Queen Elizabeth I

Queen Elizabeth I Biography

(1533–1603)
Elizabeth I was the long-ruling queen of England, governing with relative stability and prosperity for 44 years. The Elizabethan era is named for her.

Who Was Queen Elizabeth I?

Queen Elizabeth I claimed the throne in 1558 at the age of 25 and held it until her death 44 years later. Elizabeth I was born a princess but declared illegitimate through political machinations. Eventually, upon her half-sister Mary Tudor’s death, she took the crown. 

During her reign, Elizabeth I established Protestantism in England; defeated the Spanish Armada in 1588; maintained peace inside her previously divided country; and created an environment where the arts flourished. She was sometimes called the "Virgin Queen", as she never married.

Queen Elizabeth I Photo

The Hampden Portrait, Queen Elizabeth I, circa 1563.

Queen Elizabeth I’s Father and Mother

Elizabeth was the daughter of King Henry VIII and his second wife, Anne Boleyn. She was only 2 years old when her mother was beheaded on the orders of her father, based on questionable charges of adultery and conspiracy.

Early Life and Education

Elizabeth I was born on September 7, 1533, in Greenwich, England. Elizabeth was raised much like any other royal child. She received tutoring and excelled at languages and music.

After her father's death in 1547, Elizabeth spent some time under the care of her stepmother Catherine Parr. Parr hired tutors on Elizabeth's behalf, including William Grindal and Roger Ascham.

Tensions with Parr over Parr's new husband, Thomas Seymour, led Elizabeth to return to the royal estate at Hatfield, away from the court. Her relationship with Seymour later came under scrutiny, and Seymour was tried for conspiring to wed Elizabeth in a bid to gain power. Found guilty, Seymour was executed.

Elizabeth I of England’s Siblings

Elizabeth had an older half-sister, Mary Tudor, who was the king’s first child with his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, and the only to survive to adulthood. Elizabeth also had a younger half-brother, Edward, who was the king’s first and only legitimate son with his third wife, Jane Seymour.

Elizabeth and Mary were declared to be illegitimate as their father sought to pave the way to the throne for Edward, his male heir. The girls were later reinstated as potential heirs. Upon Henry VIII’s death in 1547, Edward succeeded his father as King Edward VI.

Edward VI died just six years later, in 1553. Mary Tudor and their cousin, Lady Jane Grey, both were in line for the crown.

Edward had appointed Grey to be his successor. Her reign proved to be very short: Mary gained the support of the English people and unseated Grey after only nine days on the throne.

Even though Elizabeth supported Mary in her coup, she was not free from suspicion. A staunch Roman Catholic, Mary sought to restore her country back to her faith, undoing her father's break from the Pope. While Elizabeth went along with the religious change, she remained a candidate for the throne for those who wanted a return to Protestantism.

In 1554, Thomas Wyatt organized a rebellion against Mary in the hopes of making Elizabeth queen and restoring Protestantism to England. His plot was uncovered, and Mary quickly imprisoned Elizabeth. Although Elizabeth disputed any involvement in the conspiracy, her sister was not wholly convinced.

Elizabeth was soon released, but her life was firmly in her sister Mary's hands. Wyatt was executed; he maintained that Elizabeth was not aware of the rebellion. Elizabeth eventually returned to Hatfield and continued with her studies until her sister’s death.In 1554, Thomas Wyatt organized a rebellion against Mary with the hopes of making Protestant-raised Elizabeth queen. But his plot was uncovered, and Elizabeth was quickly imprisoned by Mary. Elizabeth disputed any involvement in the conspiracy, but her sister was not wholly convinced.

Although she was soon released, Elizabeth's life was firmly in her sister's hands. Wyatt was executed, but he maintained that Elizabeth was not aware of the rebellion. Elizabeth eventually returned to Hatfield and continued with her studies. In 1558, Elizabeth ascended to the throne upon Mary Tudor’s death.

Queen Elizabeth I’s Coronation

In 1558, when she was 25 years old, Elizabeth took the reins of her country after Queen Mary Tudor, her half-sister, died of what was suspected to be uterine or ovarian cancer.

Elizabeth I’s Reign

Elizabeth ruled for 44 years, from 1558 until her death in 1603.

Elizabeth I inherited a number of problems stirred up by her half-sister Mary. The country was at war with France, which proved to be a tremendous drain on the royal coffers.

There was also great tension between different religious factions after Mary worked to restore England to Roman Catholicism by any means necessary. Mary had earned herself the nickname Bloody Mary for ordering the execution of 300 Protestants as heretics.

Elizabeth acted swiftly to address these two pressing issues. During her first session of Parliament in 1559, she called for the passage of the Act of Supremacy, which re-established the Church of England, and the Act of Uniformity, which created a common prayer book.

Elizabeth took a moderate approach to the divisive religious conflict in her country. "There is one Jesus Christ," she once said. "The rest is a dispute over trifles."

Historians differ on the extent that Catholics suffered religious persecution and execution under Elizabeth’s reign. The Roman Catholic Church took a dim view of her actions, and in 1570, Pope Pius V excommunicated Elizabeth.

With the assistance of her key advisor, William Cecil, Elizabeth ended England’s war with France. She was able to avoid clashing with the other superpower of the age, Spain, for much of her reign.

In 1585, however, Elizabeth entered the fray to support the Protestant rebellion against Spain in the Netherlands. Spain then set its sights on England, but the English navy was able to defeat the infamous Spanish Armada in 1588. According to several reports, the weather proved to be a deciding factor in England's victory.

Elizabethan England

Elizabeth’s reign was sometimes referred to as the England's Golden Age or Elizabethan England, an era of peace and prosperity when the arts had a chance to blossom with Elizabeth's support.

While she worked hard at court, Elizabeth took time for leisurely pursuits. She loved music and could play the lute. Thomas Tallis and William Byrd were among her court musicians. Elizabeth also enjoyed dancing and watching plays. Elizabeth's reign supported the creation of works by such greats as William Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe.

Writers paid tribute to the queen in many literary forms. The poet Edmund Spenser based his character of Gloriana in The Faerie Queen on Elizabeth, and she was sometimes referred to by this name.

Portraiture was the reigning form of painting at the time, and artists honored Elizabeth by painting her portrait. These images reveal that Elizabeth was an early fashionista in many ways. She loved jewelry and beautiful clothing; her garments were often made with gold and silver. With the help of makeup, Elizabeth cultivated a dramatically pale look.

Rivalry Between Queen Elizabeth I and Mary, Queen of Scots

During Elizabeth’s rule, Mary, Queen of Scots lay claim to the English crown and posed one of the greatest internal threats to remove her cousin from the throne. Mary was raised Catholic and was considered by many English Catholics to be the rightful monarch of England.

The daughter of King James V of Scotland, Mary Stuart united her country with France in 1558 when she married the future King Francis II. After Francis' death, Mary returned to Scotland in 1561.

Elizabeth jailed her cousin in 1567 in connection with several assassination attempts, including the Babington Plot. Elizabeth kept Mary imprisoned for nearly 20 years before she had her cousin executed in 1587.

Later Years

Troubled times marked the final years of Elizabeth's reign. The country suffered from failed crops, unemployment and inflation. There were riots over food shortages and rebellions in Ireland.

Elizabeth faced many challenges to her authority, including from one of her favorite noblemen, Robert Devereaux, the Earl of Essex. She had sent him to Ireland to quell a rebellion known as the Nine Years War led by Gaelic lord Hugh O'Neill. Instead, Essex returned to England and sought to start his own rebellion. He was executed for treason in 1601.

Elizabeth I’s Golden Speech

Despite her fading power, Elizabeth still showed her devotion to her people. She gave one of her most famous speeches in 1601 to Parliament.

During what is referred to as her "Golden Speech," a self-reflective Elizabeth seemed to look back on her long reign. "Of myself I must say this, I was never any greedy, scraping grasper, nor a strait, fast-holding prince, nor yet a waster. My heart was never set on worldly goods but for my subjects' good."

While the end of her reign had been difficult, Elizabeth is largely remembered as a queen who supported her people. Her lengthy time on the throne provided her subjects with stability and consistency. Her political acumen, sharp wit and clever mind helped navigate the nation through many religious, social and governmental challenges.

Did Queen Elizabeth I Have a Husband or Children?

Elizabeth never married or had children; she seemed to have no interest in sharing power with a spouse. Over time, she cultivated her image as a queen married to her job and her people, earning her the nickname the "Virgin Queen."

Succession was a pressing issue for Elizabeth. During her reign, she managed a number of suitors and potential royal matches. Through her father and her sister, however, Elizabeth had seen the troubles and challenges of royal marriages.

Elizabeth's half-sister Mary Tudor had made an unpopular choice in marrying Philip II of Spain, who shared her devotion to the Roman Catholic faith. In the hopes of reuniting their two countries once more, Phillip offered to wed Elizabeth at one time. She refused.

Other suitors for Elizabeth's hand included the Archduke Charles of Austria and the future King Henry III of France. She used her availability as a means to political ends, but she never agreed to marriage.

Elizabeth herself seemed to have some interest in a member of her court, Robert Dudley. Their relationship was the subject of much gossip and speculation; both parties came under suspicion of the mysterious death of Dudley's wife.

Queen Elizabeth I’s Death

Elizabeth died on March 24, 1603, at Richmond Palace in Surrey. It’s believed that the cosmetic concoction Elizabeth used to cultivate her infamously pale look, called the "spirits of Saturn" — made by mixing white lead and vinegar — may have impacted her health.

Successor to Queen Elizabeth I

Because Elizabeth I had no children, with her death came the end of the house of Tudor — a royal family that had ruled England since the late 1400s. The son of her former rival and cousin, Mary, Queen of Scots, succeeded her on the throne as James I.

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