On 7th September 1533, a baby girl was born to parents Anne Boleyn and King Henry VIII. She was named Elizabeth, and would eventually become Queen Elizabeth I - a woman who many believe was one of the greatest monarchs of England. She reigned for 44 years, from 1558 to her death in 1603.
Her father, Henry VIII, had been fervently hoping for a boy, and was bitterly disappointed when she was born. He did not even attend her christening. Her mother, Anne Boleyn, was executed by her father when Elizabeth was just three years old.
Despite her chaotic early life, Elizabeth grew into an intelligent and clever young woman. She was extremely well educated, becoming fluent in several languages including French, Italian and Latin. She also excelled at music, and was accomplished in mathematics and astronomy.
Imprisoned in the Tower
In 1553, Mary Tudor, Elizabeth’s half-sister, and the daughter of Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon, became Queen. At first the two sisters were on friendly terms, but then in 1554, Elizabeth was implicated in a plot to overthrow Mary. She was imprisoned in The Tower Of London - the same place where her mother, Anne Boleyn, had been held before her execution in 1536.
Letters written by Elizabeth at the time show that she was truly terrified, and was convinced that she would be executed. She spent a total of two months in the Tower. Eventually she was released as no real evidence against her could be found. Instead, she was sent to Oxfordshire and put under house arrest until 1555.
Ascending to the Throne
When Queen Mary I died in 1558 at the age of 42 after becoming ill, the crown passed to Elizabeth. Her coronation took place on 15th January 1559. She came to the throne with a dilemma - she herself was committed to the Protestant faith that she was brought up with. However, a large part of the population were Catholic. She needed to make sure the public supported her.
Elizabeth republished the English translation of the Bible. She brought back the Church of England (which her father, Henry VIII had established) and made attendance at church compulsory. People were fined if they did not attend services. However, she was quite tolerant of other religious views. Elizabeth believed that Catholicism and Protestantism were both essentially part of the same faith, Christianity. She is known to have said, ‘There is only one Christ, Jesus, one faith...all else is a dispute over trifles.’ Elizabeth’s more lenient approach to religion helped to calm the unrest in England at the time.
Mary, Queen of Scots
In 1568, Elizabeth’s cousin, Mary Queen of Scots, fled to England. Mary was a Catholic, but many of her nobles were Protestants, and they did not always support her decisions, so she came to England to seek help and support from her cousin.
However, Elizabeth was told by her advisers to be wary of Mary - she was a strict Catholic, with a claim to the English throne, which some believed was actually stronger than Elizabeth’s. Therefore, she was a threat to Elizabeth’s rule. When she arrived, Mary was placed under house arrest, and watched closely by Elizabeth’s spies. She was effectively a prisoner in England for almost 20 years.
In 1586, evidence was found that Mary was involved in a Catholic plot to overthrow Elizabeth. She was tried for treason, found guilty, and sentenced to death. However, Elizabeth was reluctant to sign her cousin’s death warrant. She put it off for four months before finally agreeing to the execution. The two women had never even met.
The Spanish Armada
During Elizabeth I’s reign, England and Spain were rivals, and there was constant unrest between the two countries. Phillip II, King of Spain, was enraged when Mary, Queen of Scots was executed - he was also a Catholic, and believed that Mary had more right to the English throne than Elizabeth. This, amongst other reasons, led King Phillip to attempt an attack on England in 1558. A fleet of warships, called the Armada, were assembled, and set sail for England.
Elizabeth addressed the troops, who were stationed ready to defend England if the Armada should land, and gave what is now considered to be one of her most famous speeches, which included the well-known words: ‘I know I have the body of a weak, feeble woman; but I have the heart and stomach of a king’.
After a disastrous fight at sea with the English fleet, the Spanish admitted defeat and attempted to sail home. However, they encountered severe storms and many of the ships were wrecked off the west coasts of Scotland and Ireland.
Queen Elizabeth was extremely pleased with the successful defeat of the Spanish Armada. She had the following sentence imprinted on medals to commemorate the victory: God blew and they were scattered.
The ‘Golden Age’
The Elizabethan era is often referred to as the golden age of English history because of all its artistic, cultural, social and political achievements.
As a result of Elizabeth’s patronage, art and music flourished during her reign. Theatre also became a very popular form of entertainment. Playwrights like William Shakespeare found huge success in London - Queen Elizabeth was known to be a fan of his work. It is thought by some that Titania, Queen of the Fairies, in ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream, was based on Elizabeth herself.
Due to improvements in navigation, the world could be more widely explored, and more trade routes set up. Sir Francis Drake became the first Englishman to circumnavigate the globe between 1577-1580.
In 1601, the queen passed a law which was intended to help the very poorest people in Elizabethan society. It was aptly named the ‘Poor Law’. This law made every parish responsible for its own poor. Overseers were elected whose job it was to ensure the needs of the poor were met.
The end of the Elizabethan Era
On 24th March 1603, Queen Elizabeth I, aged 69, died. As she had no children, there was no direct heir. After a 44-year reign, both the Elizabethan era and the Tudor period came to an end. She was succeeded by Mary, Queen of Scots’ son, James VI of Scotland, who became King James I of England.
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