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Queen Elizabeth I

Elizabeth's Personality and Image

Elizabeth's Early Reign

A "Virgin Queen"?

After the turbulent and short reigns of Edward VI and Mary I, the length and prosperity of Elizabeth's reign came somewhat as a surprise. Her 45-year reign, earning her the title "the Great", was not merely the result of chance, but the result of her strong will, intelligence, popularity with the people, and personal character. By the end of her reign, especially after the defeat of the supposedly invincible Spanish Armada, Elizabeth began to be held in almost supernatural awe throughout Europe, and to her own subjects she became a sort of secular saint. As she became older, Elizabeth increasingly transformed herself into a national symbol. With her majestic dress and bearing and her renowned intelligence, she represented the splendor and power of England.

Elizabeth had an erect posture and very pale skin, which people said practically glowed. Her aquiline nose and reddish-gold hair reminded everyone of her father, Henry VIII, fondly remembered as a strong and decisive leader of the nation. She had extremely long, slender hands and fingers. Her eye-color is not definitively known, but from portraits they appear to have been brown, or golden-brown. In old age, her voice was reported as high and shrill. Elizabeth was also an expert horsewoman, who loved to ride her horse at a gallop, frightening everyone (including Master of the Horse Robert Dudley) with her equestrian antics. She mastered the art of appearing stately and regal when it mattered, but in private, she moved and walked quickly. Her obsession with dancing was famous, and she enjoyed watching dancers as much as she liked to dance herself. She loved fine clothing and jewelry, and her attire was the height of glamour and fashion in the period.

The Queen was not just for show, however. She had both natural talent and a willingness to study and deliberate. She was always cautious in foreign affairs, preferring in most cases to wait and see what happened, and decide what to do at the last moment. This patience often gave England an advantage over European nations led by more hotheaded rulers.

Elizabeth's fear of committing to action in foreign affairs, particularly her aversion to any and all war, was largely a product of her childhood, in which she had often witnessed the high costs of failure in politics. Extraordinarily stingy for a woman so wealthy, she believed wars expensive, and peace cheap. She came off as high-strung and nervous, which was not surprising, for England was in a very bad international position at the time. With no clear successor to follow her, France and Spain were both jockeying for control of England after her death. Thus, Elizabeth hesitated to intervene when Mary of Guise was overthrown, despite Cecil's council. Also, when Mary Queen of Scots was beheaded, Elizabeth recognized the need for her opponent's death, but wished it could have been carried out through a quieter method like poisoning.

Elizabeth was similarly guarded on issues of religion, always preferring compromise to definitive actions. Thus although she wished the English clergy to be celibate, because she knew this went against the Protestant view she did not challenge the English clergy's practice of marrying. Regarding communion and the great Protestant-Catholic spiritual debates of the Reformation, over which so many people were killing each other, Elizabeth refrained from comment, saying, "Some think one thing, some another, and only God can say whose judgment is best."

Like many famous historical people, Elizabeth is the subject of several myths. One story claims that she went more or less bald after age 30. This is untrue. Certainly she was fond of wearing wigs, especially as her hair grayed, but nearly everyone wore wigs at that time, as it was the fashion. Another humorous story, this one true, revolves around her hatred of bad smells. Toilets in the day were fairly disgusting and unsanitary affairs, and Elizabeth suffered them the same as everyone else until an inventor friend of hers designed and built one of the earliest "water-closets" for her at her Richmond palace. Also, it is often reported that in her old age, Elizabeth became spiteful and treated married women with cruelty; although the truth of this is contested, one can certainly speculate that Elizabeth did not like it when the men she was trying to manipulate married other women instead; perhaps she did bear ill will against these women.

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