Queen Elizabeth I of England stands out amongst Real Women of Genius for the way she dominated what was a 16th century male political world.
Her father, Henry VIII, had longed for a boy so her birth was an enormous disappointment to him. When she was only two years’ old, her father sent her mother, Anne Boleyn, for execution on unconvincing charges of adultery.
Your Majesty succeeded in remaining on the English throne for 45 years, from 1558 until 1603, which many would regard as an astonishing achievement in a period of male dominance. But you had a difficult start in life?
Thank you. As you know, when I was too young to understand, just two years of age, my mother was executed upon my father’s instructions and I was declared illegitimate.
My father then married Jane Seymour who bore him the son – my half-brother Edward - he so dearly desired, and Edward became heir to the throne in any event.
You also had an older sister?
Mary, who despised me and again attempted to declare me illegitimate when she eventually succeeded to the throne. Fortunately, neither of those pronouncements were subsequently upheld.
Given these difficulties in your early life, what happened about your upbringing and education?
The last of my father’s six wives, Katharine Parr (my
stepmother) took it upon herself to care for my education and saw that I was
At the completion of
my formal education, I was one of the very best educated women of the time and
had learned to speak French, Flemish, Italian and Spanish, and could also write
English, Latin and Italian and understood Greek.
How old were you when your father died?
I was nine. My half-brother, who became Edward VI, succeeded to the throne at the age of ten. There was at this time intense persecution of Catholics and The English Prayer Book was introduced in 1549.
He was, however, never a well young man, developed tuberculosis and died at the age of 16.
There was an attempt at this stage to exclude your sister, Mary, and yourself from the succession and declare Lady Jane Grey as Queen?
Yes, but my sister’s supporters prevailed upon the Privy Council to proclaim her the rightful heir, which they did, and in due course she had Jane executed and restored the Catholic faith. During her time around 300 protestants were burned at the stake.
But after only five years on the throne, she too died?
That is so, although during her reign I was locked in the Tower for two months and held under house arrest for a substantial time after that because of my protestant leanings.
You were just 25 when you became queen?
That is correct, and my aim was to return the country to a period of tranquillity.
What of marriage, ma'am? There were a number of European suitors, I understand.
What of it indeed! My advisers were very keen on the idea. Firstly, they couldn’t agree on a suitable husband and, in any event, I had no intention of being subordinated to a spouse who, by virtue of that position, became king.
I had always cherished a fancy for Robert Dudley who I had known since childhood, and there was a possibility of marriage after his wife died. There were, however, those around me who made their opposition plain.
Later I gave him the title of Earl of Leicester and, later still, he remarried, although I was never fond of the woman.
Parliament saw fit to comment upon your status as a single woman. What was your response to that?
I can tell you precisely what it was: I am already bound unto a husband which is the kingdom of England and that may suffice you.
And reproach me so no more that I have no children for everyone of you and as many as are English are my children and my kinsfolk of whom so long as I am not deprived and God shall preserve me you cannot charge me without offence to be destitute.
Lastly, this may be sufficient both for my memory and the honour of my name. If when I have expired my last breath this may be inscribed upon my tomb. Here lies interred Elizabeth, a virgin pure unto her death.
It is said that you surrounded yourself with talented advisers during your reign?
That is undoubtedly correct. My two close advisers were Robert Cecil, otherwise Lord Burleigh, and Sir Francis Walsingham.
There were sensitive negotiations with your parliament at times, weren’t there?
None more so than when it reacted against what it saw as monopolies or grants under Royal Seal that permitted individuals to be the sole vendors and manufacturers of certain goods.
I decided on that occasion, as they seemed decidedly ruffled, that it would be better if I came personally to the House of Commons to assure them that I was as much opposed to monopolies as they themselves were.
I declared that all monopolies were to be withdrawn and declared illegal, which won me much support.
What do you regard as the lowest point of your reign?
It was the death of my cousin, Mary Queen of Scots. She clearly had the support of Catholics who rallied to her, and my advisers felt that she may have a greater claim to the throne than I had.
I did not entirely agree with that but accept that I could have been stronger. Mary was incarcerated for 19 years before proof was brought to me that Mary was plotting my overthrow.
With the greatest reluctance, I signed her death warrant and she was beheaded. I was deeply saddened by the episode and wept greatly.
It was around that time, wasn’t it, that Philip II of Spain gathered his invasion force?
Yes, this Spanish Armada under the command of the Duke of Parma was nonetheless defeated and suffered huge losses.
You died on 24 March 1603 at Richmond Palace. Defeating the Spanish was probably the highlight of your reign. You were known popularly as Gloriana, Good Queen Bess and the Virgin Queen, were a highly popular monarch, became the foremost protestant ruler in Europe and were an inspiration to your subjects?
That is gratifying to know. There were great advances in many respects. Important discoveries were made by Sir Francis Drake and Sir Walter Raleigh. Men were inspired to do great things.
During my reign we saw the birth of the dramatist, William Shakespeare in 1564, and the philosopher, Sir Francis Bacon in 1561. After 45 years I believe my subjects were more prosperous and contented than when I ascended the throne.
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