Queen Elizabeth I was the Queen of England and Ireland who ruled for more than 44 years and is considered one of the greatest monarchs in the history of England. Elizabeth had a difficult childhood. Her mother was executed when she was less than three years old and she had to face abuse by the husband of her step mother. When her step sister Mary I became Queen, Elizabeth was imprisoned and narrowly survived execution. However, later Mary recognised her as her heir and after Mary’s death in 1558, Elizabeth succeeded her. The reign of Elizabeth I is known as the Elizabethan era and is considered one of the golden ages in English history. It was a period of stability and prosperity in which there was flowering of the arts and literature. Elizabeth was very well educated and knew numerous languages. She wrote poems and was an excellent orator. She died in 1603 at the age of 69. Elizabeth I never married and she is renowned as the Virgin Queen. Know more about the family, education, life, rise to power, reign and death of Queen Elizabeth I through these 10 interesting facts.

 

#1 Her mother was publicly executed on charges of treason, incest and adultery

Elizabeth I was the daughter of Anne Boleyn, the second of six wives of King Henry VIII of England. Anne was the lady-in-waiting to Henry’s first wife Catherine of Aragon. As Catherine was unable to provide him with a male heir and due to his feelings for Anne, Henry sought annulment of his marriage with Catherine but the Pope refused. Nevertheless, Henry married Anne in a secret ceremony in January 1533 and in June he crowned her Queen of England. She was pregnant by the time of her marriage and, on 7th September 1533, she gave birth to Elizabeth. Anne had a miscarriage in 1534 and with time Henry became desperate for a male heir. On 2nd May 1536, Anne was arrested on charges of treason, incest and adultery; and imprisoned at the Tower of London. Modern historians believe that the charges against her were fabricated or unconvincing. On May 19, 1536 Anne Boleyn became the first English Queen to be publicly executed. Elizabeth was two years and nine months old then.

Execution of Anne Boleyn
Illustration showing the execution of Elizabeth’s mother Anne Boleyn

 

#2 She was sexually abused by the husband of her step mother

Elizabeth was initially looked after by governesses. Catherine Parr, the last wife of Henry VIII, re-united the family. She treated Elizabeth well and ensured her return to court. Henry VIII died in 1547 and soon Parr married Thomas Seymour, 1st Baron Seymour of Sudeley. Elizabeth lived with her step mother and her husband in their household. Thomas Seymour is reported to have paid morning visits to Elizabeth, in her bedchamber, before she was dressed. Among other things, he tickled her and slapped her on the buttocks. Catherine Parr knew of this. On one occasion, she held Elizabeth while Thomas cut her gown “into a thousand pieces.” On June 11, 1548, Parr came across her husband and stepdaughter embracing in a room alone together; and the next day Elizabeth was sent away. Parr died after childbirth in September 1548. In January 1549, Thomas was arrested for trying to kidnap king Edward and marry Elizabeth. Elizabeth was called for questioning but she admitted nothing and managed to extract herself from blame. Thomas Seymour was beheaded on 20th March 1549.

Princess Elizabeth I in 1546
Elizabeth I in 1546 at the age of around 13

 

#3 Elizabeth survived threat of execution during the reign of her half sister

At birth, Elizabeth was heir presumptive to the throne of England. Mary, Henry’s daughter with Catherine of Aragon had lost that position due to the annulment of her parent’s marriage. After Anne Boleyn fell out of the king’s favour, Elizabeth was also declared illegitimate. 11 days after Anne’s execution, Henry married Jane Seymour, who died shortly after the birth of their son, Prince Edward, in 1537. However, in 1544, Henry VIII returned both Mary and Elizabeth to the line of succession after Edward. Henry VIII died in 1547 and he was succeeded by his nine year old son Edward VI who died in 1553. Edward was succeeded by Mary I. In 1554, Wyatt’s rebellion broke out to overthrow Queen Mary I. After it was suppressed, Elizabeth was accused of being involved and was interrogated. On March 18, she was imprisoned in the Tower of London. It was only due to Elizabeth’s supporters in the government that Mary I was convinced to not execute her sister in the absence of hard evidence. Elizabeth was removed from the tower on May 22 but she remained under house arrest for almost a year.

Elizabeth I being held prisoner in the Tower of London
Depiction of Elizabeth being held prisoner in the Tower of London

 

#4 She addressed religious division in her country through Elizabethan Religious Settlement

In 1555, Elizabeth was recalled to court and in 1558, Mary recognised her as her heir. Mary I died on 17th November 1558 and Elizabeth succeeded her. She was crowned as the Queen of England and Ireland on 15th January 1559. Elizabeth I ruled for a period of 44 years and 127 days from November 17, 1558 until her death on March 24, 1603. She is the ninth longest reigning British monarch. The reigns of Elizabeth’s predecessors had seen much religious division in England. Her father Henry VIII had separated from the church in Rome and appointed himself the Supreme Head of the Church of England. Her brother Edward VI had established Protestantism in England while her sister Mary I had re-established Roman Catholicism. Elizabeth I addressed the issue immediately after becoming queen through the famous Elizabethan Religious Settlement, which found a middle way between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism. The Church of England’s doctrinal character today is largely based on this. Elizabeth I is seen by many as a heroine of the Protestant cause.

Elizabeth I Darnley Portrait
Famous portrait of Elizabeth I known as the Darnley Portrait, painted c. 1575

 

#5 She had her cousin Mary, Queen of Scots, executed for planning her assassination

Mary, Queen of Scots, ruled over Scotland from 1542 to 1567. Her grandmother was Henry VIII’s sister and hence she was a cousin of Queen Elizabeth. As Mary was Roman Catholic, the English Catholics believed her to be the rightful heir to the English crown. There was an uprising in Scotland against Mary in 1567 and she was forced to abdicate in favour of James VI, her one-year-old son. After an unsuccessful attempt to regain the throne, Mary fled to England to seek the protection of Elizabeth. However, Elizabeth knew of Mary’s popularity among English Catholics and considered Mary a threat to her throne. Mary was kept eighteen and a half years in custody, after which she was found guilty of plotting to assassinate Elizabeth. Mary, Queen of Scots was beheaded at Fotheringhay Castle on 8th February 1587. As Elizabeth never named a successor, her trusted advisor Robert Cecil entered into a coded negotiation with James VI of Scotland in early 17th century. James VI, the son of Mary, ultimately became King of England after the death of Elizabeth I.

Execution of Mary, Queen of Scots
Illustration showing the execution of Mary, Queen of Scots

 

#6 Elizabeth I presided over one of the golden ages in English history

The reign of Elizabeth I is known as the Elizabethan era. It was a period in which England enjoyed stability and internal peace; in sharp contrast to the previous and following periods. It was also a time during which national pride was instilled in the people through classical ideals, international expansion, naval triumph over the Spanish in the famous defeat of the Spanish Armada, and huge cultural development. Many of the great works of English literature were produced during the reign of Elizabeth I. Her actions and the court atmosphere she nurtured played a key role in the flowering of literature. Most famous writers of the age include the playwright William Shakespeare and the poet Edmund Spenser. It was also an age of great exploration for England. Among other things, Sir Francis Drake becoming the first Englishman to circumnavigate the globe. The Elizabethan era is considered as the golden age in English history.

 

#7 The later years of her reign saw England being plunged into difficulties

The most famous accomplishment of Elizabeth I was the defeat in 1588 of the Spanish Armada, a great fleet of around 130 ships sent by the Roman Catholic king Philip II of Spain to assist an invasion of England. It is regarded as one of the greatest military victories in English history. However, after the defeat of the Armada, there was a decline in the reign of Elizabeth. The nation was plagued with several problems including lengthy conflicts with Spain and in Ireland; increased tax burden on the public; and economic decline due to poor harvests and the cost of war. There was also division in the government with two groups being formed which were led by Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex and Robert Cecil, Earl of Salisbury. This was also a time when her personal authority lessened. The death of several of her friends plunged Elizabeth into severe depression in 1602. She fell ill in March of the following year and died in sleep on 24th March 1603 at Richmond Palace. She was 69 years old. Elizabeth was succeeded by James VI, who was King of Scotland.

King James I of England and VI of Scotland
Portrait of King James I of England and VI of Scotland, who succeeded Elizabeth I

 

#8 Elizabeth had a close relationship with her childhood friend Robert Dudley

Elizabeth I never married and was childless. She turned down a number of proposals during her life including those from King Philip II of Spain, King Eric XIV of Sweden, Archduke Charles of Austria, Henry, Duke of Anjou and later his brother Francis, Duke of Anjou. However, there is substantial evidence to suggest that Elizabeth was in love and had a romantic relationship with her childhood friend Robert Dudley. Dudley was taught alongside her when she was Princess Elizabeth; and he learned mathematics, riding and dancing with her. He also had with her the shared experience of having been imprisoned in the Tower of London as suspected traitors during the reign of her sister Mary I. When Dudley’s wife died in September 1560, Elizabeth seriously considered marrying him. She made him Earl of Leicester in 1564. After much speculation, Dudley remarried in 1578. Elizabeth is said to have had a lifelong hatred towards his wife, Lettice Knollys.

Robert Dudley
Portrait of Robert Dudley, who was romantically involved with Elizabeth I

 

#9 Elizabeth is renowned as The Virgin Queen

The unmarried status of Elizabeth inspired a cult of virginity. In poetry and portraiture, she was not depicted as a normal woman but as a virgin or a goddess or both. Her virginity was taken as a virtue which elevated her to a higher level. Apart from being known as The Virgin Queen, Queen Elizabeth I is also called Gloriana, based on a character representing her in the poem The Faerie Queene by Edmund Spenser; and Good Queen Bess, with Bess being a nickname for Elizabeth. Even when she aged, Elizabeth was portrayed as the Greek virgin goddess Astraea or the eternally youthful Gloriana. Her portrayals became less realistic and she was shown much younger than her age. Actually, Elizabeth had been ill with smallpox in 1562 which had scarred her skin and left her half bald, though she wore wigs. She had also suffered tooth decay and loss to such an extent that foreign ambassadors had a hard time understanding her speech.

Two contrasting portraits of Elizabeth I
A realistic portrait of Elizabeth I (c.1595) and an allegorical portrait (c. 1600) showing her ageless

 

#10 Elizabeth I knew numerous languages and wrote poems

In her childhood, apart from English, Elizabeth was taught French, Flemish, Italian, Greek, Latin and Spanish. By the time her formal education ended in 1550, she was one of the best educated women of her generation. At the end of her life, Elizabeth was also believed to speak Welsh, Cornish, Scottish and Irish. Elizabeth translated classical works and wrote poems throughout her life. She wrote her own speeches and letters. Crafted with great rhetorical skills, these helped her establish her authority and enhance her image. Elizabeth I also possessed great oratory skills. Among her best known speeches is the Speech to the Troops at Tilbury, which was delivered on 19th August 1588 to the land forces assembled at Tilbury in Essex in preparation for repelling the expected invasion by the Spanish Armada.

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