Elizabeth Tudor, who would become Elizabeth I of England, also known as "Elizabeth the Great", was born September 7, 1533, at Greenwich Palace. The princess was the second daughter of King Henry VIII, a monarch loved by the people and obsessed with the need for a male heir. Elizabeth's mother was the fiery Ann Boleyn, the second of Henry's six wives. Elizabeth's birth was preceded by that of her half-sister Mary Tudor (who would later reign as Mary I), the daughter of Henry and his first wife, Catherine of Aragon. When Elizabeth was four, her brother Edward was born, who would later reign for six years as Edward VI, until his death at the age of 16. Although Edward was the youngest child, his sex gave him preference to the throne over his sisters: thus both of her siblings stood between Elizabeth and the throne of England.
Elizabeth spent most of her youth at Hatfield House, Hertfordshire. This was one of her family's many residences throughout England. When the princess was only two years old, King Henry, desperate for a male heir and upset at Ann Boleyn, had Ann executed. Although the facts of her mother's death were hidden from the young girl for years, it appears she figured out the truth on her own. Yet she nonetheless admired and loved her father, despite his continued practice of marrying and killing wife after wife in hopes of producing a male heir. The eight-year-old Elizabeth was especially distraught when her father beheaded Catherine Howard in 1542: Henry's fifth wife, Catherine was Ann Boleyn's cousin and had been very kind to Elizabeth.
Although always stubborn and sometimes difficult to control, Elizabeth showed signs of remarkable intelligence from a very young age. Her governess, a relative of Ann Boleyn, was constantly put on her guard by the young Elizabeth's disconcerting knowledge of court politics. At twelve, Elizabeth somehow upset Henry, who banished her from his presence. This event induced the repentant princess to become more loyal to her father. After Edward's mother died, Elizabeth and the Crown Prince, half-siblings, became the best of friends. Everyone noticed how much the two looked alike. Elizabeth's friendship with Edward made her important in the court, and Elizabeth, previously neglected as a second daughter, now became something of a rising star. Henry died when Elizabeth was 14 years old.
This put her ten-year-old brother Edward, now Edward VI, on the throne. As one of Edward's closest friends, Elizabeth was now in much power, and the conniving Mary started giving her lots of gifts. Plots against the young king abounded. Most dangerous was that of Thomas, Lord Seymour, who planned to overthrow the government, marry Elizabeth, and declare himself king. Edward's forces foiled Seymour's, and Elizabeth, who had been in Seymour's custody during the plot, escaped implication thanks to her close childhood friendship with King Edward. After Edward's death from tuberculosis at 16, Elizabeth and Mary were both called to London by a would-be usurper of the crown, as part of his plot to bring them under his control. However, the girls' allies discovered the plot and warned them against it; Elizabeth was told of the plot by William Cecil, who was to become one of her lifelong advisors.
Mary was now Queen of England, and, being a devout, perhaps fanatical Catholic, married the Crown Prince Philip II of Spain, also Catholic. During her reign, Mary I imprisoned her half-sister Elizabeth in the Tower of London, suspecting her of being involved in Sir Thomas Wyat the Younger's Rebellion (1554).
Elizabeth, along with all the Tudor children, had a rather frightening childhood. While Elizabeth was still very young, her father killed her mother. Her childhood was always filled with court intrigue, danger, and risk. Although these events somewhat traumatized the Princess, they also molded her into a strong, independent personality. Her behavior in her early years also showed her to be emotionally complex; although her father had killed her mother and kept beheading his wives, she dearly loved him.
It is hard to pinpoint exactly when Elizabeth learned the truth behind Ann Boleyn's death, but accounts from the time suggest that, although she was never officially told, she figured it out for herself. The beheading of Catherine Howard, when Elizabeth was eight, perhaps traumatized her even more than Ann's death. It was at this time that she promised herself (and started telling her friends) that she would never marry. No one took her seriously at the time, but this was a decision she stuck to throughout her life.
After Ann's death, Elizabeth was marginalized for a long time, sent to one of the unimportant royal properties, where she received hardly any new clothes at all. This deprivation as a child may explain Elizabeth's adult obsession with fine clothing and jewelry, as well as her fiscal prudence.
Elizabeth's intelligence was always apparent to her tutors. At the time, this was unexpected in a girl. Elizabeth quickly attained fluency in Latin, French, Spanish, and Italian, and Flemish, knew some Greek, and even secretly learned Welsh. She spent her time studying the history and the classics under renowned scholars, all of whom were charmed by the precocious princess. Edward and Elizabeth wrote their letters to each other in Latin.
Henry's will outlined the following succession order: (1) Edward (2) Mary (3) Elizabeth (4) the family of Henry's sister. This will excluded the Stuarts completely. But Catholics had difficulty arguing with Elizabeth's succession: although she was considered a bastard (Elizabeth was conceived prior to Henry's marriage to her mother, and then the marriage took place while Henry was still technically married to his first wife), her succession was in the King's will. Moreover, Elizabeth had clever and skillful allies: even at this young age, Elizabeth already was becoming close with William Cecil, who would be a trusted advisor throughout her life.
Before Henry's death, the younger, prettier, more charming Elizabeth always enjoyed more popularity with the people than did Mary. Besides having a more magnetic personality than her droopy half-sister Mary, Elizabeth had the added advantage of being a Protestant (Mary was a Catholic) and resembling her father, Henry VIII, in hair-color, bearing, face, and eye-color. For this and other reasons, Mary hated her sister: Henry had his marriage to Mary's mother, Catherine of Aragon, annulled so that he could marry Elizabeth's mother Ann Boleyn. Elizabeth had even been conceived adulterously, before Ann and Henry were married, and while Catherine and Henry were still officially married. As a Catholic, Mary considered Henry's marriage with Ann to be illegal, and she therefore always considered Elizabeth to be an illegitimate daughter of Henry. When Mary discovered the plot against her and suspected Elizabeth of involvement, she was quick to imprison her. However, Elizabeth's quick wits and capacity to love her enemies kept her alive during her internment in the Tower: by providing only sly "answerless answers" to her interrogators, Elizabeth made it impossible for anyone to prove her guilt in the plot to overthrow Mary; at the same time, she wrote her half-sister heart-rending letters. Thus the young princess manipulated her half-sister's emotions so well that Mary could not bring herself to order a beheading.
Elizabeth's Protestantism was yet another threat to Mary. Yet while Mary was a devout Catholic, Elizabeth was only a moderate Protestant, who really wouldn't have minded all the splendor of the Catholic Church. Even as a child, she showed her sense of religious tolerance by saying that the religious disputes of the Reformation were over mere "trifles." Nonetheless, Elizabeth had the sense to know that appearing Protestant made her popular with the English population, then mostly Protestant.