Elizabeth I was one of the most influential monarchs of all time. Her ability to rule England successfully in the time period she was brought up in demonstrated her extraordinary abilities. The Elizabethan Age is often referred to as “a period rich in cultural activity and political success” (Kinsella 270). She was able to let England recover after her father, Henry VIII, had taken the country down a winding road of religious changes that effected England in many ways. What made Elizabeth I so great? No matter if it was war, religion, marriage, family ties, or assassination, her skill as a leader kept the country moving forward. Her life, culture, and historical context had a positive impact on England as she was able to bring a divided country together to become a world power.
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Getting to the throne was not going to be easy for Elizabeth. Born on September 7, 1533 in Greenwich Palace, Elizabeth was a defeat to her father (Richards 5). To get a male heir, her father had split England from the Roman Catholic Church in order to legally divorce his first wife, Catherine of Aragon. In the process, England was separated from the Pope and took on a new form of Christianity that became known as Protestantism. When he finally married Anne Boleyn, the woman who was supposed to give him a son, she gave birth to Elizabeth instead.
Protestant people thought her mother was “a clever woman, radical in her Protestant sympathies, courageous and spirited” (Dunn xxii). Sadly, Henry was furious with Anne because she could not give him a son. Only two and a half years later Elizabeth’s mother was executed and Henry moved on to his third wife, Jane Seymour. “Had Elizabeth not been a girl but the longed-for, expected prince it is most unlikely that her mother would ever have been executed” (Dunn 37).
To make matters worse for Elizabeth, after her mother’s death she was declared illegitimate. Now Elizabeth and Mary, her older Catholic half-sister, were both declared illegitimate with their birth mother gone and the title of princess removed. Although their father later reinstated them into the succession line, they were viewed much lower in the eyes of society. Henry, now with his third wife, finally had a son Edward whom he chose to be his heir. Jane however, died in childbirth. Three more step mothers followed until Henry eventually died on January 28, 1587, and Edward took the throne.
Life for Elizabeth under Edward VI’s reign was troublesome, but luckily for her it was brief. Due to a scandal that occurred, she “survived precariously” during his rule (Elizabeth I). Since Edward was only nine years old, he was too young to rule the kingdom effectively. A Protector of England, Edward Seymour, (Jane’s husband) was chosen to take charge. Thomas Seymour, his brother, became very jealous of his position and devised a plan to overthrow him. The main point of his plot was to marry Elizabeth and secure a spot for him in the succession line. Now, it was illegal for an heir to the throne to be married without the king and courts approval, and the plot caused suspicion about Elizabeth’s attitude towards the throne. She was put on trial, but it was declared that she knew nothing of the plot forming and was found innocent. Thomas Seymour was found guilty and executed. After the embarrassing scandal, John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland, replaced Edward Seymour as Protector of England. This would prove to be a mistake too since Dudley had a plan of his own. His plan was to alter the succession line so that it would not land on the Catholic Mary. Upon Edwards’s death, the new heir would be Lady Jane Grey. When sickness ended Edward’s short reign in 1553 Mary destroyed his plan. Lady Jane grey was only Queen for two weeks when Mary launched a rebellion and won the throne. This placed her on the throne, and put Elizabeth back in the succession line as her heir (Dunn 71-75).
If life was bad for Elizabeth during Edwards reign, it got much worse in Mary’s. Mary I was catholic but she received the throne from a Protestant king. This set England on another path of religious problems because Mary “came to the throne with his intention of leading the country back to Catholicism” and she “Mary stuck rigidley to her detested policy of persecution of Protestants that had made her so unpopular” (Elizabeth I, Skidmore 68). It became so bad that she was even given the nickname ‘Bloody Mary’. Mary’ downfall began when she got married to Phillip II of Spain. The marriage was horribly unpopular with the English people and again, a plan was made to overthrow the monarch. Thomas Wyatt attempted to form a rebellion and kill the queen. Although this attack failed, it was rumored that Elizabeth knew of the plan and she was thrown into prison at the tower of London. Mary did not punish Elizabeth too severely, but she was kept in the tower for two months and then moved into house arrest. A short while later she was allowed to resume her life freely in Hatfield. It was during this time that Elizabeth was able to watch the downfall of Mary’s decision to choose Phillip II as a husband. She also saw the disaster that persecution had brought the country to (Skidmore 43-45, 48). These scenarios would help shape Elizabeth’s reign. Eventually, Mary died of disease in 1558 November 17.
Even though she was labeled illegitimate and the reigns of her two half-siblings were so difficult, Elizabeth did end up receiving a royal education. Elizabeth became fluent in Latin, French, and Italian (Skidmore 27). Her royal education may have been one of the best reasons for her successful reign as her political knowledge and ideas of foreign policy were phenomenal. Her talent with literature was good too, and she wrote informative but exciting speeches.
Upon Mary’s death, Elizabeth finally had access to the throne. At the age of twenty-five she was formally crowned queen on January 15, 1559, the third queen to reign. The country was clearly in a state of disaster when she got there. After Henry VIII splitting the country away from the Catholic Church and Mary I’s massacre of the Protestants, many people were confused about how they felt. Elizabeth I was Protestant, meaning England would yet again go through another religious conversion. The poor atmosphere can be described by an Englishman who remarked; “The Queen poor. The realm exhausted. The nobility poor and decayed. Want of good captains of soldiers. The people out of order. Justice not executed”( qtd. in Elizabeth I). People were concerned about whether persecution would become as bad as it did in Mary’s reign. Others were concerned with how well a woman could actually rule after Mary and Jane’s bad reigns, but being a woman did not stop her from taking charge. “She recognized this vulnerability and invoked revered biblical women” and “learned how to use this ambivalence to her advantage” (Dunn 107, 109) She even describes herself as a bright women, saying “Although feminine modesty . . . Prohibits the delivery of a rude and uncultivated speech . . .My nobles and my own goodwill toward the university incite me to produce one” (Marcus 87). She made every move she could to win the English people over. By the end of her reign she made it was clear to people that if someone was a good enough monarch, being a woman made no difference. She was even regarded well in foreign countries, and a Venetian ambassador noted “her intellect and understandings are wonderful” (qtd. in Dunn 119). She had an educated political mind, careful in her work, and chose good leadership to help her (Thomas).
Perhaps the biggest question people had with Elizabeth I was the fact that she was unmarried. This was a huge difference from the normal reign of monarchs, since the standard was to be married as fast as possible and create peace between countries with your marriage. “Elizabeth was now the most sought after women in Europe”(Thomas). Additionally, Robert Dudley was a serious contender for Elizabeth’s hand in marriage. She may have even got married to him but nobody else seemed to like him and he was “acutely aware of his unpopularity”(Skidmore 183). Dudley was the son of the duke of Northumberland, the man who had started the rebellion against Mary I. It was also often said that Robert Dudley had murdered his wife so that he could be with Elizabeth, but instead “Elizabeth had finally begun to understand the magnitude of Amy’s death and the consequences of her decision if she chose to marry Dudley” (Skidmore 260). His popularity was very low with the English people and Elizabeth, most likely remembering how Mary’s unpopular marriage turned out, never married.
Since then Elizabeth ” rejected the orthodoxy that a women must marry” and went down in history as ‘The Virgin Queen’ (Dunn 17). She had good reason to be a virgin. Her approval in marriage was one of the best tools she had (Elizabeth I). She “managed to use her single state to benefit the country by using the bait of marriage to draw in enemies, or frighten them by suggesting she would marry one of their foes (Thomas). By remaining single, Elizabeth was able to equal out the powers of the countries around her (Elizabeth I). “As the queen grew older, it was clear that she was simply buying time” (Skidmore 329). Parliament and many of her supports urged her to get married but in the end her overall answer was; “I am already bound unto an husband, which is the kingdom of England, and that may suffice you” (Marcus 59). Since she had no current heir planned, the question of the succession line would keep reoccurring in her life later on.
Undoubtedly, religious problems and foreign affairs would stir trouble during Elizabeth’s reign. Her harsh upbringing would influence many of the choices she made. The first problem Elizabeth dealt with was the issue of Catholics in England. Many were still Catholic from Mary I’s reign and did not want to change religious beliefs again to Protestantism. It was clear that she was a firm believer in her faith, she prayed often and praised God for everything. An example of her faith in God is her prayer, asking; “Instruct me from heaven, and give help so that I may reign by Thy grace, without which even the wisest among the sons of men can think nothing rightly” (Marcus 142).
Elizabeth was always working on ways to keep the religious order in line (pg 87 Richards). One of the first actions Elizabeth took to restore the Protestant church was become supreme Governor of the Church of England. Clergymen were to take an promise of loyalty to the queen or else they would lose their job. A new standard form of worship was created using Edward VI’s prayer books and attending the Sunday service was now mandatory or a fine would have to be paid. Elizabeth did not severely persecute those that were Catholic (Thomas). Starting with Elizabeth, it began to become more natural to have both Catholics and Protestants in the same country.
Outside of the country, a big catholic threat to Elizabeth was her cousin, Mary Queen of Scots. “As long as Mary retained her claim on the English crown Elizabeth would not be safe from every kind of European or Catholic ambition against her” (Dunn 358). Mary was King James V of Scotland’s daughter, and her Grandmother was Margaret Tudor, Henry VIII’s older sister. She was Queen of Scotland and of France for a short time, and the combination gave her considerable power. This Mary, along with the Catholics supporting her, viewed the English throne as if it belonged to her and not Elizabeth I. The worst thing Elizabeth feared from her was a rebellious attack from France and Scotland at the same time, but political problems in France prevented her from attacking England. The political problems arose from her unsuccessful marriages, which soon got her kicked out of both France and Scotland (Thomas). Elizabeth herself wrote to her, asking “for how could a worse choice be made for your honor than in such haste to marry such a subject” (Marcus 118).
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Only the option of fleeing to England was left. While in England she was held as a prisoner until the end of her life. She was always trying to start a rebellion or assassination plot against Elizabeth so that she could become queen, and although Elizabeth was aware of it, she did not want to execute a fellow monarch, not to mention her cousin (Thomas). Trying to warn Mary she wrote to her, telling her “you have in various ways and manners attempted to take my life and to bring my kingdom to destruction and bloodshed”( Hanson). Elizabeth did not support the murder of a monarch because she believed all monarchs were chosen by God (Richards 77). Elizabeth in this prayer reiterated the fear she had at “putting to death a women, a sovereign queen like herself. Relation to all the great princes of the world and closely allied to herself by blood” (Dunn 400). This is one of the reasons why assassination began to be viewed as one of the worst sins an Englishman could make.
Unfortunately there was not much Elizabeth could do in 1587. When Mary queen of Scots was found guilty of plots of rebellions and murders she was persuaded to sign her execution order (Kinsella 275).
The other big threat to Elizabeth, and one that would actually fight, was Phillip II of Spain. Now that Mary Queen of Scots was dead, Phillip had even greater reason to pursue his desire of invading Protestant England (Richards 139). Many years had passed since the possible marriage of Elizabeth to Phillip, and now she was too old to get married. The rising tensions in Spain brought great fear to many people because Phillip II was thought by many to be the most powerful ruler in the world. Elizabeth had attempted to prevent him from gaining wealth and catholic influence by sending sailors to pirate his ships as they came from the Americas, allowing some of his resources to be depleted and she gained more, but it did not work well (Thomas). In 1587 “Elizabeth and her advisors well understood that a Spanish attempt to invade England was imminent in 1557; it was certain that an actual assault was in final preparation in 1588” (Richards 140). The war against Spain official started in 1588 and England was obviously the weaker country.
The most memorable and widely known moment of the war against Spain was the defeat of the Spanish armada in 1588. The victory over the armada is often credit of a tremendous storm that destroyed and shipwrecked most of Phillips fleet. There were hundreds of battles fought in this long war that Elizabeth and her advisors were able to beat the Spanish at. Another reason the English came out victorious over the Spanish was Elizabeth’s speaking ability. “The queen showed a considerable ability to rally the people around herself” (Elizabeth I). Her speeches to her soldiers showed her determination to win against the Spanish Catholic threat. In the speech she told to her troops before the battle, Elizabeth showed her strength, declaring;
I know i have the body of a week and feeble woman, but I have the heart and stomach of a king and of a king of England too, and think foul scorn that Parma or Spain, or any prince of Europe, should dare to invade the borders of my realm’ to which rather than any dishonor shall grow by me, I myself will take up arms, I myself will be your general, judge and rewarder of everyone of your virtues in the field . . . We shall shortly have a famous victory over those enemies of my God, of my Kingdom, and of my People (Hanson).
This is a remarkable display of the queen’s ability to rally people around her. It is speeches like this that allow Elizabeth to down in history as being able to unite her country together.
When Elizabeth was able to find time to escape from her busy life, she participated in her favorite free time activities. Often, the queen was riding her horse or hunting, which included hawking and bear baiting. She enjoyed watching sporting events or playing the lute. She also participated in dances, pageantry and masque events (Thomas). There was one type of leisure activity Elizabeth would change: theater. Elizabeth was “responsible for the flourishing of the literary masterpieces of the period” and it is “celebrated for its literary and dramatic culture” (Thomas). The writers of this period “turned away from religious subjects and began writing more sophisticated plays” (Kinsella 305). Inspired by Greek and Roman tragedies, these plays tended to focus on a hero with a tragic flaw (305). The creation of Elizabethan theater would be one o f England’s most successful moments in refining literature. The Queen enjoyed these plays too. Even the greatest of plays by William Shakespeare came from the Elizabethan Theater. Before this new type of drama had taken place, traveling theater groups would go wherever they could to make money off their plays. When Elizabethan drama came around, theaters like the Globe Theater hosted plays every day, attracting a large amount of people (Kinsella 294).
The final issue Elizabeth faced near the end of her reign was finding the long awaited heir to the throne. Throughout her entire reign, her virginity and heir were the most frequently asked questions about her. Who would the next heir be? Would they be Catholic or Protestant? A foreign leader or an internal Englishman? Since she never married, she could not simply pass the heir to her children, and there were no remaining Tudor relatives to pass it too. Perhaps the reason she waited so long to name an heir was she thought of it in the same way because she thought of it the same way as she thought of marriage, and she kept peace by not naming one. Unfortunately, it was becoming clear that the Queen was dying. In the end, Elizabeth concluded that James VI of Scotland, son of Mary queen of Scots, would be an acceptable heir. Luckily for the English people, James VI was not similar to his mother in many ways. He was protestant so the transition between monarchs would be easy, and he had not been hostile to the English previously.
On March 24th 1603 Queen Elizabeth I died and the throne was passed to King James I of England. She was seventy years old when she died, and had reigned England from 1558-1603. The Death of the Queen was a time of great mourning and sadness in English history. Elizabeth I had been the only Monarch many people ever knew since her reign of fort-five years lasted so long. In the winter of 1602, Elizabeth had become very ill. In her old age she was “lonelier and lonelier” since many of the people she knew were already dead (Thomas). She “departed this life, mildly like a lamb, easily like a ripe apple from the tree” (qtd. in Elizabeth I). The deep crowds of England mourned for her on the streets. Her body was embalmed and taken to Westminster Abbey where she was laid to rest (Thomas).
Elizabeth I “Oversaw a vibrant age of exploration and literature and established herself as a national icon” (Richards Opening Page). She beat challenges with “Decisive action and subtle Diplomacy” and the court “retainted its primary function as the spectacular epicenter of high politics and royal spectacle” (Kinsella 270, Richards168). Her ability to rule after her tough childhood upbringing is an achievement made possible by her education. She survived the religious changes brought by her father and sister before her and was even able to surpass the common belief that women were bad leaders. The throne she stepped into was one rocked by religious problems and bloodshed, but she was able to turn that around and unify Catholics and Protestants together. Often Elizabeth is thought of today as one of the best, most successful monarchs of all time. She started the development of Elizabethan Theater in her reign by creating an environment that allowed for famous plays to be written. Being a virgin throughout her reign allowed her to keep peace in England for many years. When Phillip II came to attack she was able to push him back and lead England into becoming a world power. Overall when Elizabeth died. England was in much better shape than when she began her reign. Elizabeth I was a very important monarch in English history.
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