Whether you favor Cate Blanchett's screen portrayal of the young Elizabeth as an innocent out of her depth, or Dame Judi Dench's brusque authoritarian with a sparkle in her eye from the movie "Shakespeare In Love," either way you are only seeing a facet of the complexities that went into creating "Good Queen Bess."
Born September 7th, 1533, the first born of Henry VIII and his second wife Anne Boleyn, Elizabeth was a disappointment to her father from the moment she was born purely because of the shape of her genitalia. They were girl shaped and not boy shaped. In Tudor England the heir to the throne had to be male.
At just two years and eight months old, Elizabeth was declared illegitimate and banished from court. She found a friend in Catherine Parr, (Henry's sixth wife) and lived with her after Henry's death in 1547. Highly intelligent, Elizabeth became fluent in French and Italian and showed ability in the classics. Catherine Parr, upon Henry VIII's death, married her former lover Thomas Seymour. It is thought that during Elizabeth's stay with Catherine Parr, Seymour became a frequent visitor to her bedchamber.
When Catherine Parr died in childbirth in 1548, Seymour proposed to Elizabeth, but was rebuffed. Elizabeth was still only fourteen years of age
And so in today's language, Elizabeth was a survivor of childhood sexual abuse at Seymour's hands, and psychological cruelty by her father, factors that influenced her relationship with men thereafter, and perhaps go some way to explaining if not excusing some of the political expediency and brutality of her reign.
Seymour would later be executed for treason, but in 1553, Elizabeth had more immediate fears.
Mary I came to power in a blaze of public optimism soon squandered by her intolerance and cruelty. Mary was an ardent Catholic and vengeful daughter and understandably determined to reverse Henry VIII's protestant revolution.
Her persecution of Protestants, including burning martyrs alive in Coventry, earned her the title "Bloody Mary," and soon rebellion was in the air. After one such quickly crushed act of insurrection in Kent, correspondence between Elizabeth and the leader of the revolt, Sir Thomas Wyatt was discovered and, at the age of 21, Princess Elizabeth was taken through the Traitors Gate and imprisoned in the Tower of London.
Bloody Mary died five years later, and the crown passed to Elizabeth, who on receipt of the new is reported to have quoted from the scriptures "This is the Lord's doing. It is marvellous in our eyes." Elizabeth's accession was greeted with joy and relief, although it meant even more change back on a path towards Protestantism.
Dwarfed by the mammoth task of governing England, and pushing through the conversion of all England to the Protestant faith, Elizabeth drew about her the clever, consummate politicians who would remain true to her throughout her reign, in particular William Cecil (later Lord Burghley) and Francis Walsingham. But hers was a tenuous grasp on power. Having turned down the advances of the Spanish King Philip II, who at this time ruled most of the known world, invasion by Spain became an ever-real prospect. As if this wasn't enough to fuel this emotionally damaged young woman's paranoia, her cousin the Catholic Mary Queen of Scots married the French Dauphin, allying Scotland with France, and posing the very real possibility of England being forced to fight a war on two fronts.
When Mary Queen of Scots fled to England in 1568, she became in Elizabeth's eyes a dangerous potential figurehead for a Catholic revolt. She was arrested and imprisoned in the Tower of London and, in 1587, executed. Elizabeth reportedly never got over this act of regicide and even seems at one point to have been in denial about her role in signing the death warrant.
Elizabeth was less squeamish about the arrest, torture and eventual execution of others she saw as a threat. Many of those named, shamed and killed by the State murder machine were Catholics or Catholic sympathizers. Many would have been unhappy at the religious route Elizabeth's reign was taking but only a handful would have gone onto the streets in open bloody rebellion. Elizabeth's reaction to any, even gentle, questioning of her authority made life difficult for many a covert Catholic.
During her reign Elizabeth would face down several attempts by Spain to replace her. The most famous episode, the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588, was perhaps the defining moment in her rule, when, at last, reversal to a pre-Protestant age seemed unlikely. Even then, her joy would be short-lived as her long-term favorite Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester would die the same year.
Though young and attractive at her accession, it seems "the virgin Queen's" decision not to marry and produce an heir may have been due to several contributing factors. Firstly, her abuse at the hands of Thomas Seymour seems to have clouded her view of men thereafter. Secondly, although she adored the attention and encouraged the advances of a number of famous English names from the Tudor era, namely Christopher Hatton, Walter Raleigh and Robert Dudley, she was aware that choosing one could possibly lead to conflict with the others. Thirdly, though approached by many foreign suitors a marriage with another head of state would have been strategically preferable - including Philip of Spain, Arch Duke Charles of Austria, and Prince Henry of Anjou, none would renounce their Catholicism. Marrying a Catholic or Catholic sympathizer would have made her unpopular in the new Protestant climate.
Or it could be that she simply preferred her own counsel, and the privileges of absolute power like the TV remote control - not something easily shared once you've had it all to yourself.
Elizabeth loved the theatre and poetry and was a patron of these, the most commonly exhibited arts during her reign. She also composed sonnets and was a keen translator of the classics. Though swift to punish any mere hint of sedition, it seems she could turn a blind eye to what might be interpreted as criticism if it appeared in the text of a favorite playwright's latest work, though she would always find a way to make it known that she knew it was there. Favorites were not spared her wrath if they crossed her. Walter Raleigh would find himself briefly imprisoned for not asking his sovereign's permission to marry Elizabeth Throckmorton, her attendant, while her once-favored Earl of Essex would be beheaded for his ill conceived attempt to lead a coup in 1601.
In her later life, she seems to have surrendered to self-doubt and comforted herself by filling her court with young and beautiful courtiers. She steadfastly put off naming a successor, a typically Elizabethan stroke to end 45 years of uncertainty, conflict and economic troubles by her death in 1603.
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