Queen Elizabeth I

Queen Elizabeth I

Elizabeth, the daughter of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn was born in 1533. While Henry was furious about having another daughter, the supporters of his first wife, Catherine of Aragon were delighted and claimed that it proved God was punishing Henry for his illegal marriage to Anne.

In January 1536 Anne Boleyn had a son. Unfortunately the child was born dead. Later that year Henry accused Anne of committing adultery with five different men. Anne and the men were all executed. Ten days later Henry married Jane Seymour.

Unlike her sister Mary, Elizabeth was brought up in the Protestant faith. In 1549, during the reign of Edward VI, she rejected the advances of Thomas Seymour, Lord High Admiral of England.

On Edward's death she sided with her half-sister, Mary, against Lady Jane Grey. However, her Protestantism aroused suspicions in her Catholic sister and she was imprisoned in the Tower of London.

In 1558 Mary died and Elizabeth became queen of England. Pope Paul IV was unhappy that a Protestant monarch was once again in power. However, he suggested that if Elizabeth begged for his permission to be queen he would consider the matter. When she refused, the Pope excommunicated Elizabeth and ordered her subjects not to obey her.

Elizabeth, with the help of her chief minister, William Cecil, set about making England a Protestant nation. Catholic bishops appointed by Mary Tudor were replaced by Protestant bishops, and in 1559 Parliament passed the Act of Uniformity. Now everybody in England had to attend Protestant church services.

The Catholic kings of France and Spain were opposed to Elizabeth becoming queen of England. King Henry II of France claimed that the true heir to the throne was Mary Stuart, the queen of Scotland and the wife of his son, Francis.

After the death of her husband in 1560, Mary left France and went to Scotland to claim her throne. People in Scotland who were Protestants were unhappy with having a Catholic queen. However, with the support of France, Mary was able to hold on to power.

Elizabeth believed that Mary posed a threat to her throne. To counter this she suggested that her friend, Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, should marry Mary. Attempts were made to arrange this but in 1565 Mary married Henry Darnley, the son of Lady Margaret Douglas, the granddaughter of Henry VII. The marriage therefore strengthened her descendants' claim to the English throne.

In 1566 Mary Stuart gave birth to a son named James. The marriage was not a happy one and when Darnley was mysteriously killed while recovering from smallpox at Glasgow in January 1567, when the house in which he was in was blown up by gunpowder.

Suspicion fell on Mary and her close friend, the Earl of Bothwell. When Mary married Bothwell two months later, the Protestant lords rebelled against their queen. After her army was defeated at Langside in 1567, Mary fled to England. Mary asked Elizabeth for protection from her enemies in Scotland. However, Elizabeth was highly suspicious of the woman who in the past had claimed she was the rightful queen of England. Elizabeth feared that the arrival of Mary might encourage the Catholics in England to rebel against her rule.

Elizabeth therefore decided to imprison Mary. During the next nineteen years while Mary was in prison, Elizabeth's officials discovered several Catholic plots that attempted to make Mary queen of England.

Soon after Elizabeth became queen of England, Protestants gained full control of Parliament. It now became very important to Parliament that Elizabeth should marry and produce a Protestant heir to the throne. Elizabeth had many favourites in her own court. At various times rumours circulated that Elizabeth would marry men such as Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, Sir Charles Hatton, and Thomas Howard, Duke of Norfolk.

In October 1562 Elizabeth caught smallpox. For a while, doctors thought that Elizabeth would die. This illness made Parliament realise how dangerous the situation was. Therefore, after she recovered, they asked her once again to consider marriage. Elizabeth replied that she would think about it but she refused to make a decision.

In 1566 members of Parliament tried to force Elizabeth into action by discussing the subject in the House of Lords and the House of Commons. Elizabeth was furious with Parliament for doing this. She ordered thirty members from each House to attend a meeting at Whitehall Palace. Elizabeth read out a long speech where she pointed out that whether she got married or not was something that she would decide. She added that for Parliament to decide this question was like "the feet directing the head".

The members of Parliament at the meeting agreed not to mention the issue again. However, some members were unwilling to remain quiet on the subject. One politician, Peter Wentworth, claimed that members of Parliament had the right to discuss any subject they wanted. Elizabeth responded by ordering him to be sent to the Tower of London.

In 1579 Elizabeth began having talks about the possibility of marrying the Duke of Anjou from France. John Stubbs wrote a pamphlet criticizing the proposed marriage. Stubbs objected to the fact that the Duke of Anjou was a Catholic. He also argued that, at forty-six, Elizabeth was too old to have children and so had no need to get married.

Elizabeth held fewer Parliaments than her father. On average, she held a Parliament once every four years. Elizabeth made it clear that members of the House of Commons had complete freedom of speech. However, she believed that certain issues such as religion or foreign policy were best left to her and her Privy Council.

On thirty-six occasions Elizabeth vetoed laws passed by Parliament. For example, in 1585 Parliament passed a bill that banned hunting, cock-fighting and bear-baiting from taking place on Sunday. Elizabeth believed that people had the right to enjoy themselves on their one day of rest and refused to allow the bill to become law.

In 1586, the English government uncovered the Babington Plot. The plan involved the murder of Elizabeth and an invasion of England by Spanish troops. A letter was found that suggested Mary was involved in the plot. Mary was tried, found guilty and sentenced to death. For some time Elizabeth was unwilling to sign Mary's death warrant. Although reluctant to do so, Elizabeth's ministers eventually persuaded her to agree to Mary's execution.

After the death of his wife, Mary Tudor, King Philip II of Spain asked Queen Elizabeth to be his bride. Philip was upset when Elizabeth refused. He also became angry when Elizabeth did nothing to stop English sea captains from robbing his ships bringing gold back from his newly acquired territories in South America.

Elizabeth and Philip were also in conflict over religion. Elizabeth disagreed with the way Philip persecuted Protestants who lived under his control. Philip objected to the way Elizabeth had forced English Catholics to attend Protestant church services.

When Philip began persecuting Protestants living in the Netherlands, Elizabeth sent English soldiers to help protect them. In February 1587 Elizabeth agreed to the execution of Mary Stuart. Philip had hoped that Mary would eventually become the Catholic queen of England. Philip now decided to conquer England and bring an end to Elizabeth and her Protestant government.

The invasion took a lot of preparation and it was not until July 1588 that the 131 ships in the Spanish Armada left for England. The large Spanish galleons were filled with 17,000 well-armed soldiers and 180 Catholic priests. The plan was to sail to Dunkirk in France where the Armada would pick up another 16,000 Spanish soldiers.

On 6 August the Armada anchored at Calais Harbour. The English now filled eight old ships with materials that would burn fiercely. At midnight, the fire-ships were lighted and left to sail by themselves towards the Spanish ships in Calais Harbour. The plan worked and the Spanish ships fled to the open sea.

With their formation broken, the Spanish ships were easy targets for the English ships loaded with guns that could fire very large cannon balls. The Spanish captains tried to get their ships in close so that their soldiers could board the English ships. However, the English ships were quicker than the Spanish galleons and were able to keep their distance.

The English bombardment sank many Spanish galleons. Those that survived headed north. The English ships did not follow as they had run out of gunpowder. After the Armada rounded Scotland it headed south for home. However, a strong gale drove many of the ships onto the Irish rocks. Thousands of Spaniards drowned and even those that reached land were often killed by English soldiers and settlers. Of the 25,000 men that had set out in the Armada, less than 10,000 arrived home safely.

Philip II spent the next ten years supporting a series of plots to overthrow Elizabeth. All these schemes ended in failure and when Philip II died in 1598, Elizabeth was still queen of England.

When Elizabeth died in March, 1603, the Tudor dynasty came to an end and the throne was passed to James VI of Scotland.

Primary Sources

(1) Letter from Philip II to Count Feria, the Spanish ambassador in England (12 February, 1559)

Tell her (Elizabeth) from me that... I must warn her to consider deeply the evils which may result in England from a change in religion... if this change is made all idea of my marriage with her must be broken off.

(2) Letter from Count Feria to Philip II (19 March, 1559)

Queen Elizabeth... said that so much money was taken out of the country for the Pope every year that she must put an end to it... she kept repeating to me that she was a heretic and consequently could not marry your Majesty.

(3) Sir William Cecil, letter to Queen Elizabeth (16 October, 1569)

The Queen of the Scots is and shall always be a dangerous person to your estate. Yet there are degrees of danger. If she is kept a prisoner... it will be less, if at liberty, greater.

(4) Pope Gregory XIII, letter to his ambassador in Spain (1580)

Since that guilty woman (Elizabeth) ... is the cause of so much injury to the Catholic faith... there is no doubt that whosoever sends her out of the world... not only does not sin but gains merit... And so, if those English gentlemen decide actually to undertake so glorious a work, your Lordship can assure them that they do not commit any sin.

(5) John Hayward, The Reign of Elizabeth (1612)

None knew better (than Elizabeth) the art... of commanding men.

(6) Roger Ascham, Elizabeth's tutor (c. 1550)

No one's mind is quicker than hers, no memory more retentive... French and Italian she speaks like English; Latin with fluency.

(7) In 1570 Pope Pius V issued a statement about Queen Elizabeth.

Elizabeth, Queen of England... is the servant of wickedness... This woman, having seized the kingdom of England and... has reduced it into a miserable and ruinous condition.

(8) Giovanni Michiel, Venetian ambassador, report (May 1557)

She is tall with a good skin... she has fine eyes and above all, beautiful hands... Her intellect and understanding are wonderful.

(9) William Camden, The History of Queen Elizabeth (1617)

Stubbs and Page had their right hands cut off with a cleaver, driven through the wrist by the force of a mallet, upon a scaffold in the market-place at Westminster... I remember that Stubbs, after his right hand was cut off, took off his hat with his left, and said with a loud voice, "God Save the Queen"; the crowd standing about was deeply silent: either out of horror at this new punishment; or else out of sadness.

(10) Sir James Melville, Scottish Ambassador to England in conversation with Elizabeth (1564)

You will never marry... the Queen of England is too proud to suffer a commander... you think if you were married, you would only be Queen of England, and now you are king and queen both.

(11) Count Feria, report to Philip II of Spain (1559)

I understand that she (Elizabeth) can not have children.

(12) In March 1579, William Cecil, Queen Elizabeth's chief minister, reported to other members of the Privy Council.

By judgement of physicians acquainted with her Majesty's body... she can have children. The investigation... proves that her Majesty to be very apt for the procreation of children.

(13) H. Arnold-Forster, A History of England (1898)

Who was the queen's husband to be, and what power was he to have over the government of the country? ... If he were a foreigner there was no knowing what power he might get over the queen, power which he would very likely use for the good of a foreign country, and not for the good of England. On the other hand, if he were an Englishman, he must be chosen from among the queen's subjects, and then it was certain that there would be jealousy and strife among all the great nobles in the country when they saw one of their number picked out and made king over them.

(14) Queen Elizabeth, comments to Lord Maitland in April 1561.

As long as I live, I shall be Queen of England. When I am dead they shall succeed me who have the most right... I know the English people, how they always dislike the present government and have their eyes fixed upon that person who is next to succeed.

(15) Paul Hentzner, a German visitor, met Elizabeth in 1598.

Her face was oblong, fair but wrinkled; her eyes small, yet black and pleasant; her nose a little hooked, her lips narrow... her hair... an auburn colour, but false.

(16) In 1595 the French Ambassador sent a report on Elizabeth to the French king.

On her head she wore a great reddish-coloured wig... As for her face, it is very aged. Her teeth are very yellow and irregular... Many of them are missing, so that one cannot understand her easily when she speaks.