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Who was Elizabeth I?

Updated on December 18, 2016

Elizabeth I (1533-1603), Queen of England (1558-1603), was the daughter of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn. During her childhood she received a good education and learned to speak several languages, but in the reigns of her brother Edward VI and her sister Mary I, she came under suspicion of being involved in treasonable plots and was closely watched and kept in semi-captivity.

In 1558 she succeeded to the throne of an impoverished divided country, menaced by France and Spain. With the able assistance of her chief minister, William Cecil (later Lord Burghley), she overcame all her difficulties, making a religious settlement that went some way towards satisfying both Protestants and Catholics, and fending off England's enemies, while building up the country's strength and restoring its navy. As regards France, she was lucky, for the ambitious Henry II died and the country became involved in a religious war, so she was able to conclude a peace treaty and to help destroy French influence in Scotland. Later, she kept Mary Queen of Scots, the Catholic claimant to her throne, prisoner for many years, only agreeing to her execution (1587) when war with Spain had become inevitable.

Towards Spain her policy was to keep up the pretense of friendship and to appear to consider marriage to Philip II, while giving 'undercover' help to his Protestant subjects in the Netherlands during the Dutch Revolt and encouraging her 'sea-dogs' to pursue their piratical expeditions.

When war finally came and the Armada sailed, Elizabeth's display of defiant courage inspired and united her people.

At home her reign was notable for an increase in prosperity and the formation of trading companies, for attempts to solve the problems of vagrancy and unemployment, for the Queen's crafty management of her parliaments and for a flowering of the arts of music, poetry and drama. The achievements of Shakespeare, Marlowe, Jonson, Spenser and the composers Dowland and Byrd are the glories of the Elizabethan period. Drake, Hawkins, Frobisher and Raleigh founded a seafaring tradition that led to England's subsequent naval superiority. Towards Ireland Elizabeth's policy was one of cruel suppression, which aroused bitter hatred of English rule.

Elizabeth was possibly the greatest and best loved of all the English monarchs. She was intelligent, self-willed, brave and astute, besides being vain and maddeningly capricious; much of her success as a ruler arose from her cleverness in adopting delaying tactics; towards the question of her marriage and in her foreign and religious policies she avoided decisions for as long as possible.

Though she had a weakness for favorite like Leicester and Essex, she never allowed them to influence the nation's affairs, for she kept her own counsel, trusting no one entirely, except perhaps Cecil. Above all she possessed a dazzling personality that women's devotion; she expressed this herself when she said to her last Parliament, 'This I count the chief glory of my crown, that I have reigned with your loves'.


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