King Henry VIII changed history in order to marry Anne Boleyn, hoping she could give him a son to be his heir. He already had a daughter, Mary, by his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, a princess of Spain, whom he divorced. The Pope would not allow the divorce, so Henry declared himself the Head of the Church of England, and disallowed any power the Pope might hold on English religion.
On September 7, 1533 in Greenwich Palace, Anne had a daughter, who was named Elizabeth. A few years later, Henry accused Anne of incest, which historians agree was probably untrue – but Anne was beheaded in May 1536, and Elizabeth, not even three years old, was sent to live with relatives so she wouldn’t remind Henry of Anne. Henry had remarried Jane Seymour, who gave birth to Henry’s son, Edward, later to be Edward VI, but died soon afterwards.
Catherine Parr, Henry’s sixth and final wife, brought Elizabeth and Mary back to court. As the Dowager Queen, she moved away from court and left the ruling of the country to Edward VI, who was still a young boy. Edward Seymour (young Edward’s uncle) became Lord Protector of England. Elizabeth went with Catherine, but left after an incident with Catherine’s new husband, Thomas Seymour, and rumors of the time suggested that Catherine caught them kissing, or perhaps even in bed together. Catherine died soon after Elizabeth’s departure.
Young King Edward was always sickly, and came down with consumption, or tuberculosis. It seemed that he would die too young to have a child to be his heir, and it became a dangerous time for Princess Elizabeth. She was Henry’s daughter, she was in Henry’s will as an heir, she was in line for the throne and so was a target of many marriage proposals.
Thomas Seymour asked Elizabeth to marry him, but she refused. However, both were suspected of plotting against Edward. Elizabeth was not questioned, but Seymour was arrested and eventually executed for treason after an attempt to kidnap the young king. Elizabeth, upon hearing of the Lord Admiral’s death, was marked as saying “Today died a man of much wit, and very little judgment.”
Edward’s declining health began a movement of Protestants who did not want Mary, a Catholic, to gain the throne. Lady Jane Grey, a descendant of Henry’s sister Mary, was also considered a possible heir. When Edward died in 1553, Jane was proclaimed Queen by her father and father-in-law, but more people supported Mary. Elizabeth took Mary’s side, and refused to support the revolt led by Sir Thomas Wyatt. Jane Grey was Queen for only nine days, until Mary and Elizabeth arrived in London. Jane and her husband were sent to the Tower.
Mary felt threatened by the Protestant Elizabeth and imprisoned her in 1554 on the false charge of having been part of Wyatt’s rebellion. Later, she claimed to follow Roman Catholicism and was released. Prince Philip of Spain, Mary’s new husband, made her even more unpopular as the pair hunted down and executed Protestants who would not convert. Many rebellions were made in the effort to establish Elizabeth as Queen, even though she had hardly any knowledge of them. But Mary realized the danger of her sister’s followers, and jailed her in the Tower.
Elizabeth was very frightened of the Tower, a constant reminder of her mother’s death, and she had to suffer the added indignity of entering through Traitor’s Gate. She was taken to the Tower at night so her supporters would not find out. It was cold and rainy, and Elizabeth sat, soaking wet, on the stairs from the river and refused to enter the Tower. Her governess finally got her to enter, and eventually Elizabeth was allowed to leave the Tower for Hatfield House, though she remained under house arrest.
The reason for Elizabeth’s freedom was that Mary was supposedly pregnant. She was nearly 40 by now, and though she looked pregnant there was no baby. Historians now think that she had a large ovarian cyst, which led to her failing health and death. When Mary died on November 17, 1558, Elizabeth became the Queen of England, and so began one of the greatest reigns in English history. She received a country broken apart by religious hatred, economic chaos and war, and though Elizabeth could be very vain and headstrong, her duty to her country always came first. The policies of her excellent advisors and her bright personality, which proved to the people that she truly was “Good King Harry’s daughter,” made her popular with her subjects.
Once Elizabeth was Queen, she was an even more tempting target for men seeking a wealthy, powerful bride. Parliament also thought she ought to marry and have a child to inherit her throne. However, Elizabeth would hear none of it, and in a speech before Parliament once said, “And in the end this shall be for me sufficient, that a marble stone shall declare that a Queen, having reigned such a time, lived and died a virgin. ” She became known as the Virgin Queen, from which came the name of Virginia Colony, and later the state. However, this didn’t prevent her from accepting alliances and wealth as gifts from men like the Duke of Alencon. Elizabeth favored each suitor when it was in her political interest to do so, but she did have some favorites such as Robert Dudley, 1st earl of Leicester, Sir Walter Raleigh, and Robert Devereux, 2nd earl of Essex.
Elizabeth’s reign is often referred to as the Golden Age of England. Though Elizabeth had many huge problems to face when she first took the throne, she managed to handle every stumbling-block with tact and grace. Her cousin Mary, Queen of Scots, fled her country in the 1560s, after being defeated by her half-brother James. She arrived in England, where she hoped to receive protection from Elizabeth, but Mary, as a possible Catholic heir to the throne, posed a serious threat and was immediately taken into house arrest. When a plot arose centered on Mary, Elizabeth signed the warrant and Mary was executed February 8th, 1587. Spain’s colonies had been raided by English mariners, and Mary’s death gave Philip II reason to up the ante in the dispute that had continued between the two countries for two years. In 1588, the Spanish Armada sailed against England, only to suffer a crushing defeat. This enabled England to replace Spain’s colonies in the New World with its own settlers and become an intimidating presence on the seas in the 15th and 16th centuries. In addition, the defeat of a formidable Catholic power like Spain gave Protestantism a recognized part in international politics.
In her later years, Elizabeth lost popularity due to her overspending, heavy-handed rule and ineffective ministers. An uprising in Ireland, led by Hugh O’Neill, overcame an army led by Devereux, one of Elizabeth’s favorites, and when he returned he led his own revolt against the queen and was executed in 1601, much to Elizabeth’s dismay. She finished her life sad and lonely, having outlived a glorious age, the beginning of modern England. In addition to political triumphs, the Elizabethan era saw one of the greatest periods of English literature from Edmund Spenser, Christopher Marlowe, Shakespeare and many others. Elizabeth was the last of the Tudor line, dying in London on March 24, 1603 and was succeeded by James I, the son of Mary, Queen of Scots and the first of the Stuart rulers in England.
1. “Elizabeth I,” Microsoft Encarta 98 Encyclopedia. 1993-1997 Microsoft
4. http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/mod/elizabeth1.html#Response to a
Delegation on her Marriage