Four hundred fifty years ago today, at age 25 and surrounded by enemies, Britain's Queen Elizabeth I ascended to the throne. From politics to art to religion, the world has never been the same. Famously, it was under the Tudor queen that England defeated Spain, establishing itself as a great power in Europe. It was Elizabeth's hand that re-established the Protestant church in England, introducing the same moderate Anglicanism still followed in England today. And it was in the Elizabethan "Golden Age" that poetry, plays, painting, and music flourished, led by names like Shakespeare, Marlowe, and Bacon. But her reign also influenced lands far beyond Britain. She encouraged expansion, and permitted establishment of the first English colony in North America, along with the creation of the British East India Company—the joint-stock company that eventually would colonize India. To understand a bit more about this larger-than-life historical figure, U.S. News spoke with popular British historian Alison Weir. Weir has written two novels and five history texts on the Tudor dynasty, including two books focused on Queen Elizabeth I, the virgin queen. Her historical novel about the queen, The Lady Elizabeth, was released in trade paperback November 4. Excerpts:
In many ways, it's surprising that Elizabeth survived to see the day when her older sister, Queen Mary, would die and she would inherit the throne. After all, her father, Henry VIII, had annulled his marriage to her mother, Anne Boleyn, before ordering her beheading, making Elizabeth technically illegitimate; Elizabeth was a Protestant, while Mary—along with most of Europe—was Catholic; and she had a potent rival for the throne in her also-Catholic cousin Mary Queen of Scots. Where did she get the survival skills that enabled her to get the throne, not to mention hold on to it for 45 years?
She inherited her courage and her mental strength from both her parents. Anne Boleyn was described as brave as a lion, and people admired her courage on the scaffold. Elizabeth inherited that. She also inherited Henry VIII's strength of character, and his toughness, and a ruthless streak. She was no shrinking violet.
I also think that her experiences honed her. She lost her mother at an early age in dreadful circumstances. Then there were her poor stepmothers. She saw one of them [Catherine Howard, Henry's fifth wife] executed. And in her brother Edward's reign, she was the subject of scandal when she was engaged in unscrupulous acts with Thomas Seymour. He ended up being executed. She ended up being interrogated by the council—and holding her own at the age of 15.
During her sister's reign, she wound up in the Tower of London because she was suspected of complicity in a plot against the queen. There's no evidence to connect her with it. The jury's still out on whether or not she was actually involved. But she kept her counsel; she would not reveal anything. In the end, they had to release her for lack of evidence. Then she endured a year under house arrest. But during the three months in the Tower, she expected to be beheaded daily. That does something to you, I think. And she was imprisoned in the same room her mother had been imprisoned in.
How did she react to the news that she was finally queen?
She knew it was coming. Her sister Mary Tudor had been ill for some time, and it was known to be [terminal]. But even when someone's dying and you expect them to die, it's still a shock. When she was told she was queen, she was sitting, reading history, under a tree at the great park at Hatfield. She'd seen a constant stream of courtiers wending their way along the road to the great house. She probably thought not much more of it.
Then she realized they were approaching her. She stood up to greet them. When they told her she was queen, and fell to their knees before her, she too fell to her knees. She said in Latin, "This is the Lord's doing; it is marvelous in our eyes." But she couldn't speak at first. You can imagine the incredibly emotional moment for her.
What were the largest issues she faced?
There were two crucial issues: religion and the succession. England had had a turbulent time since the Reformation of the 1530s, when Henry VIII had broken with Rome and declared himself head of the English church (and that was a Catholic church). His son Edward VI, who succeeded him in 1547, was a minor, but under the Protestant government that ruled for him, England became a Protestant nation. Then Mary Tudor came to the throne in 1553. She reverted to Rome. Heresy laws were revived, and Mary burned 300 Protestants.
Then, of course, there was the matter of the Tudor succession. She was the last one.
What was the most ruthless thing Elizabeth ever did as queen?
For years, she had the problem with Mary Queen of Scots, her cousin, who claimed to be the rightful queen of England. She had her shut up for 19 years. Mary became the subject of many plots to depose Elizabeth. They couldn't pin anything down on her, but finally they did with the Babington plot. These young Catholic gentlemen, who had chivalrously sworn to put the "rightful" queen, Mary, on the throne, were all apprehended and tortured.