On this date, March 24 in 1603, England’s Queen Elizabeth I died, concluding a reign of 44 years. Elizabeth was the daughter of King Henry VIII and his second wife (of six), Ann Boleyn. Her mother was executed after being convicted of adultery and treason when Elizabeth was only three. Henry had parliament declare his marriage to Ann invalid, which made Elizabeth herself illegitimate. But she still was given a thorough education in which she did well, and she spent a good deal of time with her young half-brother, Prince Edward who was King Henry’s son and heir by his third wife, Jane Seymour.
Elizabeth Faces Death During Mary’s Reign
Upon the death of Henry in 1547, when Elizabeth was 14, Prince Edward became King at the age of 10. But the boy had never been in very good health, and he died in 1553. This left Elizabeth’s half-sister Mary (below, right) , who was King Henry’s daughter by his first wife, Queen
Catherine as sovereign. The reign of Queen Mary proved to be a brief, but exceptionally bloody affair. Mary had never given up the Catholic faith in spite of King Henry’s break with Rome and his conversion of England to the Protestant faith. Mary’s drive to return England to the Catholic fold brought about considerable blood-shed through executions, and left Elizabeth in continual danger, even to the point of being jailed in the Tower of London for a time. Queen Mary died on Nov. 17, 1558 and Elizabeth ascended to the throne.
Elizabeth Vanquishes the Spaniards With “the Armada”
There was great public rejoicing at the end of Mary’s bloody reign, so Elizabeth enjoyed considerable popularity to start with. The new Queen proved to be a very hard working sovereign, often working late into the night. She reduced the size of her primary governing body, the Privy Council from 39 members to 19. She appointed a number of capable men men as her advisers, such as William Cecil, who served her faithfully for 40 years as Lord Treasurer, restoring stability to English currency. Her reign also coincided with the English Renaissance, which saw the growth of music and literature, such as the works of William Shakespeare. Elizabeth’s reign saw a good deal of trouble however, with continued plots to restore Catholicism as the state religion. Much of the intrigue centered on Mary Queen of Scots (pictured, above), who was Elizabeth’s cousin). Ultimately, Mary was imprisoned, and following her implication in a plot of Elizabeth’s life, she was beheaded in 1587. There was also a continual rivalry with Spain for supremacy on the world trade routes. This culminated with the naval combat between the Spanish Armada, and a newly built, and solidly designed English navy . The Spanish fleet wound up being annihilated in a series of battles which concluded on August 2 of 1588 (pictured below).
And there was also continual intrigue over the question of whether or not Elizabeth would ever marry. There were several suitors, but none were ever successful. Elizabeth remained unmarried to the end of her life, hence her frequently used epitaph, “the Virgin Queen”. Towards the end of her farewell speech Elizabeth looked to the end of her life and her reign:
“I have ever used to set the Last Judgement Day before mine eyes and so to rule as I shall be judged to answer before a higher judge, and now if my kingly bounties have been abused and my grants turned to the hurt of my people contrary to my will and meaning, and if any in authority under me have neglected or perverted what I have committed to them, I hope God will not lay their culps and offenses in my charge. I know the title of a King is a glorious title, but assure yourself that the shining glory of princely authority hath not so dazzled the eyes of our understanding, but that we well know and remember that we also are to yield an account of our actions before the great judge. To be a king and wear a crown is a thing more glorious to them that see it than it is pleasant to them that bear it.”
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“Kingdoms of Europe: An Illustrated Encyclopedia of Ruling Monarchs from Ancient Times to the Present”
by Gene Gurney, Crown Publishers Inc., New York, 1982.