Elizabeth I (1533-1603) was queen of England and Ireland from 1558 to 1603. She preserved stability in a nation rent by political and religious dissension and maintained the authority of the Crown against the growing pressures of Parliament.
Born at Greenwich, on Sept. 7, 1533, Elizabeth I was the daughter of Henry VIII and his second wife, Anne Boleyn. Because of her father's continuing search for a male heir, Elizabeth's early life was precarious. In May 1536 her mother was beheaded to clear the way for Henry's third marriage, and on July 1 Parliament declared that Elizabeth and her older sister, Mary, the daughter of Henry's first queen, were illegitimate and that the succession should pass to the issue of his third wife, Jane Seymour. Jane did produce a male heir, Edward, but even though Elizabeth had been declared illegitimate, she was brought up in the royal household. She received an excellent education and was reputed to be remarkably precocious, notably in languages (of which she learned Latin, French, and Italian) and music.
During the short reign of her brother, Edward VI, Elizabeth survived precariously, especially in 1549 when the principal persons in her household were arrested and she was to all practical purposes a prisoner at Hatfield. In this period she experienced ill health but pursued her studies under her tutor, Roger Ascham.
In 1553, following the death of Edward VI, her sister Mary I came to the throne with the intention of leading the country back to Catholicism. The young Elizabeth found herself involved in the complicated intrigue that accompanied these changes. Without her knowledge the Protestant Sir Thomas Wyatt plotted to put her on the throne by overthrowing Mary. The rebellion failed, and though Elizabeth maintained her innocence, she was sent to the Tower. After 2 months she was released against the wishes of Mary's advisers and was removed to an old royal palace at Woodstock. In 1555 she was brought to Hampton Court, still in custody, but on October 18 was allowed to take up residence at Hatfield, where she resumed her studies with Ascham.
On Nov. 17, 1558, Mary died, and Elizabeth succeeded to the throne. Elizabeth's reign was to be looked back on as a golden age, when England began to assert itself internationally through the mastery of sea power. The condition of the country seemed far different, however, when she came to the throne. A contemporary noted: "The Queen poor. The realm exhausted. The nobility poor and decayed. Want of good captains and soldiers. The people out of order. Justice not executed." Both internationally and internally, the condition of the country was far from stable.
At the age of 25 Elizabeth was a rather tall and well-poised woman; what she lacked in feminine warmth, she made up for in the worldly wisdom she had gained from a difficult and unhappy youth. It is significant that one of her first actions as queen was to appoint Sir William Cecil (later Lord Burghley) as her chief secretary. Cecil was to remain her closest adviser; like Elizabeth, he was a political pragmatist, cautious and essentially conservative. They both appreciated England's limited position in the face of France and Spain, and both knew that the key to England's success lay in balancing the two great Continental powers off against each other, so that neither could bring its full force to bear against England.
Since Elizabeth was unmarried, the question of the succession and the actions of other claimants to the throne bulked large. She toyed with a large number of suitors, including Philip II of Spain; Eric of Sweden; Adolphus, Duke of Holstein; and the Archduke Charles. From her first Parliament she received a petition concerning her marriage. Her answer was, in effect, her final one: "this shall be for me sufficient, that a marble stone shall declare that a Queen, having reigned such a time died a virgin." But it would be many years before the search for a suitable husband ended, and the Parliament reconciled itself to the fact that the Queen would not marry.
Elizabeth maintained what many thought were dangerously close relations with her favorite, Robert Dudley, whom she raised to the earldom of Leicester. She abandoned this flirtation when scandal arising from the mysterious death of Dudley's wife in 1560 made the connection politically disadvantageous. In the late 1570s and early 1580s she was courted in turn by the French Duke of Anjou and the Duke of Alençon. But by the mid-1580s it was clear she would not marry.
Many have praised Elizabeth for her skillful handling of the courtships. To be sure, her hand was perhaps her greatest diplomatic weapon, and any one of the proposed marriages, if carried out, would have had strong repercussions on English foreign relations. By refusing to marry, Elizabeth could further her general policy of balancing the Continental powers. Against this must be set the realization that it was a very dangerous policy. Had Elizabeth succumbed to illness, as she nearly did early in her reign, or had any one of the many assassination plots against her succeeded, the country would have been plunged into the chaos of a disputed succession. That the accession of James I on her death was peaceful was due as much to the luck of her survival as it was to the wisdom of her policy.
England had experienced both a sharp swing to Protestantism under Edward VI and a Catholic reaction under Mary. The question of the nature of the Church needed to be settled immediately, and it was hammered out in Elizabeth's first Parliament in 1559. A retention of Catholicism was not politically feasible, as the events of Mary's reign showed, but the settlement achieved in 1559 represented something more of a Puritan victory than the Queen desired. The settlement enshrined in the Acts of Supremacy and Conformity may in the long run have worked out as a compromise, but in 1559 it indicated to Elizabeth that her control of Parliament was not complete.
Though the settlement achieved in 1559 remained essentially unchanged throughout Elizabeth's reign, the conflict over religion was not stilled. The Church of England, of which Elizabeth stood as supreme governor, was attacked by both Catholics and Puritans. Estimates of Catholic strength in Elizabethan England are difficult to make, but it is clear that a number of Englishmen remained at least residual Catholics. Because of the danger of a Catholic rising against the Crown on behalf of the rival claimant, Mary, Queen of Scots, who was in custody in England from 1568 until her execution in 1587, Parliament pressed the Queen repeatedly for harsher legislation to control the recusants. It is apparent that the Queen resisted, on the whole successfully, these pressures for political repression of the English Catholics. While the legislation against the Catholics did become progressively sterner, the Queen was able to mitigate the severity of its enforcement and retain the patriotic loyalty of many Englishmen who were Catholic in sympathy.
For their part the Puritans waged a long battle in the Church, in Parliament, and in the country at large to make the religious settlement more radical. Under the influence of leaders like Thomas Cartwright and John Field, and supported in Parliament by the brothers Paul and Peter Wentworth, the Puritans subjected the Elizabethan religious settlement to great stress.
The Queen found that she could control Parliament through the agency of her privy councilors and the force of her own personality. It was, however, some time before she could control the Church and the countryside as effectively. It was only with the promotion of John Whitgift to the archbishopric of Canterbury that she found her most effective clerical weapon against the Puritans. With apparent royal support but some criticism from Burghley, Whitgift was able to use the machinery of the Church courts to curb the Puritans. By the 1590s the Puritan movement was in some considerable disarray. Many of its prominent patrons were dead, and by the publication of the bitterly satirical Marprelate Tracts, some Puritan leaders brought the movement into general disfavor.
At Elizabeth's accession England was not strong enough, either in men or money, to oppose vigorously either of the Continental powers, France or Spain. England was, however, at war with France. Elizabeth quickly brought this conflict to a close on more favorable terms than might have been expected.
Throughout the early years of the reign, France appeared to be the chief foreign threat to England because of the French connections of Mary, Queen of Scots. By the Treaty of Edinburgh in 1560, Elizabeth was able to close off a good part of the French threat as posed through Scotland.
The internal religious disorders of France also aided the English cause. Equally crucial was the fact that Philip II of Spain was not anxious to further the Catholic cause in England so long as its chief beneficiary would be Mary, Queen of Scots, and through her, his own French rivals.
In the 1580s Spain emerged as the chief threat to England. The years from 1570 to 1585 were ones of neither war nor peace, but Elizabeth found herself under increasing pressure from Protestant activists to take a firmer line against Catholic Spain. Increasingly she connived in privateering voyages against Spanish shipping; her decision in 1585 to intervene on behalf of the Netherlands in its revolt against Spain by sending an expeditionary force under the Earl of Leicester meant the temporary end of the Queen's policy of balance and peace.
The struggle against Spain culminated in the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588. The Queen showed a considerable ability to rally the people around herself. At Tilbury, where the English army massed in preparation for the threatened invasion, the Queen herself appeared to deliver one of her most stirring speeches: "I am come amongst you … resolved in the midst and heat of battle, to live and die amongst you all…. I know I have the body but of a weak and feeble woman, but I have the heart and stomach of a king and of a King of England too."
That the Armada was dispersed owed as much to luck and Spanish incapacity as it did to English skill. In some ways it marked the high point of Elizabeth's reign, for the years which followed have properly been called "the darker years." The Spanish threat did not immediately subside, and English counteroffensives proved ineffectual because of poor leadership and insufficient funds. Under the strain of war expenditure, the country suffered in the 1590s prolonged economic crisis. Moreover, the atmosphere of the court seemed to decline in the closing stages of the reign; evident corruption and sordid struggling for patronage became more common.
The latter years of Elizabeth's reign were marked by increasing difficulties in Ireland. The English had never effectively controlled Ireland, and under Elizabeth the situation became acute. Given Ireland's position on England's flank and its potential use by the Spanish, it seemed essential for England to control the island. It was no easy task; four major rebellions (the rebellion of Shane O'Neill, 1559-1566; the Fitzmaurice confederacy, 1569-1572; the Desmond rebellion, 1579-1583; and Tyrone's rebellion, 1594-1603) tell the story of Ireland in this period. Fortunately, the Spaniards were slow to take advantage of Tyrone's rebellion. The 2d Earl of Essex was incapable of coping with this revolt and returned to England to lead a futile rebellion against the Queen (1601). But Lord Mountjoy, one of the few great Elizabethan land commanders, was able to break the back of the rising and bring peace in the same month in which the Queen died (March, 1603).
The latter years of Elizabeth also saw tensions emerge in domestic politics. The long-term dominance of the house of Cecil, perpetuated after Burghley's death by his son, Sir Robert Cecil, was strongly contested by others, like the Earl of Essex, who sought the Queen's patronage. The Parliament of 1601 saw Elizabeth involved in a considerable fight over the granting of monopolies. Elizabeth was able to head off the conflict by promising that she herself would institute reforms. Her famous "Golden Speech" delivered to this, her last Parliament, indicated that even in old age she had the power to win her people to her side: "Though God hath raised me high, yet this I count the glory of my crown, that I have reigned with your loves…. It is my desire to live nor reign no longer than my life and reign shall be for your good. And though you have had, and may have, many princes more mighty and wise sitting in this seat, yet you never had, nor shall have, any that will be more careful and loving."
The words concealed the reality of the end of Elizabeth's reign. It is apparent, on retrospect, that severe tensions existed. The finances of the Crown, exhausted by war since the 1580s, were in sorry condition; the economic plight of the country was not much better. The Parliament was already sensing its power to contest issues with the monarchy, though they now held back, perhaps out of respect for their elderly queen. Religious tensions were hidden rather than removed. For all the greatness of her reign, the reign that witnessed the naval feats of Sir Francis Drake and Sir John Hawkins and the literary accomplishments of Sir Philip Sidney, Edmund Spenser, William Shakespeare, and Christopher Marlowe, it was a shaky inheritance that Elizabeth would pass on to her successor, the son of her rival claimant, Mary, Queen of Scots. On March 24, 1603, the Queen died; as one contemporary noted, she "departed this life, mildly like a lamb, easily like a ripe apple from the tree."
The standard biography of Elizabeth is J. E. Neale, Queen Elizabeth (1934), which is sometimes eulogistic. Neville Williams, Elizabeth, Queen of England (1967), although interesting, is not likely to replace Neale. Elizabeth Jenkins, Elizabeth the Great (1958), has been highly praised but contains little new information. B. W. Beckinsale, Elizabeth I (1963), is a useful study that indicates a cautious break from the traditional Neale view. Hilaire Belloc's well-known Elizabeth: Creature of Circumstance (1942) is a biased study written from the Catholic viewpoint.
Frederick Chamberlin, The Private Character of Queen Elizabeth (1922), is useful in some respects, such as the queen's medical history, but should be used with caution. More useful on Elizabeth's medical history is Arthur S. MacNalty, Elizabeth Tudor: The Lonely Queen (1954). Mandell Creighton, Queen Elizabeth (1899; repr. 1966), though dated, repays careful study for its assessment of the Queen. Joel Hurstfield, Elizabeth I and the Unity of England (1960), is a highly compressed, valuable study stressing Elizabeth's concern to achieve unity in England. Joseph M. Levine, ed., Elizabeth I (1969), is an able compilation of writings on Elizabeth by her contemporaries; Levine contributes an introduction, a chronology of the life of Elizabeth I, and a bibliographical note.
Important studies of aspects of Elizabeth's reign include J. E. Neale, Elizabeth I and Her Parliaments, 1559-1581 (1952) and Elizabeth I and Her Parliaments, 1584-1601 (1957), the best works on parliamentary politics and the role of the Queen in government; Conyers Read, Mr. Secretary Cecil and Queen Elizabeth (1955) and Lord Burghley and Queen Elizabeth (1960), which is useful on diplomacy as well as the partnership with Burghley; Mortimer Levine, The Early Elizabethan Succession Question, 1558-1568 (1966); and Wallace MacCaffrey, The Shaping of the Elizabethan Regime (1968), a major new study of the early years of the reign.
Elizabeth figures prominently in many of the surviving documents of the period and in nearly all secondary accounts. Two useful bibliographies are Conyers Read, ed., Bibliography of British History: Tudor Period, 1485-1603 (2d ed. 1959), and Mortimer Levine, Tudor England, 1485-1603 (1968).
Recommended for general historical background are J. B. Black, The Reign of Elizabeth, 1558-1603 (1936; 2d ed. 1959); S. T. Bindoff, Tudor England (1951); A. L. Rowse, The England of Elizabeth: The Structure of Society (1951) and The Expansion of Elizabethan England (1955); James A. Williamson, The Tudor Age (1953); and G. R. Elton, England under the Tudors (1955; repr. with a new bibliography, 1962).