Queen Elizabeth I


Born in 1533, the daughter of Henry VIII and his second (and soon to be executed) wife Anne Boleyn, Elizabeth I was a central figure of the political and religious upheaval that characterized England during the time of her father’s reign. She would take the throne in 1558 at the age of 25 and reign as Queen of England for 44 years establishing an era of political stability and strength that would position her country to become a global economic and cultural power. Join Active Minds as we examine the fascinating life of one of the most powerful women in history and the era that would take her name.

Key Lecture Points

  • Born in 1533 and rising to the throne in 1558, Queen Elizabeth I ruled England for nearly 45 years.  Only the second female monarch of England (after her half-sister Mary I who preceded her), Elizabeth’s lengthy tenure navigated England through domestic and international turmoil and put the nation on a path to global power, making her one of the most remarkable leaders in history.
  • Elizabeth was born in the midst of religious turmoil in England and Europe.  Indeed, the very circumstances of her birth were elemental to that turmoil.  Her father, King Henry VIII, lacking a male heir, severed England’s connection with the Catholic Church so that he could divorce his wife Catherine and marry Anne Boleyn; thus, the Protestant Church of England became the religion of Henry’s realm.  Elizabeth was the sole surviving child of the marriage of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn.
  • Elizabeth’s youth was a troubled one (to say the least) affected by her father’s desire to father a male heir to the throne and thus stabilize the fledgling Tudor monarchy of England.  Accused of adultery, Anne Boleyn was executed in 1536, when Elizabeth was not yet 3.
  • Elizabeth’s path to the monarchy was not a direct one.  After Henry VIII’s death, his only son Edward VII (by Henry’s third wife Jane Seymour) reigned only six years before his death.  After a power struggle, Elizabeth’s older half-sister Mary I became Queen of England.  A Catholic, Mary I and her supporters attempted to shift England back to Catholicism (including the imprisonment of Elizabeth).  From a Protestant perspective the at-times violent suppression of Protestantism earned her the name “Bloody Mary.”
  • When Mary I died in 1558, 25-year-old Elizabeth I became Queen of England, inheriting rule of a nation troubled by the matter of religious affiliation, debt incurred from wars abroad and broad questioning of her legitimacy as sovereign.
  • As sovereign, Elizabeth undertook a somewhat moderated path on the issue of religion, reinstating the supremacy of the Church of England, but allowing English Catholics to take communion in accordance with their own practice.  Nonetheless, Catholics both within England and abroad would continually aspire (and at times scheme) to topple Elizabeth from the throne in hopes of her being replaced by her Catholic cousin, Mary Queen of Scots.
  • Additionally, she gradually navigated international relations away from an alliance with Spain and more towards a tenuous alliance with France.  With economic expansion in mind, Elizabeth oversaw a burgeoning conflict with Spain, presiding over England’s successful defensive naval victory over an invading Spanish Armada in 1588. Thereafter, England expanded its overseas empire and began its ascent to colonial empire (albeit, at the expense of the lands and peoples whom England would subsequently control).
  • The Elizabethan Era that ensued saw a great expansion of wealth and with it a Renaissance of the arts, most notably remembered for the flourishing of English theatre and architecture.  Brought to life in the modern era of movies and television, the Elizabethan era is rightfully remembered for its flourishes and artistry.  Nonetheless, it is important to remember that the time was no idyll for the vast majority of those who lived in it.  Both poverty and disease were constant threats for the vast majority of those in Elizabeth’s age, the average person living only to the age of 40.

Exploration Questions

  • What were the major issues that Elizabeth I faced during her reign?
  • How did the threat of religious struggle shape Elizabeth’s rule?
  • How did Elizabeth as the “Virgin Queen” serve to strengthen her power?

Reflective Questions

  • Why was the issue of marriage so important during Elizabeth’s reign?
  • How did the problems facing England at the beginning of Elizabeth’s rule compare to those at the end of her reign?
  • Based on her life, what attributes do you think Elizabeth would have valued in her successor?

More to Explore

  • Official website of the British Royal Family Click here
  • Biography of Elizabeth I Click here
  • National Archives collection of Tudor documnets Click here

Books For Further Reading

  • Ackroyd, Peter. Tudors: The History of England from Henry VIII to Elizabeth I. New York, NY: St. Martin’s Griffin, 2012. 528 pages. Covering the English Reformation, the book includes the long reign of Elizabeth I and her preservation of Protestantism in England.
    Click here to order
  • Meyer, G.J. The Tudors: The Complete Story of England’s Most Notorious Dynasty. New York, NY: Delacorte Press, 2010. 640 pages. The book outlines the nearly 120 years of the Tudor dynasty, detailing the reigns of Henry VII, Henry VIII, Mary I and Elizabeth I.
    Click here to order
  • Weir, Alison. The Life of Elizabeth I. New York, NY: Ballantine Books, 1999. 560 pages. Highly informative and comprehensive biography of Elizabeth I that covers the whole of her reign. The book also includes a lot of detail about domestic life in Elizabethan England.
    Click here to order