Born September 7, 1533, Elizabeth I was the only child of Henry VIII of England and his second wife, Anne Boleyn. Anne's pregnancy had added urgency to Henry VIII's break with the Catholic Church, and his disappointment at the birth of a second daughter was intense. Elizabeth's early life was traumatic and unpredictable, as Anne Boleyn was beheaded for adultery and Henry VIII married four more times. He disinherited Elizabeth as a bastard, then, in 1544, restored both his daughters to the succession after their brother Edward VI.
Elizabeth, who had been educated by the best Renaissance scholars and raised as a Protestant, lived precariously under both of her siblings. She was a political marriage prize for Thomas Seymour, but he was executed by his brother for treason. She became a rallying point for Protestants during the reign of Mary I, and Sir Thomas Wyatt's using her as a figurehead for his rebellion against Mary nearly cost Elizabeth her life for treason as well.
On November 17, 1558, she inherited the throne and a country torn by religious and financial troubles. Few other monarchs wanted to recognize Elizabeth I as the legitimate heir, and only the support of her former brother-in-law, Philip II of Spain, prevented French pressure from replacing her with Mary Stuart of Scotland. Using herself as a diplomatic object, Elizabeth I entertained marriage proposals from the rulers of Europe, balancing England carefully between France and the Hapsburgs of Spain and Austria.
She also attempted to steer a middle course in religion, keeping sumptuous forms of worship in the Church of England while admitting Calvinist teachings in the Thirty-nine Articles. One of her great strengths was using the talents of skilled advisors such as Sir William Cecil and Sir Francis Walsingham, who created the British intelligence service. She also creatively financed her court based on medieval and royal prerogatives.
Queen Elizabeth I established Great Britain as a major European power, with an unparalleled navy and vast trade network. In North America, she supported voyages of exploration and settlement. (Private Collection/Bridgeman Art Library) With France and Spain unwilling to confront England directly, Elizabeth I encouraged privately financed voyages of exploration and discovery, investing in the sailings of Drake and Raleigh under the pseudonym Bess Tudor.
Elizabeth I's astrologer, alchemist, and occultist, Dr. John Dee, constructed an elaborate justification for English claims on the New World, based on King Arthur, adventures of semimythological Welsh princes, and the real voyage of John Cabot. Although the explorations of Sir William Gilbert failed to establish a colony in Newfoundland, and Sir Walter Raleigh's first attempt at colonizing the land he claimed for the queen at Roanoke failed, enthusiasm ran high for exploration.
Men like Martin Frobisher braved the far northern reaches of the Atlantic in search of an Arctic passage to Asia. Private companies, such as those founded to trade with Muscovy and the Levant, made fortunes for English businessmen and encouraged interest. More practically, the armed merchantmen served as a privately financed navy for England, operating under letters of marque against Spain and France as privateers.
Despite the image of Elizabeth I as a glorious and successful Protestant champion, her reign began to encounter serious problems. In 1570, the pope excommunicated the queen, inspiring a wave of assassination plots. Foreign affairs, including the Dutch revolt, the seizure of power by Presbyterians in Scotland, and religious wars in France, necessitated an expensive and long-term English campaign for the Crown to reassert its power in the British Isles and overseas.
Threats to the throne endangered Elizabeth I's tolerant religious policy, as she was besieged by radical Protestant demands for state security. One of the most consuming commitments of Elizabeth I's reign was the shiring of northern Ireland by English settlers, who set in motion the Anglicization of Ireland as a colony and began centuries of conflict between the Church of England colonists and earlier Roman Catholic landowners, beginning in the 1580s with a savage guerilla war. After Mary Stuart of Scotland was executed in 1586 for participating in an assassination plot, England was open to an invasion from Spain.
Philip II, no longer constrained by Mary's claim to the throne, launched the Spanish Armada against Elizabeth I.England, with almost no standing army, prepared for invasion, and prevailed because of a combination of luck in the form of a devastating storm, which scattered the armada, and the skill of the queen's privateer captains, who defeated the remaining vessels. The last years of Elizabeth I's reign saw a codification of national legend, with England as the rightful ruler of the Atlantic, and Elizabeth I as Gloriana, all encouraged by artists and writers such as Sir Philip Sidney and William Shakespeare.
As the queen aged with no heir and the economy slumped at the turn of the century, ambitious courtiers plotted for the succession. Elizabeth I died at Richmond Palace on March 23, 1603, having launched England as a confident, Protestant, seafaring nation. She was succeeded by Mary Stuart's son, the Protestant James VI of Scotland, who was crowned James I of England.
Margaret Sankey See also: Armada, Spanish; Politics and Government (Chronology); Politics and Government (Essay). Bibliography Brimacombe, Peter. All the Queen's Men: The World of Elizabeth I.
New York: St. Martin's, 2000. Hartley, T.
E.Elizabeth's Parliaments. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 1992.
Jenkins, Elizabeth. Elizabeth the Great. New York: Coward-McCann, 1958.
Loades, David. Elizabeth I.London: Hambledon and London, 2003.
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