The daughter of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, she was declared illegitimate just before the execution of her mother in 1536, but in 1544 Parliament reestablished her in the succession after her half brother, Edward (later Edward VI), and her half sister, Mary (later Mary I). Elizabeth was well educated by a series of tutors, most notably Roger Ascham.
In 1553 she supported the claims of Mary I over Lady Jane Grey. After Mary was crowned, Elizabeth was careful to avoid implication in the plot of the younger Sir Thomas Wyatt (1554). Nevertheless, since Elizabeth's potential succession to the throne inevitably furnished a rallying point for discontented Protestants, she was imprisoned. She later regained a measure of freedom through outward conformity to Roman Catholicism.
When Elizabeth succeeded her sister to the throne in 1558, religious strife, a huge government debt, and failures in the war with France had brought England's fortunes to a low ebb. Elizabeth came to the throne with the Tudor concept of strong rule and the realization that effective rule depended upon popular support. She was able to select and work well with the most competent of counselors. Sir William Cecil (Lord Burghley) was appointed immediately, and Sir Francis Walsingham in 1573.
At her death 45 years later, England had passed through one of the greatest periods of its history—a period that produced William Shakespeare, Edmund Spenser, Francis Bacon, Walter Raleigh, Martin Frobisher, Francis Drake, and other notable figures in literature and exploration; a period that saw England, united as a nation, become a major European power with a great navy; a period in which English commerce and industry prospered and English colonization was begun.
Although Elizabeth has been accused, with some justice, of being vain, fickle, vacillating, prejudiced, and miserly, she was nonetheless exceedingly successful as a queen. Endowed with immense personal courage and a keen awareness of her responsibility as a ruler, she commanded throughout her reign the unwavering respect and allegiance of her subjects.
One of Elizabeth's first acts was to reestablish Protestantism (see England, Church of) through the acts of Supremacy and Uniformity (1559). The measures against Roman Catholics (see Penal Laws) grew harsher over the course of her reign, particularly after the rebellion of the Catholic earls of Northumberland and Westmorland (1569), Elizabeth's excommunication by the pope (1570), and the coming of the Jesuit missionaries (1580). But the persecution of the Catholics was due, at least in part, to a series of plots to murder Elizabeth and seat the Catholic Mary Queen of Scots on the throne. English Puritans, like the Catholics, objected to the Established Church, and a severe law against conventicles (unauthorized religious assemblies) in 1593 kept the separatist movement underground for the time.
At the beginning of her reign, Elizabeth's government enacted needed currency reforms and took steps to mend English credit abroad. Other legislation of the reign dealt with new social and economic developments—the Statute of Apprentices (1563) to stabilize labor conditions; the poor laws (1563–1601) to attempt some remedy of widespread poverty; and various acts to encourage agriculture, commerce, and manufacturing.
Foreign Affairs and the Spanish War
Elizabeth had many suitors, including King Philip II of Spain; Francis, duke of Alençon and Anjou; and her own favorite, Robert Dudley, earl of Leicester. For a combination of personal and political reasons, she was reluctant to choose a husband and remained unmarried, although she often used the lure of marriage as a weapon of diplomacy. Elizabeth engaged in a long series of diplomatic maneuvers against England's old enemy, France, and the new enemy, Spain, but for 30 years she managed to keep the country at peace.
In 1559 she concluded a treaty ending her sister's unfortunate war with France and refused the marriage offer of Philip of Spain. The next year the Treaty of Edinburgh initiated a policy toward Scotland, successful in the long run, of supporting the Protestant lords against the Catholic party. By lending unofficial aid to French Huguenots she managed for some time to harass France and Spain without involving England in an actual war. As part of her marriage negotiations she later supported the duke of Alençon's participation in the Dutch war against Spain.
The major problem posed by Elizabeth's refusal to marry was that of the succession. The chief claimant was Mary Queen of Scots, but her Catholicism made her a threat to Elizabeth. In 1568 after Mary's forced abdication from the Scottish throne, Elizabeth gave her refuge but then kept her prisoner for nearly 19 years. Despite the numerous plots, both real and alleged, on Mary's behalf, Elizabeth resisted until 1587 her counselors' advice that Mary be executed.
By that time Spain had emerged as England's main enemy. English sailors had been unofficially encouraged to encroach on Spanish monopolies and raid Spanish shipping. In 1588, Philip launched the long-planned expedition of the Spanish Armada as a great Catholic crusade against Protestant England. The Armada was defeated by the skill of such leaders as John Hawkins and Francis Drake and by storms, rather than planning on Elizabeth's part, but the victory strengthened English national pride and lowered the prestige of Spain. An indecisive war with Spain dragged on until Elizabeth's death. From the beginning of the reign Ireland had been the scene of civil wars and severe rebellions, culminating with that of the earl of Tyrone, which was suppressed by the campaigns of Lord Mountjoy from 1600 to 1603.
After the Armada, Elizabeth's popularity began to wane. Parliament became less tractable and began to object to the abuse of royally granted monopolies. The rash uprising of Elizabeth's favorite, Robert Devereux, 2d earl of Essex, darkened her last years. She refused until on her deathbed to name her successor—the son of Mary Queen of Scots, James VI of Scotland, who became James I of England.
See biographies by Theodore Maynard (1940), Elizabeth Jenkins (1958), Paul Johnson (1974), and Anne Somerset (1992); A. L. Rowse, The England of Elizabeth (1950) and The Expansion of Elizabethan England (1955); J. E. Neale, Elizabeth I and Her Parliaments (2 vol., 1953-57); Joel Hurstfield, Elizabeth I and the Unity of England (1960); Neville Williams, The Life and Times of Elizabeth I (1972); Alison Plowden, The Catholics under Elizabeth I (1973).