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Elizabeth I: The Last Tudor Queen

The Tudor Family

Elizabeth's father was King Henry VIII of England--a big, red-haired man who liked to joust and feast. He also liked the ladies. For many years, he was mostly content with his marriage to Catherine of Aragon, a Spanish princess. They had a daughter, Mary, but no other children lived to maturity. Henry very much wanted a strong son to carry on his name and keep the kingdom safe.

If Catherine couldn't give him the son he wanted, he decided he would get his marriage annulled so he could marry someone else. If his marriage were annulled, it would be the same as if it had never taken place in the eyes of the law and the Catholic Church. He couldn't annul his marriage on his own. He had to ask the Pope's permission, and the Pope would not give it.

At this same time in Germany and other parts of Europe, a movement took place called the Protestant Reformation. People such as Martin Luther wanted to start new churches. In these churches, the Pope would not be in charge. Henry decided that he would start a church also, called the Church of England. The King was the boss of this church. One of the first things he did was to grant himself a divorce from Catherine. When Henry took charge of his new church, he got rid of the old ways. No more monasteries. No more Catholic priests. No more masses. English citizens who were solidly Catholic in their beliefs hated these new rules.

He lost no time in marrying his second wife, Anne Boleyn. On September 7, 1533, Anne gave him a daughter named Elizabeth who should have filled him with pride. But, she was a daughter, and that wasn't good enough for Henry. He got rid of Anne and married again. And again. And again. In all, Henry VIII had six wives. Wife number three, Jane Seymour, did give him a son before she died of childbed fever. But young Edward was never very healthy.

When Henry VIII finally died in 1547, his young son was determined to keep the country Protestant. Edward did not live very long after being crowned but during his rule, the Church of England stopped saying its services in Latin and adopted a new prayer book, The Book of Common Prayer, which made the Catholics even less happy.

At last with Edward's death, Mary, Catherine of Aragon' daughter, became the new ruler in 1553. She was determined to turn England back to the old days, before the Reformation. She was so ruthless in putting to death Protestants who opposed her that she earned the nickname Bloody Mary. She hoped to keep the country Catholic by marrying King Philip of Spain, but it was not to be. Philip and Mary had no children, and in 1558 Mary died. Her sister, Elizabeth, became queen.

Elizabeth decided not to persecute the Catholics unless they tried to overthrow her rule. In 1563, a compromise was struck (The Thirty-Nine Articles) which allowed some measure of religious freedom for the Catholics.

Plots and Treachery

Nevertheless, there were those, including the King of Spain and the Pope in Rome, who wanted to turn England back into a Catholic country. They supported Mary Stuart, also known as Mary, Queen of Scots, to overthrow Elizabeth. Some English Catholics remained loyal to Elizabeth while others joined the rebels. Eventually, Elizabeth imprisoned Mary and had her put to death, along with others who were judged to be traitors to the Crown.

As time went on, it became clear that Elizabeth didn't plan on marrying anyone, Catholic or Protestant. When she died at last in 1603, she passed her throne on to the James, the Protestant son of Mary, Queen of Scots. James ordered the creation of the Authorised King James' Version of the Bible, a new English translation. He was rather tolerant of Catholicism until the Gunpowder Plot of 1605 in which Guy Fawkes and other Roman Catholic conspirators tried to blow up Parliament.

The Queen's Favorites: The Gypsy, the Dragon, and Others

Although she never married and was never proven to have any significant romantic interests, Elizabeth did have her favorites. They were men of intelligence, ambition, and daring who swore to serve the Queen, while also serving their own interests.

Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester (pronounced "Lester"), had a lot of influence with Elizabeth. From the time she succeeded to the throne in 1558 until his death in 1588, he was her "dear Robin." Elizabeth gave him rich presents of lands and money. One of her most trusted ministers, William Cecil (Lord Burghley), disliked Leicester intensely for his influence on the Queen. On his deathbed, he warned her of "the gypsy's" evil influence. Dudley got along better with Francis Walsingham, another minister who was known as the queen's spymaster. Dudley's hopes to marry Elizabeth were never realized and eventually he married elsewhere. His stepson, Robert Devereux (Earl of Essex), became another young favorite for the aging queen. As his star was fading and another's rose, Essex made some treasonable overtures to King James VI of Scotland (Mary, Queen of Scots' son). He was found out, tried, and executed.

Sir Walter Raleigh At their first meeting, Sir Walter Raleigh spread his cloak over a puddle so the queen need not get her feet wet. She was intrigued with the handsome soldier from Devon who spoke intelligently of politics. He stayed at court for many years and made an enemy of the Earl of Leicester, who was jealous of his influence with the queen. He was also enemies with the Earl of Essex. Raleigh (also spelled Ralegh) became very rich from the queen's gifts and the booty from privateering. Raleigh was knighted in 1585 for his plans to found a colony in the New World, which he had already named Virginia after Elizabeth, "the Virgin Queen." In later years, he fell from favor at court. He then searched for the fabled El Dorado, the city of gold, but he never found it. Elizabeth's successor, King James I, imprisoned him for 15 years and eventually executed him.

Sir Francis Drake was another soldier/sailor from Devon. He and Captain Hawkins set out to prey upon the Spanish fleet to make up for their losses when the Spanish destroyed some of their vessels in Spanish America. He and the other "sea hawks" brought Elizabeth much gold from Spanish ships. In 1577, he set sail on the Golden Hind (also known as the Pelican) and sailed the world round, through the Pacific. When he came home to England in 1580, his ship laden with spices from the East and Spanish gold, the Spanish ambassador demanded that he and his crew be hanged as pirates. Elizabeth declared that the Spanish had treated English ships in much the same way. Furthermore, she declared that English ships had a right to sail anywhere! She made sure the Spanish got her point by knighting Francis Drake, whom the Spanish now called "El Draque" (the dragon). He was a commander when Spain tried to invade England by sea. The defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588 began England's long period of sea dominance across the world.

The Renaissance in England

Elizabeth's reign was by and large peaceful and prosperous at home. She encouraged not only local industries but also the arts. She was patron to a young playwright named William Shakespeare. He performed and wrote plays as part of a group called The Lord Chamberlain's Men, who built their own Globe Theatre in 1597. Other famous writers included Christopher Marlowe, Ben Jonson, Edmund Spenser, and Sir Francis Bacon. By the end of Elizabeth's reign, England's literacy rate had grown hugely: 30 percent overall and 60 percent for Londoners. The world was truly opening for England and her citizens. Across the Atlantic, England's expansion into the New World brought a promise of freedom for those who still felt fettered by the Old World's ways of religion, society, and politics.

If you would like to learn more about Elizabeth I and her time, Click on our Life in Elizabethan England Webliography for recommended book titles and Web sites.