Elizabeth I

1533-1603. Queen of England and Ireland from 1558. Daughter of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, she succeeded her Roman Catholic sister Mary at a time when the country was divided and nearly defenseless. Three decades later, the Armada's bid for a Spanish and Catholic England had been defeated, the flag of St. George flew in all the oceans, and the country was experiencing an extraordinary cultural flowering. It was a remarkable achievement for one who early had lost her mother (executed by her father), and had at twenty-one been imprisoned by her sister. She had learned to screen her thoughts from others and to circumvent difficulties with a resourcefulness which was just what England needed. Of rival religious dogmatisms she was impatient, but of the providence of God she had no doubt.

To the problems of state she brought a fine intellect. French, Latin, and Italian she spoke fluently, and she read Cyprian and Greek. Setting about securing a religious settlement (see Elizabethan Settlement), she sensed that her subjects were now basically Protestant and prepared to move in that direction. Initially she dropped the title “Supreme Head of the Church,” but left “Etc.” at the end of her other titles to leave the needed loophole. In due course came the Act of Supremacy* and the Act of Uniformity.* Persecution there was, for this was an age when religion and politics could not be separated; but compared with the fury under Mary and the horrors on the Continent, it was comparatively little. It was a golden age of literature and exploration. The awakening power of the Commons was controlled by the queen with a dexterity the Stuarts could not produce. The Scottish Reformers' need for military help was met at precisely the right moment, and James's succession was prepared for. Possessed of extraordinary powers of rapid decision, she could temporize when it seemed prudent; only over the vexed and complex case of Mary Stuart did she long hesitate before consigning her to the executioner.

A.L. Rowse, The England of Elizabeth (2 vols., 1951-55); J.E. Neale, Queen Elizabeth I (rep. 1952), and Elizabeth I and Her Parliaments (2 vols., 1953-57); J.B. Black, The Reign of Elizabeth, 1558-1603 (2nd ed., 1959).