Queen Elizabeth I is one of the most iconic English monarchs. She reigned over England for a total of 44 years that proved to be stable and prosperous for her subjects. It was a period of particular artistic and cultural importance which came to be known as the Elizabethan Era.
Elizabeth I was born in Greenwich on 7 September 1533, the daughter of King Henry VIII and his second wife Anne Boleyn. Two years later, Anne Boleyn was beheaded on the orders of Henry VIII so that he could marry again, hopefully to someone who would bear him a male heir.
Henry VIII died in 1547, leaving Elizabeth in the care of his latest wife, Catherine Parr. Parr’s marriage to Thomas Seymour caused friction between the two women, leading to Elizabeth’s return to Hatfield House. Ultimately Seymour would be executed, accused of trying to marry Elizabeth in an attempt to get closer to the power of the throne.
Elizabeth I’s path to the throne was complicated by her family, particularly her half siblings Edward and Mary Tudor, and her first cousin once removed, Lady Jane Grey.
As Henry VIII’s only male heir, Edward VI was crowned king at the age of nine upon his father’s death - but he was a sickly boy, and dead by the age of 15. He gave orders for the line of succession to pass over his half sisters and for Lady Jane Grey to take the throne, but she was unseated within nine days.
Mary I’s reign was somewhat longer, lasting from 1553 to 1558, and marked by an attempt to re-establish Roman Catholicism in England, her efforts to do so by burning 280 religious dissenters at the stake earning her the nickname ‘Bloody Mary’.
Elizabeth I, who - under suspicion of aiding protestant rebels - had been imprisoned for almost a year during Mary I’s rule, ascended to the throne aged 25 on 17 November 1558, upon Mary I’s death during an influenza epidemic.
There were two pressing problems that Elizabeth I inherited from Mary I upon being crowned Queen of England: a resource-hungry war that Mary I had started with France, and the deep religious divisions created by Mary I’s persecution of protestants.
Elizabeth I quickly began work on rectifying these issues, first by reinstating the Church of England, and by passing the Act of Uniformity in order to create a common prayer book for the entire country. She sought to unify her subjects by stating “There is only one Christ, Jesus, one faith. All else is a dispute over trifles.”
With the aid of her chief advisor William Cecil, 1st Baron Burghley, she also set about bringing an end to the war with France. She further maintained stability by largely avoiding any conflict with the powerful country of Spain - apart from defeating the Spanish Armada in 1588, having incurred Spain’s wrath for supporting the Protestant rebellion against Spain in the Netherlands in 1585.
Throughout Elizabeth I’s reign, one of the gravest threats to her power was a claim on the throne by her cousin Mary, Queen of Scots, who a significant number of English Catholics believed to be the rightful heir to the throne. After a number of assassination attempts on Queen Elizabeth I, Mary, Queen of Scots was imprisoned and held for 20 years, and finally executed in 1587 - after the infamous Babington Plot once more failed to end the life of Queen Elizabeth I.
The portraits of Queen Elizabeth I that have survived to the present day are evidence of her having developed an iconic style. Her extremely pale appearance was a fashion choice, and the result of painting her entire face with a combination of white lead and vinegar that was known as Venetian ceruse. Some theorise that this makeup helped to conceal smallpox scars. Elizabeth I was also fond of ornate and glamorous clothing, often wearing items that had been made using precious metals.
The arts also flourished during the Elizabethan era, with timeless works by William Shakespeare (whose work is still adored by the British Royal Family especially Prince Edward) and Christopher Marlow having been written during this period. Elizabeth I herself enjoyed watching plays and supported the arts, and was even known to play the lute from time to time.
Queen Elizabeth I earned the nickname the ‘Virgin Queen’. She never took a husband and never had children; it’s possible that having seen the complications that arose from her father’s marriages had put her off the idea. Instead, she busied herself with her work and developed a reputation as a Queen entirely devoted to her country and her subjects.
That said, Elizabeth I had suitors, and had even at one point refused the hand of Philip II of Spain, Archduke Charles of Austria and the future King Henry III of France. She was not beyond using her feminine charms to her political advantage, but certainly never seemed interested in sharing her power.
One relationship - with courtier Robert Dudley - was particularly heavily scrutinised, however, even to the extent that some observers came to believe that Elizabeth I and Dudley were instrumental in the seemingly accidental death of Dudley’s wife.
The last few years of Queen Elizabeth I’s reign were marred by unemployment, inflation and poor crop production - leading to food shortages and violence in Ireland.
On 24 March 1603, Queen Elizabeth I died at Richmond Palace in Surrey. It’s thought that the poisonous white lead in the Venetian ceruse she used to create her iconic pale look played a role in the ill health that ended her life. Leaving no children behind, the House of Tudor came to an end after 118 years of rule, and James I - son of Mary, Queen of Scots - became King of England. Thus began the reign of the House of Stuart.