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Profiles in Greatness: The Virgin Queen

When Elizabeth I was born in 1533, the only child of Henry VIII and his second wife, Anne Boleyn, her prospects did not seem especially bright. Her father had hoped for a son, and within three years, unsatisfied with his wife for failing to produce a male heir, Henry had her executed on charges of treason. Faced with a troubled youth, Elizabeth I nevertheless thrived in her studies. She was fluent in French, Italian and Spanish, and she possessed a scholar’s grasp of Greek and Latin. She was poised and athletic, and, at age 25, she assumed the throne of England following the deaths of her half brother Edward VI and then her half sister Mary I.

“I have already joined myself in marriage to a husband, namely the kingdom of England.”

When she became queen in 1558, she did so as a highly educated and astute young woman, the bearer of her father’s hot temper but also his strength of conviction. She knew she was assuming the leadership position of a man but she was determined to hold her own in a kingdom plagued by religious conflict, political intrigue, financial troubles and threats from Spain.

Yet, even as her subjects, Parliament, and fellow nobles admired (and sometimes feared and hated) her, there were few among them who did not believe she should marry, and many a politically motivated marriage was suggested to her. Elizabeth toyed with the idea, using the promise of marriage to one or another of the crowns of Europe or to influential English nobles as a political gaming piece to win allies or to buy herself time. In reality, she never intended to wed anyone. She preferred to remain single, bent both upon holding her power and dedicating her life to her country. Her decision not to wed eventually won her the title of “Virgin Queen.”

“I will be as good unto ye as ever a Queen was unto her people. And persuade yourselves that for the safety and quietness of you all, I will not spare if need be to spend my blood.”

One of the foremost problems Elizabeth faced when she came to power countrywide conflict between Catholics Protestants. Always the pragmatist, Elizabeth was unwilling to alienate one side in favor the other. Instead she decided to establish state church that both moderate Catholics and moderate Protestants would be willing to attend. Only one year into Elizabeth’s reign, Parliament granted her requests for an Act of Uniformity to establish a national church and an Act of Supremacy to make her supreme head of both church and state.

She retained many of the traditions of Catholicism in church ceremony but left the wording vague in the new Anglican church’s Book of Common Prayer so it would not offend, saying she had no desire “to pry windows into men’s souls.” She was not as much concerned with her subjects’ religious beliefs as she was with their loyalty to her and to England. At 26, she was already the consummate politician.

“I thank God I am indeed endowed with such qualities that if I were turned out of the Realm in my petticoat, I were able to live in any place in Christendom.”

Even as English Catholics were largely pacified by Elizabeth’s compromises, other Catholic nations were not, and the pope, as well as many French, Spanish and Italian Catholics, supported Elizabeth’s cousin, Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots; they hoped she would overthrow the Tudor monarch. However, Elizabeth’s authority came from her bearing and education, which even the Spanish ambassador recognized, saying, “She is incomparably more feared than her sister [Mary], and gives her orders and has her way as absolutely as her father did.”

Mary lived under something like house arrest for 20 years, but Elizabeth ultimately had her beheaded in 1587, when she was found to be at the center of an assassination plot.

Mary’s execution further soured relations between Catholic Spain and Protestant England. Spain’s King Philip II, who had once hoped to marry Elizabeth for the sake of increasing his power and spreading Catholicism, was already incensed by Elizabeth’s aid to Dutch Protestants who were revolting against Spain. He was also enraged by the queen’s endorsement of English adventurers like Sir Francis Drake, who attacked and plundered Spanish treasure ships returning with gold and silver from the New World. On one of Drake's ventures, he brought home 600,000 pounds' worth of stolen treasure, as much as twice the annual revenue of the English crown.

“I know I have the body of a weak and feeble woman, but I have the heart and stomach of a king, and a king of England, too, and think foul scorn that Parma or Spain, or any prince of Europe, should dare to invade the borders of my realm.” 

In 1588, Philip launched an attack against England, sending the Spanish Armada of 130 ships into the English Channel. Elizabeth rallied the Royal Navy, which set fire to some ships and sent them into the midst of the Spanish fleet. They attacked with smaller and swifter English vessels, driving the Spaniards out of English waters and likely ensuring the survival and eventual growth of Protestantism in Europe.

While Elizabeth had removed the threat of war with Spain, she knew the Spanish crown was growing in wealth as a result of its ventures into the New World. And although English exploration did not enter its Golden Age until after the queen’s death, she initiated the process, granting charters to a number of English trading companies, which were organized as joint stock ventures. This allowed several parties to assume the risk inherent in sending ships on profiteering runs against the Spanish or trading in the East Indies. The largest of these companies was the East India Company, founded in 1600.

“Though you have had, and may have, many princes more mighty and wise sitting in this seat, yet you never had, nor shall have, any that will be more careful and loving.”

Elizabeth did not receive a direct financial benefit from these new joint stock companies, but their creation did fire economic growth in England, ensuring the kingdom’s entry into the modern world of trade and initiating the growth of English influence in India, which would eventually become a British colony. She had the foresight to see that England’s financial troubles would not be solved without efforts at global expansion.

In 1603, Elizabeth passed away at age 69, never having married, despite having been in love, and leaving no child to inherit the throne, thereby ending the Tudor dynasty. The crown passed to her cousin James I, King of Scotland. Elizabeth had clearly established England as a world power and initiated what would become more than three centuries of expanding imperialism. Her influence over the course of world history was such that she remains one of England’s most

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