Elizabeth I (1558-1603 AD)
A Queen with the Heart of a King
The first Queen Elizabeth, whose name has become a synonym for the era which she dominated (1558-1603), was born in 1533 to Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn. Called "Gloriana" by Edmund Spenser in "The Faerie Queene", Elizabeth's deft politicalskills and strong personal character were directly responsible for putting England (at the time of her accession in 1558 a weak, divided backwater far outside the mainstream of European power and cultural development) on the road to becoming a true world economic and political power and restoring the country's lost sense of national pride. Although she entertained many marriage proposals and flirted incessantly (her closest brush with marriage came with Robert Dudley, earl of Leicester), she never married or had children. |
Elizabeth inherited a tattered realm: dissension between Catholics and Protestants tore at the very foundation of society; the royal treasury had been bled dry by Mary and her advisors, Mary's loss of Calais left England with no continental possessions for the first time since the arrival of the Normans in 1066 and many (mainly Catholics) doubted Elizabeth's claim to the throne. Continental affairs added to her problems - France had a strong foothold in Scotland, and Spain, the strongest European nation at the time, posed a threat to the security of the realm. Elizabeth proved most calm and calculating (even though she had a horrendous temper), employing capable and distinguished men to carrying out royal prerogative.
Her first order of business was to eliminate religious unrest. Elizabeth lacked the fanaticism of her siblings (Edward VI favored Protestant radicalism, Mary I, conservative Catholicism), which enabled her to devise a compromise that, basically, reinstated Henrician reforms. She was, however, compelled to take a stronger pro-Protestant stance when events demanded it, for two reasons: the machinations of Mary Queen of Scots and persecution of continental Protestants by the two strongholds of Orthodox Catholicism, Spain and France.
The situation with Mary Queen of Scots was most vexing to Elizabeth. Mary, in Elizabeth's custody beginning in 1568 (for her own protection from radical Protestants and disgruntled Scots), gained the loyalty of Catholic factions and instituted several-failed assassination/overthrow plots against Elizabeth. After irrefutable evidence of Mary's involvement in the plots came to light, Elizabeth sadly succumbed to the pressure from her advisors and had the Scottish princess executed in 1587.
The persecution of continental Protestants forced Elizabeth into war, a situation which she desperately tried to avoid. She sent an army to aid French Huguenots (Calvinists who had settled in France) after a 1572 massacre wherein over three thousand Huguenots lost their lives. She sent further assistance to Protestant factions on the continent and in Scotland following the emergence of radical Catholic groups and assisted Belgium in their bid to gain independence from Spain.
The situation came to head in 1588 after Elizabeth rejected a marriage proposal from Philip II of Spain. The indignant Spanish King, incensed by English piracy and forays in New World exploration, sent his much-feared Armada to raid England, inadvertently providing Elizabeth with an opportunity to put on public display those qualities of heart that one might not expect to find in those days, in a small, frail woman. She traveled to Tilbury, Essex, to address her troops as they awaited the coming battle with the feared Spanish naval forces. She told them,
As they say, the rest is history. The English won the naval battle handily, aided by some fortuitous inclement English Channel weather, and emerged as the world's strongest naval power, setting the stage for later English imperial designs.
Elizabeth was a master of political science. She inherited her father's supremacist view of the monarchy, but showed great wisdom by refusing to directly antagonize Parliament. She acquired undying devotion from her advisement council, who were constantly perplexed by her habit of waiting to the last minute to make decisions (this was not a deficiency in her makeup, but a tactic that she used to advantage). She used the various factions (instead of being used by them), playing one off another until the exhausted combatants came to her for resolution of their grievances. Few English monarchs enjoyed such political power, while still maintaining the devotion of the whole of English society.
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