Elizabeth I: the great unifier

What challenges did Elizabeth I face as queen, and how did she overcome them? Here, Susan Doran examines the life of a queen beset by enemies on all sides, who somehow emerged to unite her country as a Protestant martial power...

A portrait of Elizabeth I, who, says Susan Doran, “confounded her Catholic enemies, imposed her will on the political scene, turned England into a strong Protestant state and presided over a glittering court culture”. (Photo by Ann Ronan Pictures/Print Collector/Getty Images)

This article was first published in the August 2011 issue of BBC History Magazine

Elizabeth I faced more difficulties as a monarch than any other Tudor. Born the daughter of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn on 7 September 1533, Elizabeth’s right to rule as queen of England never went unchallenged. Protestants (notably John Knox) initially claimed female rule was unnatural or monstrous, while Roman Catholics judged Elizabeth a bastard since they refused to recognise her father’s marriage to her mother. Unlike her father and brother, whose legitimacy was never questioned, Elizabeth had to confront dynastic challenges at her accession which continued almost until her death.

Another difficulty for Elizabeth was that she inherited a realm ill at ease with itself. The religious persecution under her sister, Mary, had divided communities and traumatised English Protestants and their sympathisers. The economic recession, dreadful harvests, and devastating epidemics of the mid-1550s created uncertainties and shattered the lives of many ordinary people. The humiliating French capture of Calais (England’s last continental possession) in January 1558 punctured confidence in England’s military power and international prestige.

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