7 May 2010
Queen Elizabeth I (1558–1603)
Reign 17 November 1558 – 24 March 1603
Coronation 15 January 1559 (aged 25)
Predecessor Mary I
Successor James I
House House of Tudor
Father Henry VIII
Mother Anne Boleyn
Born 7 September 1533
Died 24 March 1603 (aged 69)
Burial Westminster Abbey
Elizabeth I (7 September 1533 – 24 March 1603) was Queen regnant of England and Queen regnant of Ireland from 17 November 1558 until her death. Sometimes called the Virgin Queen, Gloriana, Oriana, or Good Queen Bess, Elizabeth was the fifth and last monarch of the Tudor dynasty. The daughter of Henry VIII, she was born a princess, but her mother, Anne Boleyn, was executed two and a half years after her birth, and Elizabeth was declared illegitimate. Her brother, Edward VI, bequeathed the crown to Lady Jane Grey, cutting his sisters out of the succession. His will was set aside, and in 1558 Elizabeth succeeded the Catholic Mary I, during whose reign she had been imprisoned for nearly a year on suspicion of supporting Protestant rebels.
Elizabeth set out to rule by good counsel, and she depended heavily on a group of trusted advisers led by William Cecil, Baron Burghley. One of her first moves as queen was to support the establishment of an English Protestant church, of which she became the Supreme Governor. This Elizabethan Religious Settlement held firm throughout her reign and later evolved into today’s Church of England. It was expected that Elizabeth would marry, but despite several petitions from parliament and numerous courtships, she never did. The reasons for this outcome have been much debated. As she grew older, Elizabeth became famous for her virginity, and a cult grew up around her which was celebrated in the portraits, pageants, and literature of the day.
In government, Elizabeth was more moderate than her father and siblings. One of her mottoes was “video et taceo” (“I see, and say nothing”). This strategy, viewed with impatience by her counsellors, often saved her from political and marital misalliances. Though Elizabeth was cautious in foreign affairs and only half-heartedly supported a number of ineffective, poorly resourced military campaigns in the Netherlands, France and Ireland, the defeat of the Spanish armada in 1588 associated her name forever with what is popularly viewed as one of the greatest victories in English history. Within 20 years of her death, she was being celebrated as the ruler of a golden age, an image that retains its hold on the English people.
Elizabeth’s reign is known as the Elizabethan era, famous above all for the flourishing of English drama, led by playwrights such as William Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe, and for the seafaring prowess of English adventurers such as Francis Drake. Some historians are more reserved in their assessment. They depict Elizabeth as a short-tempered, sometimes indecisive ruler, who enjoyed more than her share of luck. Towards the end of her reign, a series of economic and military problems weakened her popularity to the point where many of her subjects were relieved at her death. Elizabeth is acknowledged as a charismatic performer and a dogged survivor, in an age when government was ramshackle and limited and when monarchs in neighbouring countries faced internal problems that jeopardised their thrones. Such was the case with Elizabeth’s rival, Mary, Queen of Scots, whom she imprisoned in 1568 and eventually had executed in 1587. After the short reigns of Elizabeth’s brother and sister, her 44 years on the throne provided welcome stability for the kingdom and helped forge a sense of national identity.
Elizabeth was born in Greenwich Palace in the Chamber of Virgins on 7 September 1533 between three and four o’clock in the afternoon and named after both her grandmothers, Elizabeth of York and Elizabeth Howard. She was the second child of Henry VIII of England to survive infancy; her mother was Henry’s second wife, Anne Boleyn. At birth, Elizabeth was the heiress presumptive to the throne of England. Her older half-sister, Mary, had lost her position as legitimate heir when Henry annulled his marriage to Mary’s mother, Catherine of Aragon, in order to marry Anne. King Henry VIII had desperately wanted a legitimate son, to ensure the Tudor succession. Anne had been crowned with St. Edward’s crown, unlike any other queen consort, while carrying Elizabeth. Historian Alice Hunt has suggested that this was done because Anne’s pregnancy was visible at the moment of coronation and she was carrying an heir who was presumed to be male. Elizabeth was baptised on 10 September in a ceremony held at Greenwich Palace. Thomas Cranmer, the Marquess of Exeter, Elizabeth Howard, Duchess of Norfolk, and Margaret Wotton, Marchioness of Dorset stood as her four godparents. After Elizabeth’s birth, Queen Anne failed to provide a male heir. She suffered at least two miscarriages, one in 1534 and another at the beginning of 1536. On 2 May 1536, she was arrested and imprisoned. Hastily convicted on trumped-up charges, she was beheaded on 19 May 1536.
Elizabeth, who was two years and eight months old at the time, was declared illegitimate and deprived of the title of princess. Eleven days after Anne Boleyn’s death, Henry married Jane Seymour, who died 12 days after the birth of their son, Prince Edward. Elizabeth was placed in Edward’s household and carried the chrisom, or baptismal cloth, at his christening.
Elizabeth I, about 1546, by an unknown artist
Elizabeth’s first Lady Mistress, Lady Margaret Bryan, wrote that she was “as toward a child and as gentle of conditions as ever I knew any in my life”. By the autumn of 1537, Elizabeth was in the care of Blanche Herbert, Lady Troy who remained her Lady Mistress until her retirement in late 1545 or early 1546. Catherine Champernowne, better known by her later, married name of Catherine “Kat” Ashley, was appointed as Elizabeth’s governess in 1537, and she remained Elizabeth’s friend until her death in 1565, when Blanche Parry succeeded her as Chief Gentlewoman of the Privy Chamber. She clearly made a good job of Elizabeth’s early education: by the time William Grindal became her tutor in 1544, Elizabeth could write English, Latin, and Italian. Under Grindal, a talented and skillful tutor, she also progressed in French and Greek. After Grindal died in 1548, Elizabeth received her education under Roger Ascham, a sympathetic teacher who believed that learning should be fun. By the time her formal education ended in 1550, she was the best educated woman of her generation.