Queen Elizabeth I
We have a wise and religious queen. ~ English bishop John Jewell in 1559
England ascended as a global power in the 16th century under Queen Elizabeth I (1533–1603), whose nearly half century reign (1558–1603) became known as the Elizabethan Age.
Elizabeth’s life got off to an inauspicious start, enduring events that would both sharpen her resolve and scar her emotionally.
Elizabeth was the daughter of King Henry VIII and his 2nd wife, Anne Boleyn. Married to his 1st wife, Catherine of Aragon, Henry lusted after Anne, who refused to become his mistress as her sister had. So, Henry defied the pope to divorce Catherine, who had borne him a daughter, Mary.
Henry’s hopes of Anne bearing him a son, thus ensuring a stable dynastic succession, were dashed with the birth of a girl (Elizabeth), followed by 2 miscarriages.
Anne’s sexual magnetism waned. It had been her main attraction, at least to Henry.
Anne’s ready wit cut 2 ways. Sharp-tongued, she had a venomous temper and tendency to hysteria. Henry lost interest in her, to the extent of having Anne’s head parted from her body.
Elizabeth was not yet 3 years old when Anne was beheaded. By the age of 6, her precocious seriousness was apparent.
Elizabeth received the rigorous classical education usually reserved for male heirs. Besides Greek and Latin, she became fluent in French and Italian. By the end of her days, Elizabeth had also mastered Welsh, Cornish, Scottish, and Irish.
Her mind has no womanly weakness. Her perseverance is equal to that of a man, and her memory long keeps what it quickly picks up. ~ Elizabeth’s tutor, English scholar Roger Ascham
As a young teen, Elizabeth suffered the attentions of her adopted guardian, the unscrupulous Thomas Seymour, who married the Queen, Catherine Parr, Henry’s widow (his 6th and last wife). Parr had Elizabeth sent away in May 1548, after discovering Seymour embracing her. After Parr died in childbirth, Seymour renewed his affections to Elizabeth.
Seymour’s earlier illicit lust for Elizabeth became known then. He was arrested and beheaded on suspicion of plotting to marry Elizabeth and overthrow the Lord Protector for then King Edward VI, who was king from age 10 to his death from illness at 15.
Edward was the son of Henry VIII and Jane Seymour, Thomas Seymour’s sister and Henry’s 3rd wife. Jane died from postnatal complications less than 2 weeks after Edward was born.
Edward’s brief reign was beset by economic malaise and social unrest, culminating in riot and rebellion in 1549. An expensive war with Scotland went from early success to withdrawal.
Edward’s will excluded Mary and Elizabeth from succession, declaring instead Lady Jane Grey, granddaughter of Henry VIII’s sister Mary, as his heir. Lady Jane was queen for all of 9 days before being deposed and later beheaded; a victim of Mary and her supporters.
On 3 August 1553, Mary rode triumphantly into London to take the throne. Elizabeth was at her side.
Mary I was a religious zealot who strove to restore England to Roman Catholicism. In 1554, Protestants rebelled against her determination to marry Catholic King Philip II of Spain. Thomas Wyatt was one of the rebellion’s leaders.
Elizabeth was imprisoned for nearly a year for her supposed participation in Wyatt’s rebellion. But then she was recalled to court to attend the finality of Mary’s supposed pregnancy; an event which would have determined Elizabeth’s fate, had a baby been in the offing.
But Mary was not pregnant; only bloated. Medieval royals were not known for having decent diets. Henry VIII had ballooned his way out of existence, managing to go from the epitome of manhood to grotesquely obese within 3 decades.
After a series of false pregnancies, Mary – childless and depressed – died at 42.
It rained during much of Mary’s reign, with flooding leading to famine. Her people were happy to see her in the ground.
During her 5-year stint as sovereign, Mary had some 300 heretics burned at the stake, earning the sobriquet Bloody Mary. Mary’s repressive rule paved the way for heartfelt popular celebration of Elizabeth’s coronation.
Upon her accession at age 25, Elizabeth opted for Protestantism, albeit careful at first not to offend Catholics.
Though Elizabeth dallied with childhood friend Robert Dudley, she never married. She instead became the Virgin Queen, who declared that she was married to her kingdom and subjects. Elizabeth spoke of “all my husbands, my good people.”
Though war was never-ending, Elizabeth’s foreign policy was largely defensive. She actively pursued naval power, which paid off in the war against Spain, fought mostly at sea.
English seafaring prowess led to self-enrichment and piracy by those with boats; nefariousness over which Elizabeth had little control.
By 1590, conflicts with Spain and Ireland had taken their toll. Taxes had risen to riotous levels.
Poor harvests generated inflation. The general standard of living fell, and along with it, Elizabeth’s popularity. A new, less sage generation in political power spelt factionalism and a decline in Elizabeth’s authority.
During the last years of her reign, Elizabeth came to rely on granting monopolies as a seemingly cost-free system of patronage, rather than beseeching Parliament for more subsidies in a time of war. This corrupt practice soon led to price-fixing, the enrichment of courtiers at public expense, and widespread resentment. It culminated in parliamentary protest, which Elizabeth subdued by professing ignorance of the abuses, and lamenting “the wringers of the poor.”
The reign of Elizabeth I was a period of gross economic inequity and political uncertainty which nonetheless produced an unsurpassed literary flowering in England, sponsored by the patronage of the nobility and the moneyed merchant class. Playwrights William Shakespeare and Christopher Marlow ushered in a golden era of English theater. Hence, the tumult of the times gradually transformed into fond remembrance of the Elizabethan Age.
In the end, this shall be for me sufficient, that a marble stone shall declare that a queen, having reigned such a time, lived and died a virgin. ~ Queen Elizabeth I in 1559