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Queen Elizabeth I: A brief history

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Elizabeth, daughter of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, was born at Greenwich on 7 September 1533, a huge disappointment to her parents, who longed only for a boy. When her mother was executed three years later the little princess was banished from court as an unwanted bastard, but restored to the family by Henry’s sixth wife, Catherine Parr.

Elizabeth survived a perilous childhood, having been excluded from the succession and kept at safe distance from Henry. In October 1537 her half-brother Edward was born. Both children were given the best tutors and a similar education. By the age of ten the little princess was being coached in Italian, French and Latin. She later took up Greek as well and by the time her formal education ended in 1550 she was one of the best educated women of her generation. This early training was to prove invaluable to Elizabeth since her councillors and her courtiers could not but respect the opinions of a queen who was able, on the spur of the moment, to berate the Polish ambassador in fluent and faultless Latin!

When Henry died in January 1547 Elizabeth was 13 years old and her brother only nine. As the longed-for male heir, her brother was crowned Edward VI at Westminster Abbey in February 1547. The first English monarch to have been raised a Protestant, Edward’s mentors were wholeheartedly committed to furthering the Protestant cause. Elizabeth accepted the government’s lead, but her half-sister Mary did not. And so Mary became the hope of the conservatives and Catholics, while the Protestants began to look to Elizabeth should Edward die before becoming a man, which seemed ever more likely.

When Edward died in July 1553, Mary rallied her supporters to quash the attempt to establish her niece, the Protestant Lady Jane Grey, as queen. Mary rode triumphantly into London on 3 August 1553, with an adolescent Elizabeth by her side, to proclaim herself queen – deposing Jane after just nine days of reign. 

The show of solidarity between the sisters did not last long, however, as Queen Mary began to regard Elizabeth as a potential threat. As Mary’s policies unfolded, Elizabeth became the repository of the hopes of all the discontented, who began to take comfort from the knowledge that Mary was childless and Elizabeth would, in time, succeed. Some, however, such as Thomas Wyatt, were not content to wait for Elizabeth’s succession. In January 1554 Wyatt rose in rebellion against Mary’s proposed marriage with Philip of Spain. Letters from Wyatt to Elizabeth were discovered and the princess was sent to the Tower of London under grave suspicion of treason. If Elizabeth had ever answered Wyatt it must have been by word of mouth, because no proof of criminal complicity was to be found. Elizabeth escaped, but learned the value of discretion.

Meanwhile, Queen Mary, who longed for a child and heir, was plagued by false pregnancies. Wearying of her, Philip went home to Spain while the queen vented her resentment on ‘heretics’. Forced to accept that she could not have children, Mary was also forced to accept that Elizabeth was her lawful successor. From May 1558 Mary was wracked with illness, during which time she reconciled with Elizabeth. Mary died on 17 November 1558, aged 42. Elizabeth’s accession in 1558 was greeted with joyous acclaim by Court and commoner alike. Shrewd and tenacious, she proved a long-time survivor, gaining the throne at 24 and reigning until her 70th year through times both troubled and triumphant. 

‘God hath raised me high’ - Elizabeth I during her coronation ceremony at Westminster Abbey, 15 January 1559

Henry’s daughter had a first-class mind, sharpened by an excellent education. Musical, well-read and athletic, she gloried in dancing and hunting. Her father’s pride and energy – as well as her mother’s coquettishness and magnetism.

Yet early in life she learned to be cautious, avoiding confrontation whenever possible. Although the resulting ambiguity often exasperated her courtiers, on major issues she was usually crystal clear. She faltered only once, over the fate of her potential rival, Mary, Queen of Scots – executed in 1587.

Elizabeth’s court was seldom dull: ‘When she smiled it was pure sunshine…but anon came a storm and thunder fell in a wondrous manner on all alike.’ She put her trust in wisely-chosen chief ministers who served her well: the lawyer William Cecil (Lord Burghley) and his son Robert, aided by Sir Francis Walsingham, spy-master and intelligence chief.

For years, the queen’s choice of husband was a hot topic throughout Europe, but the only man she came near to accepting was her ‘Little Frog’, the clever and amusing Duke of Alençon. Marriage held too many pitfalls – and loss of independence. In the end prudence or fear held her back. She remained ‘the Virgin Queen’, taking pride in the deeds of Francis Drake and his fellow sea dogs, and delighting in the flattery of her illustrious playwrights and poets. The defeat of the Spain’s Armada in 1588 was the high point of her reign, occasioning an ecstasy of patriotic fervour with a semi-divine queen, ‘Gloriana’, at it’s centre.

In the spring of 1603, she caught a chill. ‘To content the people, you must go to bed,’ urged Robert Cecil. ‘Little man, is “must” a word to be addressed to princes?’ was her acidly genial response. She died at Richmond on 24 March 1603, and with her ended not just the Tudor dynasty, but the richly patterned ‘golden age’ of English history that carries Elizabeth’s name.

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