On September 7, 1533, Elizabeth Tudor was born a disappointment to all. Her mother, Anne Boleyn, had retired to Greenwich Palace to give birth, confident in her future as the mother of England’s next king. Her optimistic father, Henry VIII, had shrugged off papal authority and become Supreme Head of a national church in large part because he wanted a legitimate male heir. The Catholic supporters of Henry’s popular, but now discarded, first wife, Catherine of Aragon, saw the punishing hand of God in the arrival of another royal bastard; Protestant reformers joined the royal parents in hoping that the next child would be a healthy boy who would solidify the dynasty and new Church of England.
Named for her paternal grandmother, Elizabeth spent her early years away from her parents in a separate household shared with her elder half-sister, Mary Tudor. Under the tutelage of the humanist scholar Roger Ascham, Elizabeth read philosophy and theology and learned Latin, French, Italian, and Greek, intellectual pursuits that complemented her domestic skills in embroidery, dancing, and playing the virginals (an early harpsichord). After Edward VI became king at the death of their father in 1547, she maintained cordial relations with her half-brother, whose Protestant views she shared. But during Mary’s five years as England’s first ruling queen, from 1553 to 1558, Elizabeth’s life was often at risk. The 1554 revolt led by Sir Thomas Wyatt against Mary’s Catholicism and her new Spanish husband, Philip of Spain (later King Philip II), resulted in Elizabeth’s imprisonment in the Tower of London and then house arrest for her supposed participation in the plot. However, her strategies of politic silence, nominal religious conformity, convenient illnesses, and letters of loyalty enabled the vulnerable Elizabeth to survive and ascend the throne when Mary died childless on November 17, 1558.
Elizabeth’s first actions as queen were to appoint advisors, celebrate her coronation in Westminster Abbey on January 15, 1559, and call a session of Parliament. Sir William Cecil joined the Privy Council as Principal Secretary and later Lord Treasurer and he remained her close, trusted confidant until his death forty years later. Her other lifelong friend and councillor, always at the queen’s side as her Master of the Horse, was Sir Robert Dudley, arguably the man Elizabeth loved most and might have married, had not the scandal from his wife’s suspicious but probably accidental death in 1560 dissuaded the cautious queen. Dudley was so close to Elizabeth that in 1562 the ill queen wanted him to be Lord Protector of England should she die from smallpox, but neither the privy councillors nor her people approved of Dudley as protector or consort. When he died in 1588, Elizabeth carried with her “his last letter.”
Establishing the Church of England with the queen as its Supreme Governor was a task that occupied Elizabeth; her Archbishop of Canterbury, Matthew Parker; and Parliament until 1563. The Acts of Supremacy and Uniformity, along with a new Book of Common Prayer and the Thirty-Nine Articles of religious instruction, established the special mixture of Protestant doctrine and Catholic ritual that, in the queen’s view, settled the religious disputes of the English Reformation. Although this Elizabethan settlement, with its “via media,” or middle way, gradually satisfied most Protestants, some so-called Puritans pushed for more reforms. Some Catholics tried to replace Elizabeth with her Catholic cousin, Mary Stuart, queen of Scotland. Under pressure from Protestant noblemen, Mary yielded her throne to her baby son, James VI, and fled Scotland in 1568 for the relative safety of England, where she remained under house arrest away from the English court and queen.
From 1559 to 1582, Elizabeth conducted a series of courtships with the rulers of Sweden, France, and the Holy Roman Empire. These many marital negotiations dovetailed with her foreign policy, but religious stumbling blocks and her own reluctance essentially ended them all. Addressing her first Parliament in 1559, Elizabeth stressed her desire to remain single while promising that God would take care of the succession: “[I]n the end this shall be for me sufficient: that a marble stone shall declare that a queen, having reigned such a time, lived and died a virgin.” Seven years later, she told Parliament, “I say again I will marry as soon as I can conveniently, if God take not him away with whom I mind to marry, or myself … And I hope to have children; otherwise I would never marry.” In 1576, Elizabeth still proclaimed the virtues of virginity: “[I]f I were a milkmaid with a pail on mine arm, whereby my private person might be little set by, I would not forsake that single state to match myself with the greatest monarch.” Her portraits also stressed her virginity through images of her with unbound hair, pearls, pelicans, and sieves, even as they highlighted her regal authority to control the seas, the kingdom, and all life within it. Elizabeth never married, and the succession to the throne remained unsettled.
With no child to succeed her and no recognized heir, Elizabeth faced dangers at home and from abroad. In 1569, Catholic earls in the north of England revolted in favor of Mary Stuart, and, with poor timing, a year later Pope Pius V excommunicated Elizabeth as a heretic and nullified her sovereign authority, calling on English Catholics to rise up against her rule. The highest peer of the realm, Thomas Howard, fourth duke of Norfolk, flouted Elizabeth’s authority by pursuing a marriage to Mary Stuart that could have made him king of England; his treason led to his trial and execution in 1572. Elizabeth refused to meet Mary Stuart, who still claimed the English crown, and she turned to the spy network of Sir Francis Walsingham to ensure her own safety in the midst of additional plots against her in the 1580s. When Walsingham produced written proof of Mary’s support of efforts to assassinate her, Elizabeth had her tried and, after the expected guilty verdict, executed.
With the death of Mary Stuart came bolder Spanish efforts to overthrow Elizabeth. Late in the summer of 1588, Philip II sent a flotilla of ships from Cádiz into the English Channel in an attempt to invade England. Elizabeth joined Robert Dudley at Tilbury to rally her troops, while her navy under the command of Lord Admiral Charles Howard and Sir Francis Drake fought the Spanish until “Protestant winds” blew the invaders north past Scotland. In the victorious aftermath and celebration of their deliverance, the English turned Elizabeth’s Accession Day, November 17, into a national holiday.
As tensions with Spain rose in the 1580s, Elizabeth encouraged Walter Raleigh’s ventures to the New World. On March 24, 1584, the queen granted a license to Raleigh that empowered him to explore and colonize lands unclaimed by Christian kings; in return, she would receive one-fifth of the treasures there, and she allowed Raleigh to name the lands “Virginia.” In typical fashion, Elizabeth gave him symbolic support but little money. An expedition funded by Raleigh reached Roanoke Island on July 13, 1584. After a failed first attempt at establishing a colony in 1585–1586, John White landed at Roanoke in July 1587 with 115 settlers, and three weeks later White’s granddaughter, the first English child born in the New World, was baptized Virginia Dare in honor of the queen. Even though the Roanoke Island colony was “lost” by 1590, it enabled the English explorers to claim as Virginia much of the eastern coast of North America.
During the fifteen years after the Armada’s defeat, challenges remained for Elizabeth. Her close advisors Dudley, Walsingham, and Sir Christopher Hatton, died; William Cecil, first baron Burghley, under the burden of age, shifted his duties to his son Robert Cecil; and James VI of Scotland attracted growing attention as the assumed but not accepted heir to the queen. Her young new favorite, Robert Devereux, second earl of Essex and Dudley’s stepson, pressed for more rewards than Elizabeth felt he merited. When the proud, frustrated Essex tried to rouse Londoners in revolt, the queen had him executed in 1601.
Even in her later years, Elizabeth continued to move her court on summer progresses, extended travels that fostered her popularity and policies during the hospitality and entertainments shared by the queen and her people. Until early 1603, Elizabeth remained in good health, but she deeply felt the death of her cousin, Catherine Howard, countess of Nottingham, and lost her will to live. Developing either bronchitis or pneumonia, she declined late in February, gradually stopped eating, and spent several days on the floor on pillows rather than return to bed. After indicating that James VI of Scotland would be the next ruler of England (as James I), she died on March 24, 1603, at Richmond Palace. Her body, probably embalmed, lay in state for public viewing at Whitehall Palace until her funeral and burial under the altar in Westminster Abbey on April 28, 1603. In 1606, James I had her body disinterred and reburied with her half-sister Mary Tudor in a side chapel where it is today.