The Tudors: Elizabeth I (1558-1603)

Popularly she was known as “The Virgin Queen” and “Good Queen Bess.” Edmund Spenser honored her as “Gloriana” in his 1590 masterpiece, The Faerie Queene. Will Durant called her “The Great Queen” in his monumental The Story of Civilization. In the eyes of history, Elizabeth represents the apex as well as the conclusion of the Tudor dynasty. She became a celebrated god-like figure as well as the embodiment of an emerging empire. Indeed, the entire epoch was named in her honor -the Elizabethan Age- a fabled golden age of England.

Latter day historians have looked back with deceptive nostalgia on the Elizabethan era for its extraordinary cultural heights -the flourishing of English literature in the works of William Shakespeare, Edmund Spenser, and Christopher Marlowe. It was also the age of exploration under Sir Francis Drake and Sir Walter Raleigh, and the burgeoning scientific Enlightenment under Francis Bacon, and most importantly, English cultural euphoria blossomed following the dramatic victory over the Spanish Armada in 1588. Yet the Elizabethan Age was also a time of great uncertainty. She reigned for 45 tumultuous years. The continuing brutality between Protestants and Catholics had spread all over Europe and it violently turned countries against themselves while also yielding extreme authoritarian sects, like the Puritans in England. And with the memory of the Wars of the Roses fresh in the minds of Englishmen, the security of the crown’s succession was a vitally important question as Elizabeth’s reign drew to a close. The “Virgin Queen” refused to marry and produce an heir despite the growing chorus of advice to do so, and she remained silent on the question of successorship. Would her life and death lead to a new English civil war?

Elizabeth’s Childhood
Elizabeth Tudor was the daughter of Anne Boleyn and Henry VIII. She was only three years old when her mother Anne Boleyn was executed amidst charges of treason and unfaithfulness.

Elizabeth was raised and tutored in the household of Henry’s sixth and final wife, Catherine Parr. Following the death of Henry VIII, Catherine Parr remarried for her fourth and final time to a baron named Thomas Seymour. Elizabeth spent her formative years in their household and at Hatfield House under the tutelage of her governess Katherine “Kat” Ashley. By all accounts Elizabeth was a studious pupil. She knew six languages, and translated some of the works of Cicero, Boethius, and Tacitus into English. She was an able musician, she loved hunting, and despite being schooled in the new Protestant doctrine, she privately remained skeptical unlike either her half-brother, Edward VI (a staunch Protestant) or her half-sister, Mary (an uncompromising Catholic). Elizabeth developed a moderate outward theological disposition, and by keeping the passionate religious dogmas of her day at a distance, she gradually molded her character into a pragmatic and capable leader.

At the age of 35 Catherine Parr conceived a surprise pregnancy. During this time, her husband Thomas Seymour took an unsolicited romantic interest in 14-year old Elizabeth. Apparently, he would occasionally enter her room in the mornings and evenings, sometimes scantily clad, and he would tickle her and touch her inappropriately. Occasionally, Catherine would participate. When things apparently went too far, Catherine sent Elizabeth away never to see her again. Catherine Parr died in childbirth a few months later, and after her death, Thomas Seymour tried to pursue a marriage proposal with Elizabeth but he was caught up in legal troubles. He was tried and executed for treason shortly thereafter. The details of the relationship between Elizabeth and Seymour are a bit hazy. When interrogated about Thomas Seymour, Elizabeth remained tight-lipped but the whole experience surely tempered her perspective on men for the rest of her life.

A portrait of teenage Elizabeth shortly before her father’s birthday

During the reign of her half-brother, Edward VI, Elizabeth kept a mostly low profile amidst the radical religious restructuring of the country. When Edward died, Elizabeth’s half-sister, Mary I, claimed the throne and swung the pendulum back toward Catholicism. Elizabeth, a nominal Protestant, was suspected by the Queen of taking part in Wyatt’s Rebellion against the crown. Elizabeth was imprisoned in the Tower of London and she would have almost certainly been executed if any evidence against her was found. Thankfully none ever was found. Elizabeth was allowed to live, much to the chagrin of Queen Mary who secretly despised her Protestant half-sister for the rest of her short life.

The Great Queen
Elizabeth Tudor became Queen of England upon the death of her pitiful half-sister, Mary. The jewels of the crown were sent to Elizabeth shortly before Mary’s death, a symbol from the dying Queen that Henry VIII’s plan for the succession was to be upheld. Upon the death of Mary, the church bells of England rang throughout the land while Elizabeth rode through the streets en route to Westminster. She was showered with adulations from the commoners as well as the nobles alike. Elizabeth was crowned Queen of England at the age of 25, the coronation ceremony was presided over by the sitting Catholic Archbishop at Westminster Abbey on November 17, 1558.

In her early reign, the burden of the crown lay heavy on Elizabeth. She had inherited the collapsing scenery of her sister’s regime: both religious and diplomatic challenges were left unsettled. In response, Elizabeth gathered around her some of the most able-minded Protestants of the day: Matthew Parker, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Nicholas Bacon, Lord Keeper of the Great Seal and father of Francis Bacon; Roger Ascham, a foremost classical scholar who was also one of Elizabeth’s childhood tutors. However above them all was Sir William Cecil, a strategic, detail-oriented son of a Tudor courtier. He had survived the courts of both Edward VI and Mary, and he became a trusted advisor to Elizabeth for the rest of his life. It was his habit to issue lengthy treatises on particular issues, weighing the arguments on both sides, before ultimately favoring a middle path. His moderate voice was characteristic of Elizabeth’s court, however like her father before her, Elizabeth’s court also embraced the finer things. She donned exuberant garb, like Henry VIII, and her attendant ladies were required to dress in more plain black clothes to highlight Elizabeth’s superiority by contrast (the Queen’s vanity was extraordinary). She was cautious and distrusting, yet she was also an imperious and headstrong young Queen. She was a complicated person: both parsimonious and prideful, cunning and vain, manipulative and sensitive. She rarely summoned Parliament because she did not suffer their criticism or delays in a tolerable manner.

Elizabeth’s coronation (c. 1600)

Elizabeth’s first crisis was the ongoing religious factionalism in the nation. She convened Parliament in January 1559 to address the growing concerns. Unlike her two predecessors, she pursued a policy of via media (“middle way”) regarding religious extremism. Sir William Cecil brilliantly maneuvered compromise between the divided Catholics and Protestants. Ultimately, the price of the Queen’s Supremacy over the Church and in Parliament was the compulsory acceptance of Cranmer’s Protestant Book of Common Prayer. The new Act of Supremacy became law in May 1559. Per David Starkey: “The result was a Church that was Protestant in doctrine, Catholic in appearance and which would, Elizabeth hoped, satisfy all but a handful of extremists on both sides” (315). Elizabeth later issued her famous 39 Articles in 1571, which attempted to blend Protestantism and Catholicism, and like her father before her, Elizabeth commissioned a new Bible be created (however, the question of English Biblical authority was to fall to Elizabeth’s predecessor King James I, who commissioned the massive undertaking of the King James Bible).

One of the more radical religious sects that arose out of this period was Puritanism. They were a strong breed of fervent Calvinists of the Genevan variety. Above all, they were skeptics of the Anglican doctrine. Around 1564 they became known as ‘Puritans’ as a pejorative because they wanted to purify England of any theology not found in the New Testament. They were proponents of a strict theocratic despotism. Of the Puritans Winston Churchill writes: “It is at this point that the party known as the Puritans who were to play so great a role in the next hundred years, first enter English history. Democratic in theory and organization, intolerant in practice of all who differed from their views, the Puritans challenged the Queen’s authority in Church and State, and although she sought for freedom of conscience and could maintain with sincerity that she ‘made no windows into men’s souls’, she dared not let them organise cells in the body religious or the body politic” (263).

Not only was England divided within, but also it faced threats from abroad. England was a political cripple bandied about between Spain and France, the Pope was betting Elizabeth would be willing mend the relationship with the Church to ease the infighting and threats from foreign Catholic powers in Europe. Everywhere men of England feared a return to the Wars of the Roses and it instilled a stark political and religious divide among opinions between those who believed the reforms had gone far enough, and those who pushed for ever greater reforms. The distinctions of the day were made clear: Cavalier and Puritan, Churchman and Dissenter, Tory and Whig. However, Elizabeth disappointed the Church by turning away from the rule of Rome -she reclaimed the ecclesiastical role of the sovereign like her father, Henry VIII. Elizabeth professed not to convict any man, but she also said there could not be two religions in the country. Thus, under the guise of national unity all churches in England were openly converted to Protestantism. All people were forced to swear that salvation came through faith alone (i.e. the Lutheran justification) rather than by good works, and the Calvinist interpretation of the Eucharist was enforced as a spiritual metaphor rather than the physical embodiment of Christ. Anglicanism officially became the law of the land. Much of the country remained privately Catholic until and unless further punitive laws were leveled against Catholics. Pope Pius V issued a Papal Bull excommunicating Elizabeth, as well as support for a plot of several united Catholic countries to invade England. Persecution of Catholics followed in England. Many hundred of Catholics were burned at the stake, hanged, drawn and quartered, or otherwise tortured. Yet England still avoided a grotesque slaughter like the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre in France against the Huguenots in August 1572.

While Fortune favors the bold, Fate humbles the proud. Three years into her reign, Elizabeth contracted smallpox -a disease which few people survived in the 16th century. The prospect of the Queen’s death caused great anxiety among her advisors because there was no clear successor to the throne. It meant there would almost certainly be a constitutional crisis and a civil war or else invasion from abroad. For many days Elizabeth clung to her threadbare life, with her advisors on edge, however she miraculously survived the disease and fully regained her faculties. The only legacy was that smallpox left her skin horribly scarred and disfigured, with half of her hair was absent her head. For the rest of her life she would don lavish wigs and starch cosmetics to hide her physical decay. Around this time, Elizabeth’s youthful beauty had begun to fade. In addition to her skin and hair, Elizabeth’s teeth were severely rotten. She was a lifelong lover of sweets -an expensive commodity for only the wealthiest Englishmen- and her habit cost her most of her teeth while the remaining teeth appeared yellow (apparently, Elizabeth distrusted dentistry). In later years, certain foreign ambassadors had a difficult time understanding Elizabeth when she spoke as her words emanating from her toothless mouth were garbled.

Nevertheless, despite her physical ailments she is rumored to have carried on several affairs. Her lifelong love was for a childhood friend and nobleman named Robert Dudley earl of Leicester. He was already married to an ailing wife but that did not stop Elizabeth. One morning, Mrs. Dudley was found dead under suspicious circumstances -her neck was broken after falling down a flight of stairs. After the woman’s death, Elizabeth seriously considered marriage with Robert Dudley but she was prevented from doing so by the more conservative voices on her council, particularly Sir William Cecil. Robert Dudley eventually remarried another woman and Elizabeth openly expressed disgust and distaste with his new wife for many years to come. She also entertained marriage proposals from foreign dignitaries, such as Philip II of Spain, Eric XIV of Sweden, the Archduke Charles of Austria, and the Duke of Anjou along with his brother. She is rumored to have had infatuations with various other noblemen: Robert Devereux the earl of Essex and Sir Walter Raleigh. However, Elizabeth never seriously pursued any of these opportunities and she remained unmarried all her life.

The ambiguous status of Elizabeth’s marital pursuits led to her second great crisis which loomed over the rest of her life. This was the question of successorship. With an unmarried queen, England had no direct inheritor to the throne. Her court grew impatient. The stability of England lay in the succession of the crown but Elizabeth modeled herself on being wedded to no man but rather to her whole realm. She even wore an inauguration ring to symbolize her marriage to England. Elizabeth’s great power and controversy lay in her silence regarding a successor. If she chose a successor, Elizabeth privately feared a rebellion or an assassination attempt by the parties of opposition. Would Elizabeth marry an Englishman like Robert Dudley? Marrying an Englishman would inevitably earn the ire of half her court. Or instead would she marry a foreigner? Elizabeth had witnessed the dangers of a foreign king when her half-sister Mary was betrothed to Philip II of Spain, a union which spawned widespread hatred and condemnation. Despite Parliament’s pleas for Elizabeth to marry and produce a child, an angry Elizabeth remained silent and obstinate.

Meanwhile there was Mary Queen of Scots.

Mary Queen of Scots
“Mary Stuart” was the daughter of the house of Stuart, James V of Scotland. Mary was a mere six days old when she became Queen of the Scots following the death of James V. She was a descendent of the Tudor family: Henry VII’s daughter, Margaret Tudor (sister to Henry VIII), married King James IV of Scotland. They gave birth to James V of Scotland who married Mary of Guise -the parents of Mary Queen of Scots.

Portrait of a young Mary Queen of Scots by François Clouet circa 1558-1560

Mary spent much of her childhood in France where she married the Dauphin of France, Francis. She was Queen consort of France for one year from 1559-1560 until he died. Then she returned to Scotland and several years later she married for love to her half-cousin Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley –“a weak, conceited youth who had both Tudor and Stuart blood in his veins” according to Winston Churchill (264). Together they had a son, James (the future king of England), but their marriage was a disaster and it spurred old feudal factions in Scotland. Darnley was a hot-headed, violent man. Mary’s enemies used Darnley to disrupt her court -at one point he intruded and threatened the pregnant Queen. At the same time, Mary’s favorite guests from France were highly unpopular, and one man, Mary’s secretary and musician named David Riccio, was seized and stabbed to death in Mary’s presence. Darnley had become convinced Riccio had an inappropriate relationship with his wife. Mary’s enemies nimbly used Lord Darnley against her.

In an act of desperation Mary apparently conspired to murder her husband. In February 1567, Darnley’s residence was destroyed by a mysterious explosion, and he was found murdered in his garden (the murderous image is mirrored in the death of Hamlet’s father in Shakespeare’s Hamlet). James Hepburn, 4th Earl of Bothwell, was generally believed to have orchestrated Darnley’s death, but he was acquitted of the charge in April 1567, and the following month Bothwell married Mary Queen of Scots -many suspected that Mary had, in fact, wed her husband’s murderer and thus she was either complicit in or at least acquiescent to the murder. The marriage to Bothwell caused Mary’s Protestant subjects to rise up against her. Mary was imprisoned in Loch Leven Castle and in July 1567 she was forced to abdicate her crown which passed to her one-year-old son (James VI of Scotland). After an unsuccessful attempt to regain her throne, she fled southward begging for protection from her cousin once removed: Queen Elizabeth I of England. However Mary’s arrival in England was a disaster from the beginning. Her Catholic presence in England quickly became a threat to the Protestant crown. Numerous conspiracies arose against Elizabeth. In the eyes of the Pope, Mary was the rightful successor to the crown of England and Papist enemies abroad used Mary’s protection in England as an opportunity to subvert the rule of Protestantism. Catholic Spain leaked spies (i.e. Jesuits) into the country to rouse the Catholic North against the Protestant South. Tensions with Spain grew as England’s textile trade with the Netherlands expanded, and Elizabeth reluctantly supported the Netherlands in their dispute with Spain. The Queen’s court grew paranoid of growing Spanish threats. Throughout Elizabeth’s reign she employed a covert string of spies across the country -her court carried out an elaborate string of espionage activities stretching across the isle under the Queen’s “Spymaster,” Sir Francis Walsingham. Foreign threats abounded, from Spanish Catholic “Papists” to Mary Queen of Scots.

Privately, Elizabeth was sympathetic to Mary Queen of Scots. They were of the same blood and Elizabeth was averse to meddling in international affairs. Perhaps in some ways Elizabeth admired Mary. The tall, charismatic, and at times erratic Mary Queen of Scots was everything Elizabeth was not. In fact, the two queens never actually met. They exchanged letters while Mary was exiled in various English castles, and their letters offer a unique glimpse into two distinct styles of governance. They were unquestionably rivals. On the one hand, Elizabeth was a shrewd and cynical tactician who remained unmarried and childless, while Mary was a reckless and gregarious romantic who was thrice married and had secured her succession with the birth of a son. In some ways, each woman’s strength was the other’s deprivation. At any rate, the temporary stability of England lay in Elizabeth’s balanced governance, but the future of England belonged to Mary’s progeny.

After eighteen and a half years in captivity in England, Elizabeth finally and reluctantly ordered the execution of Mary Queen of Scots but only after a dangerous plot known as the Babington Plot was discovered. The Babington Plot was a Spanish attempt to invade England via Anthony Babington, assassinate Elizabeth, and instate Mary as the rightful head of England. Upon the discovery of Mary’s covert correspondence inside a beer barrel cork, she was found guilty of treason in 1586. Although calmly denying any involvement, Mary was beheaded the following year at Fotheringhay Castle in a solemn but brutal ceremony. She wore crimson brown, the traditional color of martyrdom in the Catholic Church, and she donned a wooden crucifix believed to be part of the true cross of Jesus. She lay her head down on the block and stretched out her hands muttering her last words in Latin “In manus tuas, Domine, commendo spiritum meum” (“Into thy hands, O Lord, I commend my spirit”). Her beheading was particularly barbaric. It took the executioner several blows to Mary’s neck before her head was eventually hacked off. The executioner then picked up her severed head and held it before the crow declaring “God save the Queen” but the bloodied head accidentally slipped out of his hand and down to the floor revealing that Mary wore a wig. Mary’s true hair was short and grey. Her lifeless head rolled off the scaffold and onto the floor while blood spilled all over the room. It was a gruesome scene.

During her lifetime, Mary had married for love which produced a son (the future King James I) and she also married for lust which ended disastrously. In the end, she lost her queenship, her son, and her life while Queen Elizabeth endured.

The Defeat of the Spanish Armada
The zenith of Elizabeth’s reign came in 1588. The execution of Mary Queen of Scots coupled with Elizabeth’s support for the Netherlands against Spain led to open conflict with the Spanish Empire. Additionally, England began exploring the coasts of the New World, where the plundering Spaniards had looted the Aztec and Incan Empires (in present-day Mexico and Peru). Spain felt it held a monopoly on the Americas but England sent the privateer, Sir Francis Drake, to raid the Canary Islands and the coasts of ‘New Spain.’ His voyage was a success and he managed to outrun the Spanish ships as he escaped to ‘Alta California’ and landed at Drake’s Bay (which he claimed for England as “Nova Albion”) located in present-day Northern California. Sir Francis Drake is also famous for accidentally circumnavigating the world. He became infamous in Spain as the “Master Thief of the unknown world.” His raids on Spanish ships along the west coast of South America played a significant part in the advent of war between England and Spain, as did his infamous raid on the Spanish galleons off the coast of Cadiz in 1587. Meanwhile, on the Atlantic seaboard Sir Walter Raleigh founded England’s first attempted settlement in the New World -the Roanoke Colony whose surrounding lands were named “Virginia” in honor of the ‘Virgin Queen’ (however the land where the colony once existed is located in present-day North Carolina). The colony quickly failed and Sir Francis Drake rescued some of the starving colonists on his return to England. Those that remained were never seen again. Several theories exist as to the fate of this colony. At any rate, it was not until the reign of James I that the first permanent English settlement was founded at Jamestown in 1607 in the modern state of Virginia.

With all this in mind, Spain was ready for a naval conflict with England. The Spanish Armada was prepared by May 1588. It consisted of 130 ships, 2,500 hundred guns, and 30,000 men. The goal of Hapsburg Spain was to invade England and overthrow Elizabeth. However, in some ways the battle was over before it even started. Faster English warships attacked Spanish galleons while en route to England and while docked off the coast of Europe, near lands governed by the Duke of Parma. The conflict sent the Spanish Armada in chase and they were soon met with inclement weather. The Armada was forced to retreat but prevailing winds pushed them northward around the difficult horn of Scotland before returning home to Spain. Many ships were wrecked along the craggy coastline amidst stormy weather. Per Winston Churchill: “There were no boastings; they recorded their dissatisfactions. But to the English people as a whole the defeat of the Armada came as a miracle… England emerged from the Armada year as a first-class Power. She had resisted the weight of the mightiest empire that had been seen since Roman times. Her people awoke to a consciousness of their greatness, and the last years of Elizabeth’s reign saw a welling up of national energy and enthusiasm focusing upon the person of the Queen” (272-273).

The “Armada Portrait” of Elizabeth showing her hand on the globe, symbolizing the new English empire.

Despite the fact that the Armada was largely defeated by unprofitable weather, the demise of the Spanish Armada while crossing the Channel led to an outpouring of English patriotism and euphoria. Elizabeth was celebrated in the burgeoning theatrical scene by the likes of Edmund Spenser, and in the works of Shakespeare which starkly turned away from theological premonitions in celebration of English royal history and classical mythology. Elizabeth became the figure-head for a new English renaissance. Sir Water Raleigh described Elizabeth as follows: “riding like Alexander, hunting like Diana, walking like Venus.” The celebratory attitude led to the founding of the East India Company via a charter granted by Elizabeth to an ambitious group of London merchants and financiers in the year 1600. Their initial goal was to challenge the Spanish and Portuguese monopoly on the far east trade. Eventually, the joint stock company was to become one of the largest corporations in the history of the world.

Elizabeth had ushered in the heights of the Tudor dynasty, but within a generation the Stuart succession would ebb the tide and weaken the international prestige of England. Regarding the achievements of Elizabeth, Will Durant writes: “By whatever means her subtle weakness could devise, she preserved her country from foreign domination, maintained peace with some brief intervals for thirty years, and left England richer than ever before in matter and mind.”

The Death of Elizabeth
After surviving considerable danger throughout her lifetime and numerous health scares, nearing the age of 70, Elizabeth’s health finally gave out at Richmond Palace in 1603. At the end she fell into a deep depression -she lay upon cushions on the floor, unable to sleep, unwilling to eat, refusing to speak. She and her councilors named as her successor James VI of Scotland (the son of Mary Queen of Scots, the future James I of England). The reign of the Good Queen Bess had reached its sunset.

Regarding the death of Elizabeth, Winston Churchill writes: “In the early hours of March 24, 1603, Queen Elizabeth died. Thus ended the Tudor dynasty. For over a hundred years, with a handful of bodyguards, the Tudors had maintained their sovereignty, kept the peace, baffled the diplomacy and onslaughts of Europe, and guided the country through changes which might well have wrecked it… The Crown was now to pass to an alien Scottish line, hostile in political instincts to the class which administered England. The good understanding with Parliament which the Tudors had nourished came to a fretful close” (277).


For this reading I used Winston Churchill’s essential History of English Speaking Peoples, David Starkey’s Crown and Country, Will Durant’s chapter on the “Great Queen” in The Story of Civilization, Peter Ackroyd’s Tudors: The History of England From Henry VIII to Elizabeth I, Sir John Hayward’s Annals of the Reign of Queen Elizabeth (1630), and William Campden’s Chronicles.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s