My history hero: Elizabeth I (1533-1603)

"More than any other person, Elizabeth is responsible for the England we know today. She was a very strong, determined leader": Former Conservative party leader Michael Howard chooses Elizabeth I

Elizabeth I, shown in a portrait commemorating victory over the Armada. (Photo by Photo 12/UIG via Getty Images)

This article was first published in the August 2018 edition of BBC History Magazine

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Elizabeth I was queen of England from 1558 until her death. The daughter of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, the childless Virgin Queen was the last of the Tudors. One of her first acts as queen was the establishment of an English Protestant church. She also had Mary, Queen of Scots imprisoned and executed. In 1570 the pope excommunicated her, a reflection of the religious tensions of the era.

When did you first hear about Elizabeth I?

At my Welsh grammar school, where I studied the Elizabethan era. She really stood out for me as an individual, someone who helped shape the course of history. How could any schoolchild, then or now, fail to be excited by the dramatic events of her reign, culminating in the defeat of the Spanish Armada? I think it’s as important today as it was in my youth to study this period of history at school. But to my intense chagrin, I only got Bs in my history ‘O’ and ‘A’ levels!

What kind of person was she?

A truly remarkable woman, given the fact that she was living in a man’s world – and I think more than any other person, Elizabeth is responsible for the England we know today. She was a very strong, determined leader. Indeed, I think people would have probably said she was “a bloody difficult woman”! Let’s not forget that she was also a very intelligent person, not to mention a gifted linguist. But she must have been scarred by the fate of her mother, Anne, who was executed when she was aged two.

What made Elizabeth a hero?

She came to the throne at a time of great uncertainty, having survived a difficult childhood when she herself came close to being executed. The country had gone through a period of huge upheaval: it had been through the enormous religious upheavals of her father’s renunciation of Rome, her brother’s extreme form of Protestantism and her sister’s Catholicism. So her achievement in finding a middle way, bringing the country together, and seeing off France and Spain, which were much more powerful countries than England at the time, was absolutely outstanding. However, she was undoubtedly lucky in her advisers and in having naval commanders of Francis Drake’s stature.

What was her finest hour?

The defeat of the Armada, when Elizabeth went down to Tilbury and gave what is probably her most famous speech. She stirringly told the military force preparing to repel the expected Spanish invasion: “I know I have the body of a weak and feeble woman, but I have the heart and stomach of a king, and a king of England too.” Wonderful stuff. And thankfully for us, the Spanish were defeated.

It’s important to remember that the course of history would have been very different if we had been defeated. It’s an outcome I prefer not to even think about.

Is there anything you don’t particularly admire about her?

It’s difficult to defend the execution of Mary, Queen of Scots, although we’re told that Elizabeth tried to revoke her consent for it. That said, one has to remember that it was a very tough time to be a monarch and her position was very insecure. She had to constantly worry about threats to her position and personal safety.

If you could meet Elizabeth, what would you ask her?

I’d like to ask her whether she regretted having never got married, although I would have to pluck up the courage to do so, as she would probably regard the question as a great impertinence.

Finally, could Theresa May learn anything from Elizabeth?

I never give the prime minister advice!

Michael Howard was talking to York Membery. Michael Howard was leader of the Conservative party from 2003–05 and home secretary from 1993–97. He now sits in the House of Lords and is chair of the charity Hospice UK

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Listen again: Michael Howard discusses Elizabeth I on Radio 4’s Great Lives:bbc.co.uk/programmes/b065vrl8