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Queen Elizabeth I

Elizabeth's Early Reign

Mary I's Reign and Elizabeth's Succession

Elizabeth's Personality and Image


With Mary I dead, Queen Elizabeth I became ruler of England at the age of 25. Mary had left the kingdom a divided mess, and now Elizabeth undertook the task of repairing it. Almost immediately, she made Sir William Cecil, who had already proved his loyalty to her, Secretary of State. William, later given the title Earl of Burleigh, would remain perhaps her most trusted advisor throughout her life. Another close friend of the new queen was Lord Robert Dudley, to whom Elizabeth was very emotionally attached. Although she loved Dudley dearly, she was also prudent enough not to put him in a position of too much power: she made him Master of the Horse, an easy, decorative office that allowed Elizabeth to keep him close to her.

Elizabeth's recognition procession and coronation took place amidst much pomp and spectacle on January 15, 1559. Glimpsing Elizabeth, the people treated the Queen as their savior. After Mary's fiery persecution of Protestants, Elizabeth's ascension to the throne was cause for celebration.

Elizabeth went about the difficult task of reviving the English economy; her predecessors had greatly debased the currency. Also, from the beginning of her reign, Elizabeth had to worry about Mary Queen of Scots and her plots to take control of the English crown. Meanwhile, Philip II, now King of Spain, sent Elizabeth jewels and other presents through the Spanish ambassador, de Feria. Again, Philip expressed interest in marriage with Elizabeth, though demanding that she convert to Catholicism. Elizabeth, as always, deftly avoided an engagement while managing never to offend Philip or to extinguish his hopes altogether.

Early in her reign, Elizabeth faced daunting tasks. But, with Cecil's aid, Elizabeth was able to make progress towards improving the state she inherited. Cecil and the rest of the Privy Council were continually amazed at Elizabeth's intelligence, incisive analytic thinking, and capacity for hard work. She further surprised them in her refusal to marry: everyone had expected her to wed as soon as possible. Indeed, she had many suitors, for Elizabeth's husband would obtain vast power, his children would rule England, and the young Elizabeth was not bad looking; certainly she was the most eligible bachelorette in the world at that time. Elizabeth's advisors assumed she would soon choose one of the suitors and create some powerful alliance, but they were all in for a surprise, as Elizabeth constantly found way to evade marriage at the last minute.

Her major achievement at this early period of her reign was passage of the Acts of Supremacy and Uniformity, passed in hopes of diminishing the religious tension in England. The Act of Supremacy made her the "supreme governor" of the Church of England, and the Act of Uniformity restored the English prayer book that Mary had banned. However, Elizabeth had several lines removed that would be offensive to Catholics.


William Cecil was a perfect counterpart and companion for Elizabeth. Opposites in many senses, together they had the ability to see both sides of many issues, and their arguments often resulted in wisely chosen policies. As a team they ruled the country well for decades. Cecil was quiet while Elizabeth was forceful and opinionated; he preferred simplicity in manner, while Elizabeth preferred elegance. One thing they did have in common, however, was a mutual fear of war; both worked very hard to keep England out of war, believing that prosperity came only from peace. Cecil was also always on the lookout for poisoning attempts, and did a great deal to ensure the Queen's safety.

Robert Dudley had endeared himself to the queen by bailing her out of substantial debt before she took the throne. As a son of the Duke of Northumberland, who had conspired against Mary, Dudley was imprisoned in the Tower of London at the same time as Elizabeth, and they sometimes saw each other there. Dudley was famous as a great horseman, and also as a talented dancer. Not surprisingly, the young Elizabeth was quite taken with this dashing character. As a later chapter will discuss, a scandalous romance took place between them, the details of which remain debated today. The behavior of the current British royalty hardly warrants mention in comparison to Elizabeth's romantic exploits!

Somewhat strangely for someone so learned, Elizabeth was always fascinated by astrology, and she asked her astrologer friend, Dr. John Dee, to divine a horoscope for her and pick a lucky date for her coronation. They decided on January 15, 1559. The coronation was dramatic and spectacular. Elizabeth loved playing up her role to the people, appearing as the beautiful young Queen. During her procession, she regularly stopped to talk with commoners, a gesture which earned her much love from Londoners. In fact, she stopped so many times and worked so hard to play her role that she finished the coronation process exhausted, and became sick.

Elizabeth always had a weakness for gifts, especially jewels. Perhaps this was because she was briefly deprived of nice things as a child, perhaps she just naturally loved splendor and elegance; most of all, though, her delight in gifts stemmed from her own thriftiness: Elizabeth was practically a miser when it came to spending her money or England's money, yet she loved it when other people spent money on her, since that cost her nothing. Throughout her career, she let it be known that her personal favor could be bought with generous gifts.

Yet no amount of gift-giving could secure her hand in marriage, and none of Elizabeth's advisors were happy about her continued single status, for various reasons. Cecil, for instance, was very concerned for the Queen's safety. He wanted at least one heir between Elizabeth and Mary Queen of Scots, lest some fanatic or schemer kill Elizabeth to put the Catholic Stuarts on the throne of England. Yet his worries were somewhat misplaced: Elizabeth managed to maintain popularity and survive--indeed, thrive--without a husband or heir to bolster her power. De Feria and Philip were also eager for the queen's marriage, and expected Elizabeth to jump at the opportunity to marry a Hapsburg. Yet they too were grossly mistaken, and Elizabeth simply led them on, always giving her famous "answerless answers." In fact, Elizabeth's reluctance to marry actually may have been a better strategy than marrying quickly, as her advisors encouraged her to do: England's army was not tremendously large, and Elizabeth was afraid of an invasion by France or Spain. However, if she didn't marry, potential invaders could always harbor a hope of conquering England through marriage; thus they delayed actual attacks on England. This sly policy worked quite well, until Philip gave up courting Elizabeth and decided to marry a Medici. After this, he would begin planning for an invasion of England.

Elizabeth further demonstrated her political cunning with the passage of her Acts of Supremacy and Uniformity, in addition to other religious compromises. For English Catholics, who considered Henry's marriage to Ann Boleyn illegitimate, believed that Mary Queen of Scots had a purer claim to the throne than Elizabeth did. Yet due to Elizabeth's tolerant policies toward them, most decided to remain loyal to her. This was very fortunate for Elizabeth, since nearly half of England remained Catholic at this time.

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