Few are unaware of the great and famous Queen Elizabeth I, the legendary, fire-haired woman often considered to be England’s greatest monarch. Before her succession to the throne her father King Henry VIII made history in England by breaking away from the Roman Catholic Church, and establishing himself as head of the Church of England. Elizabeth was a product of his second marriage to Anne Boleyn, whom Henry Tudor had divorced his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, in order to marry. Anne was cloaked in enough scandal herself, seducing the King who had already taken Anne’s sister, Mary Boleyn, as a lover. Anne, however, refused to become a mistress as Mary had. Her denial, and Henry’s desire for a legitimate son, convinced Henry to divorce Catherine, reject papal authority and in turn spur the English Reformation.
After being imprisoned by her sister, Queen Mary, for nearly a year on suspicion of supporting Protestant rebels, Elizabeth succeeded the throne at age 25 on January 15, 1559.
Immediately, she re-established the English Protestant church Queen Mary had destroyed, and elected herself supreme governor. After Mary’s bloody murder of nearly 300 people, Elizabeth took a lighter note toward religion. Though she undid much of Mary’s previous work to restore Rome’s church, Elizabeth desired not to offend Catholics too greatly. Learning from her sister’s mistakes, Elizabeth realized that a wave of killings and persecution could lead to revolution, or at the very least a decline in her popularity. In the end, she created a parliament in 1559 that still placed the monarch at its head, but contained many Catholic elements. The queen was then quoted saying, “There is only one Christ, Jesus, one faith. All else is a dispute over trifles.”
Her most scandalous act, it would seem, came from her refusal to marry. This act though, would prove integral in preserving Elizabeth’s throne and reputation as a worthy ruler. Her older sister, Mary, had been the country’s first Queen Regent. At the time women were considered incapable of ruling as the inferior sex. During her reign Mary had been determined to produce an heir to cut Elizabeth from the succession, and so quickly married King Philip II of Spain. It was expected that Philip would then become King of England.
Elizabeth, seeing her noble’s determination to pass the crown to a man, denied many offers for her hand. The reasons given for her refusals are varied and often ridiculous. The most sound explanation suggests that Elizabeth knew a marriage to the wrong person might provoke political instability, though it seems most likely she feared that a marriage would result in her loss of power, as it had for Queen Mary. The least substantiated theories for her permanently single status include rumors that Elizabeth knew herself to be infertile or was put off of sexual relationships due to an early disappointment with a nobleman named Thomas Seymour. These theories all seem inconsequential when reading just a few quotes from the many writings of Elizabeth, which clearly point to her desire to remain free to rule. She is reported to have said, “I will have her [England] but one mistress and no master.”
The one man who might have changed Elizabeth’s mind was her childhood friend Robert Dudley, though he had a wife. It was common knowledge that the two shared an intimate relationship, and Elizabeth often brought up the possibility of marrying Dudley to her Privy Council. Unfortunately, when Dudley’s wife died he was suspected of the murder, at least by the people of England. Dudley was not popular previously, and the events led Elizabeth to understand that marriage to him, while it was her heart’s desire, would lead to the possibility of the nobility rising against her as well as her own people’s disapproval. So Elizabeth chose England first, keeping Robert Dudley to the side, though still very much at the center of her emotional life.
Elizabeth was also intelligent enough to use her permanently single status as a form of negotiation. Having no heirs to marry off, Elizabeth included her own possible marriage negotiations in her foreign policy. She “considered” marriage to the Archduke Charles of Austria for years, from 1559 to 1569. Afterwards, Elizabeth made public the possibility of marrying the French prince Henry, Duke of Anjou from 1572 to 1581 and then after him his brother, Francis. The proposal was part of an alliance against the Spanish, yet years earlier, in 1563, Elizabeth had told an imperial envoy, “If I follow the inclination of my nature, it is this: beggar-woman and single, far rather than queen and married.”
Though seen as her responsibility to marry and produce heirs, Elizabeth may have shown more wisdom in the matter of protecting herself and her country by avoiding children -despite advisors’ wishes. Elizabeth had been alive for the death or removal of seven English queens before her, including the beheading of her mother, then subjected to the endless plots between herself and her own siblings. She knew that naming an heir, even a young one, could result in political coups and her own removal from the throne. Whereas if the succession remained a question, her death would produce unavoidable chaos. The possibility of war prevented many uprising against the queen, whose death would result in a monarch-less country, making England a target for foreign occupation.
Elizabeth’s refusal to marry had the added benefit of creating a god-like image of the queen. Previously, her status as a woman caused nobles and peasants both to question her ability to rule. Over time, Elizabeth’s virginal status caused the common people to perceive her as a goddess, above normal women, who were generally depicted as lustful, silly, and dumb. Elizabeth claimed she was chosen by God as had been the monarchs before her, and that she was therefore superior to not only the average female, but also the average person. In her famous Golden Speech, given to her military before battle, Elizabeth said, “I know I have the body of a weak and feeble woman, but I have the heart and stomach of a king, and a King of England too.” Though Elizabeth was forced to separate herself from other women, she retained her ability to reign, resulting in a rule that lasted 45 years, until her death on March 24th, 1603.
The time of her reign became known as the Elizabethan era and was widely considered a golden age. Even after her death, Elizabeth would continue to be perceived as a Protestant heroine. Though it was the first real rule of an English queen, Elizabeth managed to not only pave the way for future female leaders, but also out-did her male predecessors, including her father King Henry. The years of her rule were revered as a time when the crown, church and parliament worked in balance. Pope Sixtus V, despite her refusal to let him lead England’s church, marveled at her military prowess and foreign policy stating, “She is only a woman, only mistress of half an island and yet she makes herself feared by Spain, by France, by the Empire, by all.”
Author bio: Elizabeth Eckhart is an entertainment and film blogger for Direct-ticket.net. She has seen every film adaptation of Elizabeth I’s life and has read every Tudor related book she can get her hands on.