On this day in 1559, a fiery 25 year old redhead named Elizabeth Tudor was officially crowned queen and went on to become one of England’s most well known monarchs as Queen Elizabeth I. So to kick of my ‘A Quick History of…’ series, I thought I would start with this famous queen.
Elizabeth was the daughter of King Henry VIII and his second wife, Anne Boleyn. Anne was beheaded when Elizabeth was just 2 and a half years old. The marriage was annulled just days before the execution (meaning Anne wasn’t ‘queen’ when she was beheaded) and Elizabeth became an illegitimate child.
After the King beheaded her mother, Henry went on to have four more wives, meaning Elizabeth had four stepmothers to deal with:
Jane Seymour, who married Henry VIII 11 days after the death of Anne Boleyn and died in post-birth complications.
Anne of Cleves, who ‘displeased’ Henry and went on to be referred to as Henry’s ‘sister’ after the marriage was annulled.
Catherine Howard, who was 17 to Henry’s 49 when they married and ended up beheaded for adultery less than two years later.
Catherine Parr, twice a widow and childless, was an attentive stepmother by all accounts and Elizabeth went on to live with Catherine after Henry’s death.
Elizabeth was quite close with her half-brother Edward, however becoming King of England at the age of 9 meant that their relationship took on a different dimension over time. They shared the same Protestant faith, which put them at odds with Mary who remained committed to the Catholic faith of her mother, Katherine of Aragon.
Elizabeth lived with her last step-mother Catherine Parr and Catherine’s new husband Thomas Seymour (Jane’s brother) after the death of Henry. While there, she was involved in a scandal that threatened her ‘chaste’ reputation after Thomas Seymour was witnessed embracing the 14 year old Elizabeth and entering her room ‘inappropriately’. It was rumoured that he had pursued a marriage with Elizabeth before committing to Catherine.
Catherine was supposedly in on it as well, and people claimed they saw Thomas and Catherine in Elizabeth’s bedroom ‘tickling’ her. Of course, this is largely speculation. We do know there was a scandal involving Thomas Seymour and Elizabeth, but the extent of the behaviour is hard to know.
Elizabeth’s reputation recovered as she was involved in no more scandals of the sort. Thomas Seymour, on the other hand, renewed his pursuit of Elizabeth after the death of Catherine, ultimately leading to his execution.
By the end of Elizabeth’s childhood she was one of the best educated women of her generation. She could speak French, Flemish, Italian, Spanish, Welsh, Cornish, Scottish and Irish, and could write in English, Latin and Italian.
King Edward VI died at 15, and after a 9 day ‘reign’ of Lady Jane Grey, Mary rode into London, triumphant, with Elizabeth at her side. Mary was determined to return England to Catholicism and became an incredibly unpopular queen.
Elizabeth was imprisoned in the Tower of London after a rebellion, suspected of being involved. Mary’s advisors tried to have Elizabeth put on trial to remove the threat to Mary’s throne, however, due to the lack of evidence Elizabeth was released to house arrest for a year.
Mary proved unable to have a child (meaning no direct heir to the throne) and her husband, King Philip of Spain, started to align himself with Elizabeth who was a preferable heir to Mary, Queen of Scots (who would later be imprisoned by Elizabeth for 19 years). When Mary became ill in 1558 she named Elizabeth as her heir. She died on 17 November 1558, and Elizabeth succeeded to the throne.
Elizabeth’s marriage (or lack thereof) has been widely speculated about. Perhaps the string of her father’s wives put her off marriage, or the sexual advances of Thomas Seymour profoundly impacted her. She also might have seen the impact of Mary’s marriage and the instability it brought to her authority as Queen.
Women as sole rulers was still a hard concept to grasp in England, and the issue of Elizabeth’s marriage and succession was a constant throughout her reign. She considered several proposals from foreign princes and kings, including contenders from Sweden, France and Austria.
It was also thought that she was in love with the English nobleman, and lifelong friend, Robert Dudley, who happened to be married. His first wife died in somewhat suspicious circumstances (she fell down a flight of stairs) and some said it was so Dudley could marry Elizabeth. 18 years later Dudley finally remarried, only to have his wife banished from court and the subject of a lifelong hatred from Elizabeth.
For whatever reason, Elizabeth never married and made a virtue of her virginity.
The major military threat’s of Elizabeth’s reign came from Scotland and Spain. Elizabeth’s cousin Mary, Queen of Scots, was seen as a viable candidate for the English throne and Elizabeth placed her under house arrest when she fled Scotland before eventually signing a death warrant for Mary.
The defeat of the Spanish Armada, probably the best known military event of Elizabeth’s reign, occurred in 1588 when the Spanish Armada set sail for England and were defeated in naval combat. English troops were assembled to prepare for an invasion (unaware the Armada had already been defeated) and Elizabeth inspected her troops and gave one of her most famous speeches, part of which said:
“I know I have the body but of a weak 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.”
Elizabeth was pretty handy with her words and was a master at using rhetoric to turn around a perceived weakness (in this case, being a woman).
The last 10-15 years of Elizabeth’s reign were marked by a ‘Golden Age’ for literary pursuits (but difficulty financially and politically).
William Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe were part of this ‘Golden Age’, and English theatre reached its peak during the Elizabethan and Jacobean eras.
Elizabeth died in 1603, marking the end of the Tudor dynasty which had begun with her grandfather Henry VII and had seen five monarchs reign (plus 9 days of Lady Jane Grey), two of whom were women and the first Queens of England in their own right (Empress Matilda and Lady Jane Grey don’t really count).
King James VI of Scotland succeeded her as monarch of England, finally uniting England and Scotland, and beginning the Stuart dynasty. The Stuart went on to rule until 1714 (excluding a short break in the 1650s when the Cromwells ruled England as a Commonwealth).
Elizabeth was interred in Westminster Abbey, in a tomb she shares with her half-sister Mary.
Elizabeth’s 44 year reign came to be seen as a ‘golden age’ for England and Elizabeth herself as a champion for the Protestant cause after the shine of James’ reign began to fade.
Elizabeth has been the subject of a lot of historical research, with more books written on her than any other Tudor monarch, and more recently she has been represented in a fair few films and tv shows.
Elizabeth, and Elizabeth: The Golden Age, starring Cate Blanchett
Blackadder II, with Miranda Richardson playing Elizabeth
Elizabeth I, miniseries starring Helen Mirren
The Tudors, for a look at young Elizabeth
The Life of Elizabeth I, Alison Weir
Elizabeth: The Struggle for the Throne, David Starkey
The Virgin’s Lover, Philippa Gregory (historical fiction)
I, Elizabeth, Rosalind Miles (historical fiction)
Find out anything new about Elizabeth?