The birth of Elizabeth I: everything you need to know

Henry VIII was sure that his child with Anne Boleyn would be a boy. Yet the disappointing birth of a princess led to the king's greatest legacy. BBC History Revealed shares everything you need to know about the birth of Elizabeth I

A portrait of Princess Elizabeth

The long-awaited day had arrived – Henry VIII was proudly expecting the birth of his first son with his second wife, Anne Boleyn. His failure to produce a surviving son with his first spouse, Catherine of Aragon, had been a point of much contention – spurring him to break with the Catholic Church in Rome in order to remarry. Henry was so sure that the child was going to be a boy that he had letters drawn up in advance proclaiming the birth of a prince. But on 7 September 1533, Anne gave birth to a girl in Greenwich Palace – much to the disappointment of the King. The celebratory joust was cancelled, and an ‘s’ hastily added to the proclamations before they were issued. The child, who had inherited her father’s flaming red hair, was named Elizabeth after her grandmothers, Elizabeth of York and Elizabeth Howard.

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At her birth, Elizabeth was the heir presumptive, but her place in the line of succession would fluctuate. When she was justtwo years old, her mother was executed and Elizabeth was declared illegitimate – the same fate that had befallen her elder half-sister, Mary, after the annulment of her parents’ marriage. Elizabeth subsequently only saw her father on special occasions, and was just four years old when the prince that Henry so desperately craved – Edward – was born to his third wife, Jane Seymour.

It wasn’t until 1543 that Henry repaired his fractured relationship with his two daughters, and only then thanks to the interventions of his sixth and final wife, Catherine Parr. The princesses were restored to the line of succession once more, after Edward.

After Henry VIII’s death in 1547, Elizabeth went to live with Parr and her new husband, Thomas Seymour – Jane Seymour’s brother, who had previously expressed a desire to marry the 13-year-old princess.

It’s been speculated that Seymour may have abused the young Elizabeth; her governess reported seeing Seymour frequently entering the princess’s rooms and behaving inappropriately. It’s unclear how Parr felt about her husband’s behaviour, but she finally sent Elizabeth away after catching the pair in an embrace. Seymour renewed his machinations to marry Elizabeth after Parr died in 1548, but was executed for treason before his plans amounted to anything.

More upheaval was to come. In 1553, Edward VI died of tuberculosis. Just before he passed, he drew up a will excluding his half-sisters from the throne once more, in favour of his cousin, Lady Jane Grey. Jane’s rule only lasted for nine days before Mary seized the throne. Elizabeth didn’t fare much better during Mary’s reign, and she was constantly under suspicion of plotting against her half-sister.

In 1554, Elizabeth was imprisoned for a year after Wyatt’s Rebellion, a revolt that arose out of anger at Mary’s decision to marry Philip of Spain. It was said that the rebels wanted to replace Mary with Elizabeth, although there was no evidence she was involved.

Elizabeth’s turn to rule came in 1558, at the age of 25, after Mary died childless. Although she was not the son Henry had hoped for, Elizabeth is widely remembered as the most successful monarch of the Tudor dynasty – and proof that women could rule without a husband.

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This article was first published in the September 2019 issue of BBC History Revealed