The reign of Queen Elizabeth I is often referred to
as The Golden Age of English history. Elizabeth was an immensely popular Queen, and her popularity has waned little with
the passing of four hundred years. She is still one
of the best loved monarchs, and one of the most
admired rulers of all time.
She became a legend in her own lifetime, famed
for her remarkable abilities and achievements. Yet,
about Elizabeth the woman, we know very little.
She is an enigma, and was an enigma to her own
Elizabeth was the daughter of King Henry VIII and his second wife, Anne Boleyn. She was born on 7 September 1533 at Greenwich Palace. Her birth was possibly the greatest disappointment of her father's life. He had wanted a son and heir to succeed him as he already had a daughter, Mary, by his first wife, Katherine of Aragon. He had not divorced Katherine, and changed the religion of the country in the process, to have only another daughter. Elizabeth's early life was consequently troubled. Her mother failed to provide the King with a son and was executed on false charges of incest and adultery on 19 May 1536. Anne's marriage to the King was declared null and void, and Elizabeth, like her half-sister, Mary, was declared illegitimate and deprived of her place in the line of succession.
The next eight years of Elizabeth's life saw a quick succession of stepmothers. There was Jane Seymour who died giving birth to the King's longed for son, Edward; Anne of Cleves who was divorced; Catherine Howard who was beheaded; and finally Catherine Parr. For generations, historians have debated whether the constant bride changing of her father was responsible for Elizabeth's apparent refusal to marry. It is certainly possible that the tragic fates of Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard impressed upon her a certain fear of marriage, but there may have been other reasons for the Queen's single state, such as a fear of childbirth, which claimed the lives of a significant number of women in this period. Even if the Queen had no personal reservations about marriage, there were political problems with almost every contender for her hand. Religion was a major divisive issue, and there was also the problem of whether Elizabeth would have to relinquish any of her royal powers to a husband in an age when the political sphere was exclusively male.
As a child, Elizabeth was given a very impressive
education. It had become popular amongst the nobility to
educate daughters as well as sons and Elizabeth excelled at
her studies. She was taught by famous scholars such as
William Grindal and Roger Asham, and from an early age
it was clear that she was remarkably gifted. She had
an especial flare for languages, and by adulthood, she could
reputedly speak five languages fluently.
Elizabeth's adolescence was no easier than her childhood.
While the King lived, she was safe from political opportunists, but when he died in the January of 1547, she became vulnerable to those who saw her as a political pawn. Despite being officially illegitimate, Henry had reinstated his the line of succession. Mary was to follow Edward, and Elizabeth was to follow Mary. This meant that Elizabeth was now second in line to the throne. Edward was too young to rule himself as he was only nine years old, so his uncle, Edward Seymour, became Protector of England. His younger brother, Thomas Seymour, was jealous of his position and attempted to overthrow him. His scheme, which involved an attempted kidnapping of the Boy King, cost him his life. He had made no secret of his desire to marry Elizabeth (in Tudor times a girl was considered of marriageable age at twelve) so she was implicated in his plot. It was treason for an heir to the throne to marry without the consent of the King and his Council, and at only fifteen years of age, Elizabeth had to persuade her interrogators that she knew nothing of the plot and had not consented to marry the King's uncle. She succeeded in defending her innocence, but rumours of an illicit affair with Seymour, all the more scandalous because he had been married to her last step-mother, Katherine Parr, (before she died in childbirth), plagued her long afterwards.
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