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ELIZABETH I - Queen of England

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Queen of England

Elizabeth was born September 7, 1533 and died on March 24, 1603. She was the monarch of England from 1558 to her death. In her lifetime she made herself a powerful image of female authority, regal magnificence and national pride. This image has endured down to the present day. Elizabeth both created her image through embellishment and through the concrete policies that she urged her nation to follow. The latter half of the 16th century in England is called the Elizabethan Age, and perhaps this is justified, because Elizabeth did give the age a personal stamp.

Elizabeth had a tough childhood. She was the daughter of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn. Henry had married Anne because his first wife, Catherine had not borne him a male heir after 20 years of marriage. Henry and Catherine had a daughter named Mary. Henry had become involved in a serious controversy with the Church over his divorcing Catherine, and eventually Henry himself became the head of the Church of England. When Elizabeth was 3, her mother, Anne Boleyn, was beheaded for adultery and treason. He also had Parliament make his marriage with Anne Boleyn invalid from the beginning, which made Elizabeth illegitimate. What effect all this had on Elizabeth is hard to say since she was not reared by her natural parents. It was observed that at the age of 6, she had as much gravity as a person who was 40.

In 1537, Henry's 3rd wife gave birth to a son named Edward. Elizabeth faded even more into the background, but she was not neglected. Henry VIII may have been hard on his wives, but he was affectionate by the standards of the day with his children. Elizabeth was present at state ceremonies and was regarded as third in line to the Throne. She spent a great deal of time with her half-brother Edward. Catherine Parr, Henry's 6th and final wife, gave Elizabeth loving attention. Elizabeth was given a rigorous education in languages, history, rhetoric, and moral philosophy. Her outstanding tutor, Roger Ascham, said 'her mind has no womanly weakness'. He also said that her perseverance and memory were equal to that of a man. (The sexism exhibited here is inherent in the 16th century, not in the writers of this biography.) She was fluent in Greek, Latin, French, and Italian. She studied theology and became a strong Protestant. These values and beliefs helped shape the future course of England.

Her father died in 1547 when she was 14. Edward became king as a boy of 10. Catherine Parr married Thomas Seymour. When Catherine died in 1549, Seymour was accused of wishing to marry Elizabeth in order to rule England. Seymour was beheaded for treason. Elizabeth's life was temporarily in danger as she and her servants were questioned about the degree to which she had been intimate with Seymour. Elizabeth was circumspect and poised throughout this episode.

Edward, a Protestant, died in 1553 and was replaced by his older half-sister, Mary. Mary was a Catholic, and married to the leading Catholic in Europe -Philip II of Spain. Mary was determined to restore Catholicism to England even if took violence. Elizabeth was again in danger. Elizabeth conformed outwardly to Catholicism, but she became the focus and beneficiary of plots to overthrow the government and restore Protestantism. Elizabeth was briefly locked up in the Tower of London and just barely missed the fate that happened to her mother.
Mary's brief reign from 1553 to 1558 was characterized by the burning of Protestants and military confrontations. Elizabeth continually had to protest her innocence, her unswerving loyalty, and proclaim her pious distaste for heresy. Both Protestants and Catholics thought Elizabeth misrepresented her religious views. (In truth, Elizabeth died without anyone knowing her private views on life in general.)

Mary died on November 17, 1558, and Elizabeth took the throne amid great public rejoicing. There were bells, bonfires, patriotic demonstrations and other signs of popular acceptance. In the first few weeks of her reign, the Queen formed her government and issued proclamations. She reduced the size of the Privy Council from 39 to 19, partly to get rid of Catholic councilors, and partly to make the body more efficient. She appointed a number of talented advisors, the most skillful of which was William Cecil (Lord Burghley). He served Elizabeth for 40 years as secretary of state and lord treasurer. She reformed the currency by removing the debased currency that had been put into circulation by her father. She decreed that all able-bodied men, not engaged in other types of work should work the land. She did this to increase the agricultural labor force. She negotiated treaties with France and Scotland to end a state of hostilities.

The mood of the times made it difficult for people to accept a female in power. John Knox, the Calvinist preacher, had just written The First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women. In this book, Knox claimed that 'God hath revealed to some in this age that it is more than a monster in nature that a woman should reign and bear empire above man.' It was generally acknowledged that women were temperamentally, intellectually, and morally unfit to govern. Elizabeth's rule was rationalized by claiming that when she came to power her 'body natural' was mysteriously joined (by God) to the immortal 'body politic'.

Mary's reign had been a bit of a disaster and Elizabeth found it necessary to develop a new model for rule. The English state was deliberately weak and poor. It had no standing army, no efficient police force, and a weak and inefficient bureaucracy; to obtain revenue to govern the Crown had to go to Parliament, which was often reluctant to levy subsidies and taxes. Elizabeth and her advisors developed a strategy of cultivating, over the years, the image of the Virgin Queen. This was a very complicated concept in the sense that a marriage ('the right marriage') would give England a Protestant heir and strengthen England's position in foreign affairs. Without a marriage the Tudor line would come to an end and Mary, Queen of Scots could possibly get the throne of England.

Mary was a Catholic, and therefore unacceptable. Elizabeth had many suitors: Philip II of Spain, Archduke Charles of Austria, Eric XIV of Sweden, the Duke d' Anjou, the Duke of Alencon, and many others including some Englishmen. Scholars believe that Elizabeth intended to marry none of them. She probably was in love with the controversial Robert Dudley (Earl of Leicester), but she refused to marry him saying on one occasion, 'I will have here but one mistress and no master.' John Stubbs and William Page once produced a pamphlet that denounced her supposed marriage to the Duke of Alencon. They went so far as to say, 'the Duke was the old serpent himself, in the form of a man, come a second time to seduce the English Eve and to ruin the English paradise.' Elizabeth had their right hands chopped off. Unsolicited advice could sometimes be dangerous.

What exactly was Elizabeth's attitude toward marriage? On one occasion she said, 'At my own time I shall turn my
mind to marriage if it be for the public good.' At another time she said, 'I would rather be a beggar and single than a Queen and married.'

Elizabeth was a hard-working monarch. She habitually worked far into the night on state papers and arose late claiming she was not a morning person. Her court provided a wealth of entertainments and diversion. Hunting expeditions, daily gallops on horseback, tennis matches, archery, and dancing were among the key activities. Elizabeth was an excellent dancer, and her master of revels brought in companies of professional actors and musicians.

The court, however, was a place of traps and temptations. It was a dangerous place for people who were indiscreet, over-ambitious, or injudicious. Sir Walter Raleigh, one of the most gifted men in the court, was imprisoned for a time in the Tower of London when it was discovered he had secretly married one of the Queen's ladies-in-waiting.

For much of her reign, Elizabeth's subjects prospered economically .. Those landowners who already had some wealth, prospered to the greatest extent, but even the lower class benefitted. This prosperity would not last to the end of her reign, but for the most part, economic progress was made.

During most of the reign, tensions between Spain and England curtailed the free movement of English ships between the North Sea and the Straits of Gibralter. The merchants and mariners of England were looking outward in search of new markets. There had been voyages of discovery in the past. John Cabot had sailed to New Foundland and Nova Scotia. William Hawkins went to Africa and Brazil in 1540. English ships had sailed the northern coast of Russia. The Muscovy Company established trade with the empire of Ivan the Terrible.

But these were only temporary efforts, and under Elizabeth a more comprehensive effort was made to extend English influence overseas. Her reign saw trading adventures along the coast of Africa (slaving), and new efforts to find short-cuts eastward and westward to the Orient. Other expeditions went in search of the legendary southern continent 'terra australis incognita'.

The Spanish particularly resented the English interference with their slave-trade. An incident that precipitated tensions between Spain and England took place when the Spanish slaughtered 200 English sailors trying to repair their ships in the Mexican port at San Juan de Ulua. Two hundred survivors tried to get aboard a ship and sail for England with very little food or water. Some of these sailors asked to be put ashore, rather than to sail to England in this condition. The Spanish brought these sailors to trial as heretics, burned some of them at the stake, and made the rest galley slaves. Seventy of the sailors managed to get back to England; one of whom was Sir Francis Drake. The response to the Spanish threat was that the British built more ships than ever before. Elizabeth and the English were determined to prevent Spain from dominating the seas.

One of the basic problems of Elizabeth's reign was the religious question. She was harassed by militant Protestants who desired a swing toward Calvinism, and residual Catholics who preferred the status quo. It seems likely that the fairest judgement is that Elizabeth took a middle ground. She supported the Church of England, and did not really care what her subjects believed as long as they kept controversial views to themselves. In 1559, Elizabeth officially restored Protestantism by having Parliament pass the Act of Supremacy which declared the Queen the supreme governor of the Church.

Eventually religious tension in the kingdom became a major problem. Rumors had been rife that Catholics were going to attempt to assassinate Elizabeth just as they had assassinated the other major Protestant leader in Europe, William of Orange. Protestants in Parliament, after the Babington Plot of 1586 to murder Elizabeth had been discovered, insisted that Mary Queen of Scots be executed immediately after being implicated in the plot. Elizabeth waited 3 months, but finally signed the death warrant. Mary was beheaded in 1587.

In foreign policy Elizabeth followed a path similar to her domestic policy. At times she sponsored privateering raids on Spanish shipping and ports. Sir Francis Drake and others relieved the Spanish king of gold and silver and other valuables at the direction of the Queen. At other times she was conciliatory and initiated peace talks. By the mid-l580's it became apparent that a war between England and Spain was inevitable. It was widely anticipated that a large Spanish fleet (The so-called Spanish Armada) would sail to the Netherlands, pick up the large Spanish army hting in the Netherlands, and transport that army to England, where Catholicism would be imposed on the English. In one of the most famous battles in history, the Queen's ships defeated the Armada. As the Spanish fleet tried to sail back to Spain, it was almost totally destroyed in terrible storms.

Elizabeth was famous for her great speeches, and one of her better-known addresses was given at the time of the anticipated invasion by the Spanish. Elizabeth was determined to review a body of troops deployed to meet the Spanish invaders if they broke through England's naval defenses. Some of her advisors suggested that she would be in danger appearing before a large armed crowd, but Elizabeth would not distrust her 'faithful and loving people'. Dressed in a pure white elegant gown and a silver breastplate, she rode through the camp and proceeded to deliver a celebrated speech. While addressing the body of troops, she said: 'I know I have the body of a weak and feeble woman, but I have the heart and stomach of a king; and a King of England too.' She went on to say, 'In the words of a Prince' that she would richly reward her loyal troops. As was her custom, she broke her promise.

The quotations in the above paragraph in many ways exemplify the characteristics of the Queen. She was courageous, she knew how to use rhetoric, she had a histrionic command of public occasions, and she could use male martial values to her advantage. She was also capable of making promises she had no intention of keeping, and she was quite stingy when it came to spending the Crown's money.

The an goddesses had been driven underground by a thousand years of Christianity. The English Reformation had done its best to suppress the cult of the Virgin Mary. In place of these all-powerful female deities, England now had its Virgin Queen. She was ed by poets to the Moon Goddess, to a Virgin and Fertility Goddess, the bringer of Justice, and the cornerstone of Empire. Painters portrayed her in impossible magnificence and with the symbols of peace, virtue, majesty and truth. Quite an impressive public image to maintain!

Elizabeth's reign also saw a flowering of the arts that would be impossible for almost any other period of English history to match. Edmund Spencer, Christopher Marlowe, Ben Johnson, William Shakespeare are great names not only in English literature, but in World literature. The English Renaissance was a highlight in a 16th century that often appeared bloody, dark, and dreary.

Elizabeth's reign after the defeat of the Armada was beset by troubles. Her control over her country's religious, political, and economic problems; as well as her presentation of herself, began to show severe strains. Bad harvests, inflation, and unemployment, caused a loss of public morale. Corruption and greed led to wide-spread popular hatred for Elizabeth's favorites, to whom she had given lucrative and much-resented monopolies. By the turn of the century, even her admirers such as Sir Walter Raleigh said she was 'a lady surprised by time.'

Shortly before she died on March 24, 1603, she designated James VI of Scotland as her successor. It was not long, however, before many Englishmen were remembering with great fondness and nostalgia their 'Good Queen Bess'. Perhaps the relationship between Elizabeth and her people can be found in remarks she made before Parliament when she allowed Parliament to repeal many of the monopolies she had given to her favorites: 'Though God hath raised me high, yet this I count the glory of my crown, that I have reigned with your loves I do not so much rejoice that God hath made me a Queen as to be Queen over so thankful a People.'

The undeclared war between Spain and England continued until the end of Elizabeth's reign. The great power of Spain was cut down to size and England, based upon the performance of English ships and English sailors, had shown that England was now ready to take its place among Europe's major powers. Never had England's self-confidence been greater, and no symbol of the realm's new glory was more potent that Elizabeth herself.


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