England’s Queen Elizabeth I is now remembered as “Gloriana,” “The Virgin Queen,” a woman with white lead makeup and a bright red wig under whose reign the country went from a tiny, medium-powerful country to a colonial empire more powerful than any other European nation. Her route to becoming Queen was convoluted, to say the least — I got into that in Part One — and when she was coronated, she was the fifth monarch to sit on that throne in 11 years. The succession was in, basically, total turmoil and the country had been through a series of stops and starts as councillors and religion changed back and forth depending on who was in charge. Like, this of a business in the 21st century whose CEO changed this often: the morale would be low, the staff would be confused and maybe resistant to change as they anticipated the latest CEO would never last, and others would be plotting what they would do if they were in charge.
Basically, we know now how long and successful Elizabeth’s reign would be. But when she was coronated, at age 25, nobody had very high hopes for what she was going to achieve. The contentiously brief reign of her cousin Lady Jane Grey, and the slightly longer but still pretty short reign of her half-sister Queen Mary I had done nothing to assuage the general consensus that women weren’t fit to rule. Mary had been emotional, had suffered ongoing health issues, deferred to her sleazebag husband, and burned a lot of Protestants during her time in power. Jane had been a teenager who ruled for just nine days before being ousted. These were the only two examples anyone had for a woman in control, and Elizabeth had an upward battle ahead of her to show that she actually had what it takes to rule. If she couldn’t, and quickly, there were lots of people waiting around, prepared to take her place.
The Young Elizabeth
Elizabeth quickly made her intentions and character clear. In an early speech, she made it clear to her advisors that their input would be crucial, saying she would “direct all [her] actions by good advice and counsel.” In other words, unlike her sister — and at times her father — she would trust in their experience and go to them to help her make decisions. 25 was a young age for a King; for a woman, she may have appeared even more helpless. And the thing is, she was wildly intelligent and had incredibly good instincts for this job. And pretending like she didn’t was crucial to getting the support she would need from the many power-crazy advisors and courtiers who surrounded her. She was both stating her plan to listen to them, while soothing them by making them think that she didn’t know what she was doing. It set the scene perfectly.
Elizabeth In Love
Between Henry VIII’s numerous marriages, and the previously mentioned five-rulers-in-eleven-years, London had seen an awful lot of royal parades lately. They were now pros at cheering at processions, but that didn’t mean their enthusiasm for Elizabeth’s coronation progress wasn’t sincere. She was the daughter of a King who had been widely loved, she was the Protestant sister of an unpopular Catholic Queen, and she was also a beautiful young woman. She spoke to the crowds, who were impressed by her words and her oratory skills, and when she was officially presented to the crowd as Queen, the cheers and musical instrument tributes were apparently near-deafening. They loved her, but her coronation brought with it new anxieties about what would happen to the ongoing religious struggles at home and abroad, and of course, how her choice of husband would affect things.
Elizabeth initially set aside the question of marriage, focusing instead at the beginning of her reign on doing her best to calm down the religious wars that had been going on before her father had invented Anglicianism in order to marry her mother. Other than during the brief reign of her “everyone must become Catholic or else” sister, Elizabeth had always been a fervent believer in the Protestant religion. She had been raised in this faith, and also the Catholics still believed she was illegitimate so it didn’t make any sense for her, as Queen, to follow a religion that thought she shouldn’t rule. Unlike her sister’s heavy-handed, burn-the-enemies-at-the-stake-in-public-areas strategy, Elizabeth decided a compromise may be the best solution to this ongoing issue. It was a centrist approach that, basically, left Catholics and Protestants both alone as long as nobody got too extreme in their views. This meant that she was just as intolerant of the extreme views of the Puritans as she was to the extreme Catholics; the Puritans, then, hopped on boats to sail across the Atlantic to set about inventing the United States.
But she couldn’t avoid facing the whole marriage issue forever. As it had been with both Jane Grey and Mary I, the question of her marriage was of foremost importance to a lot of people who weren’t her. It was understood then that a woman’s natural role was as a wife and mother. Elizabeth was still young, just 25, at a prime marriageable age — and, with men uncomfortable with having a woman in charge, they were keen for her to take a husband who could more or less take over as monarch from her. But Elizabeth wasn’t so sure.
She’d seen the effects of her sister Mary’s decision — against the advice of her councillors — to marry King Philip of Spain. Philip had bulldozed over her and effectivedly abandoned her, and this marriage had alienated Mary from many of her subjects and prospective allies. Elizabeth had also seen the effects of marriage on her father’s many wives, particularly on her mother, the executed Anne Boleyn, and her aunt, the executed Catherine Howard. She’d seen her cousin, Lady Jane Grey, executed after having been used and discarded as the pawn of older, more powerful men. used like a pawn by men. She, herself, had been abused, perhaps sexually, by her stepmother’s news husband, the execrable Thomas Seymour.The examples she’d seen of marriage and relations with men seemed to lead almost always to devastation, death, and/or the subjugation of women. Is it any wonder she politely declined the many, many marriage offers presented to her, especially at the onset of her reign?
Robert Dudley, Legendary Dirtbag
There was also the issue of her being in love with a married man. Robert Dudley had been a friend of hers since before she became Queen. The handsome young courtier was known around court as her “favourite,” and rumours circulated that if his wife, Amy, were to die, that Elizabeth would want to marry him. Basically nobody at all supported Robert as a prospective husband for her; the nobility more or less all figured they would revolt against her if she married him. And then in 1560, two years after she’d become Queen, Amy mysteriously fell down a flight of stairs and died. Did Robert push her? Did Elizabeth have someone push her? Or was it more complicated than that, with someone pushing her down the stairs knowing it would make Robert look like a murderer and therefore ensuring Elizabeth would never marry her? The coroner called it officially an accident, but from then on, everyone sort of assumed Robert had been responsible. Any chance Elizabeth had of marrying him evaporated with Amy’s fall; some theories, like that shown on the TV show Reign, suggest she killed herself out of spite, knowing that would be the result.
Whatever the reasons, there was now no chance that Elizabeth would marry Robert. No matter how much she loved him, even she knew that it would be a terrible decision that would affect her ability to continue reigning. So she did as much as she could for him, bestowing upon him the title of Earl of Leicester. Whenever he so much as flirted with another woman, Elizabeth would freak out with jealousy, which sort of made him flirt even more, and it was all very toxic, but manageable. (Robert remarried in 1578, to Elizabeth’s younger lookalike niece, Lettice Knollys, which you can read about here, but the tl;dr is: Elizabeth was not happy about that at all).
To Heir Is Human
Without a husband, Elizabeth’s advisors at least wanted her to name an heir. She knew firsthand how messy and confusing it can be when nobody knows who the next King or Queen is going to be; but she also knew the threat of naming a successor. She had been thrown in jail because, as Mary’s heir, Mary had worried people would rally around her. Similarly, Mary had had Jane Grey executed, and Elizabeth herself was now starting to worry about her cousin Mary, Queen of Scots. Basically, if Elizabeth had a child, that child would be the heir and everything’s fine. But if her heir was another adult person, that adult person would always be a danger to her because adults can rally followers around them and usurp the throne. So, Elizabeth’s solution to this was just… to not name an heir at all.
Both the not-naming-an-heir and the not-choosing-a-husband had the beneficial side effect of everyone trying to stay on her good side all the time. The tantalizing possibility of her finally choosing someone to marry and/or to inherit the throne meant that it was possible for anyone to think they had a chance at gaining more power. Courtiers engaged in a lengthy game of thrones, and Elizabeth effecively played them all against each other, ensuring they were loyal to her in the first place. It was like a very well played game of Survivor, where she could sit back and let them all scheme against one another, knowing that she was untouchable. She came down with smallpox in 1563, just five years after becoming Queen, which made everyone panic about the who-is-the-hear issue, and still wouldn’t give a hint of who she’d choose to inherit from her. This disease also affected her skin, along with the lead-based makeup she preferred, and her legendary beauty began to give way to the sort of white mime look that people often think of her with.
By 1570, Elizabeth was 37 years old and people began to accept that maybe she really and truly would never get married.When she had declared early in her reign that she intended to remain a virgin, everyone was like, “Yeah, sure, whatever, weirdo,” but the longer she stayed unmarried, the more it became clear that this was maybe her biggest power move of all. Her continued existence as a single woman had morphed into a superpower for her, as people began calling her The Virgin Queen and sort of adoring her like they did the Virgin Mary. Where other women, even other royals, were painted as humans, Elizabeth’s portraits began to portray her as a sort of virgin/goddess, not even really a woman anymore, something more powerful and fearful.
The Mary, Queen of Scots Situation
For most of her reign, her primary rival for the throne was her Catholic cousin, Mary, Queen of Scots. Back during the 5-monarchs-in-11-years period, this Mary was sort of batted around as a possible heir to the throne. There were two huge strikes against her, though, and they were that she was a) Catholic and b) married to the King of France. When the French King died, Mary returned to Scotland as a very young widow, and even without her really trying, supporters rallied behind her to take over from Elizabeth. Mary’s claim to the throne was that she was the granddaughter of Henry VIII’s sister, Margaret. Elizabeth, as Henry VIII’s daughter, had the stronger claim — but remember, the Catholics still thought Elizabeth was illegitimate. It made sense to them that Mary should be the Queen. So Elizabeth first tried to figure out a way to nullify the threat of Mary similar to how she’d calmed down the religious wars, by finding a centrist approach that wouldn’t offend anyone.
Her first bizarre strategy was to try and arrange a marriage between Mary and Robert Dudley (this was shortly after Amy fell down the stairs, and years before Robert remarried). Both Robert and Mary were like, “Um, no.” In fact, in 1565, Mary chose her own husband — her half-cousin, Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley. And the thing is, Darnley was also a grandchild of Henry VIII’s sister Margaret, making him also 1/8th Tudor and with his own claim to the throne. Mary and Darnley together, therefore, were a major threat to Elizabeth — and any child they had would have a very strong claim to become the next King or Queen. But what seemed like a huge threat to Elizabeth soon sorted itself out in Elizabeth’s favour, because Darnley was THE WORST and found himself killed via strangling just outside of his house, which blew up. Not unlike the whole Amy/Robert thing, everyone was like, “Mary Queen of Scots, did you kill your husband?” and she was like, “Absolutely not, and also, I’m now going to run away now and marry James Bothwell, who is the other prime suspect for his murder.”
Even as her rival/enemy, Elizabeth was flabbergasted by Mary’s incredibly bad judgment in all of this, and wrote her a letter saying basically, “Girl, what are you doing.” Mary continued down this terribly misguided path, winding up in prison, where she was forced to abdicate and her son, James (whose father was Darnley, so this baby was the mythical double-Tudor possible heir to the English throne, bear that in mind), became Baby King of Scotland. Mary escaped to England, where she thought/hoped Elizabeth would help her out. But rather than doing her a solid, Elizabeth threw her in prison for nineteen years to keep her out of the way. Because of that whole out-of-sight/out-of-mind thing, where if nobody could see Mary, they couldn’t support her as a replacement for Elizabeth.
Even while Mary sat around in jail, she seemed to have become involved in several plots to try and assassinate Elizabeth. She also was approached by suitors who thought that marrying and teaming up with her could mean they, themselves, would become King somehow. Finally in 1586, Elizabeth was presented with all the evidence of what Mary had been up to, and her advisors strongly suggested that Mary should be executed. And the thing is, like when Queen Mary I tried to avoid executing Lady Jane Grey, Elizabeth didn’t want to do this. To execute a fellow monarch, even a former Queen like Mary, seemed to set a precedent where Queens could be killed. Sure, Henry VIII had had two of his own Queens executed, but they had been his wives, not the rulers themselves. If Elizabeth put a fellow Queen to death, it could put her own life in danger by putting ideas in peoples’ heads.
But, finally, she relented because Mary was a) a living threat to Elizabeth’s rule and b) had most likely been scheming to kill her. Mary was beheaded in February 1587, and afterwards, Elizabeth claimed that she hadn’t meant for that to happen; maybe actual regret? Or maybe she was doing her usual thing of sort of neutering attacks against her by pretending to be just a helpless woman who couldn’t make her own decisions. But however it came about, the death of Mary, Queen of Scots, cemented Elizabeth’s rule and ended the main campaign against her as Queen.
During Elizabeth’s 45-year-reign, England began making a name for itself internationally both with the founding of trading outposts in North America as well as with her mighty fleets of ships. Where her sister, Queen Mary I, had allied with Spain, Elizabeth waged war against them. Under her rule, the mighty English fleet defeated Spain in a series of sea battles, and the English pirate/adventurer Sir Francis Drake (who Elizabeth herself knighted for his contributions) raided Spanish ports and fleets both in Europe and around North America.
Elizabeth oversaw lots of military campaigns because she was Queen for 45 years, and there are lots and lots and lots of places you can read about that stuff. Literally, google it if that’s your thing. What interests me more at the moment is the continued existence of her Achilles Heel in human form, Robert Dudley, who Elizabeth sent out every now and then to lead soldiers despite Robert not being good at that at all. Still, he continued to love her, and it was he who invited her to deliver a speech to the troops at Tilbury in Essex on August 8, 1588. This was the famous time she wore a silver breastplate over a white dress, and told them: “I know I have the body but of a weak and feeble woman, but I have the heart and stomach of a king, and of a King of England too.” The assembled troops seemed to have prevented an attack, and Elizabeth paraded through town in an even bigger and grander parade than at her coronation. The people of England adored her; many thought that her status as a virgin Queen had brought God’s favour upon the country. And Elizabeth wasn’t about to dissuade them of that.
But it wasn’t all wonderful speeches and spectacular outfits. Anyone who stays in the same role for 45 years will ultimately wear out her welcome, and it was the same for Elizabeth. Towards the end of her reign, the ongoing cost of constant war had taken its toll on England’s economy, which combined with some unlucky weather caused poor harvests, and her subjects — poor from heavy taxes, and starving — weren’t doing too great. Her popularity was waning, due to all of the above, and most of the advisors who had been so supportive of her were starting to die of old age. Elizabeth’s own power wasn’t what it used to be, as she found herself unable to prevent the pretty pointless 1594 execution of her personal physician, Dr. Lopez, who had been framed for treason by someone else’s petty hurt feelings. As a Queen and as a woman, it seemed like she was just over it, all of it, basically.
But part of why her reign is remembered so fondly now is because of how much great art and architecture was produced during this latter part of her reign. William Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe, for instance, were out there doing their thing, as were other musicians, poets, and builders whose work is still studied today. Elizabeth didn’t personally have much to do with their work, as she never really took any of them on as their patron, but it’s part of the mystique of the Elizabethen Era that is still commonly understood.
Elizabeth herself had always been a huge fan of fashion and beauty and style, and as she got older, the way she was presented in artwork began to change. Rather than reflecting her aging appearance, portrait painters leaned into the myth of Elizabeth as the Virgin Queen — painting her in more stylized ways, showing her in ensembles and settings that cast her not as herself, but as — for instance — Gloriana, the eternally youthful fairy queen from a poem by Edmund Spenser. Not only had her face and hair been affected by surviving smallpox, but she had a terribly combination where she loved sweets and was phobic about dentists, so her teeth basically all rotted to the point that sometimes people couldn’t understand what she was saying. Along with the heavily stylized portraits, she also insisted that the courtiers flatter her beauty and act like she was even more beautiful than ever. I mean, if you’re the Queen, why not?
Robert Dudley died in 1588, and Elizabeth was inconsolable. Eventually, she chose Robert’s stepson Robert Devereux as her new favourite — sort of weirdly how Robert himself had married Elizabeth’s young lookalike niece. Like they were both just always looking for the closest thing to each other that they could get. Unfortunately for the aging Queen, Devereux was just as much of a dirtbag as his stepfather had been, and he pretty clearly used her for money and favours. As she had with Robert Dudley, Elizabeth appointed Devereux to military commands he wasn’t skilled enough for. Devereux was also extraordinarily useless, doing things like deserting these military posts because he got bored, or whatever. In 1599, when he wandered off from one of these gigs, Elizabeth put him on house arrest and took away some of his money. In maybe retribution, he tried to start a rebellion against her, but he wasn’t even good at that. He was beheaded in February 1601, and Elizabeth was really upset — both about losing him, and at her own complicity in his actions.
So Elizabeth was getting older, and still hadn’t named a successor, because that was still her trump card. So, knowing that she wasn’t as immortal as she seemed to maybe think she was, her senior advisor set about secretly planning for Mary, Queen of Scots’s son James to take over. Remember him? The Baby King with a double-Tudor claim to the throne? James was coached to flatter Elizabeth to a ridiculous extent, which he did, and which Elizabeth loved. She wouldn’t officially declare she’d chosen him as her heir, but basically communicated it to everyone using code words and body language.
Other than the tooth issue, Elizabeth’s health was quite good for most of her life. Around 1602, when three of her closest friends had passed away, Elizabeth fell into a deep depression that found her sitting motionless for hours on end. Like her sister, Queen Mary I, she refused to eat and became emaciated. After another of her dead friends died in 1603, she refused to rest — now standing for hours on end. She began expressing remorse for her role in the death of Mary, Queen of Scots, again stating that she had not given the order for her execution. She also claimed to be visited upon by ghosts of both the late Scottish Queen as well as others who she had treated poorly. She refused to be attended to by the royal physicians. It is not known if her mental state contributed to decline in health, or if whatever was affecting her health caused her mental state to itsel deteriorate. One theory is that she died of blood poisoning from the lead-based white makeup she’d always worn; she may also have succumbed to cancer, or pneumonia. We don’t know for sure because Elizabeth didn’t let doctors see her, and nobody examined her body after her death on March 24, 1603.
Her funeral services were just as extravagant as her other parades had been. Her coffin was carried down the River Thames on a barge lit with torches. For her funeral, the coffin was carried through the streets of London on a hearse drawn by four horses hung with black velvet. One chronicler of this day described the people viewing her memorial parade as emitting “such a general sighing, groaning and weeping as the like hath not been seen or known in the memory of man.”
Elizabeth was buried in Westminster Abbey in a tomb alongside her half-sister, Queen Mary I, inscribed with a Latin phrase which translated reads, “Consorts in realm and tomb, here we sleep, Elizabeth and Mary, sisters, in hope of resurrection.”
Ann Foster is a writer and historian with a research interest in the intersection of women, history, and pop culture, especially the lives and stories of figures both well-known and half-forgotten. patreon.com/annfosterwriter