Elizabeth I, the last and probably the most famous of the Tudor monarchs, was born at Greenwich Palace on Sunday, September 7, 1533 between 3 and 4 in the afternoon.
Her mother, Anne Boleyn, a fetching and vain young gentlewoman who had been brought up at the French court in Paris, was crowned three months before Elizabeth's birth, and beheaded three years after. In July of 1533, two months before Elizabeth was born, her father, the portly, mulish and wildly temperamental Henry VIII, was excommunicated by Pope Clement VII for divorcing his first wife Catherine of Aragon.
In his correspondence, Eustace Chapuys, an ambassador to England from the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V and a staunch defender of Henry VIII's first wife, merely mentioned the fact that the King's lady-friend (for whom Catherine was discarded) had given birth to a daughter, and her sex was a most bitter disappointment for her parents.
Neither the King nor his second wife, who had yearned and risked so much for a male heir to the throne, could have foreseen that they would be remembered through the ages chiefly because of their daughter.
2. Early childhood. Education of the princess.
Even though Elizabeth was declared a bastard after the beheading of her mother, she remained third in line to inherit the throne, and was remarkably well brought up and educated together with her half-brother Edward (the long-awaited yet sickly son of Henry VIII's third wife, Jane Seymour). Her teachers were painstakingly selected. The classics were taught by Richard Cox of Oxford, the future Bishop of Ely, and later by John Cheke, the great Cambridge scholar. Another famous tutor from Cambridge was Roger Ascham, one of the most brilliant Hellenists in England. Of Elizabeth, he later wrote: "Yea, I believe, that beside her perfect readiness in Latin, Italian, French, and Spanish, she readeth here now at Windsor more Greek every day than some prebendary of this church doth read Latin in a whole week."
The royal children were also instructed in mathematics, geography, astronomy, history and music.
The record of her reading shows that Elizabeth read almost the whole works of Cicero and Livy, Sophocles and Isocrates, the Greek Testament and the writings of St. Cyprian.
In 1547, when Elizabeth was fourteen, King Henry died, and the young Edward was separated from his sister to fulfill his duties as the new King of England.
3. Mortal dangers escaped.
Neither of Elizabeth's parents showed much interest in her when she was a baby, and after their deaths her closest relatives posed the greatest threat to her. Because of the circumstances of her birth she did not have real friends, or any meaningful family life.
Thomas Seymour, the sensual, self-seeking, and unscrupulous uncle of her half-brother Edward, second husband of her stepmother (and Henry's sixth wife) Catherine Parr, plotted to marry the new King to Lady Jane Grey, a young lady whom he kept in his house after buying guardianship rights from her father. Thomas himself wanted to marry his adopted daughter Elizabeth as soon as his wife was dead. However, he was arrested in January 1549, accused of high treason, and beheaded in March. Elizabeth was suspected as Thomas's accomplice and kept under house arrest. Her servants were imprisoned and questioned. This taught her a very bitter lesson about their loyalty; trust and affection for those around her could very well cost her her life.
With her half-sister Mary's accession to the throne in 1553 Elizabeth's position became even more precarious. She was next in line to the throne, and would have to consider each step with weight and measure. In the eyes of many, including the members of the Protestant opposition to Mary's Catholic reign, she was a natural rival to the Queen. And some Catholic supporters of Queen Mary viewed Elizabeth as a source of constant danger and even suggested removing her permanently. It was only by a hair's breadth that Elizabeth escaped meeting with a headsman.
Her relative Mary Stuart, having lost her Scottish crown, spent the rest of her life plotting to become the next Queen of England. She inspired or instigated several attempts on Elizabeth's life. Eventually, this led to Mary's beheading, an order reluctantly signed by Elizabeth, who had kept her royal relative prisoner after the former asked for political asylum.
4. Accession to the throne.
On November 17, 1558 Elizabeth ascended to the throne at the age of twenty-five. She was young but harbored no delusions about the kind of inheritance she had received.
A contemporary account of the situation in England, prepared by Armagil Waad, the Clerk of Elizabeth's Privy Council, reveals:
"The Queen poor; the realm exhausted; the nobles poor and decayed; good captains and soldiers wanting; the people out of order; justice not executed; the justices unmeet for their offices; all things dear; division among ourselves; war with France and Scotland; the French King bestriding the realm, having one foot in Calais and the other in Scotland; steadfast enmity, but no steadfast friendship abroad."
Elizabeth's first royal appointment was William Cecil to the position of Secretary of State. Cecil was the son of a country gentleman, who had enriched himself under Henry VIII when monasteries were disbanded and ravaged, and all their lands and riches distributed among the King's friends and servants; he had received a good education, yet was considered an upstart by the nobles and intensely disliked. "This judgment I have of you, that you will not be corrupted by any manner of gifts, and that you will be faithful to the State; and that without respect of any private will, you will give me the counsel you think best," Elizabeth told William Cecil upon his appointment. He served Elizabeth zealously. The Queen valued his fidelity and made him Lord Burley in 1571. He carefully selected people such as Francis Walsingham for Her Majesty's service. On his deathbed in 1598, Cecil wrote to his son: "Serve God by serving the Queen, for all other service is indeed bondage to the devil."
5. One nation under God.
The religious situation was notoriously complicated in England. On the one hand, Elizabeth inherited Catholic bishops from the previous reign of her half-sister, Mary. On the other, Protestant emigrants heavily indoctrinated by the teachings of Calvin were returning from exile.
It was nearly impossible to reconcile them, but Elizabeth's most important task was to unite the nation. In the opening of her first Parliament she declared that her desire was "to unite the people of the realm in one uniform order."
After committing two bishops to the Tower and letting some others emigrate, Elizabeth succeeded in restoring the authority of the Crown above the Pope's in the English Church. Her Second Act of Supremacy, or the "Act for Restoring to the Crown the Ancient Jurisdiction over the State ecclesiastical and spiritual," was passed in 1559. After the revision of Edward VI's Book of Common Prayer, the second "Act for Uniformity of Common Prayer" was also passed. It allowed a bit more freedom to the traditionalists as well as to the reformers. Elizabeth rejected the official title of "Supreme Head of the Church" invented by her father, and accepted the title "Supreme Governor as well in spiritual and ecclesiastical causes as temporal." Her Majesty's subjects were recommended to exercise a sort of 'political correctness' and "to eschew contumelious and opprobrious words as heretic, schismatic and Papist." Ultimately, Elizabeth's religion was neither Catholic nor Protestant so much as Pragmatist. Peace and unity of the realm required a certain degree of tolerance on the part of the monarch.
6. Prospective marriages.
At the beginning of her reign Elizabeth was constantly pressed by the Parliament, the Court, advisers and well-wishers, and all other interested parties to choose a husband. Perhaps she entertained this thought herself. The short list of her suitors is impressive. She rejected Philip II, King of Spain, and his relative Archduke Charles Hapsburg of Austria, son of the Emperor Ferdinand; she remained indifferent to Eric, son of Gustav Vasa, King of Sweden, as well as to the eldest son of the King of Denmark. To the same list belong two French princes, the Duke of Alenšon and the Duke of Anjou; Emmanuel Philibert, Duke of Savoy; and various others, including the Russian Tsar Ivan the Terrible. The latter had at least one trait in common with Elizabeth's father, Henry VIII - his treatment of his successive wives (he had them tonsured or killed). There were also some native suitors for Elizabeth's hand, in particular Lord Robert Dudley (whom Elizabeth had also suggested as a potential husband to her rival Mary Stuart). She played them all in her shrewd political games as a skillful chess master. Having learned a hard lesson from the Thomas Seymour affair in her youth, she knew that she could not indulge her feelings, and the freedoms enjoyed by the lowliest country milkmaid were not permitted to her. And in the end, Elizabeth loved power more than the idea of her own marriage. When she felt strong enough, she silenced the Parliament by saying: "It is monstrous that the feet should direct the head. I have already joined myself in marriage to a husband, namely the Kingdom of England."
7. Political science according to Elizabeth.
"With your head and my purse I could do anything," Elizabeth reputedly said to William Cecil.
Elizabeth's greatest achievement in foreign affairs was to transform England, an insignificant player on the world stage during the two previous reigns, into a formidable empire that could dictate its conditions to others.
Her politics might be characterized as "passive-aggressive."
Relations with Spain were peaceful but tense for many years. Though England could not afford a navy, it had its pirates, who were a source of constant annoyance to Spanish merchants as well as its navy. As Bishop Creighton cheerfully noted in his biography of Elizabeth, "there had been a wonderful development of piracy, in which the energies of Englishmen found an outlet. The government naturally wished for the growth of English seamanship and the command of the narrow seas. It winked at piracy as a temporary matter, till some better mode of training seamen could be found. Elizabeth was not sorry if Spain was the sufferer; she only wished to keep things within the limits of decency." After Elizabeth's famous seizure of Spanish gold destined as payment for the Spanish army in the Netherlands, King Philip waited almost twenty years before retaliating. On July 29, 1588, he sent his famous Armada of 130 ships carrying 30,000 troops to the English shores. The Armada was ignominiously defeated by the choppy sea and rough weather. English sailors under the command of Sir Francis Drake and Elizabeth's cousin Charles Howard finished the business. The ongoing war with France and military operations against Scotland and Ireland were kept from English soil as well.
Throughout her reign, the Queen's adventuresome subjects unleashed their energy in search of profit, new lands, and glory to England.
"Englishmen before 1603," observed Albert Frederic Pollard, "might be found in every quarter of the globe, following Drake's lead into the Pacific, painfully breaking the ice in search of north-east or a north-west passage, hunting for slaves in the wilds of Africa, journeying in caravans across the steppes of Russia into central Asia, bargaining with Turks on the shores of the Golden Horn, or with the Greeks in the Levant, laying the foundations of the East India Company, or of the colonies of Virginia and Newfoundland."
Elizabeth I outlived some of her most brilliant contemporaries, both friends and enemies. Mary Stuart and Catherine de Medici, Alenšon, Philip II, Leicester, Essex, Walsingham and Burley all were gone by the time she entered her decline. She grew old and depressed, suffering insomnia and melancholia. In February 1603 Elizabeth fell ill. According to the account of her relative Robert Carey, who visited her on the eve of her death, Elizabeth said that"her heart had been sad and heavy for ten or twelve days, and in her discourse she fetched not so few as forty or fifty great sighs; about six at night she made signs for the Archbishop and her chaplains to come to her. The Archbishop knelt down by the bed, and examined her of her faith, and she so punctually answered all his several questions. After this he began to pray, and all that were by did answer him. "At three o'clock in the morning of March 24, 1603 the Queen died. She was 69.
The majority of information is drawn from Bishop Mandell Creighton's Queen Elizabeth. New York, Thomas Y. Crowell Co., 1899.
Tillyard, E.M.W. The Elizabethan world picture. New York, Vintage books, n.d.
Read, Conyers. The Tudors: personalities and practical politics in sixteenth century England. New York: W. W. Norton Co, c1964.
Read, Conyers. Mr. Secretary Cecil and Queen Elizabeth. London, Jonathan Cape, 1955.
Read, Conyers. Lord Burghley and Queen Elizabeth. London, Jonathan Cape, 1960.
Nares, Rev. Edward. Memoirs of the life and administration of the Right Honourable William Cecil, Lord Burghley, London, Saunders and Otley, 1823.
Pollard, Albert Frederic. The history of England from the accession of Edward VI to the death of Elizabeth (1547-1603). London, Longmans, 1923.