Elizabeth I and Her Era

Great Britain - Scott #568 (1968)
Great Britain – Scott #568 (1968)

On November 17, 1558, the Elizabethan era began when Queen Mary I of England died and was succeeded by her half-sister Elizabeth I. The Victorian era and the early 20th century idealized the Elizabethan era. The Encyclopædia Britannica maintains that “[T]he long reign of Elizabeth I, 1558–1603, was England’s Golden Age… ‘Merry England’, in love with life, expressed itself in music and literature, in architecture and in adventurous seafaring”. This idealizing tendency was shared by Britain and an Anglophilic America. In popular culture, the image of those adventurous Elizabethan seafarers was embodied in the films of Errol Flynn. In response and reaction to this hyperbole, modern historians and biographers have tended to take a more dispassionate view of the Tudor period.

The Elizabethan era is the epoch in the Tudor period of the history of England during the reign of Elizabeth I who was Queen of England and Ireland from November 17, 1558, until her death on March 24, 1603. Historians often depict it as the golden age in English history. The symbol of Britannia (a female personification of Great Britain) was first used in 1572, and often thereafter, to mark the Elizabethan age as a renaissance that inspired national pride through classical ideals, international expansion, and naval triumph over the Spanish — at the time, a rival kingdom much hated by the people of the land. In terms of the entire century, the historian John Guy (1988) argues that “England was economically healthier, more expansive, and more optimistic under the Tudors” than at any time in a thousand years.

The Spanish Armada fighting the English navy at the Battle of Gravelines in 1588.
The Spanish Armada fighting the English navy at the Battle of Gravelines in 1588.

This “golden age” represented the apogee of the English Renaissance and saw the flowering of poetry, music and literature. The era is most famous for theatre, as William Shakespeare and many others composed plays that broke free of England’s past style of theatre. It was an age of exploration and expansion abroad, while back at home, the Protestant Reformation became more acceptable to the people, most certainly after the Spanish Armada was repulsed. It was also the end of the period when England was a separate realm before its royal union with Scotland.

Sometimes called The Virgin Queen, Gloriana or Good Queen Bess, Elizabeth was the last of the five monarchs of the House of Tudor.

Elizabeth was born on September 7, 1533, at Greenwich Palace and was named after her grandmothers, Elizabeth of York and Elizabeth Howard. She was the second child of Henry VIII of England born in wedlock to survive infancy. Her mother was Henry’s second wife, Anne Boleyn, who was executed two-and-a-half years after Elizabeth’s birth. At birth, Elizabeth was the heir presumptive to the throne of England. Her older half-sister, Mary, had lost her position as a legitimate heir when Henry annulled his marriage to Mary’s mother, Catherine of Aragon, to marry Anne, with the intent to sire a male heir and ensure the Tudor succession. She was baptized on September 10; Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, the Marquess of Exeter, the Duchess of Norfolk and the Dowager Marchioness of Dorset stood as her godparents. A canopy was carried at the ceremony over the three-day old child by her uncle Viscount Rochford, Lord Hussey, Lord Thomas Howard, and Lord Howard of Effingham.

Elizabeth's parents, Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn. Anne was executed less than three years after Elizabeth's birth.
Elizabeth’s parents, Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn. Anne was executed less than three years after Elizabeth’s birth.

Anne’s marriage to Henry VIII was annulled in 1536, and Elizabeth was declared illegitimate. Her half-brother, Edward VI, ruled until his death on July 6, 1553, aged 15. His will swept aside the Succession to the Crown Act 1543, excluded both Mary and Elizabeth from the succession, and instead declared as his heir Lady Jane Grey, granddaughter of Henry VIII’s younger sister, Mary. Jane was proclaimed queen by the Privy Council, but her support quickly crumbled, and she was deposed after nine days. On August 3, 1553, Mary rode triumphantly into London, with Elizabeth at her side.

The show of solidarity between the sisters did not last long. Mary, a devout Catholic, was determined to crush the Protestant faith in which Elizabeth had been educated, and she ordered that everyone attend Catholic Mass; Elizabeth had to outwardly conform. Mary’s initial popularity ebbed away in 1554 when she announced plans to marry Philip of Spain, the son of Holy Roman Emperor Charles V and an active Catholic. Discontent spread rapidly through the country, and many looked to Elizabeth as a focus for their opposition to Mary’s religious policies. During Mary’s reign, Elizabeth was imprisoned for nearly a year on suspicion of supporting Protestant rebels.

Elizabeth I in her coronation robes, patterned with Tudor roses and trimmed with ermine
Elizabeth I in her coronation robes, patterned with Tudor roses and trimmed with ermine

Upon Mary’s death in 1558, Elizabeth succeeded her half-sister to the throne and set out to rule by good counsel. She depended heavily on a group of trusted advisers, led by William Cecil, 1st Baron Burghley. One of her first actions as queen was the establishment of an English Protestant church, of which she became the Supreme Governor. This Elizabethan Religious Settlement was to evolve into the Church of England. It was expected that Elizabeth would marry and produce an heir; she never did, despite numerous courtships. She was eventually succeeded by her first cousin twice removed, James VI of Scotland. She had earlier been responsible for the imprisonment and execution of James’s mother, Mary, Queen of Scots.

In government, Elizabeth was more moderate than her father and half-siblings had been. One of her mottoes was “video et taceo” (“I see but say nothing”). In religion, she was relatively tolerant and avoided systematic persecution. After the pope declared her illegitimate in 1570 and released her subjects from obedience to her, several conspiracies threatened her life, all of which were defeated with the help of her ministers’ secret service. Elizabeth was cautious in foreign affairs, manoeuvring between the major powers of France and Spain. She only half-heartedly supported a number of ineffective, poorly resourced military campaigns in the Netherlands, France, and Ireland. By the mid-1580s, England could no longer avoid war with Spain. England’s defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588 associated Elizabeth with one of the greatest military victories in English history.

Portrait commemorating the defeat of the Spanish Armada, depicted in the background. Elizabeth's hand rests on the globe, symbolising her international power. One of three known versions of the
Portrait commemorating the defeat of the Spanish Armada, depicted in the background. Elizabeth’s hand rests on the globe, symbolising her international power. One of three known versions of the “Armada Portrait”.

As she grew older, Elizabeth became celebrated for her virginity. A cult grew around her which was celebrated in the portraits, pageants, and literature of the day. Elizabeth’s reign became known as the Elizabethan era. The period is famous for the flourishing of English drama, led by playwrights such as William Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe, and for the seafaring prowess of English adventurers such as Francis Drake. Some historians depict Elizabeth as a short-tempered, sometimes indecisive ruler, who enjoyed more than her share of luck. Towards the end of her reign, a series of economic and military problems weakened her popularity. Elizabeth is acknowledged as a charismatic performer and a dogged survivor in an era when government was ramshackle and limited, and when monarchs in neighbouring countries faced internal problems that jeopardised their thrones. After the short reigns of her half-siblings, her 44 years on the throne provided welcome stability for the kingdom and helped forge a sense of national identity.

The Elizabethan Age contrasts sharply with the previous and following reigns. It was a brief period of internal peace between the English Reformation and the religious battles between Protestants and Catholics and then the political battles between parliament and the monarchy that engulfed the remainder of the seventeenth century. The Protestant/Catholic divide was settled, for a time, by the Elizabethan Religious Settlement, and parliament was not yet strong enough to challenge royal absolutism.

The “Darnley Portrait” of Elizabeth I (c. 1575). It was named after a previous owner. Probably painted from life, this portrait is the source of the face pattern called “The Mask of Youth” which would be used for authorized portraits of Elizabeth for decades to come. Recent research has shown the colours have faded. The oranges and browns would have been crimson red in Elizabeth’s time.

England was also well-off compared to the other nations of Europe. The Italian Renaissance had come to an end under the weight of Spanish domination of the peninsula. France was embroiled in its own religious battles that were (temporarily) settled in 1598 by a policy of tolerating Protestantism with the Edict of Nantes. In part because of this, but also because the English had been expelled from their last outposts on the continent by Spain’s tercios, the centuries-long conflict between France and England was largely suspended for most of Elizabeth’s reign.

The one great rival was Spain, with whom England clashed both in Europe and the Americas in skirmishes that exploded into the Anglo-Spanish War of 1585–1604. An attempt by Philip II of Spain to invade England with the Spanish Armada in 1588 was famously defeated, but the tide of war turned against England with an unsuccessful expedition to Portugal and the Azores, the Drake-Norris Expedition of 1589. Thereafter, Spain provided some support for Irish Catholics in a debilitating rebellion against English rule, and Spanish naval and land forces inflicted a series of reversals against English offensives. This drained both the English Exchequer and economy that had been so carefully restored under Elizabeth’s prudent guidance. English commercial and territorial expansion would be limited until the signing of the Treaty of London the year following Elizabeth’s death.

 Elizabeth’s senior adviser, William Cecil, 1st Baron Burghley, died on August 4, 1598. His political mantle passed to his son, Robert Cecil, who soon became the leader of the government. One task he addressed was to prepare the way for a smooth succession. Since Elizabeth would never name her successor, Cecil was obliged to proceed in secret. He therefore entered into a coded negotiation with James VI of Scotland, who had a strong but unrecognized claim. Cecil coached the impatient James to humour Elizabeth and “secure the heart of the highest, to whose sex and quality nothing is so improper as either needless expostulations or over much curiosity in her own actions”. The advice worked. James’s tone delighted Elizabeth, who responded: “So trust I that you will not doubt but that your last letters are so acceptably taken as my thanks cannot be lacking for the same, but yield them to you in grateful sort”. In historian J. E. Neale’s view, Elizabeth may not have declared her wishes openly to James, but she made them known with “unmistakable if veiled phrases”.

The Pelican Portrait by Nicholas Hilliard. The pelican was thought to nourish its young with its own blood and served to depict Elizabeth as the
The Pelican Portrait by Nicholas Hilliard. The pelican was thought to nourish its young with its own blood and served to depict Elizabeth as the “mother of the Church of England”.

The Queen’s health remained fair until the autumn of 1602, when a series of deaths among her friends plunged her into a severe depression. In February 1603, the death of Catherine Carey, Countess of Nottingham, the niece of her cousin and close friend Lady Knollys, came as a particular blow. In March, Elizabeth fell sick and remained in a “settled and unremovable melancholy”, and sat motionless on a cushion for hours on end. When Robert Cecil told her that she must go to bed, she snapped: “Must is not a word to use to princes, little man.” She died on March 24, 1603, at Richmond Palace, between two and three in the morning. A few hours later, Cecil and the council set their plans in motion and proclaimed James King of England.

While it has become normative to record the death of the Queen as occurring in 1603, following English calendar reform in the 1750s, at the time England observed New Year’s Day on March 25, commonly known as Lady Day. Thus Elizabeth died on the last day of the year 1602 in the old calendar. The modern convention is to use the old calendar for the date and month while using the new for the year.

Elizabeth's funeral cortège, 1603, with banners of her royal ancestors
Elizabeth’s funeral cortège, 1603, with banners of her royal ancestors

Elizabeth’s coffin was carried downriver at night to Whitehall, on a barge lit with torches. At her funeral on April 28, the coffin was taken to Westminster Abbey on a hearse drawn by four horses hung with black velvet. In the words of the chronicler John Stow:

Westminster was surcharged with multitudes of all sorts of people in their streets, houses, windows, leads and gutters, that came out to see the obsequy, and when they beheld her statue lying upon the coffin, there was such a general sighing, groaning and weeping as the like hath not been seen or known in the memory of man.

Elizabeth was interred in Westminster Abbey, in a tomb shared with her half-sister, Mary I. The Latin inscription on their tomb, “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 British Paintings set of four stamps was released on August 12, 1968 (Scott #568-571). These were printed by Harrison & Sons Ltd. using the photogravure process with Queen Elizabeth II’s portrait impressed with gold. The 4-pence denomination depicted  a painting of Elizabeth I, circa 1575, by an unknown artist. This is known as the “Darnley Portrait”, named after a previous owner.

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