Elizabeth I

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Elizabeth I[1] (7 September 1533 - 24 March 1603) succeeded Queen Mary to the English crown in 17 November 1558, marking the culmination of a long period of political strife and religious turmoil in England.

She was the daughter of Henry VIII's second wife, Anne Boleyn, who had been executed in 1536. Elizabeth and her older half-sister Mary had been declared illegitimate, but they were placed in order of succession after his son Edward VI, and both acceded to the throne. Unlike her sister, Elizabeth never had Parliament religitimate her.

During her reign foreign affairs were largely dominated by hostile relations with the main Catholic power, Spain, whilst internally she strived to damp down the religious strife that had preceded her accession.

Early life

When Elizabeth was born, she was named after her grandmother Elizabeth of York. Henry was disappointed to have another daughter, as he had already had one by his first wife, Katherine of Aragon. Henry had changed the religion of the country in order to re-marry, and that risk seemed now seemed wasteful. Elizabeth's mother failed to provide a son for the King, and was executed on trumped-up charges of adultery and incest in 1536; Elizabeth and her half sister were declared illegitimate and deprived of their rights to the throne.

After the death of her mother, Henry married Jane Seymour, who gave birth to the future Edward VI. While still a young girl Elizabeth was placed in his household. She became one of the most learned women of England, and was particularly noted for her ability to speak and read a number of languages.

In 1547 Henry VIII died and his son Edward became king, while still a minor. For a time Elizabeth lived with Edward's uncle, Thomas Seymour, brother of Edward Seymour the Lord Protector (Regent). But Thomas's wife Catherine discovered Thomas embracing Elizabeth, who then had to leave their house. When Catherine died in 1548, Thomas Seymour resumed making advances to Elizabeth, and it seemed as if he might be planning to marry her, which would give him a claim to the throne. Thomas was suspected of plotting to overturn the government and was executed for treason, under an Act of Attainder. During the investigation of this, Elizabeth kept silent, but her interrogator Sir Robert Tyrwhit was convinced she was guilty.

Edward VI died in 1553, naming Jane Grey as his successor but she was dethroned after only nine days and Elizabeth's half-sister Mary I took her place. Mary was a fervent Catholic who decreed that everyone should attend the Roman Catholic mass. Elizabeth was protestant, but had to make a show of obedience. There were, though, fears that she was, or would become, the focus of Protestant plots, especially after it became known that Mary would marry the future Philip II of Spain. In early 1554 Elizabeth was suspected of involvement in protestant rebellions and she was placed in the Tower of London and then taken to Woodstock. Mary resisted calls for Elizabeth to be executed.

In 1555 Elizabeth was recalled to court so that a close watch could be kept on her during the last stages of Mary's supposed pregnancy. In fact this was a phantom pregnancy, and, once this became clear, there was a general assumption that Mary would never have any children. Her husband Philip II realised that Elizabeth might well become queen after Mary's death, and began to cultivate her. Shortly before her death in November 1558, Mary officially recognised Elizabeth as her heir. On the 17 November Mary died. Elizabeth's coronation took place in Westminster Abbey on 15 January 1559.

The Reign of Elizabeth

Philip II wanted to retain Spanish influence over England and in 1559 he proposed to Elizabeth, but she turned him down. She and her advisers wanted to consolidate her position by excluding papal influence. The same year a law was passed creating the Church of England, with the monarch as its head. Another law required people to attend Anglican services, but Elizabeth was satisfied with outward conformity, and the penalties for non-compliance were not too severe. As a result many leading families were able to remain Catholic. Nevertheless some Catholics considered that she was illegitimate, because they and the Pope did not recognise Henry VIII's divorce from Katherine of Aragon. In 1570 the Pope formally excommunicated her, and from then on life for Catholics became gradually more difficult, because the government suspected their loyalty. Mary Stuart, Queen of Scotland had fled to England in 1567 and she became the focus of a number of Catholic plots, and of a fullscale rebellion of Northern lords and others in 1569. Elizabeth had Mary kept in confinement, while her advisers increasingly argued for her execution as the only safe course. Finally in 1586 Elizabeth agreed that Mary should be tried, and this led to her execution in February 1587. Elizabeth - probably in part because she was worried about the precedent of executing another monarch - agreed to this with reluctance, and afterwards claimed she had not really wanted the execution.

One of the big policy issues of her reign was whether she should marry, and if so, whom. She had a succession of favourites, and early on there were rumours that she might marry one of them, Robert Dudley, 1st Earl of Leicester. Whatever the truth of these rumours, she used her single status as a political tool, appearing to entertain the possibility of marriage with Archduke Charles of Austria, a cousin, and then with Henry and Francis of the French House of Anjou. She and her government used the discussions about a possibly French marriage to try and secure French support against the Spanish attempt to quell the rebellion in the Netherlands. Parliament repeatedly pressed her to marry, often to her annoyance. In the end her single state became a strong political symbol and she was portrayed as "the Virgin Queen" by some of the writers of the latter part of her reign.

Foreign Affairs

In the reign of Elizabeth's predecessor the English lost control of Calais. In 1562-3 an English expedition occupied Le Havre, with the intention of exchanging it for Calais, but they had to withdraw when the Huguenots decided to side with the French Catholics against the occupation. After that, relations with France became easier, but those with Spain - the main Catholic power in Europe - were always hostile. English ships, with open or covert encouragement from Elizabeth and her government, frequently attacked Spanish ships and territories, as Francis Drake did during his circumnavigation of the world between 1577 and 1580. Drake was knighted on his return.

In 1585 the Spanish had some successes in their attempt to defeat the revolt of the protestant Netherlands. Fearing the implications for England, Elizabeth signed a treaty with the Dutch and sent troops to help them, under her favourite Robert Dudley. He and his successors complained of the lack of sufficient resources. The Spanish prepared the Spanish Armada which was launched in 1588 but failed spectacularly - a big military, political and propaganda coup for Elizabeth.

The following year the protestant Henry IV inherited the French throne. Worried that the Spanish might try and move from their bases in the Low Countries to occupy French ports along the Channel, Elizabeth sent an army to help him in struggles against the Catholics of France, but half the troops were lost and little was achieved. Another disastrous expedition took place in 1591, when Sir John Norreys was sent with an army to Brittany: while he was in London begging for more resources, his army was largely wiped out. A further expedition, under a favourite, Robert Devereux, 1st Earl of Essex, to help Henry IV in his siege of Rouen was also a failure.

Elizabeth was also Queen of Ireland, which was largely Catholic, and a number of courtiers received large grants of land there. There were a series of rebellions, to which the English responded with a scorched earth policy. The most serious rebellion, under Hugh O'Neill, Earl of Tyrone, lasted from 1594 to a few days after Elizabeth's death in 1603. In 1599 Elizabeth sent the Earl of Essex to defeat the rebels, but he returned to England without achieving this, and against Elizabeth's orders.

During Elizabeth's reign the first English colony in North America - named after the Virgin Queen - was established in Virginia by Walter Raleigh.

Last Years

The last years of Elizabeth's reign were not easy. There were economic problems, crops failed, and outbreaks of plague occurred. The laws against Catholics were applied with more rigour, and the government relied heavily on the use of spies. In 1598 William Cecil, Lord Burghley died: he had been a faithful counsellor of Elizabeth from the start of her reign. His son Robert Cecil took his place as one of her chief ministers.

Elizabeth also had difficulties with her favourite the Earl of Essex. After his return against her wishes from Ireland, he was confined to his London residence, He and the Cecils were opponents, and he resented the Cecils' influence over her. In 1601 he made a failed attempt to raise the support of the London populace and remove the Cecils from power. He was subsequently executed, and Elizabeth was stricken with grief. In March 1603, saddened too by the death of other close friends, she fell ill, dying at Richmond Palace on the 24th. On 28 April she was buried in Westminster Abbey.

Robert Cecil had entered into correspondence with James VI of Scotland whose succession to the English throne he wanted to make as smooth as possible. A few days after Elizabeth's death Robert Cecil proclaimed James king of England.

The Arts

Elizabeth's reign saw a flowering of English music and literature. There were composers like William Byrd, Thomas Tallis and John Dowland. Edmund Spenser and others created a major corpus of poetry, which included the sonnets of William Shakespeare. English drama came to maturity: besides Shakespeare, plays by Christopher Marlowe, Ben Jonson and other major dramatists received their first performances.



  • Collinson, Patrick. "Elizabeth I (1533–1603)", Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, (2004); online edn, Jan 2008
  • Creighton, Mandell. Queen Elizabeth (1899) 307pp; old but solid complete text online
  • Doran, Susan. Queen Elizabeth I (2003), a standard scholarly biography
  • Hibbert, Christopher. The Virgin Queen: Elizabeth I, Genius of the Golden Age (1992) excerpt and text search
  • Hulse, Clark. Elizabeth I: Ruler and legend (2003) excerpt and text search
  • Johnson, Paul. Elizabeth I: A Study in Power and Intellect (1974), a standard scholarly biography
  • Loades, David. Elizabeth I. (2003). 410 pp.
  • Morrill John S. Elizabeth I, full-text article, Encylopedia Britannica Online, free.
  • Neale, John E. Queen Elizabeth I (1934), a standard scholarly biography
  • Smith, Lacey Baldwin. Elizabeth Tudor: Portrait of a Queen, (1975), a standard scholarly biography online edition
  • Watkins, Susan. The Public and Private Worlds of Elizabeth I. (1998). 208 pp.
  • Williams, Neville. The Life and Times of Elizabeth I (1972), a standard scholarly biography

Scholarly studies

  • Bassnett, Susan. Elizabeth I: A Feminist Perspective, (1988) online edition
  • Black, J. B. The Reign of Elizabeth 1558-1603 (1936)
  • Cheyney, Edward Potts. A History of England, from the Defeat of the Armada to the Death of Elizabeth (2 vol 1914) complete text vol 1
  • Doran, Susan. Elizabeth I and Foreign Policy (2000) excerpt and text search
  • Doran, Susan. Elizabeth I and Religion: 1558-1603 (1993) excerpt and text search
  • Haigh, Christopher, ed. The Reign of Elizabeth I (1984)
  • Levin, Carole. The Reign of Elizabeth I. (2001). 146 pp.
  • Levin, Carole. The Heart and Stomach of a King: Elizabeth I and the Politics of Sex and Power (1994) online edition
  • Lingard, John. The History of England, vol 6 (1850), old but reliable online edition
  • MacCaffrey, Wallace. The Shaping of the Elizabethan Regime (1969)
  • MacCaffrey, Wallace. Queen Elizabeth and the Making of Policy, 1572-1588 (1981)
  • MacCaffrey, Wallace. Elizabeth I: War and Politics, 1588-1603 (1992), excerpts and text search
  • McLaren, A. N. Political culture in the reign of Elizabeth I: queen and commonwealth, 1558–1585 (1999) online edition
  • Rowse, A. L. The Elizabethan Renaissance: The Cultural Achievement (1972), portrays England as enjoying a golden age of individual opportunity and achievement

Historiography and memory

  • Chapman, J. "Elizabeth in film", Bulletin of the Society for Renaissance Studies, 17 (1999)
  • Collinson, Patrick. "Elizabeth I and the Verdicts of History." Historical Research 2003 76(194): 469-491. Issn: 0950-3471 Fulltext: Ebsco
  • Dobson, Michael and Watson, Nicola J. England's Elizabeth: An Afterlife in Fame and Fantasy. (2002). 348 pp.
  • Doran, Susan and Freeman, Thomas S., eds. The Myth of Elizabeth.' (2003). 280 pp. excerpt and text search
  • Greaves, Richard L., ed. Elizabeth I, Queen of England (1974), excerpts from historians
  • Montrose, Louis. The Subject of Elizabeth: Authority, Gender, and Representation. (2006). 341 pp.
  • Watkins, John. Representing Elizabeth in Stuart England: Literature, History, Sovereignty. (2002). 264 pp.

Primary Sources

  • Chamberlin, Frederick, The Sayings of Queen Elizabeth, Dodd, Mead; New York (1923)
  • Marcus, Leah S., Janel Mueller, and Mary Beth Rose, eds. Elizabeth I: Collected Works. (2000)
  • Queen Elizabeth I: Selected Works (Folger Shakespeare Library) ed. by Steven W. May (2005) excerpt and text search

See also

Online resources


  1. In accordance with the usual practice, she was known only as Queen Elizabeth until the accession of Elizabeth II in 1952.