1902 Encyclopedia > Queen Elizabeth I of England

Queen Elizabeth I of England

ELIZABETH, queen of England, one of the most fortunate and illustrious of modern sovereigns, was born in the palace of Greenwich on the 7th of September 1533. She was the only surviving issue of the ill-starred union between Henry VIII. and Anne Boleyn, which extended over a space of less than three years. Anne was crowned at Westminster June 15, 1533, and was beheaded within the Tower of London May 19, 1536. The girlish beauty and vivacity of Anne Boleyn, with her brief career of royal splendour and her violent death, invest her story with a portion of romantic interest ; but she does not seem to have possessed any solid virtues or intellectual superiority. The name of Elizabeth cannot be added to the list of eminent persons who are said to inherited their peculiar talents and dispositions from the side of the mother. On the contrary, she closely resembled her father in many respects,—in his stout heart and haughty, his strong self-will and energy, and his love of courtly pomp and magnificence. Combined with these, however, there was in Elizabeth a degree of politic caution and wisdom, with no small dissimulation and artifice, which certainly does not appear in the character of "bluff King Harry." Early hardships and dangers had taught Elizabeth prudence and suspicion, as well as afforded opportunity in her forced retirement for the pursuit of learning and for private accomplishments. The period of her youth was an interesting and memorable one in English history. The doctrines of the Reformation had spread from Germany to this country ; and the passions and interests of Henry led him to adopt in part the new faith, or at least to abjure the grand tenet of the Papal supremacy. Anne Boleyn, by her charms and influence, facilitated this great change ; and there is historical truth as well as poetical beauty in the couplet of Gray,

"That Love could teach a monarch to be wise,
And gospel light first dawn’d from Boleyn’s eyes."

The Protestantism of England was henceforth linked to Elizabeth’s title to the crown. She was in her fourteenth year when her father King Henry died. Her education had been carefully attended to, latterly under the superintendence of good Catherine Parr, the last of Henry’s queens. The young princess was instructed in Greek and Latin, first by William Grindal, and afterwards by Roger Ascham, who has described his pupil in glowing terms as "exempt from female weakness," and endued with a masculine power of application, quick apprehension, and retentive memory. She spoke French and Italian with fluency, was elegant in her penmanship, whether in the Greek or Roman character, and was skillful in music, though she did not delight in it. "With respect to personal decoration," adds Ascham, "she greatly prefers a simple elegance to show and splendour." This last characteristic, if it ever existed, not abide with Elizabeth. Her love of rich dresses jewels, and other ornaments was excessive ; and at her death she is said to have had about 2000 costly suits of all countries in her wardrobe. Nor can it be said that even at the tender age of sixteen, when Roger Ascham drew her flattering portrait, Elizabeth was exempt from female weakness. After the death of Henry, the queen-dowager married the Lord Admiral Seymour, whose gallantries and ambition embittered her latter days. Seymour paid court to the Princess Elizabeth, and with the connivance of her governess, Mrs Ashley, obtained frequent interviews, in which much boisterous and indelicate familiarity passed. The graver court ladies from fault with "my lady Elizabeth’s going in a night in a barge upon Thames, and for other light parts;" and the scandal proceeded so far as to become matter of examination by the council. Mrs Ashley and Thomas Parry, cofferer of the princess’s household (afterwards patronized by Elizabeth), were committed for a time to the Tower, and Elizabeth an examination by Sir Thomas Tyrwhit, but would confess nothing. "she hath a very good wit," said Tyrwhit, "and nothing is gotten of her but by great policy." The subsequent disgrace and death of Seymour closed this first of Elizabeth’s love passages ; she applied herself diligently to her studies under Ascham, and maintained that "policy" and caution which events rendered more than ever necessary.

The premature death of Edward VI. called forth a display of Elizabeth’s sagacity and courage. Edward had been prevailed upon by the duke of Northumberland to dispose of the crown by will to his cousin Lady Jane Grey. The two sisters, Mary and Elizabeth, on whom the succession had been settled by the testamentary provisions of Henry VIII., as well as by statute, were thus excluded. Mary’s friends immediately took up arms ; Elizabeth was asked to resign her title in consideration of a sum of money, and certain lands which should be assigned to her ; but she rejected the proposal, adding that her elder sister should be treated with first, as during Mary’s lifetime she herself had no right to the throne. Elizabeth then rallied her friends and followers, and when Mary approached London, successful and triumphant, she was met by Elizabeth at the hand of 1000 horse—knights, squires, and ladies, with their attendants. Such a congratulation merited a different acknowledgment from that which Elizabeth was fated to experience. But the temper of Mary, never frank or amiable, had been soured by neglect, persecution, and ill health ; and her fanatical devotion to the ancient religion had become the absorbing and ruling passion of her mind. She was not devoid of private virtues,—certainly excelling Elizabeth in sincerity and depth of feeling ; but her virtues "walked a narrow round ;" and whenever the Romish Church was in question, all feelings of private tenderness, and all considerations of public expediency or justice, were with Mary as flax in the fire. The five years of her reign are perhaps the most un-English epoch in our annals._

To escape from indignities and persecution at court, Elizabeth was suffered to retire, though carefully watched, to her house of Ashridge, in Buckinghamshire. Wyat’s insurrection, prompted by the rumoured marriage of Mary with Philip of Spain, made her still more an object of suspicion and distrust, as the hopes of the Protestant party were on all occasions turned to Elizabeth. The young princess was taken from Ashridge and privately committed to the Tower. Her death was demanded by some of the bigoted adherents of the court, but Mary dared not and probably did not desire to proceed to this extremity ; Philip, when allied to the English crown, interceded on behalf of the fair captive, and Elizabeth was removed to Woodstock, under care of a fierce Catholic, Sir Henry Bedingfield. Her extreme wariness and circumspection baffled every effort to entrap her. She conformed out wardly to the Catholic Church, opening a chapel in her house at Woodstock, and keeping a large crucifix in her chamber. This conformity was not unnaturally ascribed to dissimulation, but part was probably real. To the end of her life, Elizabeth retained a portion of the old belief. She had always a crucifix with lighted tapers before it in her private chapel ; she put up prayers to the Virgin (being she said, a virgin herself, she saw no sin in this) ; she disliked all preaching and controversy on the subject of the real presence ; and she zealous almost to slaying against the marriage of the clergy. She was anxious to retain as much as possible of the Catholic ceremonial and the splendid celebrations of the church festivals, which the ardent reformers would gladly have swept away, as had been done in Scotland. The Anglican Church was a compromise.

The wretched and inglorious reign of Mary terminated on the 17th of November 1558. Elizabeth heard that news of her accession at Hatfield, and she fell down on her knees exclaiming : A Domino factum est istud, et est mirabile oculis nostris—" It is the Lords’ doing, it is marvellous in our eyes"—words which she afterwards caused to be stamped on a gold coin, impressing on her silver coin another pious motto, Posui Deum adjutorem meum—"I have chosen God for my helper." All her perils were now passed. The nation received her with unbounded enthusiasm. Church bells were rung, bonfires blazed, tables were spread on the streets, the Protestants exulted with a holy joy.

Elizabeth was in her twenty-fifth year when she ascended the throne. She had been better disciplined and trained for her trust than most princes, yet the difficulties that surrounded the English crown at this time might well have appalled her. The nation was struggling in a war with France, trade was much decayed, Calais had been lost, and England was distracted by religious divisions and animosities. All Catholic Europe might be expected to be arrayed against the Protestant queen of England. Elizabeth, however, at once chose the better part for herself and the nation. Without waiting for the assembling of her first parliament, she ordered the church service to be read in English, and the elevation of the host to be discontinued. But before this could be known abroad, she had instructed the English ambassador at Rome to notify her accession to the pope. Paul IV., then pontiff, arrongantly replied, that England was a fief of the Holy See, that Elizabeth was illegitimate, and could not inherit the crown, and that she should renounce all her pretensions and submit to his decision. If Elizabeth had ever wavered as to the course she should pursue, this papal fulmination must have fixed her determination. Twelve years afterwards, a subsequent pope, Pius V., issued a bull releasing English Catholics from their allegiance to the queen, and formally depriving her of the title tot he throne. But the thunders of the Vatican, like the threats of the Escorial, fell harmless on the English shores. The nation, under its Protestant monarch and her wise counsellors, the Lord-Keeper Bacon, Cecil (afterwards Lord Burghley), Walsingham, Throckmorton, Sir Ralph Sadler, and others, pursued its triumphant course, while its naval strength and glory were augmented beyond all former precedent. The exploits of the gallant sea-rovers Drake, Hawkins, and Frobisher, the heroic deaths of the brave admirals Gilbert and Grenville, and the transatlantic adventures of Raleigh—are still unsurpassed in romantic interest. The government of Elizabeth and the public events of her reign will fall to be recorded in another part of this work, under the head of ENGLAND. Her first parliament passed the famous Acts of Supremacy and Uniformity, which struck directly at the papal power. All clergymen and public functionaries were obliged to renounce the temporal and spiritual jurisdiction of every foreign prince and prelate ; and all ministers, whether beneficed or not, were prohibited from using any but the established liturgy. These statutes were carried out with considerable severity ; many Catholics suffered death ; but all might have saved themselves, if they had explicity denied the right of the pope to depose the queen. The puritans and nonconformists, on the other hand, were content to bear some portion of the burden of intolerance and oppression, from the consideration that Elizabeth was the bulwark of Protestantism. If they lost her firm hand they lost all ; and the numerous plots and machinations of the Catholics against the queen’s life showed how highly it was valued, and how precious it was to Protestant Europe. In the latter part of the queen’s reign, her domestic and fiscal regulations were justly open to censure. The abuse of monoplies had grown to be a great evil ; grants of exclusive rights to deal in almost all commodities had been given to the royal favourites, who were exorbitant in their demands, and oppressed the people at pleasure. Elizabeth wisely yielded to the growing strength of the Commons, and the monopolies complained of were cancelled. The monarchy, though as yet arbitrary and in some respects undefined, was still, in essential points, limited by law.

One great object of the Protestants was to secure a successor to the throne by the marriage of Elizabeth. The nearest heir was Mary Queen o Scots, a zealous Catholic, who was supported by all the Catholic states, and had ostentatiously quartered the royal arms of England with her own, thus deeply offending the proud and jealous Elizabeth. The hand of the English queen was eagerly solicited by numerous suitors—by Philip of Spain, who was ambitious of continuing his connection with England, by the Arch-duke Charles of Austria, by Eric king of Sweden, the duke of Anjou, and others. With some of these Elizabeth negotiated and coquetted for years ; to Anjou she seems to have been attached ; but her affections were more deeply touched, as Mr Hallam has remarked, by her favourite Dudley, earl of Leicester. Her early resolution, and vanity, was, that she should remain single and hold undivided power. To a deputation from the Commons on this delicate subject, she emphatically said she had resolved to live and die a virgin queen : "and for me it shall be sufficient that a marble stone declare that a queen, having reigned such a time, lived and died a virgin." She appears often to have wavered in her resolution, and, in her partiality for handsome courtiers and admirers, to have forgotten her prudence and dignity. Her partiality for Essex was undisguised—it was unhappy for both; and making Hatton chancellor because he could dance gracefully was a bold but not unsuccessful achievement. Elizabeth’s fits of rage were a violent as her fits of love. Her minds of honour sometimes felt the weight of the royal hand; and when Essex once turned his back on her, she appropriately dealt him a box on the ear. As a pendant to these nugae, we may add, that Elizabeth swore strongly, decided and masculine oaths.

The feminine weakness and egregious vanity of Elizabeth, in the midst of so many masculine qualities of temperament and intellect, have afforded abundant matter for garrulous chroniclers. Five years after she ascended the throne, she issued a proclamation against portraits painters and engravers, who had erred in expressing "that natural representation of her majesty’s person, favour, or grace," that was desired by her loving subjects, and who were ordered to desist until some "special cunning painter" might be permitted to have access to the royal presence. The works of the unskilful and common painters were, as Raleigh relates, by the queen’s commandment, "knocked in pieces and cast into the fire." A long account is given by the Scottish ambassador Melville of certain interviews he had with Elizabeth when in the most gracious and pleasant mood. She showed him "my lord’s picture,"—a portrait of the unworthy favourite Dudley; she changed her dress everyday, "one day the English weed, another, the French, and another the Italian, and so forth," asking Melville which became her best ; her hair, he says, was rather reddish than yellow, and curled naturally ; she inquired whether the queen of Scotland or herself was of highest stature, and Melville answering that Mary was tallest, "then," saith she, "she is too high, for I myself am neither too high nor too low." Melville praised Mary’s accomplishments as a musician and dancer, and Elizabeth contrived, as if by accident, that he should hear her play upon the virginals : "she inquired whether my queen or she played best ; in that I found myself obliged to give her the praise." In the matter of the dancing, Melville was also able to answer, that Mary did not dance "so high and disposedly" as Elizabeth. Determined to show all her accomplishments, Elizabeth addressed the wary ambassador in Italian, which she spoke "reasonably well," and in German, which, he says, was "not so good." These glimpses of the woman Elizabeth contrast strangely with the sovereign, who, at Tilbury camp, rode from rank to of her army, bareheaded, with a general’s truncheon in her hand, declaring to her soldiers that she was resolved to live and die amongst them in the midst and heat of the battle ; and that she thought it "foul scorn that Parma or Spain, or any prince of Europe, should dare to invade the borders of her realms." Language and sentiments like these, reflecting the feeling of the nation, must have insured the destruction of the troops of Parma or Spain, even if the vaunted Armada had not been sunk by the English fire or scattered by tempests. At this great crisis, however, Elizabeth owed much of her popularity and security to the wisdom of her ministers and the spirit of her people, rather than to her own patriotism and sense of duty. She had from unwise parsimony impoverished the navy, as she had previously neglected the army, and left the country comparatively defenceless. It was only after repeated applications and entreaties that Burghley and Walsingham obtained the royal consent to carry out the necessary preparations. Walsingham made large personal advances, which were never repaid. Irresolution would seem a priori to be a weakness alien to the despotic character of Elizabeth, yet it is certain that she was often, on momentous occasions, hesitating, wavering, and undecided. The sagacity and devotedness of her chief counsellors, though not incited or fed by the royal bounty, were her safety and her strength.

The darkest stain on the memory of Elizabeth is her treatment of Mary Queen of Scots. To have cut off Mary from the crown, settling it on her son, would have secured the Protestant succession, and Mary liberated would most probably have repaired to France, whence her revenue was derived, or to Spain. Thus the conspiracies for her release and her own machinations would have been averted. Her execution, though clamoured for by the English nation, was an act of cruelty peculiarly revolting on the part of a female sovereign and kinswoman. And Elizabeth’s affected reluctance to sign the death warrant, her prompting to secretary Davison that Sir Amias Paulet should be instigated to make away with the captive queen (which the "dainty precise fellow," as Elizabeth termed him, refused to do), and her feigned grief and indignation after the event had taken place—throwing the blame on her ministers and on the unfortunate secretary who placed the warrant before her for signature—all this over-acted and disgusting hypocrisy is almost as injurious to the reputation of Elizabeth as the deed itself.

Mr Froude has said that no trace can be found of personal animosity on the part of Elizabeth towards Mary. It is evident, however, that jealousy if not hatred animated the English queen towards her rival. The youth and beauty of Mary were a source of aversion ; Elizabeth never forgave her for quartering the royal arms of England ; and there was a certain malicious letter, written by Mary to Elizabeth when the captive queen was under the guardianship of the earl of Shrewsbury, that must have chafed the Tudor blood in no ordinary degree. In this epistle Mary reported some alleged speeches of the countess of Shrewsbury charging Elizabeth with licentious amours, physical defects, absurd vanity, folly, and avarice (Hume, chap. x1ii.). The original letter in Mary’s handwriting was seen by Prince Labanoff (circa 1840) among the Cecil papers in Hatfield House, where, we believe, it still remains. It is such an epistle as no woman—royalty apart—would ever forget or forgive, but there is a probability that Burghley or Walsingham may have intercepted the letter, and not ventured to deliver it to their royal mistress.

To the end of her life Elizabeth affected all the airs of a coy beauty and coquette. Even her statesmen addressed her in a strain of fulsome adulation and semi-gallantry. She was the Gloriana of Spenser, the "fair vestal throned in the west" of Shakespeare, and the idol of all the lesser poets, as well as courtiers and politicians. When Raleigh was confined in the Tower, he wrote to Cecil—trusting, no doubt, that his letter would be shown to Elizabeth—that he was in the utmost depth of misery because he could no longer see the queen. "I, that was wont to behold her riding like Alexander, hunting like Diana, waling like Venus, the gentle wind blowing her fair hair about her pure cheeks like a nymph [Elizabeth was then in her fifty-ninth year] ; sometimes singing like an angel, sometime playing like Orpheus," &c. Elizabeth continued her gorgeous finery and rigorous state ceremonial, and was waited upon by applauding crowds whenever she went abroad. We have a graphic picture of her in sixty-fifth year by a German, Paul Hentzner, who saw the queen on a Sunday a she proceeded to chapel. She appeared stately and majestic ; her face oblong, fair but wrinkled ; her eyes small, yet black and pleasant ; her nose a little hooked, her lips narrow, her teeth black, her slender and her fingers long (there was a special beauty in her delicate white hands, and in her audiences she took care not to hide them). She had pearls with rich drops in her ears, wore false red hair, had a small crown on her head, her bosom uncovered, her dress white silk, bordered with pearls of the size of beans, a collar of gold and jewels ; and thus arrayed, Elizabeth passed along smiling graciously on the spectators, who fell down on their knees as she approached ; while a marchioness bore up her train, a bevy of ladies followed her dressed in white, and she was guarded on each side by fifty gentlemen pensioners, carrying gilt battle-axes.

A few years afterwards we see the eclipse of all this splendour and servility. Towards the end of March 1603, Elizabeth was seized with her mortal illness. She became restless and melancholy, refused medicine, and sat for days and nights on cushions, silent, her finger pressed on her mouth. When asked by Cecil who should succeed her on the throne, she characteristically answered, ‘My seat has been the seat of kings ; I will have no rascal to succeed me." She afterwards, when speechless, joined her hands together above her head, "in a manner of a crown," to signify, in answer to another interrogatory from Cecil, that she wished the King of Scots to be her successor. She expired on the 24th of March 1603. And thus calmly passed away the last of the Tudors, the lion-hearted Elizabeth. She was in the seventieth year of her age and forty-fifth of her reign—a period of brilliant prosperity and advancement, during which England had put forth her brightest genius, valour, and enterprise, and attained to the highest distinction and glory among the states of Europe. The "golden days of good queen Bess" were long remembered in contrast to those of her pusillanimous successor, and this traditional splendour, in spite of historical research and juster views of government, has scarcely yet "faded into the common light of day."

Horace Walpole has assigned to Elizabeth a place in his Catalogne of Royal and Noble Authors, and a list of thirteen productions, exclusive of letters and speeches, is attached to the queen’s name. They consist chiefly of translations from the Greek, Latin, and French, with a sonnet printed during her won lifetime, and some prayers and meditations. The learning of Elizabeth is undoubted : it was considerable even in that age of learned ladies ; but her style is stiff, involved, quaint, and full of conceits—the whole evincing rather a predilection for literary and scholastic studies than literary taste or power. (R. CA.)


FOOTNOTE (p.142)

1 Miss Lucy Aikin, in her Memoirs of the Court of Elizabeth, praises the magnanimity of Elizabeth in allowing Shakespeare’s drama of Henry VIII., in which the wrongs and sufferings of Catherine of Aragon are embalmed, to be publicly offered to the compassion of her people. We wish that this instance of magnanimity could be justly ascribed to the queen; but it seems certain that Shakespear’s Henry VIII. was not produced till after Elizabeth’s death. No poet would have dared to hint at the death of the queen while she lived and Cranmer’s prophecy in the fifth act speaks of the death of Elizabeth and of her successor James. We have Ben Jonson’s testimony as to Shakespeare’s favour with Elizabeth,—

"Those flights upon the banks of Thames,
That so did take Eliza and our James."

And the tradition that poet wrote his Merry Wishes of Windsor by request of the queen, who wished to see Falstaff in love, is at least highly probably. One of the latest Shakespearean discoveries is that the poet, along with his "fellows" Kempe and Burbage, acted in two plays before the queen at Greenwich in December 1594, for which they received,upon the Council’s warrant, £13, 6s. 8d. and, "by way of her Majesty’s favour," £6, 13s. 4d.—in all £20 (Halliwell’s Illustrations, 1874).

The above article was written by Robert Carruthers, LL.D.; edited the Inverness Courier, 1828-78; part-editor of Chambers's Cyclopaedia of English Literature; Lecturer at the Philosophical Institution, Edinburgh; author of History of Huntingdon and Life of Pope.

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