Queen Elizabeth I's rule set a golden legacy for Britain

Elizabeth II's 70-year 'platinum' reign has set records, but it was the first Queen Elizabeth who set the standard for monarchs who followed.

By Editors of National Geographic
Published 14 Jun 2022, 10:24 BST
A portrait of Elizabeth I (circa 1600) in the golden robes she wore at her coronation in 1559.
Photograph by Image courtesy of National Portrait Gallery, London, UK, Bridgeman Images

The UK pulled out the stops between June 2 and 5, 2022 to celebrate Queen Elizabeth II’s Platinum Jubilee, marking her 70th year on the throne—the longest reign for any British monarch. Another Queen Elizabeth, Elizabeth I (1533–1603), made history in the late 1500s, not for the length of her reign (“only” shy of 45), but for moving England into a booming period of politics, exploration, and the arts—a so-called Golden Age. Clever and strong-willed, she faced numerous obstacles along the way, each one seemingly more challenging than the next—yet nothing she couldn’t overcome.

Family troubles

Elizabeth wasn’t supposed to be queen. Born on September 7, 1533, to Henry VIII and his second wife, Anne Boleyn. Elizabeth lost her line to succession when her father had her mother executed for adultery and treason in 1536, and Henry disowned Elizabeth. Eventually she was welcomed back into the family and reinstated third in the line of succession.

A painting depicts England's King Henry VIII.
Photograph by Image courtesy of National Portrait Gallery, National Geographic Image Collection
Henry’s marriage to Anne Boleyn required England’s tumultuous split from the pope and Rome. She gave birth to Elizabeth I in 1533. After she failed to produce a son, Henry had her executed in 1536.
Photograph by Image courtesy of Musee Conde, Chantilly, France, Bridgeman Images

Upon Henry’s death in 1547, 10-year-old Edward, Elizabeth’s younger half-brother (and son of wife number 3 Jane Seymour), took the throne. The frail king died in 1553, and Mary, Elizabeth’s older half-sister, eventually became queen. 

A religious zealot bent on returning England to the Roman Catholic faith, Mary I believed Elizabeth planned to overthrow the government to restore Protestantism. She arrested Elizabeth and sent her to the Tower of London in spring 1554, where the young woman barely escaped the fate of her mother.

Religious strife

After the death of Queen Mary on November 17, 1558, Elizabeth ascended to the throne in a joyful celebration in January 1559. But the religious conflict did not go away. Elizabeth's subjects now embraced a wide range of religious beliefs. Where, precisely, on a wide range of doctrinal and other issues, did Elizabeth’s sympathies lie? Many believed Roman Catholic, but she kept her inner convictions to herself.

Elizabeth I, surrounded by courtiers, on one of her regular summer “progresses” around her kingdom.
Photograph by Image courtesy of Private Collection, Bridgeman Images

Realising it would be impossible to satisfy all parties in the religious conflicts that had torn the realm apart, and with her own legitimacy hinging on the break with Rome, the queen restored Protestantism. She made it clear there would be no return to Catholicism, but that there would also be religious tolerance for outward, if not inward, obedience.

Marriage considerations

A rare English gold coin bears the portrait of Elizabeth I.
Photograph by Hoberman Collection, Universal Images Group, Getty Images

Elizabeth’s next dilemma was marriage. Given the experiences of her mother, father, and half sis­ter Mary, securing an heir and the succession was a fraught issue. Elizabeth realised that to marry a foreigner invited overseas entangle­ments and alliances; to marry an Englishman risked domestic factions and jealousies that could spill over into revolt. Her solution was equivocation: Instead of marrying, she would remain single indefi­nitely, wedded to her country and her subjects. “England,” said Elizabeth, “would have but one mis­tress and no master.”

Rivals and threats

As her reign progressed, circumstance inevi­tably forced Elizabeth to become more accommodating of dissent. Nowhere was this truer than in relations with Scotland, which by 1560 had experienced a reformation of its own, propelled into an austere Protestant position by hardliners such as the Calvinist John Knox. As in England, Scotland’s religious upheavals pitched Protestant against Catholic, and one Catholic in particular: Scotland’s monarch, Mary, Queen of Scots. 

Mary was Elizabeth’s cousin once removed. As long as Elizabeth remained childless, Mary was next in line to the English throne; the fact that Mary had already born a male heir, James Stuart, in 1566, was also of concern to Elizabeth. Religious dissent and political scheming led to Mary's forced abdication in 1567. Leaving her young son behind, she fled to England, where she would spend the rest of her life.

Mary’s Catholicism made her a figurehead for English Catholics, and thus a danger to Elizabeth's Protestant rule. For 19 years, Mary was held as Elizabeth's prisoner, confined to a variety of castles around the country. Things became worse for Elizabeth I in 1570, when Pope Pius V declared her a heretic and excommunicated her, releasing Catholics from any allegiance to the queen. Plot followed plot, and Elizabeth’s advisers pleaded in vain to execute Mary. It was not until 1586 that Elizabeth (reluctantly) ordered her cousin’s death, only after Mary was convicted of plotting to assassinate the queen and take her throne. 

Enemies abroad

Foreign affairs also forced change on Elizabeth I. Spain ruled at the time as the world’s most powerful country, and the Spanish king, Philip II, plotted to dethrone Elizabeth. Although England was a small country with little wealth, Elizabeth effectively sanctioned acts of piracy—or privateering—against Spain and its colonial possessions by championing Sir Francis Drake, Sir John Hawkins, and other seafarers who made their names in this period. 

This plundering angered Philip immensely. He prepared a great fleet to invade England, and Elizabeth was left with no choice but to confront Spain. English soldiers and sailors met the Spanish fleet along the English shore, fighting furiously for their liberty. The Spanish Armada faced a humiliating defeat in a battle.

End of an era

The English sent fireships laden with gunpowder into the heart of the Spanish Armada. Although few enemy vessels were destroyed, the Spanish fleet broke and fled in panic. The English pursued and hunted down their foe at the Battle of Gravelines. Storms and treacherous seas completed the Spanish rout.
Photograph by Image courtesy of Leemage, Corbis via Getty Images
This 1828 oil painting by French artist Paul Delaroche shows the death of Queen Elizabeth I.
Photograph by Image courtesy of Artepics, Alamy Stock Photo

After 1588, the flavour of Elizabeth’s reign began to change as death deprived an ageing queen of friends and advisers. There were also military setbacks against Spain and in Ireland, along with higher taxes, failed harvests, and widespread unemployment in England. Yet Elizabeth’s carefully nurtured personality cult, along with her redoubtable will, survived to the end. She died a virgin queen, as promised, and thus brought an end to the Tudor dynasty: Her successor was the son of Mary, Queen of Scots—a Stuart named James VI of Scotland and James I of England and Ireland.

Portions of this work have previously appeared in Atlas of the British Empire. Copyright © 2020 National Geographic Partners, LLC. To learn more, check out Atlas of the British Empire. Available wherever books and magazines are sold.


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