British Royalty: Elizabeth I (1533-1603)

Figure 1.--I do not know of any paintings of the Princess Elizabrth as a little girl. This painting of the Princess as a teenager was proabably done some time arounf 1557. I am not sure who the artist was.

Elizabeth I was one of the greates monrarchs in English history. She presided on the emergence of England as an important naval power. She was like her father a skilled politican and egotistical, unliked her father she had a sence of the responsibilities of office and duty to her people. She was immensely popular throughout her reign.


Princess Elizabeth was the daughter of King Henry VIII and his second wife, Anne Boleyn.

Henry VIII

Henry VIII is one of the most remembered of all England's monarchs. Henry was the second son of Henry VII and his wife Elizabeth of York. Henry VIII is most remembered for his many wives and ways of dispensing with them. Henry's first wife Catherine had failed to provide him a son. Henry desperately wanted a son to succeed him. This much more than theological questions had led him to divorce Catherine, break with Rome, and marry Anne. While Henry is best remembered for his marital affairs, he was in fact one of the country's greatest monarchs and his reign had a huge impact in shaping modern Britain.

Anne Boleyn

Anne Boleyn is one of those historical figures that is known by almost everyone. Anne was queen for only 3 years, but he is among the most famous of all English queens. Her fames of course rests primarily for the fact that she was beheaded at the order of her husband, King Henry VIII. But her real importance rests on two less publicized matter. First Anne fended off the king's advances, insisting on marriage. The result of course was the Protestant Reformation in England. Second she gave birth to Elizabeth, one of the most important monarchs in English history. Anne was of nobel birth. She was the daughter of an ambitious knight and niece of the duke of Norfolk. Ironically, Elizabeth's birth and her father's disappointment in the end cost her mother her life.


Elizabrth was born at Greenwich Palace (1533). She was a healthy, active little girl.

Elizabeth's birth was a great disappointment to her father who already had a daughter. He wanted a son. Elizabeth's childhood was affected by the king's attitude. Most immediately, her father had her mother tried for trumped up charges including treason and incest and executed (1536). The king also had the marriage declared invalid which meant that Elizabeth like her older half sister Mary were declared illegitimate without any right of succession. This affected their status . Mary of coure at first had her mother. Elizabeth at age 2 was left without her mother. She was a precocious little girl andupon being told her changed in status is reported to have remarked, "How haps it? Yesterday my Lady Princessand today but my Lady Elizabeth?" [Lofts, p. 168.] She was not even allowed to speak her mother's name. One can only wonder what must have gone through her mind as a young girl.

Elizabeth was left in the care of the steady stream of women that moved through her father's life. These of course included: Jane Seymour, Anne of Cleves, Catherine Howard, and finally Catherine Parr. I have few details about Elizabeth's relatiinship with these women. Nor do I know much about the relationship with her siblings, Nary and Edward. As far as we know, the only child which Henry took much interest in was Edward. Psycho-historians speculate that her later attitude toward marriage may have been firmed at this time.


We do know that Elizabeth received an excellent education. Many girls even nobel girls were not seriously educated until the 20th century. Elizabeth was, however, given a first class education. It had become fashionable in the 16th century among nobel families to educate girls. Interestingly subsequent royals even as late as the early 20th century might be indifferently educated. Royal parents varied greatly on this. In Elizabeth's case she benefitted from a very thorough education. Elizabeth was an excetional pupil. She ws taught by renowned scholars such as William Grindal and Roger Asham. I'm unsure to what extent the royal children were educated together. Elizabeth showed a special talent for language. She learned to speak five languages fluently.

Political Situation

Elizabeth while her father lived was safe. After he died (1547) when she was about 14 years old, she became vulnerable. Henry had her any Mart declared illegitimate, but later decided to include them in the line of succession. First was Edward and second was her older sister Mary. Elizabeth was third. This meant that Elizabeth was vulnerable to be drawn into political plots and becuse of the religious situation and the fact that Edward and Elizabeth were Protestant and Mary Catholic, there were many plots a foot and dangers that an innocent young girl might be drawn into them.


Edward VI (1537-53)

Edward succeeded his father in 1547. Edward was only 9 years old and not old enough to rule. His mother had died in child birth. His uncle Edward Seymour became Protector of England. Edward Seymour's younger brother, Thomas, became very jealous of his older brother's exalted position and organized a plot which included kidnapping King Edward. The plot failed and Thomas Seymour was tried and executed for treason. There were charges that Elizabeth was implicated. Certainly she was very young and might have been talked into something by a man like Thomas Seymour. For his part Seymour had expressed a desire to marry Elizabeth. It would have been an act of trason for Elizabeth as an heir to the throne to marry or even consent to marry without obtaining the consent of the King and his counsel. Elizabeth was quite young at only 15 years of age, but she was also very smart and would have known this. No one knows is she had any involvement. At any rate, she persuade her interrogators that she was completely unaware of the plot. It seems unlikely that she would have been involved in any plot aimed at her brother, but innocent liasons with Seymour are another matter. She along comvinced her interogators that she had not consented to marry Seymour. This did not dispell rumours. The fact that he had married to Elizabeth's last step-mother, Katherine Parr, before she died in childbirth, made the whole affair more scandelous.

Mary I (1516-58)

Elizabeth's situation worsened when Edward died. His health had never been strong (1553). Elizabeth's half-sister Mary became queen (1553). Mary was devout Catholic and despised Elizabeth's mother Anne Boleyn. Mary took many actions against Protestants and desired to return England to Catholocism. Elizabeth's Protestant faith troubled the relationship with her sister now the queen. Even worse, Elizabeth was again implicated in another plot--the Wyatt rebellion (1554). After Edward died there was an attempt to by John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland, to make his daughter in law, Lady Jane Grey, Queen. Mary's supporters included many Protestants devoted to the idea of legitimacy quickly ended the threat to her rule. Mary was not, however, popular with the people. She resented the fact that the increasingly Protestant English people liked Elizabeth. She thus became supicious of her. Advisers persuaded Mary that Elizabeth may have been ivolved in a plot by Thomas Wyatt to seize the throne. Little information is known about the Wyatt plot. Is is not known if Wyatt was even planning to install Elizabeth as queen. Nor is it known that Elizabeth had any knowledge of the plot. There is no evidence one way or the other. Elizabeth was arrested and sent to the Tower of London as a prisoner. Many of the Caholics around Mary wanted her to execute Elizabeth as she would threaten ther position if she accended to the throne. Mary was conflicted. She knew Elizabeth from childhood. There was no real evidence against her. Elizabeth wrote to her sister from the Tower assuring Mary of her loyalty and offering to take instruction in the Catholic faith. Finally Mary allowed to leave the Tower, but kept in close confinement at Woodstock Manor in Oxfordhsire. Elizabeth was kept there for a year.

Philip II

Mary had married the most powerful Catholic monarch in Europe, Philip II of Spain. Mary and Philip hoped that a son would ensure that England could be rturned to the Cathloic camp. Philip like Mary was a devoted Cathloic, but he was more pragmatic. He knew that Elizabeth was very popular and any action against her would damage the Catholic cause. It was Philip who convinced Mary to allow Elizabeth to return to her childhood home, Hatfield in Hertfordshire. Philip became increasingly aware of Mary's poor health and tried to cultivate a relationship with her in case she should become queen.

Succession (1558)

Upon Mary's death, Elizabeth finally succeed to the throne (1558).


Elizabeth was crowned Queen on January 15, 1559.

Life Style

Elizabeth's accension to the throne mean a hughe chnge for the once unwanted child. The Princess Elizabeth had spent her life rather lost at court and essentially shuttered aside and forgotten. After her father died, Elizabeth only survived because she ws cautious and restrained--undoubtedly difficult for a high-spirited teen age girl. Once she was queen she was anxious to begin enjoying life as never before. She enjoyed sports. She particularly liked riding and spent many hours riding. She also enjoyed hunting, hawking, and bear baiting. She also enjoyed the spectacle of jousts and other contests among the men. She could now enjoy court life. She loved gaity and enjoyed the music and dancing at court. All the pageantry and events like maccarade blls (masques) were a delight for a yoing princess who had been kept from court for several years. She had learned to play the virginals and lute.Elizabeth also enjoyed plays and it was no accident that her reign was one of the most productive eras in English literature. She was a Protestant, but disagreed with the pious Puritans who disapproved of gaity and wnted the theaters closed.

The Protestant Reformation

The importance of Protestantism had grown greatly in England during the reign of Elizabeth's brother Edward. Mary failed in her reign could not turn the country back to Catholocism, primarily because she failed to produce an heir. Mary's repression has earned her the sobiqunt bloody Mary and in the long run damaged the Catholic cause. Elizabeth quickly re-established the Protestant Church, but acted cautiously in religious maters. She was like her father a skilled politican and egotistical, unliked her father she had a sence of the responsibilities of office and duty to her people. She was immensely popular throughout her reign. When Elizabeth came to the throne she restored Protestantism and England became an increasingly Protestant country, but will a still important Catholic party. The building diplomatic difficulties, especially the depredations of the Sea Dogs, combined with the religious issue finally convinced Philip to build the Great Armada and invade England. The Armada's failure doomed any prospect of restoring the Catholic Church. Elizabeth endorsed Protestantism in a more conservative and tolerant spirit than her brother Edward, and the great theologian Richard Hooker (Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity) helped define what many historians have called "the Reformed Catholicism" of the Anglican Church. One of Elizabeth's famous statements was that she refused "to make windows into men's souls", and she tolerated Catholics (her greatest composer Byrd, for instance) if (a big "if" of course), if they were not political in their religion or engaged in conspiracies to put Mary Queen of Scots on the throne. There were many fierce Protestants of Puritanical bent under Elizabeth who thought the Anglican Church much too "Popish" in its liturgy and in the retention of prelates and sacraments, but Elizabeth successfully resisted extremists on both the Protestant left and the Roman Catholic right. Her relative openness on religious questions probably contributed to the great intellectual and artistic achievements of her reign. A revealing example: when the question arose as to whether private auricular confession to priest (as in Catholic tradition) should be retained, her policy was typically "via media" (the middle way): "All may; none must; some should." This is why private confession is still part of Anglicanism today. She became Supreme Governor of the Church of England and not the Supreme Head as was her father. It is believed that this was so as not to offend those who objected to a woman as head of the church. The Queen reputedly prayed daily. While a Protestant, she appears to have like her father preferred aspects of the old litergy. She had candles and crucifixes in her private chapel and liked traditionl church music. she was not enamored ith the sermon-based Church service that was emerging in some Protestant churches. She had not dogmatic desire to supress Catholics, but the rligious hatred thatMary had fueled and the political ramifications forced her to deal more harshly with Catholics than she may have wished.


Elizabeth moved to restor the debased coinage.


From an early point in Elizabeth's reign, marriage became a major concern. This was a mattr constantly raised by her advisers. IUt also became a major concern of English diplomacy. As Queen of a prosperous realm, marriage proposals flooded in from all over Europe. Most cae from Protestant princes, but there were oroposals from Ctathlics as well. Elizabeth made no commitments, but kept many in suspense. She became a master diplomat. The lure of marriage helped to neutralize enemies or make them cautious by intimating that she might marry one of their enemies. No one really knows Elizabeth's true feeling toward marriage. She appears to have had deeo feelings toward Robert Dudley who she mad Earl of Leicester (1564). There were, howevr numerous political probkems associated with Dudley. He was unpopular. His farther was executed for treason. He was married and the death of his life was the subject of rumors. She was also reportedly attracted to Francis, Duke of Alencon/Anjou, heir to the French throne. Here also there were political difficulties.

Mary Queen of Scots

Elizebeth to her Catholic subjects was illegitimate. The Cathloic sector was now a minority, but a still substantial minority. The Cathlics saw Mary, Queen of Scots, like Elizabeth a granddaughter of Henry VII as the legitimate queen of England. Catholic Mary had married thge Dauphin and been briefly queen. When her husband died she returned to Scotland, but the Protestant Reformation had transformed Scotland. A disastrous marriage, her Catholocism, and poor political insincts evntually forced to flee her now largely Protestant country. Mary abdicating in favor of her infant son James who taken from her and was in Protestant hands. Elizabeth ofered her sanctuary, but wisely kept her closely confined. Having the Mary at hand in England helped to generte many plots, as Protestant Elizabeth had generated while her sister Mary was queen. Mary wanted Elizabeth's asistance in restoring her to the Scottish throne. Elizabeth was not about to restore Catholic rule in Scotland which would have been tantamount to restorung French influence. It would have been contrary to her own and England's interest. Mary's confinement protected her, but also reduced the danger she posed with her competing claim to the English throne. Elizabeth kept Mary confined for nearly 20 years. The conditions were perhaps unpleasant to a queen, but were not a prison. Elizabeth would not hear of executing her cousin. Elizabeth who had come close to execution at the hands of her sister, could not bring herelf to carry out such a measure depite Mary's indescretiins if not trason. The evidence of Mary's complicity in the Babington plot (1586), however, was so overwealming that Elizabeth almost had to act. The worsening stuation with spain must have also been a factor. Elizabeth wavered back and forth, but in the end signed the death warrent. Mary was finally executed at Fotheringay Castle (1587), a year before the arrival of the Great Armada.

Voyages of Discovery

The first important English explorer was Giovanni Caboto (1450-98), better known as John Cabot. He was Genoese. (Note the importance of the Genoese. As Venice defeated Genoa and limited its maritime commerce, many Genoese like Cabot and Cloumbus sought their fortunes in other countries.) Cabot set up as a merchant in Bristol. Soon accounts of Columbus' voyages reached England. Cabot with his navigational skills was commissioned by King Henry VII to explore the New World and find a passage to the Indies, the famed Northwest Passage. Cabot found Cape Breton Island off modern Nova Scotia and claimed it for England (1497). He explored the coast of Greenland in a second expedition (1498). The English watched in envy while Mary was queen, her husband was Phillip II of Spain. With the accession of Princess Elizabeth, however, this changed. Without colonies of their own producing gold, the English began preying on the Spanish treasure ships. These were not all acts of piracy, Elizabeth hrself was authorizing many of these attacks. This brought her and England in conflict with the greatest military power of the day--Philip II's Spain.

The Great Armada (1588)

Elizabeth first met Philip II of Spain when he came to England to marry her half-sister Mary. The initial contacts were pleant enough despite the religious differences. Philip in fact played a role in moderating Mary's treatment of her. Perhaps saving her life. After Elizabeth became queen their relationsjip deteriorated. The primary issue was the Sea Dogs and their depredations on Spanish treasure ships. The situation worsened stll when it became obvious that Elizabeth herself was authorizing thgese attacks and profiting from them. This situation was of course exacerbated by the religious differences. Philip's decession to supress the Protestant Reformation was a major concern to Elizabeth, less from religious reasons, but because of the economic importance of the Low Countries (Spanish Netherlands) to England. France had traditionally been England's enemey, but under Elizabeth it was Philip II and Spain that emerged as her principal foreign foe. Philip after the death of his wife Queen Mary, Elizabeth's half sister, returned to Spain and gradually began to conceive od returning to England with a massive invasion force. Elizabeth's execution of Mary the execution of the Queen of Scots Is reported to assed to his determination to dethrone Elizabeth. In fact with Mary gone, the England could be added to his own domains. With the gold and silver flowing in from the Americas, Philip built a huge fleet and hurled it at England and its tiny navy (1588). Sound tactics, more effective gunnery, and superior tactics and as so often in war fortunate circumstances alowed Elizabeth's small navy to defeat Philip's Great Armada. It was a great personal achievement for the Queen. It demonstrated that a woman could not only effective govern in time of peace, but also lead a modern nation in ime of war.


Elizabeth like her father ws egotistical, but she was dedicated to her people in a way that would never occurred to her father. Also like her father, Elizabeth was a cunning politician. Elizabeth, however, put her political skills to work to better to better the life of her people and not for just her personal interests. There ws a connection between Elizabeth and her people that was unlike that of any other monarch before or after. She was also a swred judge of character and selected capable advisers, men like Sir William Cecil and Sir Francis Walsingham. Elizabeth was a determined, sometimes obstinate womamn but she would listened to the advice of her counselors and would chnge policies that proved ineffective or unpopular. Her portraits suggest a charactristically extravagant momarch, but in fact she believed in restrained governmenr expenditures. She was a serious monarch who became a genious of both diplomacy maneuring against stronger nations and in domestic politics, deftly handling parliamentand her political enemies. frivolous, but her approach to politics was serious, conservative, and cautious.


Elizabeth left a very different country thann she had inherited. Her reign was one of the most significant in English history. The country she inherited from her sister Mary (1558) was a impoverished country which had been torn asunder by religious strife. At her death When she died at Richmond Palace (1603), England had begun to emerge as one of the great European powers.


Elizabeth's failure to marry meant that she had no children or heirs. This meant that the succession was unsettled, a very dangerous situation in European history. Elizabeth did not even like to discuss the succession. It was perhaps the single greates failure of her reign. Avoiding mrriage is one matter. Not providing for a clear sucession is avery different matter

James I

As Elizabeth was childless, the Tudor line ended with her. As there was no remaining children or legitimat descendents from her father, the royal line went back to the descendents of Henry VII. Hre James VI of Scotland as the descendent of Henry VII's eldest daughter had the strongest claim. James of course was the son of the same Mary Queen of Scotts that Elizabeth executed. James had been separted from Mary as an infabt and never knew her.


Lofts, Norah. Anne Boleyn (Coward, McCann & Geoghegan: New York, 1979), 192p.


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Created: September 27, 2003
Last updated: October 7, 2003