Elizabeth I was Queen of England from 1558 to 1603, a period subsequently called The Golden Age or the Elizabethan Age. This was a time when England became a major European power in politics, commerce and the arts. It was also a period of great danger at home and abroad, but Elizabeth’s mixture of courage, astuteness and majestic self-displays inspired a powerful loyalty and unity from her subjects.
Elizabeth was the daughter of Henry VIII and his second wife, Anne Boleyn. Henry had Boleyn executed before Elizabeth was three. Elizabeth’s own position was precarious for many years, but she finally came to the throne on 17 November 1558, aged twenty-five. A woman ruler in a patriarchal world, Elizabeth had to create a new model of governing, in which she combined imperious command with an elaborate cult of love: she was the Virgin Queen, married to her kingdom.
To Marry or not to Marry
As soon as she became Queen, Elizabeth was faced with the question of marriage and providing an heir for her dynasty. For decades she would manipulate potential English and foreign suitors, always finally refusing marriage — she probably did not want to share her power, or to complicate politics. She also manipulated her rival (male) advisors.
I am already bound unto an husband, which is the kingdom of England... for every one of you, and as many as are English, are my children and kinsfolks.
The Religious Question
One of Elizabeth’s major problems was religion. The country had moved to Protestantism from Catholicism under Henry VIII, and the Queen was now the Supreme Governor of the Church of England. But many people were still Catholic, and Mary, Queen of Scots, was regarded by the Catholic Church as the rightful Queen of England. The 1560s and 1570s were a time of political intrigue and violence. Finally, Elizabeth reluctantly took the decision to have Mary executed in 1587. She firmly established the Church of England but imposed a compromise between the two faiths, keeping the peace.
The struggle between Catholics and Protestants also extended to Europe. Elizabeth tried to remain neutral in the religious struggle between Spain and France. In 1588, Spain attempted a naval invasion of Britain, with the Spanish Armada, but was defeated by the Queen’s ships in one of the most famous naval encounters in history. Before the battle, Elizabeth made the most significant speech of her reign. Addressing her forces, 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 of a king of England too.”
A Glorious Reign
Elizabeth’s reign is one of the most glorious in English history. England emerged as a world power, with voyages of discovery to the Americas and India, which helped prepare the country for colonisation and trade expansion in the future. At home, the arts flourished — Elizabeth was seen attending the first performance of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Through clever public relations, regularly showing herself in majestic outfits in public, Elizabeth wooed her people, earning loyalty and her own unique place in history.