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

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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.

From these problems Elizabeth emerged triumphant. She confounded her Catholic enemies, imposed her will on the political scene, turned England into a strong Protestant state, presided over a glittering court culture, and died in her bed at the age of 69. Her unusual situation as an unmarried queen – the only one in British history – created a mystique around her that has survived to the present. Unsurprisingly, scholarly studies and biographies of the queen come regularly off the press, easily outnumbering those devoted to the other Tudors.

Flexible and moderate

Elizabeth’s dominant place in British history is above all assured by the establishment and defence of the 1559 Protestant settlement – the English Prayer Book and Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion – which remains the basis of the Church of England today. Due to her determination the Church of England remained sufficiently flexible and moderate. Elizabethan parishioners, for example, could take communion standing, sitting or kneeling, depending on the preferences of the community and its minister. Elizabeth would have no truck with those zealous Protestants who attempted to introduce the more austere discipline of Calvinist Geneva into England. In consequence, notwithstanding the strength of Catholic opinion at the outset of her reign, the Protestant form of worship imposed by her Act of Uniformity gained in popularity over time and became embedded in English lay culture. When Puritans tried to outlaw the Prayer Book’s use in 1645, there was extensive passive resistance, and it was speedily restored (with amendments) at the Restoration of Charles II.

Protestantism in England also survived because Elizabeth was successful in seeing off the Catholic threat. At home she prevented or suppressed Catholic rebellion, conspiracy and disobedience without descending into tyranny or intense religious persecution. It is of course true that she signed the death warrant of Mary, Queen of Scots, but her reluctance to do so is legendary. It’s also true that Jesuits, seminary priests and their harbourers were imprisoned or executed under Elizabeth, but these prosecutions mainly occurred in the 1580s when Spain and the pope were thought to be using Catholic priests to destabilise the realm. By the standards of the age – and compared to her father and siblings – Elizabeth was a model of religious tolerance. Thanks to her, English history was not scarred by massacres and the country did not descend into civil war.

Elizabeth’s importance in British history is also a result of the defeat of the Spanish Armada. Memorialised in later paintings and film, the English victory of 1588 saved England from Spanish rule and preserved the Protestant church. Furthermore, as the most notable military success since the battle of Agincourt, it restored confidence in England’s martial reputation and pointed to the future when England would become a major naval power. Henry VIII may be generally viewed as the founder of the English navy, but his navy was for show, whereas Elizabeth’s was for use. Elizabeth’s sailors and ships were also employed in voyages of exploration, thereby beginning the process which would eventually lead to the establishment of the British empire.

Of course Elizabeth’s fame also rests on her virginity. Admittedly, during the reign the fact that she remained single was a source of political anxiety as well as strength. However it had two important positive results. The first is that her heir was to be James VI, who united in his person Scotland and England, a crucially important event in the development of British history. The second is that it transformed the queen into a cultural icon. Her portraits of the 1580s and 90s depict the archetypal Elizabeth: alone, majestic, expressionless, and imperial, her virginity on show through a variety of symbols whether pearls, cherries, a sieve, a crescent moon, or an ermine.

This Virgin Queen is not only immediately recognisable; it has made Elizabeth a source of fascination for centuries. Biographers and psychologists have felt the need to investigate how she could dismiss social and political norms and refuse marriage. The prurient want to know if her courtiers – Leicester, Essex and Hatton – were her lovers. Early (mainly male) biographers and historians sought to explain how her rejection of love and motherhood affected her character. Feminists were attracted to the sight of a woman defying conventions and ruling alone. Everyone wants to know how Elizabeth could rule successfully in a man’s world without a husband. Her sister, Mary, may have marked out a new path as England’s first queen regnant; but Elizabeth broke entirely new ground as an unmarried one.

Susan Doran teaches at Oxford University and is the author of Elizabeth I and Religion 1558–1603 (Routledge, 1993) and Queen Elizabeth I (British Library, 2003). 

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Susan Doran will be speaking about ‘Did Elizabeth’s Gender Really Matter?’ at our Kings and Queens Weekend in March 2019. Find out more here