This edited article about Elizabeth I originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 730 published on 10 January 1976.
Queen Elizabeth the First never fought personally on a battlefield. But wherever her soldiers and sailors fought, they were never left in any doubt that their ruler was with them in spirit, if not in deed.
When the Spanish Armada was about to sweep up the English Channel, the Queen went in royal and martial pomp to address her soldiers in camp at Tilbury. Had the Spaniards landed, it would have been the task of these soldiers to march against them.
“I have come amongst you . . . being resolved, in the midst and heat of the battle, to live and die amongst you all,” proclaimed Elizabeth. “I know I have the body of a weak, feeble woman, but I have the heart and stomach of a King.”
How the soldiers loved it! Who could possibly have refused to lay down his life for this tall, pale, slender woman, with her curly red hair shining in the sunlight? Small wonder that the roughest serving man talked of her affectionately as “Good Queen Bess,” and heady Elizabethan poets eulogised her as “Gloriana”.
Other people, however, had a very different view of Elizabeth – and they tended to be those who were closer to her. The Spanish ambassador to London wrote to his King in Madrid: “This woman is possessed of a hundred thousand devils”. No sooner had she learned that Sir Francis Drake and the bad weather had saved England from the calamitous effects of the Spanish Armada, than she called for the bill for sending the soldiers to Tilbury and the fleet to sea, and angrily insisted on making a profit from the food supplied to Drake’s ships.
Elizabeth might have had “the heart and stomach of a King” but she intensely disliked war – simply because it was so expensive. It was as well that, in her reign, Englishmen were called upon only infrequently to fight on land, for often the Queen’s meanness was responsible for their inadequate supplies of ammunition. She preferred, instead, a battlefield where words were the weapons – a battlefield upon which her waspish tongue was supreme. In Church she would frequently shout out from her pew at the preacher if the sermon did not suit her. Once, at a council meeting, she called one of her advisers a fool and another a madman. In an address to Parliament she told the Members that they could pass any resolutions that they wished, “so long as they accord with mine.” Freedom of speech, she told them, was not to extend beyond ‘yes’ or ‘no’.
Elizabeth was determined not to marry. “I will never concede to a husband any share in my power,” she once told the French ambassador. “For the sake of posterity and the good of the realm, I will not marry.”
That did not stop her flirting, nor did it prevent men from wooing her. When she was 49 – old by Tudor standards – she was drawing up a marriage contract and giving a ring to the 23-year-old Duke of Anjou. At almost the last moment the Queen batted her eyelids and demurred, and the hot-headed young Duke, realising that he had been used as an instrument to embarrass others, stormed off in a rage to France.
With all the princes of Europe contending for her hand – and the power it held in its palm – it seems surprising that Englishmen could ever have thought themselves in a position to marry Elizabeth. Yet it is believed that the only man she really loved was Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester. Nonetheless, marriage to “sweet Robin” as she called him, was unthinkable to the Queen, and he remained a favourite and nothing more.
When he died his stepson, Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex, commanded the Queen’s attentions. Essex, however, was quick-tempered and impetuous and when, in an argument, Elizabeth “gave him a sound box on the ear and bade him go and be hanged”, Essex foolishly grasped his sword hilt with a menacing gesture.
Banned at once from court, the headstrong Earl tried to stir up a rebellion in London. It came to nothing and Essex was sent to the Tower on a charge of high treason. There was no reason for Elizabeth, judged by the standards of her time, to forgive and forget, and her hand did not waver as she signed the warrant that sent the disgraced Essex to the executioner.
We must not imagine that the story of Elizabeth’s reign is the story of ambitious men trying to seize power by marriage. Far from it. For in no other age has the stage of England been so crowded with talent, courage and the spirit of adventure. These were the years of William Shakespeare, whose plays the Queen came regularly to watch; of Kit Marlowe and Edmund Spenser. Great sailors like Drake, Gilbert and Grenville roamed the world and great soldiers like Philip Sidney and Raleigh wrote their pages in Britain’s story. Over their brilliance and daring the capricious Queen presided, dispensing patronage generously to the artists and studiously examining the profit and loss accounts of the adventurers.
Despite her quixotic nature, Elizabeth was more shrewd than any of her courtiers, all of whom were the best men in England, spurred on by ambition, talent and drive. At an audience, said an eye-witness, “her eye was set upon one, her ear listened to another, her judgment ran upon a third, to a fourth she addressed her speech; her spirit seemed to be everywhere and yet so entire in her self, as it seemed to be nowhere else.”
Elizabeth must always have been aware that her entry into the world was not a popular one. Her father, Henry VIII, had married her mother, Anne Boleyn, because he wanted a son and heir. When her mother was soon afterwards sent to the executioner, Elizabeth spent her youth in virtual imprisonment and always in fear of the father she rarely saw but whose unpredictable temperament was a legend.
When her father died and her brother, Edward VI, came to the throne at the age of ten, the air was alive with plots and revolutions, for it was clear that Edward would not live long enough to be more than a boy king. Edward, indeed, died at 16, and Elizabeth’s elder sister, Mary Tudor, became Queen. Mary was a Catholic and Elizabeth a Protestant, so that the two religious parties each claimed a leader, and in such circumstances Elizabeth’s life was constantly threatened.
But Mary died, childless and unloved by the country she had brought to the edge of ruin, after a five-year reign, and the tall, pale, golden haired Princess Elizabeth became Queen in her twenty-fifth year, but with a wisdom beyond those years – a wisdom nurtured by the tragedies of her early life.
One of her first appointments turned out to be one of the finest for England. At the head of the government as chief minister she placed Sir William Cecil, afterwards Lord Burleigh. For forty years this wise and faithful man served the nation and its difficult monarch and much of the credit for England’s great prosperity during Elizabeth’s reign can be laid at his door.
All Europe watched the young Queen, judging a time to strike as soon as she showed some sign of weakness. It was reported that she swore, spat, drank beer, and had a fondness for wearing jewels. One presumes that the gems had to be gifts, for Elizabeth did not wear silk stockings until she was given a pair in the first year of her reign – her miserliness having persuaded her against them until then. But the watchers looked in vain for weaknesses. With the Catholic Philip of Spain, who proposed marriage, she dallied skilfully until she had established the Protestant Church of England. Then she persecuted the Catholics and non-Conformists, not because she liked to do so but because she believed it was the only way to keep the national religion – and therefore the country – strong.
And somehow, we are led to believe, she even managed to get the people she persecuted to accept her view of ‘one strong religion makes one strong nation’. Once, for instance, when a Puritan had been punished by having one of his hands cut off, he waved his hat with the other and shouted, “God save the Queen!”
The greatest threat to, and the greatest blot upon Elizabeth’s reign was her cousin, Mary Queen of Scotland. Beautiful, clever Mary was nine years Elizabeth’s junior and, as a great-granddaughter of Henry VII, considered her right to the English throne was greater than Elizabeth’s. Mary had married Francois II, King of France, who was very willing to aid his wife in her claim.
The two Queens wavered between love and hate. When Mary’s husband died they professed friendship, but plots abounded. And no wonder, for Mary, a Catholic, ruled over Protestant Scotland, while Elizabeth, a Protestant, ruled over a country which had more Catholics than Protestants.
When Mary’s next husband, Lord Darnley, was murdered, the Scottish Queen was suspected of having a hand in the deed and her crown was taken from her. She escaped to England and there made the mistake of throwing herself upon Elizabeth’s mercy.
Elizabeth, surrounded by plots, kept her cousin a prisoner for 19 years. But it was clear that every plan to unseat the English Queen was inspired by someone set upon putting Mary on the Throne, and that there would be no peace in England while the deposed Queen of Scots lived. Elizabeth accordingly signed her cousin’s death warrant, and as her pretty head fell, the Catholic powers in Europe seethed with indignation.
The final result of their rage was the ill-fated Spanish Armada and when it had passed, Elizabeth emerged stronger than ever.
In March, 1603, in the forty-fourth year of her reign, when she was nearly 70, the great Queen died, and with her died the Tudor dynasty and the greatest ever age of England. To the end she commanded the court. When she sat dying in a chair and her minister Burleigh said she must go to bed, she croaked back at him: “Little man, the word ‘must’ is not to be used to princes”.
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