Elizabeth I of England - Famous and Infamous Rulers
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12-12-2018    234 times
Elizabeth I England

Born at Greenwich Palace on 7 September 1533, Elizabeth was the second child of Henry VIII of England and his second wife, Anne Boleyn. She was born at a time when the laws of succession favoured boys. However, at her birth, Elizabeth was the heir presumptive of England, since her older half-sister, Mary had lost her position as a legitimate heir when Henry annulled his marriage to Mary's mother, Catherine of Aragon. In fact, Henry became disgusted with Catherine and eager to marry Anne Boleyn, as Catherine could not gift him a male child to ensure the Tudor succession. After a secret wedding on 14 November 1532, Henry formally married Anne on 25 January 1533.When Elizabeth was born, Henry was disappointed, but he hoped to have a son soon and professed to love Elizabeth. Anne subsequently had three miscarriages by 1536. By that time, Henry was courting Jane Seymour and in order to marry Jane Seymour, Henry had to hatch a plot.

On 2 May1536, Queen Anne Boleyn was arrested on charges of high treason, plotting to kill the king, adultery and incest. Along with the Queen, her brother George Boleyn, Sir Henry Norris and Lord Rochford were also arrested on charges of adultery with the Queen. They were tried before a jury of peers, found guilty on 15 May and Anne was beheaded four days later, when Elizabeth was only two years and eight months old. She was also removed from the line of succession altogether when her parents’ marriage was declared invalid prior to Anne Boleyn’s execution, and was only reinstated thanks to the kindly intervention of her last stepmother, Catherine Parr.

Anne Boleyn awaits her fate in the Tower of London.
Anne Boleyn awaits her fate in the Tower of London.

After the death of Henry VIII in 1547, Elizabeth's half-brother, Edward VI, became the king at the age of nine. Within a few days, Catherine Parr, Henry's widow, married Thomas Seymour, who was Edward VI's uncle and the brother of the Lord Protector, Edward Seymour. The newlywed couple took Elizabeth to their household at Chelsea, where the 14 year old Elizabeth experienced an emotional crisis, as she was sexually harassed time and again by Thomas Seymour. Finally, after Parr discovered the pair in an embrace, Elizabeth was sent away in May 1548.

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King Edward VI died on 6 July 1553, aged 15, probably due to consumption. Before his death, he excluded both Mary and Elizabeth from the succession and declared Lady Jane Grey as his heir, who was the granddaughter of Henry VIII's younger sister. Though she was proclaimed queen by the Privy Council, her support soon ebbed away and she was deposed after nine days. On 3 August 1553, Mary appeared triumphantly into London, with Elizabeth at her side and a procession of over 800 nobles and gentlemen.

Unlike Elizabeth, Mary was a devout Catholic and she was determined to crush the Protestant faith. She restored the heresy laws in England, which resulted in leading the Protestants being found guilty and executed. She immediately started to target the offenders at the stake. Almost 300 convicted nonconformist common people were burned to death, dozens more died in prison and not less than 800 fled to Protestant strongholds in Geneva and Germany. The terror that she created in her pursuit of the restoration of Roman Catholicism in England and Ireland made her infamous in history to be known as ‘Bloody Mary’ and it produced a torrent of reforming propaganda that she was unable to stem.

Bloody Mary - painting
Bloody Mary - painting

Mary was eager to find a suitable husband and producing an heir, which would prevent the Protestant Elizabeth from succeeding to the throne. She became engaged to Charles V’s son, Prince Philip of Spain, who was a catholic and more than a decade younger than Mary. However, her plan added more fuel to the public furor against her. In 1554, Thomas Wyatt organized a rebellion against Mary with the intention of making Protestant-raised Elizabeth queen. He wrote a letter to Elizabeth about this, but his letter was intercepted and the plot was uncovered. Elizabeth was interrogated about her involvement in the plot and was imprisoned in the Tower of London, where her mother was executed.

Philip, however, was far more calculative about the political implications of such an act on the part of Mary. He knew that the English were acutely sensitive about Mary’s decision of marrying a foreigner. He was also aware that the Protestant faith was still popular in the country and Mary would be blamed for taking such an unpopular decision about Elizabeth. If Elizabeth were harmed in any way for Mary’s action, his arrival in England would be even more unpopular and dangerous. After all, his intention was to wed Mary, be the crowned king of England and find a suitable husband for Elizabeth, preferably one of his Hapsburg relations. In that case, even if Mary died without bearing a child, England would remain within the Hapsburg sphere of influence, a willing and useful adjunct of the empire.

Tutorial at home
Tutorial at home

Accordingly, Philip wrote to Mary and advised her to set free Elizabeth. Mary did not like the idea at all. However, her eagerness for Philip’s arrival made her desperate to please him and on Saturday 19 May at one o’clock in the afternoon, Elizabeth was finally released from the Tower. Incidentally, eighteen years earlier, her mother had been executed on the same day. Elizabeth was released, but was put under house arrest in Woodstock, Oxfordshire.

Philip came to England to meet Mary for the first time in 1554 and the pair tied the knot two days later at Winchester Castle. Unfortunately for Mary, apart from public resentment about the marriage, famine and poverty added to her list of woes. But, the greatest tragedy of all was the humiliating and heartbreaking realization that her pregnancy was not real. She stopped menstruating, her stomach had become swollen, she had nauseating tendencies and she had truly believed she was pregnant. But, the child did not come. She was in pain, probably due to ovarian cysts or uterine cancer and died on 17 November 1558, at the age of 42. Before her death, on 6 November, she was forced to accept Elizabeth as her lawful successor.

Procession of coronation of Elizabeth I
Procession of coronation of Elizabeth I

On Mary's death in 1558, Elizabeth succeeded her half-sister to the throne amid bells, bonfires and set out to rule by good counsel. She became the queen at the age of 25 and was crowned at Westminster Abbey on 15th January 1559. Automatically, the English Reformation resumed its course and most of the reforms instituted during Edward's reign were reinstated. She removed the Pope as head of the English church and became the supreme Governor of the English Protestant church, which she established. A new Book of Common Prayer was introduced and an English translation of the Bible was published. Elizabeth intentionally avoided the strict enforcement of religious orthodoxies and took a pragmatic view of her subjects’ personal faith.

For the smooth running of the government, Elizabeth reduced the size of the Privy Council and assembled a core of experienced and trustworthy advisers. She was a Protestant, though her personal religious convictions have been much debated by scholars, as she kept Catholic symbols, like the crucifix and downplayed the role of sermons in defiance of a key Protestant belief. She was relatively tolerant and avoided systematic persecution. Yet, several conspiracies brew up and threatened her life, all of which were defeated with the help of her ministers' secret service.

The Battle of the Spanish Armada
The Battle of the Spanish Armada

Elizabeth was very much cautious in foreign affairs and she manoeuvered between the major powers of France and Spain. She half-heartedly supported a number of ineffective, poorly resourced military campaigns in the Netherlands, France, and Ireland. However, by the mid-1580s it became evident that England could no longer avoid a direct military confrontation with Spain. During that time, Philip II of Spain had begun to assemble an enormous fleet that would sail to the Netherlands, join forces with a waiting Spanish army under the command of the duke of Parma, and then proceed for an invasion and conquest of Protestant England. Though Elizabeth was always reluctant to spend money on military, she authorized sufficient funds to maintain a fleet of manoeuverable, well-armed fighting ships, to which could be added other vessels from the merchant fleet. As the so called invincible Armada reached English waters in July 1588, the queen’s ships, in one of the most famous naval encounters of history, defeated the enemy fleet. Finding no other way, the disarrayed Spanish fleet attempted to return to Spain, but was destroyed by terrible storms. The great explorer Francis Drake, who was the second-in-command of the English fleet against the Spanish Armada, was later knighted by Elizabeth in 1581.

Elizabeth knighting Drake
Elizabeth knighting Drake

Flame-haired, white-faced and always lavishly dressed, Elizabeth possessed a natural charisma and was loved by her people. It was expected that Elizabeth would marry and produce an heir; however, despite numerous courtship, she never did. She had many suitors and among them, Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester came closest to win her heart. They were very close and she appointed him as one of her most trusted advisors. Rumours started spreading about the nature of Robert's relationship with the Queen, when his wife, Lady Amy Dudley died suddenly in suspicious circumstances in 1560. Though Elizabeth wisely ignored the rumours, the precise nature of their relationship remained a mystery till this day. Gradually and consciously, she cultivated her image as a queen married to her job and her people. For this dedication Elizabeth earned the nickname the ‘Virgin Queen.’ She was a virgin queen indeed, who saw herself as wedded to her country and the colony of Virginia in America, was named after her. She was described by the poets and painters of the period as England’s Gloriana, the queen of the fairies; as Diana, the chaste goddess of the moon; Astraea, the goddess of justice.

Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester
Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester

Elizabeth's reign for 45 years is known as the Elizabethan era in history. The period is famous for the flourishing of English drama, led by playwrights such as Shakespeare and Marlowe. The first performance of Shakespeare's 'A Midsummer Night's Dream' was graced by the attendance of the queen. Country houses such as Longleat and Hardwick Hall were built during this era and miniature painting reached its was graced by the attendance of the queen. Country houses such as Longleat and Hardwick Hall were built during this era and miniature painting reached its high point. It also saw many brave voyages of discovery, including those of Francis Drake, Walter Raleigh, which prepared England for an age of colonisation and trade expansion. However, during Elizabeth's long reign, the nation also suffered from high prices and severe economic depression, especially in the countryside, during the 1590s.Though she kept a tight rein on public expenditure, Elizabeth left large debts to her successor.

The Queen's health remained fair until the autumn of 1602, when a series of deaths among her friends plunged her into a severe depression and she used to sit motionless on a cushion for hours on end. She breathed her last on 24 March 1603 at Richmond Palace, between two and three in the morning. Her coffin was carried downriver at night to Whitehall, on a barge lit with torches. On 28 April, the coffin was taken to the Westminster Abbey on a hearse drawn by four horses hung with black velvet. She was interred there in a tomb shared with her half-sister, Mary.

Elizabeth I Tomb Effigy
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Dibyendu Banerjee
Ex student of Scottish Church College. Served a Nationalised Bank for nearly 35 years. Authored novels in Bengali. Translated into Bengali novels/short stories of Leo Tolstoy, Eric Maria Remarque, D.H.Lawrence, Harold Robbins, Guy de Maupassant, Somerset Maugham and others. Also compiled collections of short stories from Africa and Third World. Interested in literature, history, music, sports and international films.
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