"The Virgin Queen", "Good Queen Bess", "Gloriana": the nicknames of Elizabeth I tell us that she was one our most celebrated monarchs. When she came to the throne, England was plagued by religious division at home and saddled with a weak image abroad. Elizabeth united the people and proved that England was a force to be reckoned with on the international stage. She was also an astute manipulator of her own image, who loved the trappings of high office.
An Unexpected Queen
The last Tudor monarch was born on September 7, 1533, to Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, his second wife. For years it seemed unlikely that she would succeed to the throne but, following the deaths of her half-brother, the young Edward VI, and her childless half-sister Mary I, she became Queen in 1558. She was well-educated, strong-willed and wholly dedicated to her new role. She also had the common touch, along with a highly developed sense of how she was seen by others.
It was a powerful package but Elizabeth was far-sighted enough to realise that she couldn't govern alone. She assembled a talented team of ministers led by William Cecil, Lord Burghley. Together they tackled Elizabeth's first priority, the creation of a sustainable form of English Protestantism that would unite the country.
Mary I, her predecessor, had been a staunch Catholic. She had reversed Henry VIII's Protestant reforms, burning hundreds of Protestants at the stake and earning herself the nickname "Bloody Mary". She even briefly imprisoned the Protestant Elizabeth in the Tower of London. Elizabeth restored the Protestant faith but made some compromises, retaining elements of Catholic ritual. Despite grumbling on both sides, the compromise held.
Not the Marrying Kind
During the first half of her reign there was intense speculation over whom Elizabeth should marry. The Queen insisted that she was wedded to the nation but that didn't stop the speculation. Historians believe that Elizabeth exploited this uncertainty for political advantage, variously allowing English nobles and foreign royals to believe that they had a chance of obtaining her hand if it suited her purposes.
But was she the Virgin Queen of popular myth? The precise answer to this delicate question is lost to history but we know that Elizabeth was a passionate woman who was deeply in love at least once in her life. The man in question was the dashing Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, a childhood friend and Master of the Horse, a key position in the royal household.
The pair were close during the early years of Elizabeth's reign and the Queen attracted comment for her frequent visits to Leicester's chambers. But they never married. Elizabeth's principal advisers saw Leicester as rash and arrogant. And it's probable that Elizabeth didn't want to relinquish the power her single status gave her. Leicester remained a close friend and adviser of the Queen until his death in 1588.
Elizabeth might have stabilised the English Church but the political dimension of Catholic dissent rumbled on. In 1568, Mary Queen of Scots (pictured, left), a great-niece of Henry VIII regarded by many Catholics as the rightful heir to the English throne, arrived in England after being forced to abdicate. Elizabeth could not allow Mary to become a rallying point for Catholic revolt so she had her rival placed under house arrest.
Mary's incarceration failed to discourage Catholic conspirators. Several plots were mounted against Elizabeth. One – the so-called Ridolfi Plot of 1571 – even involved the Spanish. As long as Mary was alive, Elizabeth was in danger. But the Queen was loath to have her kinswoman executed. Regicide was a serious step, with far-reaching consequences for her own position.
But the plots against Elizabeth would not stop. Eventually, in 1586, concrete evidence that Mary was actively plotting against Elizabeth emerged. Mary was convicted of treason and sentenced to death. It took Elizabeth – who always found making decisions difficult – weeks to sign the death warrant. But she signed in the end. Mary was beheaded on February 8, 1587.
For most of her reign, Elizabeth's overriding foreign policy objective was to play the French and Spanish off against each other while expanding England's maritime capability. This involved her tacit support of privateers such as Sir Francis Drake, who plundered Spanish shipping, ports and foreign possessions.
By the mid-1580s, open conflict with Spain was inevitable. The Spanish King, Philip II, assembled a huge Armada to spearhead an invasion of England. But, in 1588, when the Armada attacked, Elizabeth's warships and seamen proved to be superior and they defeated the Spanish fleet.
The final years of Elizabeth's reign were often difficult. Bad harvests, inflation and unemployment made life hard for ordinary people. At court, Elizabeth's advisers were succumbing to old age. A young favourite, Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex, promised much as a warrior but ended up disappointing the ageing Queen as an adviser and trusted agent. He fell out of favour, attempted an ill-planned revolt and was executed in 1601.
By the time of Elizabeth's death, on March 24, 1603, her people were ready for a change of monarch. (Her successor, ironically, was James VI of Scotland – Mary Queen of Scots' son.) But, in the years after her death, Elizabeth's powerful popular image revived and her reign began to be seen as a golden age. In many ways, it was. Relative unity, stable government and royal support for exploration, invention and the arts meant that Elizabeth left England in a far better state than she had found it.
And what about the notion that the Queen was bald? This was probably true. She was a handsome woman until she contracted smallpox in 1562. She escaped with her life but not with all her looks. It's likely that she lost much of her hair and was badly pockmarked by the disease. The wigs, make-up, jewellery and fine gowns she wore were no doubt attempts to disguise her flawed looks. But they were also a vital part of being a Queen. And being a Queen was what Elizabeth loved best.