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Elizabeth I (1558-1603)
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Elizabeth I (1558-1603)Elizabeth, daughter of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, was born at Greenwich on 7 September 1533. When her mother was executed three years later, the little princess was banished from court as an unwanted bastard, but restored to the family by Henry’s sixth wife, Catherine Parr.

Elizabeth survived a perilous childhood and adolescence, seen for a time by her sister Queen Mary as a potential threat. But, shrewd and tenacious, she proved a long-time survivor, gaining the throne at 24 and reigning until her 70th year through times both troubled and triumphant.

Henry’s daughter had a first-class mind, sharpened by an excellent education. Musical, well-read and athletic, she gloried in dancing and hunting. Her father’s pride and energy – as well as his fiery hair and temper – combined with her mother’s coquettishness and magnetism. Yet early in life she learned to be cautious, avoiding confrontation whenever possible. Although the resulting ambiguity often exasperated her courtiers, on major issues she was usually crystal clear. She faltered only once, over the fate of her potential rival, Mary Queen of Scots – executed in 1587.

“The Queen would like everyone to be in love with her…”
Comment by a foreign ambassador in London.

Elizabeth’s court was seldom dull: “When she smiled it was pure sunshine… but anon came a storm and thunder fell in a wondrous manner on all alike”. She put her trust in wisely-chosen chief-ministers who served her well: the lawyer William Cecil (Lord Burghley) and his son Robert, aided by Sir Francis Walsingham, spy-master and intelligence chief.

For years, the queen’s choice of husband was a hot topic throughout Europe, but the only man she came near to accepting was her “Little Frog”, the clever and amusing Duke of Alençon. Marriage held too many pitfalls – and loss of independence. In the end prudence of fear held her back. She remained “the Virgin Queen”, taking pride in the deeds of Francis Drake and his fellow sea dogs, and delighting in the flattery of her illustrious playwrights and poets. The defeat of Spain’s Armada in 1588 was the high point of her reign, occasioning an ecstasy of patriotic fervour with a semi-divine queen, “Gloriana”, at its centre.

In the spring of 1603, she caught a chill. “To content the people, you must go to bed”, urged Robert Cecil. “Little man, is “must” a word to be addressed to princess?” was her acidly genial response. She died at Richmond on 24 March 1603, and with her ended not just the Tudor dynasty, but the richly patterned “golden age” of English history that carries Elizabeth’s name.

By royal command
The queen enjoyed the theatre. In 1575 she had visited Kenilworth Castle for three weeks of pageantry, a spectacle that the young William Shakespeare (then 11) may have been brought to see. By 1592, Shakespeare was in London, and his plays were performed before the queen, as well as in the splendid new Globe Theatre, London’s finest, opened in 1599. Elizabeth is said to have enjoyed the character of Falstaff (in Henry IV Parts 1 and 2) so much that the playwright wrote the “Fat Knight” into a new comedy – The Merry Wives of Windsor.

Queen enthroned
Elizabeth in her coronation robes, with orb and scepter. Her accession was greeted with joy by court and common people alike.

Elizabeth I (1558-1603)

Carried by her knights
The queen carried in procession to Blackfriars by six Knights of the Garter; a painting attributed to Robert Peake the Elder, c. 1600. Elizabeth’s summer “progresses” around the kingdom were even grander, incurring colossal entertainment expenses.

Elizabeth I (1558-1603)

A merry dance
Elizabeth was never without favourites; Robert Dudley (seen here dancing with the queen) she loved the best, but Christopher Hatton, Walter Raleigh and Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex, also danced to her tunes, though none ruled her.

Elizabeth I (1558-1603)

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