dangerous itch for novelty, and erosion of loyalty to established authority. Elizabeth, moreover, 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. When in 1576 the archbishop of Canterbury, Edmund Grindal, refused the queen’s orders to suppress certain reformist educational exercises, called “propheseyings,” Grindal was suspended from his functions and never restored to them. Upon Grindal’s death, Elizabeth appointed a successor, Archbishop Whitgift, who vigorously pursued her policy of an authoritarian ecclesiastical regime and a relentless hostility to Puritan reformers.
If Elizabeth’s religious settlement was threatened by Protestant dissidents, it was equally threatened by the recalcitrance and opposition of English Catholics.
At first this opposition seemed relatively passive, but a series of crises in the late 1560s and early ’70s disclosed its potential for serious, even fatal, menace. 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 a 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 penchant 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 councilors 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 councilors 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. In an ugly atmosphere of intrigue, torture and execution of Jesuits, and rumours of foreign plots to kill the queen and invade England, Elizabeth’s Privy Council drew up a Bond of Association, pledging its signers, in the event of an attempt on Elizabeth’s life, to kill not only the assassins but also the claimant to the throne in whose interest the attempt had been made. The Association was clearly aimed at Mary, whom government spies, under the direction of Sir Francis Walsingham, had by this time discovered 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 February 8, 1587, Mary had been beheaded, Elizabeth responded with an impressive show of grief and rage. She had not, she wrote to Mary’s son, James VI of Scotland, ever intended that the execution actually take place, and she imprisoned the man who had delivered the signed warrant. It is impossible to know how many people believed Elizabeth’s professions of grief; Catholics on the Continent wrote bitter denunciations of the queen, while Protestants throughout the kingdom enthusiastically celebrated the death of a woman they had feared and hated.
For years Elizabeth had cannily played a complex diplomatic game with the rival interests of France and Spain, a game comparable to her domestic manipulation of rival factions. 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 it became increasingly clear that England could not avoid a direct military confrontation with Spain. 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 nonetheless authorized sufficient funds during her reign to maintain a fleet of maneuverable, well-armed fighting ships, to which could be added other vessels from the merchant fleet. When in July 1588 the Invincible Armada reached English waters, the queen’s ships, in one of the most famous naval encounters of history, defeated the enemy fleet, which then in an attempt to return to Spain was all but destroyed by terrible storms.
At the moment when the Spanish invasion was imminently expected, Elizabeth resolved to review in person a detachment of soldiers assembled at Tilbury. Dressed in a white gown and a silver breastplate, she rode through the camp and proceeded to deliver a celebrated speech. Some of her councilors, she said, had cautioned her against appearing before a large, armed crowd, but she did not and would not distrust her faithful and loving people. Nor was she afraid of Parma’s army: “I know I have the body of a weak and feeble woman,” Elizabeth declared, “but I have the heart and stomach of a king, and of a king of England too.” She then promised, “in the word of a Prince,” richly to reward her loyal troops, a promise that she characteristically proved reluctant to keep. The scene exemplifies many of the queen’s qualities: her courage, her histrionic command of grand public occasions, her rhetorical blending of magniloquence and the language of love, her strategic identification with martial virtues considered male, and even her princely parsimony.
How Did Elizabeth I Come to Be Queen of England?
Queen Elizabeth I’s right to the throne wasn’t always guaranteed. Her father, King Henry VIII, had Parliament annul his marriage to Elizabeth’s mother—his second wife, Anne Boleyn—thus making Elizabeth an illegitimate child and removing her from the line of succession (although a later parliamentary act would return her to it). After Henry’s death in 1547, two of Elizabeth’s half-siblings would sit on the throne: first the young Edward VI, who reigned for six years, and then Mary I (“Bloody Mary”), who reigned for five years. Suspicious that her half-sister would try to seize power, Mary placed Elizabeth under what amounted to constant surveillance, even jailing her in the Tower of London for a short period of time. Elizabeth skillfully avoided doing anything that Mary might have used as grounds for her execution and, upon Mary’s death in 1558, went on to become one of England’s most illustrious monarchs.