Elizabeth I (1533–1603)


Elizabeth I was queen of England from 1558 to 1603, and Virginia was named in honor of her. Daughter of Henry VIII and his second wife, Anne Boleyn, Elizabeth Tudor became queen at the death of her married but childless half-sister Mary I. Elizabeth remained single, and her image as the “virgin queen” permeated the arts and politics of her reign, even as she used the possibility of marriage to shape foreign policy. Her reign saw the establishment of the Protestant Church of England in a form that has lasted for centuries. She faced a rebellion and plots in favor of her Catholic cousin, Mary, Queen of Scots, whose flight to England and claims to its throne caused Elizabeth first to imprison and then to execute her. Elizabeth oversaw her navy’s defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588, a victory that marked a high point of English protestant and nationalistic fervor. In the 1580s, she encouraged Sir Walter Raleigh‘s ventures to the New World, and even though his colonies at Roanoke failed, their brief existence enabled the English explorers to claim much of the eastern coast of North America as “Virginia.” Elizabeth’s love and patronage of plays, pageants, literature, and the fine arts was at the heart of the English Renaissance. Elizabeth was famous for her linguistic skills, sharp wit and temper, educated mind, frugality, and political caution. In her speeches, civic processions, and travels around the kingdom, she cultivated her popularity with her subjects. Elizabeth died in 1603 and was succeeded by her cousin James VI of Scotland.

Early Years

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.

Roger Ascham. Tutor to Queen Elizabeth

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.


A Royal Procession

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.

Queen Elizabeth I

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.

Somerviles haste to Kill the Queene

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.

Anglorum in Virginiam aduentus (The arrival of the Englishemen [sic] in Virginia)

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.

Later Years

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.

Monument to Queen Elizabeth I

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.

September 7, 1533
Elizabeth Tudor is born at Greenwich Palace, the daughter of King Henry VIII of England and his second wife, Anne Boleyn.
January 28, 1547
King Henry VIII of England dies and is succeeded by his youngest child, Edward VI.
July 6, 1553
King Edward VI of England dies, leaving the crown to his cousin Lady Jane Grey, who rules for only nine days. Edward's half-sister Mary Tudor raises an army, claims her throne, and imprisons Grey. Mary I is the first queen regnant of England.
January 25, 1554
Sir Thomas Wyatt leads a revolt to protest Queen Mary's intended marriage to Philip II of Spain and to put Princess Elizabeth on the throne. Elizabeth denies knowledge of Wyatt's plans, but the queen orders her to the Tower of London for questioning.
May 19, 1554
Imprisoned since January after being implicated in a plot against Queen Mary, Princess Elizabeth leaves the Tower of London for house arrest at Woodstock.
November 17, 1558
Queen Mary I of England dies, leaving the crown to her half-sister Elizabeth.
January 15, 1559
Elizabeth I is crowned queen of England at Westminster Abbey.
September 8, 1560
Sir Robert Dudley's wife, Amy Robsart, dies from a fall down the stairs at a friend's home in Oxfordshire, fueling rumors that Dudley and Elizabeth conspired to kill her in order to marry. An inquest determines that there was no foul play.
June 1562
Elizabeth I, queen of England, and her cousin Mary, queen of Scotland, plan to meet in York, but the diplomatic fallout of religious conflict in France causes Elizabeth to cancel the visit. The two queens never meet.
October 1562
Elizabeth I, queen of England, contracts smallpox but suffers few scars. The Privy Council refuses her desire that Sir Robert Dudley be named Lord Protector in case of her death.
September 29, 1564
Sir Robert Dudley becomes the first earl of Leicester, a title that Elizabeth I, queen of England, hopes will enhance his status as a potential match for the widowed Mary, queen of Scotland.
July 29, 1565
Mary, Queen of Scots, marries her first cousin Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley, of England. Their relationship quickly collapses.
March 9, 1566
David Rizzio, the Italian private secretary of Mary, queen of Scotland, is murdered by a group of Protestant noblemen while at dinner with the queen, who is six months pregnant. The queen's king consort, Henry Stuart, lord Darnley, is later implicated in the plot.
June 19, 1566
James Stuart is born at Edinburgh Castle, the son of Mary, Queen of Scots, and Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley.
July 24, 1567
Mary, Queen of Scots, abdicates the throne in favor of her thirteen-month-old son, who is now known as James VI.
Mary Stuart, former queen of Scotland and cousin to Queen Elizabeth I, is held under house arrest in north-central England in the custody of loyal courtiers, including George Talbot, sixth earl of Shrewsbury and his wife Elizabeth, countess of Hardwick.
May 16, 1568
Mary Stuart flees Scotland for England, where she seeks safety and English support to regain her crown. Elizabeth refuses to meet with her because Mary has not accepted Elizabeth's legitimacy as queen.
November 1569
Thomas Percy, seventh earl of Northumberland, and Charles Neville, sixth earl of Westmoreland, lead a failed revolt in northern England against Queen Elizabeth. They oppose her Protestant policies and her reliance upon Sir William Cecil, and support Mary Stuart's claim to the English throne.
April 27, 1570
Pope Pius V excommunicates Queen Elizabeth of England in a belated attempt to support the revolt led by Thomas Percy, seventh earl of Northumberland, and Charles Neville, sixth earl of Westmoreland.
June 2, 1572
Thomas Howard, fourth duke of Norfolk, is tried and executed for his participation in the Ridolfi plot, an attempt to overthrow Queen Elizabeth of England in favor of her cousin Mary Stuart, whom Norfolk hopes to marry.
July 9—27, 1575
As part of her regular summer progress, Queen Elizabeth of England visits Robert Dudley, first earl of Leicester, for one of the most costly and extravagant festivals of her reign, at Kenilworth in Warwickshire.
Queen Elizabeth of England negotiates her last prospect of marriage with Francis, duke of Anjou and Alençon, and son of the powerful Catherine de Medici. She affectionately nicknames him "frog," but declines to marry.
Winter 1584—1585
Queen Elizabeth I develops a strategy in her war against Spain. She will send an army to the Netherlands to fight on behalf of the Protestants, Sir Francis Drake to the West Indies to disrupt Spanish shipping, and colonists to Roanoke Island to establish a harbor for privateers.
February 8, 1587
After being tried and convicted of plotting the death of Queen Elizabeth of England, Mary Stuart is beheaded at Fotheringhay Castle in Northamptonshire.
August 1588
The Spanish Armada engages with the English navy in the English Channel and, after losing several ships, returns to Spain.
September 4, 1588
Sir Robert Dudley, first earl of Leicester, Queen Elizabeth's Master of the Horse and longtime confidant, dies.
August 4, 1589
Sir William Cecil, first baron Burghley, dies. He was secretary of state under King Edward VI and Queen Elizabeth I, and Lord Treasurer from 1572 until his death.
February 25, 1601
Robert Devereux, second earl of Essex, is beheaded for leading a failed rebellion against Queen Elizabeth in London.
March 24, 1603
Queen Elizabeth I dies at Richmond Palace and is succeeded by James VI of Scotland, who unites the thrones of England and Scotland, ruling the former as James I.
April 28, 1603
The funeral of Queen Elizabeth is held at Westminster Abbey, where she is buried. Her successor, James I, in keeping with royal custom, does not attend the service.
  • Doran, Susan and Thomas Freeman, eds. The Myth of Elizabeth. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003.
  • Levin, Carole. “The Heart and Stomach of a King”: Elizabeth I and the Politics of Sex and Power. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1994.
  • Marcus, Leah S., Janel Mueller, and Mary Beth Rose, eds. Elizabeth I: Collected Works. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000.
  • Starkey, David and Susan Doran, eds. Elizabeth: The Exhibition at the National Maritime Museum. London, England: Chatto & Windus, 2003.
  • Stump, Donald and Susan M. Felch. Elizabeth I and Her Age: A Norton Critical Edition. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2009.
  • Wormald, Jenny. Mary, Queen of Scots: Politics, Passion and a Kingdom Lost. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2001.
APA Citation:
Cole, Mary Hill. Elizabeth I (1533–1603). (2020, December 07). In Encyclopedia Virginia. https://encyclopediavirginia.org/entries/elizabeth-i-1533-1603.
MLA Citation:
Cole, Mary Hill. "Elizabeth I (1533–1603)" Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, (07 Dec. 2020). Web. 20 Jul. 2024
Last updated: 2021, December 22
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