Elizabeth I (also known as Elizabeth the Great, or the "Virgin Queen") was born in 1533 into a dangerous world of political intrigue. When she was only two years old, her father, King Henry VIII killed her mother, Ann Boleyn, because she had not yet produced a male heir. Henry's routine killing of her successive stepmothers every few years traumatized Elizabeth, who loved her father. Although Henry finally did father a son, Edward VI, the boy did not live long, dying at the age of sixteen after a six-year reign, and thus Elizabeth's older sister Mary I came to the throne in 1553. Meanwhile, the young Elizabeth showed exceptional intelligence, excelling at her studies well beyond any of the other royal children.
A Catholic, Mary married the Hapsburg prince of Spain, the soon-to-be Philip II. Mary would come to be known as "Bloody Mary" for her harsh treatment of English Protestants in her attempt to restore Catholicism to England. When Sir Thomas Wyat the Younger's Rebellion threatened Mary's rule, she believed Elizabeth to have been involved in the plot and imprisoned her in the Tower of London. By a combination of luck and skillful persuasion on the part of her political allies, Elizabeth survived this ordeal and became queen when Mary died in 1558.
Elizabeth quickly consolidated power and returned the country to Protestantism, passing the Acts of Supremacy and Uniformity, although by Reformation standards Catholics fared well under these acts. With the help of able advisors like Sir William Cecil (later Lord Burleigh) and the spy-networks of Francis Walsingham, she ruled the country ably and initiated an era of economic prosperity. In international affairs, Elizabeth manipulated the princes of Europe, using the prospect of marriage to her (and thus joint control over England) as a bargaining tool; indeed, preferring the power that came with perpetual eligibility, she ultimately never married at all. She was, however, involved in a scandalous romance with Robert Dudley (later called the Earl of Leicester), her Master of the Horse.
Because Elizabeth was both husbandless and childless, to overthrow her would be to gain immediate control of the throne; plots against her proliferated. Most involved replacing her with Mary Queen of Scots, a Catholic member of the Stuart line. After Walsingham foiled the Babington Plot in 1586, Mary Queen of Scots was executed. Following Mary's beheading, Philip II of Spain, Catholic and enraged by Sir Francis Drake's constant plundering of his Spanish galleons, decided it was time for an attack. In 1588 he launched his supposedly invincible Spanish Armada to fetch his armies fighting in the Netherlands and transport them to England. The Armada was defeated by the skillful maneuvers of the English fleet, and was further debilitated by stormy weather (known as the "Protestant Wind"). England was saved from the Spanish threat, establishing the roots of a long tradition of English naval dominance.
By the 1590s, Elizabeth was in her 60s and her most trusted advisors were slowly dying. From the next generation of nobility she selected Leicester's stepson, Robert Devereux (Earl of Essex), thirty years her junior, as her favored servant and companion. She sent Essex to Ireland to command her army, but when he disobeyed orders and failed to complete his objectives, Elizabeth banished him from her presence. Essex then foolishly tried to raise a rebellion, but the elderly Elizabeth quickly had the young traitor captured. Essex was executed in 1601. Elizabeth died in 1603, having made clear that her successor would be James I, son of Mary Queen of Scots.
Take a Study Break!