There was great rejoicing when Elizabeth I was crowned in 1559. Bells pealed and bonfires were lit. It was sweet reward for a sensitive person who had been closely guarded as a young girl and imprisoned by her half-sister Mary. Now twenty-five years old, she was red-haired, green-eyed and handsome, rather than beautiful.
Although she had been largely neglected by her father and often in danger of her life from those who considered her illegitimate, she had, nevertheless, been well educated. She spoke several languages fluently, including Latin. She possessed a wisdom and knowledge far beyond her years and surprised her ministers by taking charge of the affairs of State immediately on coming to the throne. Her advisor was William Cecil, who served her well for 40 of her 45 year reign.
Apart from Cecil, she never fully trusted anyone and always kept her feelings to herself. She never married, using as an excuse the fact that she was married to England and so earned the moniker “Virgin Queen.” Nevertheless, she enjoyed the flattery and attention of handsome young men, including suitors from France, Spain, Sweden, and Germany, as well as Scotland and England. But she resisted any lasting attachment (not even with her favorite, the Earl of Leicester) while using the possibility of marriage as a negotiating ploy.
She put the country’s economy in order, welcomed talented Protestant refugees from Europe, instituted laws to protect labor exploitation and encouraged English citizens to be self-reliant. The country adored her as she toured its towns and rural areas. They called her “Gloriana.” She strengthened the navy and sent Francis Drake (more about him later) to what was then Spanish America to share in the treasures Spain was extracting. Art and the theater thrived, while Shakespeare wrote plays that are in school curricula today. Architecture also flourished and country houses replaced fortified castles, and were considered the best places to live. These houses were often built in the shape of an “E” (for Elizabeth). The wealthy built in stone and brick but the middle classes used wood and plaster incorporating large leaded windows and huge wooden beams. These buildings are still very visible today as a mark of the “Elizabethan age.”
In Elizabethan times the 4 million population of England was small compared to other countries like France with 16 million and Spain’s 8 million, but Elizabeth had brought prosperity and stature to England. Spain was becoming very angry at their constant raiding of its treasure ships and English support of the Netherlands against Spanish rule of the lowlands. When Elizabeth executed her Catholic cousin, “Mary Queen of Scots,” for plotting against her, it was clear that the Catholic cause in England was doomed and Philip II of Spain assembled a huge fleet (Armada) and sailed against England in 1588. In preparation for this tremendous onslaught Elizabeth mounted on a great gray horse and spoke to her land troops at Tilbury.
“I am come amongst you… being resolved, in the midst and heat of the battle, to live or die amongst you all; to lay down for God, my kingdom, and for my people, my honor and my blood, even in the dust. I know I have but the body of a weak and feeble woman; but I have the heart and stomach of a king, and a king of England too.”
As we will see in the section on Francis Drake, the Spanish Armada never landed in England and thus Elizabeth never had to become physically involved in this battle. Still, her words inspired her soldiers and were typical of her ability as an orator.
Elizabeth would live another 15 years and her last act was to name James, the son of Mary Queen of Scots (the cousin she had had executed) as her successor. It is a tribute to the stability of her rule that the succession was peaceful and smooth. After years of conflict, Scotland‘s king, James Stuart (James I), also became king of England. The two countries of Scotland and England thereby became united without a shot being fired.
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