Elizabeth was born on 7 September 1533 at Greenwich Palace as the daughter of Henry VIII and his second wife, Anne Boleyn. She had an older half-sister, Mary, from her father’s first marriage to Catherine of Aragon, but Mary had been declared illegitimate, and so Elizabeth was born heiress presumptive to the English throne. She was baptised three days later.
Her world was turned upside down when she was almost three years old. Her mother was executed on 19 May 1536, and Elizabeth too was declared illegitimate. Just 11 days after her mother’s execution she gained a stepmother in the form of Jane Seymour, who died after giving birth to her half-brother, the future Edward VI, in 1537. Elizabeth was placed in his household and held the baptismal cloth at his christening.
Elizabeth learned several languages: French, Flemish, Italian and Spanish and by 1544, she could write English, Latin and Italian and progressed in French and Greek. By the time her formal education ended in 1550, she was one of the most learned women of her generation.
She lived in the household of her father’s sixth wife, Catherine Parr, after her father’s death in 1547. She remarried soon after Henry’s death to Thomas Seymour, brother of the late Queen Jane. While there he engaged in romps and horseplay with the 14-year-old Elizabeth, which included entering her bedroom in his nightgown and tickling her. Elizabeth was sent away in May 1548. Tragically, Catherine Parr died in childbirth on 5 September 1548, and he renewed his attentions towards Elizabeth, perhaps hoping to marry her. His brother, Edward, the Lord Protector, was sick of his behaviour and in January 1549 he was arrested on suspicion of plotting to marry Elizabeth and overthrow the Lord Protector. He was executed on 20 March 1549, and while Elizabeth was questioned, she revealed nothing.
Elizabeth’s brother died on 6 July 1553 at the age of just 15. His will set aside the Succession to the Crown Act 1543 and excluded both Mary and Elizabeth from the succession. Instead, Lady Jane Grey, a granddaughter of Henry VIII’s sister Mary, was declared his heir. This didn’t last long, and Lady Jane Grey was deposed after a reign of just nine days. On 3 August 1553 Elizabeth’s sister Mary rode triumphantly into London as England’s first Queen regnant. Elizabeth was by her side.
Mary was a devout Catholic, while Elizabeth was raised in the Protestant faith and Mary ordered everyone to attend Catholic Mass, and Elizabeth was forced to conform, outwardly at least. Mary’s decision to marry Philip of Spain caused a significant downfall in her popularity, and many looked to Elizabeth as a focus of their opposition.
In January 1554 Wyatt’s rebellion broke out but was soon repressed. Elizabeth was brought to court and interrogated for a possible role in the rebellion. On 18 March she was imprisoned in the Tower of London. On 22 May she was moved to Woodstock, where she was to remain under house arrest for almost a year. She was recalled to court on 17 April 1555 because Mary believed herself to be pregnant. A child was never born, and Elizabeth’s succession seemed assured. Mary’s health deteriorated the following years, and she believed herself to be pregnant once more. By late 1558 Elizabeth was already making plans for her own government as it became clear Mary would not live much longer. She was recognised as heiress on 6 November 1558 and Mary died on 17 November 1558. Elizabeth became England’s second Queen regnant at the age of 25.
She declared: “My lords, the law of nature moves me to sorrow for my sister; the burden that is fallen upon me makes me amazed, and yet, considering I am God’s creature, ordained to obey His appointment, I will thereto yield, desiring from the bottom of my heart that I may have assistance of His grace to be the minister of His heavenly will in this office now committed to me. And as I am but one body naturally considered, though by His permission a body politic to govern, so shall I desire you all … to be assistant to me, that I with my ruling and you with your service may make a good account to Almighty God and leave some comfort to our posterity on earth. I mean to direct all my actions by good advice and counsel.”
She was crowned and anointed on 15 January 1559.
The question of her marriage was raised quickly. The Tudor dynasty was in desperate need of an heir. Elizabeth was in love with her childhood friend, Robert Dudley, but he was already married, and his wife’s subsequent suspicious death, made it impossible for them to marry. She was offered several foreign candidates, and though she entertained them, a marriage never materialised. Her unmarried status created a cult of virginity.
Her long reign is now considered a Golden Age. Her reign is famous for the defeat of the Spanish Armada and the establishment of an English church. However, the execution of Mary, Queen of Scots, would haunt Elizabeth.
Elizabeth refused to name a successor, but the most logical successor was James VI of Scotland, the son of Mary, Queen of Scots and thus a great-great-grandson of Henry VII, through both his parents.
Her health remained good until the autumn of 1602, but a series of deaths among her friend plunged her into a depression. In March 1603 she fell ill and became melancholic. She died on 24 March 1603 at Richmond Palace in the early morning. James VI of Scotland was proclaimed James I of England. Her funeral took place on 28 April, and she was interred in Westminster Abbey. She shared a tomb with her half-sister Mary, with a Latin inscription on their tomb that reads “Regno consortes & urna, hic obdormimus Elizabetha et Maria sorores, in spe resurrectionis”, translates to “Consorts in realm and tomb, here we sleep, Elizabeth and Mary, sisters, in hope of resurrection”. The effigy is of Elizabeth alone, thus overshadowing her sister in life and in death.
- Elizabeth I (2002) Elizabeth I: Collected Works. University of Chicago Press. ISBN 978-0-226-50465-0. (UK & US)
- Doran, Susan (2015) Elizabeth I and her Circle. Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0199574957. (UK & US)
- Norton, Elizabeth (2015) The Temptation of Elizabeth Tudor. Head of Zeus. ISBN 978-1605989488. (UK & US)
- Weir, Alison (1991) The Life of Elizabeth I. Ballantine Books. ISBN 978-0345425508. (UK & US)