Elizabeth I (September 7, 1533 – March 24, 1603) was Queen of England and Ireland from November 17, 1558 until her death in 1603. Sometimes called the Virgin Queen, Gloriana or Good Queen Bess, Elizabeth was the last of the five monarchs of the House of Tudor.
Elizabeth was the daughter of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, his second wife, who was executed when Elizabeth was 2 1/2 years old. Anne’s marriage to Henry VIII was annulled, and Elizabeth was declared illegitimate. Her half-brother Edward VI ruled until his death in 1553, bequeathing the crown to Lady Jane Grey and ignoring the claims of his two half-sisters, the Roman Catholic Mary and the younger Elizabeth, in spite of statute law to the contrary.
Edward’s will was set aside which did not have the consent of Parliament. Mary became queen, thwarting the attempted usurping of the crown by John Dudley, 1st Duke of Northumberland KG (1504 – 1553) who unsuccessfully tried to install Lady Jane Grey on the throne.
During Mary’s reign, Elizabeth was imprisoned for nearly a year on suspicion of supporting Protestant rebels.
Upon her half-sister’s death in 1558, Elizabeth succeeded to the throne and set out to rule by good counsel. She depended heavily on a group of trusted advisers, led by William Cecil, 1st Baron Burghley. One of her first actions as queen was the establishment of an English Protestant church, of which she became the supreme governor. This Elizabethan Religious Settlement was to evolve into the Church of England.
It was expected that Elizabeth would marry and produce an heir; however, despite numerous courtships, she never did. She was eventually succeeded by her first-cousin twice-removed, King James VI of Scotland, laying the foundation for the future Kingdom of Great Britain. She had earlier been responsible for the imprisonment and execution of James’s mother, Queen Mary I of Scotland.
In government, Elizabeth was more moderate than her father and half-siblings had been. One of her mottoes was “video et taceo” (“I see and keep silent”). In religion, she was relatively tolerant and avoided systematic persecution. After Pope Pius V declared her excommunicated in 1570 and released her subjects from obedience to her, several conspiracies threatened her life, all of which were defeated with the help of her ministers’ secret service.
Elizabeth was cautious in foreign affairs, manoeuvring between the major powers of France and Spain. She only half-heartedly supported a number of ineffective, poorly resourced military campaigns in the Netherlands, France, and Ireland. By the mid-1580s, England could no longer avoid war with Spain.
As she grew older, Elizabeth became celebrated for her virginity. A cult of personality grew around her which was celebrated in the portraits, pageants, and literature of the day. Elizabeth’s reign became known as the Elizabethan era.
The period is famous for the flourishing of English drama, led by playwrights such as William Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe, and for the seafaring prowess of English adventurers such as Francis Drake. Some historians depict Elizabeth as a short-tempered, sometimes indecisive ruler, who enjoyed more than her share of luck.
Towards the end of her reign, a series of economic and military problems weakened her popularity. Elizabeth is acknowledged as a charismatic performer and a dogged survivor in an era when government was ramshackle and limited, and when monarchs in neighbouring countries faced internal problems that jeopardised their thrones. After the short reigns of her half-siblings, her 44 years on the throne provided welcome stability for the kingdom and helped forge a sense of national identity.