Queen Elizabeth I: The Controversies and the Accomplishments
Elizabeth I was one of England’s most famous and powerful queens and an iconic figure in world history. Known also as ‘The Virgin Queen’ and ‘Good Queen Bess’, she belonged to the House of Tudor – a golden age in English history – and reigned for a total of 45 years. Elizabeth’s reign became known as the Elizabethan era, and some of its achievements include the unification of her subjects who were divided along religious lines, the emergence of England as a major European power, and the flourishing of the arts. But her life was not without controversy.
Elizabeth’s Place in the Royal Family Tree
Elizabeth I was born on September 7, 1533. She was the daughter of Henry VIII and his second wife, Anne Boleyn . Before Elizabeth reached the age of three, her mother was charged with adultery, incest, and high treason and executed. By the time of her father’s death in 1547, Elizabeth was third in line to the English throne, behind her younger half-brother Edward and older half-sister Mary. Although she was not expected to inherit the throne, she was not neglected by her father and received an education that would have customarily been reserved for male heirs at the time.
Elizabeth's parents, Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn. Anne was executed less than three years after Elizabeth's birth. (Public Domain)
Henry VIII was succeeded by his son Edward VI who reigned for a mere six years before succumbing to tuberculosis at the age of 15. Edward was succeeded by Mary, who in turn ruled for five years until her death in 1558. As Mary died without issue, she was succeeded by her younger half-sister Elizabeth.
King Felipe II of Spain and Queen Mary I of England, during whose reign Elizabeth was heir presumptive. (Bedford Collection-Woburn Abbey / Public Domain)
Problems Waited for Queen Elizabeth I
One of the major problems faced by Elizabeth as she took up the reins of government was the religious division in the kingdom. Henry VIII had initiated the English Reformation and broke away from the Roman Catholic Church. The position of the newly-formed Church of England continued to be strengthened during Edward’s reign. His successor Mary, however, reversed the policies of her predecessors, leading to the restoration of Roman Catholicism in England.
Elizabeth sought to achieve a compromise between the two factions. She placed emphasis on the outward conformity of her subjects, declaring that she did not want to “make windows into men’s souls”, and that “there is only one Jesus Christ and all the rest is a dispute over trifles”.
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Queen Elizabeth I of England in her coronation robes, patterned with Tudor roses and trimmed with ermine. (Public Domain)
The Spanish Armada Backfires and Launches England’s Power
Elizabeth’s return to Protestantism and her re-establishment of the Church of England was one of the reasons for the launching of the Spanish Armada by Philip II of Spain, although it may be said that this occurred much later during Elizabeth’s reign, i.e. in 1588. The Spanish plan was to invade England, overthrow the queen, and re-establish Roman Catholicism in England. The invasion was a failure and a blow to the prestige of Spain, which was a superpower at that time.
On the other hand, the defeat of the supposedly invincible Armada was a great morale boost, not only for England, but also for other Protestant countries in Europe. Although Spain continued to dominate Europe for the next few decades, it now had a rival at sea and saw the beginnings of England as a major player in European politics.
English fireships are launched at the Spanish armada off Calais (Eastfarthingan / Public Domain)
Roman Catholics did not have an easy time during the reign of Elizabeth. Fines were introduced for attending mass, while the saying or arranging of mass carried the death penalty – though Elizabeth disliked such extremism and so executions were rarely carried out in the early days of her reign. Her stance was that as long as Catholics remained loyal to her as the queen and did not engage in any actions of civil disobedience, they were free to believe what they wished.
However, as the threat from Catholics and from Europe increased during her reign, and Pope Pius V issued a Papal Bull in 1570 stating that Elizabeth and all her subjects were excommunicated, the Elizabethan government began to take a much more severe stance. The entrance of Jesuit priests into the country was prohibited by law but they continued to come and loyal Catholics sheltered them within their homes, often in priest holes. Any priests that were caught were imprisoned, often tortured, and then executed for treason, as was anyone caught sheltering him.
The consequences if a priest were captured. Engraving by Gaspar Bouttats. (Public domain)
Accomplishments in the Elizabethan Age
Despite the constant threats to Queen Elizabeth I, the late part of her reign saw the flourishing of the arts. Painting and theatre as well as music were all benefitted by the interests of Queen Elizabeth I. English literature, in particular, especially in the genre of drama, saw new gains. It was during the Elizabethan era that William Shakespeare , arguably the most influential English playwright, lived and worked. Some of the Bard’s contemporaries included fellow playwright Christopher Marlowe and the poet Edmund Spencer. The composers William Byrd and Thomas Tallis were also favored by the queen.
Queen Elizabeth I also played a role in “voyages of discovery.” Explorers such as Sir Francis Drake, Walter Raleigh, and Humphrey Gilbert all adied England in its goal of expanding its territories through colonization and trade. 1599 also saw the establishment of the East India Company.
Popularity Does Not Last Forever…
Although Elizabeth had been a well-loved ruler, her popularity fell during the latter part of her reign. Having successfully defended England against the Spanish Armada, Elizabeth launched military campaigns against Spain. These undertakings were not successful and resulted in the kingdom being laden with debt. The financial strains placed on the kingdom by these wars made life difficult for the people and her debts were inherited by her successor.
Elizabeth I died when she was 69 years old. She died on March 24, 1603 in Richmond Palace. The cause of her death is something of a mystery because a post-mortem was not allowed. However, some scholars believe she may have died of pneumonia, streptococcus, or cancer. Others say that the queen’s vanity may have led to her demise through blood poisoning due to her heavy usage of the toxic lead-based makeup known as “Venetian Ceruse.” The poisonous nature of this substance was not recognized until three decades after the death of Queen Elizabeth I.
Queen Elizabeth the I is buried in Westminster Abbey. Her remains are in the same vault as Mary I and an inscription in Latin is written near the half-sisters stating, ‘Partners in throne and grave, here we sleep Elizabeth and Mary, sisters in hope of the Resurrection.’
Funeral of Elizabeth I of England. The casket of the queen is accompanied by mourners bearing the heraldic banners of her ancestors' coats of arms marshalled (side-by-side) with the arms of their wives. (Susan Doran / Public Domain)
Elizabeth’s death in 1603 marked the end of the House of Tudor and she was succeeded by James VI and I of the House of Stuart.
Elizabeth l, the Virgin Queen?
Queen Elizabeth I is known also as the Virgin Queen as she never married. It has been claimed that this was a shrewd decision on the part of Elizabeth. Marrying a foreign prince would have repercussions on the kingdom’s foreign policy. While marrying a fellow Englishman would have resulted in the queen being embroiled in factional in-fighting. Queen Elizabeth I is famously reported to have declared “I have already joined myself in marriage to a husband, namely the kingdom of England.”
However, Elizabeth I’s refusal to marry has also given rise to a rather far-fetched conspiracy theory known as the ‘Bisley Boy’ story. According to this story, the real Elizabeth had died as a young girl and was replaced by the only similar looking child that could be found, i.e. a boy. Although the idea allegedly predates him, Bram Stoker, of Dracula fame, is the first to have written this conspiracy theory down after witnessing the tradition of a boy being dressed in Elizabethan clothing as the May Queen during May Day celebrations in the village of Bisley.
An allegorical portrait of Elizabeth I by an unknown artist dated to circa 1610. (Public Domain)
Today, most scholars discredit this idea as nothing more than a conspiracy against powerful Queen Elizabeth I, a monarch who changed the face of English history forever.
Top image: Portrait of Elizabeth I (1533 - 1603) The Armada Portrait 1600c. (Lisby / Flickr)
Updated on July 1, 2020.
Borman, T., 2015. 7 things you (probably) didn’t know about Elizabeth I. [Online]
Available at: https://www.historyextra.com/period/elizabethan/7-things-you-probably-didnt-know-about-elizabeth-i/
Morrill, J. S. & Greenblatt, S. J., 2018. Elizabeth I. [Online]
Available at: https://www.britannica.com/biography/Elizabeth-I
The BBC, 2018. Elizabeth I. [Online]
Available at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/people/elizabeth_i
www.biography.com, 2018. Queen Elizabeth I. [Online]
Available at: https://www.biography.com/people/queen-elizabeth-i-9286133