Elizabeth was born in 1533, the only child of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn. She was a princess for the first two and half years of her life until her mother was executed and she herself was declared illegitimate. When Henry remarried Jane Seymour and she had a son, Edward, Elizabeth was placed into the household of her brother who was now the undisputed heir to the throne. Despite her illegitimate status, Elizabeth received one of the best educations for a woman of her generation. She could speak, read, and write in several languages, including French, Flemish, Italian, and Spanish.
Henry VIII died in 1547, leaving Elizabeth’s brother Edward to become king at age 9. Elizabeth went to live with her father’s sixth wife, Catherine Parr, and her husband, Thomas Seymour. Seymour engaged in inappropriate activities with Elizabeth and when he was caught in an embrace with her, Elizabeth was sent away. Seymour then plotted to marry Elizabeth after Catherine died but he was eventually arrested for this plot and for plotting to overthrow his brother who was the Lord Protector of Edward VI.
Edward VI died in July 1553 and his will swept aside the Succession to the Crown Act 1543 that had restored Elizabeth and her older sister Mary to the royal succession. This was mostly due to Mary’s Catholicism and the inability for Edward to only exclude one sister from his will. Lady Jane Grey was declared as his heir but Mary deposed her after nine days and Elizabeth rode with her triumphant sister into London.
There was little solidarity between Elizabeth and Mary during the latter’s reign. Mary wanted to stamp out the Protestant faith in which Elizabeth was educated and Elizabeth was forced to outwardly conform. When Mary’s initial popularity ebbed away, people looked to Elizabeth as a focus for their opposition. After Wyatt’s rebellion in 1554, Elizabeth was imprisoned for her participation though she protested innocence. But by October 1558 when Mary had fallen ill, Elizabeth was already making plans for her government and in November Mary officially recognized Elizabeth as her heir. Mary died in November 1558, and Elizabeth became queen at age 25. Her coronation took place in January 1559 at Westminster Abbey and she was received wholeheartedly by her citizens.
Elizabeth reinstated Protestantism in the beginning of her reign. However, the heresy laws were repealed and penalties for failure to conform were not extreme which allowed Catholics to privately practice their faith. Also from the beginning of her reign, it was expected that Elizabeth would marry but she never did. She insisted she was married to her kingdom and subjects, under divine protection.
In 1560, Elizabeth removed the French presence from Scotland which resulted in the Treaty of Edinburgh. When Mary, Queen of Scots returned to take power, the country had an established Protestantism and she refused to ratify the treaty. She would make a number of errors that forced to her abdicate the throne and eventually be imprisoned by Elizabeth in England for nineteen years. She was executed in 1587 for being a pretender to the crown.
Elizabeth won a great propaganda victory in 1588 when the English fleet defeated the Spanish Armada in one the greatest military victories in English history. Although Spain retained advantage in the war, this victory was viewed as a symbol of God’s favour and the nation’s inviolability under a “virgin queen.”
As she was unmarried and had no heirs, concern rose in the later years of Elizabeth’s reign as to who would succeed her. A negotiation was entered into with James VI of Scotland and he was recognised as her heir. She died in March 1603 and was interred in Westminster Abbey with her sister Mary. The Latin inscription on their tomb reads, “Consorts in realm and tomb, here we sleep, Elizabeth and Mary, sisters in hope of resurrection.”
Her reign became known as The Golden Age and her 44 years on the throne provided stability and forged a national identity for England. (x)