Queen Elizabeth I
Queen of England, Ireland and France
Born in Greenwich Palace in Kent, Elizabeth was the daughter and only surviving child of Henry VIII and his second wife, Anne Boleyn. Because of the circumstances of her parents' marriage, Elizabeth was considered by Roman Catholics to be illegitimate. At the time of her birth, she was recognised as the heir to the throne, in preference to her older half-sister, Mary Tudor, who was made to serve in Elizabeth's household. However, fortunes quickly changed. When Elizabeth was less than three years old, her mother was executed for treason. Just over a year later, a male heir, Edward, was born to Henry VIII, and Elizabeth found herself in much the same position as Mary.
King Henry's later wives all showed kindness to the two princesses. Following Henry's death in 1547, Elizabeth was cared for by Henry's last queen, Catherine Parr, and her new husband, Thomas Seymour (brother of Jane Seymour and uncle to the new king, Edward VI of England). It is believed that Seymour lusted after the youthful Elizabeth, and planned to marry her after Catherine's untimely death. However, the Seymour brothers fell out of royal favour and were both executed.
As long as her brother lived, Elizabeth's position was secure. However, on his death in 1553, her sister Mary came to the throne as Mary I. Mary, a staunch Catholic, was keen to convert Elizabeth, who for her part was willing to go along with the outward appearance of Catholic worship, though she remained a Protestant at heart. Mary was not deceived, and Elizabeth was briefly confined to the Tower of London. It was here that she probably first encountered the love of her life, Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester.
Elizabeth's life was spared, but Mary's marriage to Philip II of Spain made it seem possible that an heir would be born and that England would return to the Catholic faith. When Mary died childless in 1558, however, Elizabeth was the natural successor. Elizabeth I was crowned Queen of England on January 15, 1559 in Westminster Abbey. Her tenure was insecure right from the beginning. The coronation had to be performed by the Bishop of Carlisle, who was the most senior prelate willing to recognise her as the legitimate heir.
The question of Elizabeth's own marriage now arose. It was taken for granted that she would marry and attempt to produce an heir, and there were many contenders for her hand, including her sister's former husband, Philip of Spain, as well as her favourite, Leicester, who was popularly believed to be her lover. Elizabeth wisely avoided both extremes, and, after a few years, as her hold on the throne was strengthened, it began to seem less likely that she would ever marry or have children.
Elizabeth's forty-five-year reign would be marked by religious tension. Although the queen herself attempted to steer a middle way between extremist beliefs, she was herself unquestionably Protestant, and the persecution of Catholics and others regarded as heretics continued. For much of her reign, she relied on the counsel of the experienced courtier, William Cecil, whom she created Lord Burghley. On his death, his son, Robert Cecil, became her leading advisor. Another man who played a major role in the success of her administration was Sir Francis Walsingham, who ran a network of intelligence officers throughout Europe, ensuring that no move against the queen went undetected. It was Walsingham's agents who discovered the Babington plot.
One of the major criticisms of Elizabeth was her failure to provide for the succession. She explained this herself, in response to those who asked, by pointing out the position in which she had been placed during the reign of her elder sister. Besides being a target for Mary's jealousy, she had also been made use of, by rebels such as Thomas Wyatt. She therefore believed that the naming of a successor would weaken her rule and offer an incentive to those who wished her dead. Furthermore, she would not have been able to do so without consulting Parliament.
There were several possible successors, and Elizabeth did not particularly care for any of them. Her cousin, Mary I of Scotland, was a Catholic, but remained the most likely candidate to succeed her until, and even for a while after, Mary was forced to flee her own kingdom of Scotland. When Mary was driven out of Scotland, she was received by Elizabeth but was kept a prisoner at Fotheringhay. Mary's son, James, was a child and would have to prove himself before he could even be considered. The alternatives looked no better. Lady Catherine Grey, younger sister of Lady Jane Grey, displeased the queen by marrying against her wishes, and the youngest sister, Mary Grey, was a hunchbacked dwarf. While Elizabeth believed she might be able to influence Mary Stuart into changing her faith and marrying someone suitable, she held out the prospect of the succession to her, and continued to prevaricate on the matter while Mary was a prisoner in England.
It still looked possible that Elizabeth would marry and have children. Forced to abandon Dudley, she toyed with the idea of a French husband, one of the several royal princes available. The first one proposed, the Duc d'Anjou, a younger brother of King Charles IX of France, was twenty years younger than Elizabeth. When this idea was rejected, it was suggested that she should marry an even younger brother, the Duc d'Alençon. She was still considering it seriously when the young prince died suddenly. This marked the end of marriage negotiations.
When, in 1568, Lady Catherine Grey died, there was no other obvious successor of English birth, and Elizabeth was once again forced to consider Mary Stuart. Mary, too, had turned down Dudley as a potential husband before marrying Lord Darnley, but by now Mary had a son who was being brought up as a Protestant. In 1570, Elizabeth was persuaded by the French to help put Mary back on the Scottish throne. She set impossible pre-conditions, one being to bring Prince James to be brought up in England. Nevertheless, Cecil continued negotiations with Mary on the Queen's behalf. It was the Scots who stood in the way of a settlement.
At this stage, the new pope, Pius V intervened and excommunicated Elizabeth on February 25, 1570, something his predecessor had been reluctant to do. This made it impossible for Elizabeth to continue her policy of religious toleration. Nevertheless, the discovery of the Ridolfi Plot came as a great shock to her.
After twenty years of confinement, Mary Stuart allowed herself to become implicated in yet another plot by Catholic sympathisers, led by Sir Antony Babington to rescue her and place her on the throne in Elizabeth's place. This was a good excuse for Elizabeth to remove her from the equation. Elizabeth had provided troops and money to assist the French Protestant Henri of Navarre to capture the throne of France. Mary's execution in 1587 was the needed excuse for Philip II of Spain to make a determined invasion attempt. Thanks to Elizabeth's naval leaders, notably Sir Francis Drake, the Spanish Armada of 1588 was decisively defeated and scattered.
In the last few years of her reign, Elizabeth's favourite was Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex, who happened to be Leicester's stepson. Elizabeth forgave him a succession of misdemeanours, but his attempt at armed rebellion in 1601 gave her no alternative but to have him executed for treason.
This period, the Elizabethan era, was an important one for the development of English culture. Literature, particularly poetry and drama, enjoyed a golden age; and exploration of other continents, including the Americas, began in earnest. Indeed, the queen herself became noted as a poet and classical translator.
Elizabeth never married and her death ended the Tudor dynasty. In later years, when pressed to decide on the succession, she showed an inclination towards her nephew, ironically the son of Mary, Queen of Scots, whom she had executed; but she never officially named him. Elizabeth died on March 24, 1603, at Richmond Palace in Surrey and is buried at Westminster Abbey. She was succeeded by James I of England, who was already James VI of Scotland.
Elizabeth is included in the top 10 of the "100 Greatest Britons" poll
sponsored by the BBC and voted for by the public. She has been often been
portrayed in fiction.For example the second series of historical fiction
comedy Blackadder features a surreal version of her played by Miranda Richardson.
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