Elizabeth I (15331603), queen of England and Ireland. Strong-willed Elizabeth was one of the most powerful rulers in English history. She declared: I know I have the body of a weak and feeble woman, but I have the heart. .. of a king. In her reign of nearly 45 years (15581603) Elizabeth appointed able ministers to advise her, but the final word was usually hers. Her devotion to England was unequaled. Elizabeth's schemes, her bold ventures, and her shrewd decisions long kept England out of foreign wars, expanded its commerce, held the nation together despite perilous religious strife, and laid the foundation of the British Empire.Elizabeth I became Queen of England and Ireland in 1558.
During Elizabeth's reign England reached greatness. It was an age of adventure, exploration, and brilliant literature and drama. This era is called the Elizabethan Period or Elizabethan Age. Its notable figures include William Shakespeare, Sir Francis Drake, Sir Walter Raleigh, Edmund Spenser, Sir Francis Bacon, and Sir Philip Sidney.
Elizabeth was born September 7, 1533, in Greenwich palace, London. She was the only child of Henry VIII and his second wife, Anne Boleyn. She grew up in stormy times that included a break with the Roman Catholic Church. Elizabeth was not quite three years old when Henry had her mother beheaded, and was married to Lady Jane Seymour. Although Elizabeth lived on a country estate away from her father, he directed her education. Tutors, including the liberal scholar Roger Ascham, found her a brilliant student. She read eagerly in Greek, and spoke well in Latin, French, Italian, and Spanish. She was reared a Protestant.
Princess Elizabeth was devoted to her frail young half-brother Edward, son of Henry and Lady Jane. He ascended the throne as Edward VI in 1547. After his death in 1553 Mary I, Elizabeth's Catholic half-sister, became ruler. When Mary restored the Catholic clergy to power, Elizabeth prudently followed Catholic practices. Mary's supporters, however, believed that Elizabeth plotted against the queen. In 1554 Elizabeth was imprisoned and questioned for two months in the Tower of London.
At the death of Mary in 1558, Elizabeth became queen. She was 25 years oldtall, slender, with red-gold hair and deep-set eyes. Throughout her life she walked as erectly as a soldier. Elizabeth, last of the House of Tudor, was vain and haughty, yet the common people liked her and called her Good Queen Bess. She dressed regally, covered her long slim fingers with jewels, sometimes spat and cursed in her deep voice, rode hard, and enjoyed the savage spectacle of bear-baiting. She was unpredictable and often sly.
Elizabeth has been called heartless because she ordered the beheading of her cousin Mary, Queen of Scots, and of the Earl of Essex. Such executions, however, were not unusual in that era of plots and violence. For 17 years Parliament demanded that Elizabeth execute Mary, a Catholic and heir to the English throne. Elizabeth refused until Mary was involved in a plot in 1586 to murder the queen.
Elizabeth, even in late years, had many suitors. Some, such as the Earl of Leicester, became favorites, but she never married. She remained the Virgin Queen probably because she was determined to hold the royal power in her own hands.
The strength of Elizabeth as a statesman lay largely in her ability to compromise and to delay. Catholics and Protestants demanded greater religious privileges. By conceding a little to each faith she held both groups in check and kept England from religious wars. When advisers demanded invasion of Europe, Elizabeth refused funds from the royal treasury until delay could help build up England's naval power.
She occasionally made bold moves. She sanctioned raids by John Hawkins, Francis Drake, and other English privateers on Spanish treasure galleons. To share in the booty, she contributed ships and money. When confident of England's naval strength, she openly engaged Philip II of Spain in warfare and in 1588 her fleet thwarted an invasion attempt by defeating the Spanish Armada.
The ambitious queen took farsighted steps to extend England's power. In 1584 she encouraged Sir Walter Raleigh to send ships to explore the American coast. He claimed a large portion of the coast for England, naming it Virginia, in honor of Elizabeth, the Virgin Queen. The next year he sent out men who founded a settlement on Roanoke Island, the first English colony in America. In 1600 Elizabeth granted a charter to the East India Company, whose trading posts in India became the foundation of Britain's empire in the East.
On her death, Elizabeth was succeeded by James VI of Scotland, the son of Mary, Queen of Scots. He became James I.