Elizabeth I

Elizabeth I

Elizabeth I was queen of England and Ireland and her 45 year reign was considered a ‘golden period’ of English history. She was nicknamed 'Gloriana' and the 'Virgin Queen' and overcame many challenges at home as well as threats from abroad.

Image: Queen Elizabeth I by George Gower (Getty Images)

More information about: Elizabeth I

Elizabeth, the last Tudor monarch, was born in Greenwich on 7 September 1533. She was the daughter of Henry VIII and his second wife, Anne Boleyn. When Elizabeth was just two years old, her mother was beheaded for adultery on the orders of her father and she was exiled from court. In later years Catherine Parr, Henry's sixth wife, took a keen interest in the young Elizabeth and made sure that she was educated to the highest standards.

In 1553, Elizabeth's older half-sister Mary became queen. Mary was determined to re-establish Catholicism in England and viewed the Protestant Elizabeth as a direct threat. Elizabeth was briefly imprisoned in the Tower of London in 1554 following a failed rebellion, of which she claimed no knowledge.

A Golden Age

In November 1558, after the death of Mary I, Elizabeth succeeded to the throne. Some see Elizabeth’s 45 year reign as a golden age of English history. She was a shrewd and intelligent woman who was fluent in six languages.

Elizabeth’s first priority on becoming Queen was to return England to the Protestant faith. Yet she declared that she did not want to "make windows into men's souls" and was satisfied as long as her subjects gave an outward show of conformity. Elizabeth helped create a Church of England that, although Protestant, allowed some of the old Catholic traditions to continue.

Elizabeth chose an able set of administrators to aid her during her rule, including William Cecil, Lord Burghley as her Secretary of State and Sir Francis Walsingham, in charge of intelligence. Elizabeth's reign also saw England significantly expand its trade overseas and in 1580 Sir Francis Drake became the first Englishman to successfully circumnavigate the earth. The arts flourished in England during this period as Shakespeare, Spenser and Marlowe created poetry and drama while composers such as Byrd and Tallis worked in Elizabeth’s court.

The queen was also keen to be seen by her subjects. She went on 25 regional visits known as ‘progresses’ during her reign, often riding on horseback rather than traveling in a carriage.

Mary, Queen of Scots

However, trouble was never far away. In 1568 Elizabeth's cousin, Mary, Queen of Scots - a Catholic with a strong claim to the English throne - sought exile in England. Many Catholic plots centred on putting Mary on the English throne. With Francis Walsingham’s help, Elizabeth imprisoned Mary and kept her under constant surveillance for 19 years. Despite the discovery of conspiracies and plots centred on Mary, Elizabeth showed caution and was reluctant to act against her. However, in 1586 Walsingham uncovered the Babington plot which implicated Mary directly in a conspiracy to overthrow Elizabeth. Mary was tried for treason and executed in 1587.

Spanish Armada

The following year Philip II of Spain launched a great fleet of ships, known as the Spanish Armada, to try and overthrow Elizabeth and restore Catholicism. Always a popular monarch, and a brilliant public speaker, Elizabeth united the country against this common enemy. In a famous speech to troops at Tilbury, she said: ‘I know I have the body of a weak, feeble woman; but I have the heart and stomach of a king - and of a King of England too.’

Partly aided by bad weather, the English Navy defeated the Spanish Armada, with the help of Sir Francis Drake.

Despite pressure from her advisers, particularly Lord Burghley, Elizabeth always refused to marry and provide an heir. She had a close relationship with Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, and was not averse to using the promise of marriage for diplomatic purposes, but asserted her independence until the end of her life. She insisted that she was ‘married’ to her country.

Elizabeth died at Richmond Palace on 24 March 1603, and was succeeded by the Protestant James VI of Scotland, the son of her cousin Mary, Queen of Scots.