Elizabeth was born in turbulent times. 1533, was the year of her birth and her father was desperate to secure a male heir and was disappointed with her as the result. Northern Europe was awash with the new ideas generated from Protestantism. Henry VIII was struggling to establish his powerbase, free from Papal control and rebellious Lords and usurpers.
His disappointment may seem strange to us today, since Elizabeth became one of, if not our greatest leader. But 500 years ago, women were legally, and in the eyes of society, weaker and less able to wield power. Elizabeth would prove this wrong in spades.
To put Henry VIII’s problem into context you need to look back to his father Henry VII and his Grandfather Edward IV and the devastating War of the Roses. Many people, including Historians, concentrate on the fascinating Tudor era and ignore the futile sub-noble gang war of the War of the Roses that preceded it. But I believe to understand Henry VIII, it is important to look to his ancestors.
The War of the Roses main cause was the incompetence of the child king Henry VI leading to an incessant power struggle amongst the nobles. This could be viewed as a selfish power grab, but was no doubt born out of a desire to allow the country to be ruled effectively when Henry VI was incapable of communicating except with the almighty. There were many minor battles as the two houses of York and Lancaster disputed the succession, which was finally settled in 1485. Henry Tudor had a tenuous claim to the throne on the Lancastrian side and Elizabeth Woodville was daughter of Henry IV on the York side they were married and crowned. Henry spent much of his reign maintaining his rule and prevented more noble infighting.
So when his son Henry VIII ascended to the throne in 1509, he was the son of a usurper. His powerful and bullying image belies the potential fragility of his position. Henry’s famous need of six wives was his desperate attempt to find a male heir to secure the succession and stabilise England.
His first wife produced Mary, but no more, Anne Boleyn replaced her and produced Elizabeth and Jane Seymour produced Edward and died in childbirth. To achieve this extended family, Henry had separated from Rome and in doing so, Edward and Elizabeth had been tutored as Protestants. But Edward was a sickly child and his early death led to Mary being installed as Queen. She had married the Spanish king Phillip II, but failed to produce an heir. After five years of a return to Catholicism, and a brutal version at that, Mary died and Elizabeth was installed as Queen at the age of 24.
In hindsight we can look back at the strength of the Queen and her father, but in reality the hold on power was fragile for both. Henry bullied his way to loyalty, and his daughter used all the charm, wit, subtlety, seduction, threat and rage that she could find.
During her brother’s reign she was marginalised and her sister labelled her a bastard and put her in the tower. But when Mary’s health started to fail, she started to prepare for leadership.
Within a year she had brought the Act of Supremacy to Parliament, where she was established as the head of the Church in England. Her view was that the country should follow the religion of the Monarch. She was very much a Protestant, but unlike her sister, she would tolerate deviations from the established norm. But she would not tolerate Papism as this was a threat to her rule.
Already she had demonstrated her strength and wisdom in bringing this bill into law. The next challenge was Mary Queen of Scots whose disastrous return to Scotland had led to a brief marriage to Lord Darnley Stuart, and an implication in his murder. A possibly forced marriage to a scoundrel Earl of Bothwell and an escape to England all in 7 years. Mary was a possible heir to the throne of England and needed careful treatment. Elizabeth respected the fact that she was a Queen, but realised that as a Catholic she would both threaten the constitution of the country and could spearhead a Catholic coup. As her cousin she would negotiate and manipulate in a very delicate political situation. The two never met but were clearly great rivals. Mary was eager for power and had been married three times when Elizabeth imprisoned her. The Queen was married to England and forsake everything for her countries benefit.
The Two Queens were competitive in their dealings with noble messengers and jailors. Playing a game of constitutional girl chess for the future of themselves and their countries. Eventually Mary became involved in too many plots to unseat Elizabeth and plant herself on the throne of England and Scotland. Neither country wanted her as a failed leader and a promoter of a now foreign religion. By the 1580’s about 1.5% of the population was Catholic. She was executed as the Spanish Armada prepared invasion.
This was one decision that the Queen had agonised for twenty years over and even when it was vital that she grasped the nettle, the taking of the life of a fellow monarch was a very difficult move for her.
Throughout her reign there were a number of foreign threats. The Spanish were always intent on ridding England of the heresy of Protestantism, usually in the form of Phillip II. They were engaged in war in the Netherlands which was their territory, but there were many Protestants there and the whole region cried out for religious tolerance. A protracted war of independence that would last 43 years was difficult to ignore and the Queen found it necessary to support the Dutch who she found stubborn and ungrateful. Henry IV of France also required support in fighting the Spanish. He was a Protestant who converted to Catholicism on gaining the throne and needed her support to prevent a massive Spanish state surrounding England’s southern shores. Later in her reign there were rebellions in Ireland that required putting down. But the major fight was the Armada of 1588, where the Navy, the weather and poor Spanish planning saved England from the long threatened Catholic invasion.
Throughout these overseas military missions, Elizabeth was frustrated by the need to keep costs to a minimum and to control her rather adventuresome Nobles whose first thought was usually for glory and booty. There were many of these overseas raids that were meant to prevent an invasion at home. These pre-emptive measures were necessary as the Spanish were excellent troops who had much experience in the Netherlands and the West Indies, the English militia would have been no match. Victory at sea or on foreign fields was necessary to keep the country safe. Her buccaneering military men, such as Leicester, Essex and Drake did not have the strategic or financial oversight that a proper leader should have. She, as a woman, had no place in a foreign field of battle at that time.
Perhaps her greatest gifts were her ability to play on her femininity, her fiery red-head temper and her potential availability as having the greatest dowry in Europe. Coming from a seriously dysfunctional family it was not surprising that marriage did not attract her. In fact marriage was not an attractive proposition for anyone at the time as history tells us that very few people were happy in their home lives.
Elizabeth had other problems to deal with. Throughout her reign there was a constant call for her to marry. The trouble for her was this. Any foreign Prince would either expect to have a certain amount of power on becoming King of England. Even though this was unlikely knowing that the Queen would not yield power to anyone, she would feel the need to ally with the Princes country thus fighting for their goals as well as her own. This would weaken her power and destabilise European relations. Any member of the court could have been King, but all would have been her junior and the infighting and jealousy that would have been visited on the court would also been destabilising. The more powerful and appropriate a suitor, the less power she would have.
As the years went on the games of seduction and diplomacy were played out all coming to nought in the end. As the years went on the chance of her producing an heir became less and less. The chance of a late pregnancy, leading to her demise and an infant monarch damped down the desire for marriage in her realm. There was the Duc de Alencon and the Holy Roman Emperor’s son that entered into negotiation. Robert Dudley who she elevated to Earl of Leicester, was the only man she appeared to like personally. So much so that court had it that her behaviour with him was quite unbecoming of a Queen.
There were just too many factors that affected her marriage decisions. Ultimately she was married to England and did not feel able to relinquish that power or find anyone as selfless as her to share the responsibility of rule.
She would bedazzle in make-up, sumptuous gowns and jewels. Never showing weakness of health or character. She would fly into a rage, natural to her father and her character, but unlike him apologise when necessary. She surrounded herself with advisers she could understand, trust up to a point and who were prepared to stand up to her when necessary.
They all had characters, roles and different ways of dealing with her. She was a people person who understood how to get the most out of those around her, Similar to Churchill. Cecil was to become Lord Burghley was with her to his death and followed by his son, was a cautious and learned fellow whose advice she trusted. Walsingham was an austere Calvinist type who was spymaster and strategist. Dudley was her favourite, who entertained her, maddened her, led expeditions for her and left her bereft and maybe never the same after he died shortly after the victory over the Spanish in 1588. She may have needed the charm and adventure of a swashbuckling bad boy. Her step-son the Earl of Essex followed him, but she tolerated him too long and he betrayed her and lost his head.
In her dealings she resolved to be herself and had loyal and long-time advisers who all had a role. They knew how to deal with her moods and frustrations and they were prepared to stand up to her. This indicates an egalitarian viewpoint. Not surprising for someone who was rejected so supremely by her father and was too young to witness the beheading of her mother.
The people were not stupid and recognised her undiluted service to them and them alone. Not to her position or her wealth or her lands, but to improve the lot of the English people. She was the first servant Queen Elizabeth. Nothing in her life stood between her and the well-being of her people. Not her inheritance, family, romance, wealth, children or her good name. She gave her speech at Tilbury demonstrating that she was a Lion of a king in a woman’s body and no-one doubted it.
She took a country at war with itself during a massive political/religious upheaval, from being an unimportant outpost to building the foundations of world exploration and trade. She gave identity, community and even equality to the country. She fought against all comers who wanted England for themselves.
Did she have a goal in mind? Was there a master plan? Could she discern the future? Who knows? But she would not relinquish the reins of power until she knew that there was anybody who would satisfy her need to see England in good hands.
In 1603 she descended into melancholy and gave up the will to live. Maybe she felt she had failed. She clearly did not realise the esteem the English people felt for her. James VI of Scotland was the laddie she had established as her heir. Probably not as she wanted. But nothing was good enough for her child. She gave birth to England as we know it.