Queen Elizabeth I was not just one of the most significant rulers in English history - she was also an amazing queen who defied expectations. Even within the storied English monarchy, Elizabeth stands out. She proved to the early modern world that women could be exceptional rulers.
The England that Elizabeth inherited in 1558 was a troubled one. Her father, Henry VIII, had done what no other monarch had done before him - he expanded the monarchy by breaking with the Catholic Church and making England a Protestant country. That religious rupture with Europe had profound effects and led to conflicts between Catholics and Protestants. Torn apart by instability, England badly needed a strong ruler to steer the direction of its future. After her father's passing and a number of short-lived successors, Elizabeth took the throne. Elizabeth - a young woman who was never supposed to be queen - was up to the task.
In her 44 years on the throne, she helped bring peace, stability, confidence, and wealth to her people. She charted a middle way in politics and religion and ensured that England remained independent in the face of turmoil on the European continent. Under Elizabeth’s leadership, England’s maritime destiny was laid out and explorers dipped their toes into the so-called New World.
To this day, Elizabeth remains a standout in the British royal family and deserves her place in history as one of the greatest.
If Elizabeth I learned anything from the disastrous marriage politics of her father or older half-sister, Queen Mary I, it was that marrying was a tricky, dangerous situation. Her father had six wives over the course of his royal career, and Mary’s marriage to a Spanish king inspired passionate outrage by her English subjects. Furthermore, Elizabeth’s situation was delicate: as a woman, she risked losing her independence, since she already had plenty of people who doubted her capacity to rule. Marrying a foreign prince was a dance in foreign policy; marrying a subject was a dance in domestic policy.
Though she spent considerable time worrying over potential suitors and the pressure to bear heirs, Elizabeth eventually was cast as a “Virgin Queen” and famously quipped, “I will have here but one mistress, and no master.” Even though many believed it was against the laws of nature for a woman to rule, Elizabeth proved them all wrong: by not marrying, she was able to preserve English autonomy and minimize factionalism amongst the English nobility.
Elizabeth was never really supposed to succeed the throne. She was her father’s second daughter (officially, at least). Though she was born legitimate in 1533, her standing in the royal family quickly changed when her mother, Anne Boleyn, fell from grace and was beheaded in 1536. In the fallout of Henry’s disposal of his executed wife, Elizabeth herself was declared illegitimate and thus unlikely to ever succeed the throne. Becoming queen was pushed even further into the periphery when her father’s much-anticipated son was born in 1537 to Jane Seymour. Henry VIII kept changing the line of succession, pushing his red-haired daughter further and further down the line.
But when her younger brother passed in 1553 at the age of 15 and the crown went to her sister Mary, Elizabeth moved up the food chain. Mary’s marriage to Philip of Spain failed to produce any children, and during years of turmoil from Mary's vicious anti-Protestant campaigns, Elizabeth was seen as a threat and briefly imprisoned in the Tower of London. When Mary passed from illness in 1558, Elizabeth finally became queen. She succeeded because she was the last heiress of Henry VIII standing. Patience, it seems, was a virtue.
Hell hath no fury like a queen enraged - and Elizabeth raged very, very well. As queen, she expected that her courtiers show her respect. But her well known vanity often made it difficult for would-be spouses to wed under Elizabeth’s watchful eye. Several of her ladies in waiting - Bess Throckmorton and Catherine Grey, most notably - earned the queen’s scorn when they secretly married their lovers without the queen’s knowledge or permission. In fact, when Mary Shelton, the queen’s second cousin, secretly married John Scudamore without the queen’s permission, she is said to have suffered a broken finger when Elizabeth smacked her hand with her hairbrush.
Men were just as likely to get on the royal sh*t list as women. Explorer Sir Walter Raleigh fell in and out of favor. Dashing and headstrong courtier Robert Devereux, an Earl of Essex, tried her patience and flouted her commands so incessantly and treasonously that he ultimately lost his head.
The England that Elizabeth ruled was a golden age of the arts, exploration - and piracy. England’s chief naval rival was Spain, and English privateers took buckets of goods and money from Spanish ships traveling to and from the Americas.
Spain complained bitterly that English so-called “privateers” ransacked their ships, but Elizabeth did nothing to curb the exploits of men like Sir Walter Raleigh and Sir Francis Drake. In fact, she rewarded such achievements.