Elizabeth queen of England, ascended the throne on the death of her sister, the bloody Mary, November 17, 1558, and died March 24 (April 3, New Style), 1603. She was the daughter and only living child of Anne Boleyn and Henry VIII. She was born September 7,1533, and was therefore "full five-and-twenty years old when she came to the crown." Before she was three years of age her mother was beheaded by her father, who, according to his own declaration, "never spared man in his anger, nor woman in his lust." On the 8th of June of the same year, 1536, the Parliament declared the divorces of Catharine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn legal, and bastardized the issue of both marriages. The same decision had been previously pronounced by archbishop Cranmer in the Star-Chamber, and confirmed by the Convocation. The Parliament also empowered Henry to settle the succession by testamentary disposition. In January, 1544, Elizabeth was restored to the line of royal inheritance.
During the lifetime of her father her education was carefully encouraged, especially by queen Catharine Parr; and it was continued after his death. She was instructed in Latin and Greek by William Grindal and Roger Ascham. The latter commends her masculine power of application, quick apprehension, and retentive memory. "She spoke French and Italian with fluency, was elegant in her penmanship, and was skillful in music, though she did not delight in it." She seems also to have had some acquaintance with German. Her position was at all times exceedingly dubious, and rarely free from peril.
On the accession of her brother Edward VI she encountered other risks than those she had been previously exposed to. In her infancy her hand had been designed for the duke of Orleans, third son of Francis I; it was offered to the earl of Arran, and declined by him; it was then proposed for Philip of Spain. Under Edward VI, admiral Seymour, the brother of the lord protector, hesitated between seeking the hand of Mary, Elizabeth, or the lady Jane Grey. He finally accepted that of the queen dowager, but did not discontinue his amorous attentions, and renewed his addresses to the princess Elizabeth on his wife's death. Her fair fame was impeached by her encouragement of his devotions; and this furnished one of the charges against him which resulted in his execution.
New dangers encompassed her on the death of her brother. Dudley, earl of Northumberland, father of the earl of Leicester, the subsequent favorite, had persuaded the boy-king, in his last illness, to set aside both his sisters on the ground of their illegitimacy, and to bequeath the crown to the lady Jane Grey (great-niece of Henry VIII), who had recently been married to his fourth son, lord Guilford Dudley. Ridley, bishop of London, preached vehemently in favor of lady Jane, and against any supposed title of Mary and Elizabeth, both of whom were regarded as Roman Catholic, and favorable to the restoration of the old religion. Northumberland offered lands and money to Elizabeth to induce her to renounce her claims, but she adroitly evaded his proposals.
The legitimacy of Mary was declared by Parliament, which thus stigmatized anew the birth of Elizabeth. She conformed to the rites of the Roman Catholic Church with some reluctance, but was viewed with suspicion. In 1554 she was implicated, in connection with her dissolute suitor, Courtenay, earl of Devonshire, in Wyats conspiracy, and was confined to the Tower for two months. Her death was demanded; but Philip II, now the husband of Mary, interposed, and she was put under surveillance at Woodstock. Philip proposed to bestow her upon Emanuel Philibert, duke of Savoy, who afterwards married, according to the provisions of the treaty of Cateau-Cambresis, Margaret of France.
These points may appear trivial in a rapid notice of the life and reign of Elizabeth, but they affected both the development of her character and the policy of her government. The death of queen Mary exposed her to untried difficulties, requiring discernment, resolution, and singular good fortune. Her accession to the throne was unchallenged in Parliament, and was heard with demonstrations of joy by the populace of London. She herself, however, in her retirement at Hatfield, recognized the gravity of the occasion. She had been declared illegitimate and incapable of the crown by her father, by her brother, by the Star-Chamber, by the Convocation, and twice by act of Parliament. For the last twenty years the religion of England had been determined by royal edicts and parliamentary enactments. The majority of the people were Roman Catholic in consequence of the measures of the late reign. Elizabeth, in the presence of her dying sister, had "prayed God that the earth might open and swallow her alive if she were not a true Roman Catholic." But, if Roman Catholicism remained the national creed, her tenure of the crown would the wholly precarious, as the illegitimacy of her birth would be inevitably and irrefragably maintained. The superior title of Mary, queen of Scots, would prevail, perhaps, with the aid of French arms, while the Brandon or Suffolk line might seek Spanish support. Roman Catholic her government could not be; but, if she renounced Rome, she united the religious with the political enthusiasm of France, under the instigation of the Guises, against her reign, and alienated or provoked Philip II, then aspiring to universal dominion, and having in his own person some claims to the English throne, which he afterwards advanced. He had hastened to tender his widowed heart and hand to the new queen immediately on the death of her sister. Could she venture to reject it at once, while his party was still strong, and in possession of all places of influence in England — while her own throne was still uncertain? She temporized, she coquetted, she entertained his proposals till she could reject them. She did not fully renounce the old and lately restored religion. She retained the crucifix and lights in her private chapel, and throughout her life addressed prayers to the Virgin. But she gradually abolished the most distinctive practices of the Papal Church, and established by act of Parliament her ecclesiastical supremacy. Her own Protestantism was always political rather than religious; the creed was less important to her than the political submission of the people. Her first measures were very cautious, and were adroitly introduced by her great minister, Sir William Cecil, who guided her councils till his death, forty years after. So insecure was her hold upon the scepter, that in the year of her coronation her title was denied by pope Paul IV, and also by John Knox, who had written a diatribe against the intolerable regimen of women, and who at this time addressed a letter to the queen to persuade her to surrender her crown.
Nearly all omens were adverse. The state was divided into factions — all opposed to her. Foreign states were hostile or indifferent in interest and in sentiment. Her title was most questionable, if not utterly invalid. She had no support but her own brave heart, the patriotic antipathy of her people to foreign rule, the civil wars and discords prevailing or in prospect in the kingdoms around her, and the sagacity of the advisers whom she might choose. She had to knit together her own people into a nation, to win popular support by suppressing all factions at home, to avert foreign dangers by creating a party for herself, and provoking occupation for her enemies in the realms by which she was menaced. The character and conduct of Elizabeth present a most interesting, but most difficult moral and historical study. No hasty and sweeping censures, whether of praise or blame, can exhibit the complicated intertexture of threads of various material and hue in that strange fabric. All was not virtue, all was not vice. The virtues were obscured, soiled, or dwarfed by supposed state necessities; the vices were darkened or deepened by ceaseless provocations and harassing perplexities. Never, perhaps, was an illustrious character composed of a more undistinguishable admixture of fine gold, and dross, and clay, and never was there one better calculated to invite and reward curious examination.
In the earlier years of her reign she could trust only to those political friends whose fortunes were indissolubly connected with her own, and to her relatives, principally by her mother's line — the descendants of Mary Boleyn. As her throne became more assured, she attracted to her court the young men of ancient gentry, of adventurous spirit, of chivalrous bearing, of great but restricted ambition, and of high physical and intellectual advantages. Gentle birth, great talents, and good looks were the passports to the favor of the court. She thus created supporters and officers for her crown. The old nobility she did not and could not trust. They were powers in the land which despised, envied, and menaced her own. She accumulated favors on Robert Dudley, earl of Leicester, from compassion for the fate of his father and brother, from regard for his courtly manners, perhaps for a tenderer feeling, which she deemed it unregal and unsafe to gratify. Leicester, like his father, was ever scheming for a crown. Essex she petted, indulged, spoiled, as a bright, petulant, promising youth, who was one of her nearest male relatives, and the chief hope of her lonely old age.
Her crown was at first held merely by the acquiescence of the nation; it was not confirmed by any parliamentary sanction till the fourteenth year of her reign. Civil and religious disorder desolated Scotland, France, and the Netherlands: she prevented such commotions in her own realm. She promptly suppressed the commencements of revolt; she arrested the numerous conspiracies against her life and throne before they had time to explode; and she left her people a united, if not a harmonious nation — prosperous, intelligent, powerful, independent, and free.
Menaced by the claims of Mary, and by their prospective advocacy by France or Spain, she placed herself at the head of the Protestant movement, and aided, openly or secretly, the Protestant lords in Scotland, the Huguenots in France, William of Orange, and the Gueux in the Netherlands. She assisted all; she gave no decisive aid to any.
In the midst of perils and successes at home and abroad, she made head against the incessant revolts of Ireland, which has been a thorn in the side of Britain from the fabulous days of king Arthur to the current year of queen Victoria. Throughout her reign she was harassed by its state of chronic though intermittent rebellion, but in the year preceding her death she received its submission through lord Mountjoy.
The important results achieved in the long reign of Elizabeth were mainly due to the impulses communicated by herself and the policy pursued by her ministers. All portentous stars were in conjunction in her horoscope. Internal and external hazards envisoned her. Industry was disorganized, agriculture disordered, trade inactive, enterprise stagnant, fortunes were shattered, ranks confused, beggars and vagabonds multiplied by the confiscation and private appropriation of Church lands, by the enclosure of commons, and the extension of pasturage. These social evils were aggravated by the growth of colossal fortunes alongside of increasing destitution among the masses, as commerce rapidly advanced under her rule. They were augmented also by the progressive depreciation of the precious metals, which grievously affected the public revenue, and the condition of families with fixed and moderate means.
All these circumstances must be considered in order to appreciate justly the otherwise suspicious and unintelligible policy of Elizabeth. They explain the meaning, if they do not evince the propriety of her ecclesiastical measures; they illustrate the spirit of her internal government; they interpret her severity to the beautiful and unfortunate queen who sought as a kinswoman an asylum and protection in her realm. They enable us to see how she fostered the high emprise and the transcendent genius of the Elizabethan Age; and how, in the midst of all the clouds and mists which obscured her career, she remained a right royal woman, created the national spirit of England, established the English Church, maintained the Protestant cause, and spread such blessings over the land that to this day the popular imagination still fondly looks back to "the merry days of good queen Bess." Her religious policy was hostile alike to Roman Catholics and Puritans; yet Howard of Effingham, who commanded the navies of England against the Spanish Armada, belonged to the Roman communion; and nearly all her chief ministers were supporters of the Puritan doctrine. There seems to be substantial truth in the declaration of lord Bacon, who had ample opportunities of forming a correct judgment, who was Puritan by family and political connections, but tolerant by disposition. He says, with an affirmation of "certain knowledge," "Most certain it is that it was the firm resolution of this princess not to offer any violence to consciences; but then, on the other side, not to suffer the state of her kingdom to be ruined under pretense of conscience and religion." Her aim was to maintain her ascendency in Church and State, in order to prevent internal divisions which would invite external aggressions. It was impossible, in the turmoil and religious acrimony of the period, to draw precisely the line of discrimination between religious belief and political intrigue. There is reason to believe that the persecutions which darkened her reign did not contemplate capital penalties till her crown and life had both been endangered by papal excommunications, by Papist plots, and by Spanish or domestic schemes of assassination.
These principles also controlled in large measure her harsh, unsympathizing treatment of her beautiful and accomplished cousin, Mary of Scotland, whose graces have been employed, like the charms of Aspasia and Phryne in an Athenian court, to secure acquittal when the evidence compels a condemnation. If Mary was innocent of the murder of her husband; if she was not involved in the Northern rebellion; if she did not beguile the duke of Norfolk; if she did not connive at Babington's conspiracy and other similar transactions; if she did not instigate Hamilton of Bothwellhaugh to murder her royal jailor; if she practiced no collusion with Philip of Spain — all these things might have been readily credited by the English queen and her council, and such belief would remove the atrocity, if not the formal illegality, of their procedure. But if all, or most of these suspicions were well founded; if they have been confirmed by the most dispassionate historians, and by the most recent and diligent investigations, the action of Elizabeth may still be illegal, but it ceases to be iniquitous. It should be remembered, too, that Elizabeth did not consent to the trial of Mary till after repeated and urgent demands from the lords and commons of England in Parliament assembled; that her signature of the death warrant is by no means certain; that it was issued and carried into effect without her consent, and contrary to her orders; and that the execution caused her bitter agony and horror. This plea is, indeed, counterbalanced by the suspicion that she sought the removal of her royal captive by secret murder. Such a design is, of course, infamous, though in accordance with the spirit and practices of the age.
To these habits of indirect procedure may be referred much of that matrimonial coquetting which furnished occasion for the malignant censures of hostile contemporaries. There was much female vanity in the frequent and not always coy reception of tender addresses. The Tudor blood displayed its licentious warmth in Margaret and Mary, the sisters of Henry VIII, and in their female descendants, as well as in "bluff king Harry." But there was much also of policy in Elizabeth's demeanor. It introduced a courtly language which has often been misconstrued. It cannot have been entirely unworthy, degrading, or vicious, when it inspired the compliments of Sidney, and Raleigh, and Spenser, and Shakespeare, and Bacon. There is a fashion in language and manners as well as in dress, and the fashion must be regarded if we would interpret their significance.
The supposition of a warmer attachment to Essex than the natural attachment of an aged relative for the hopeful representative of an almost extinct line has neither foundation nor probability. Just as little truth is there in the fancy that her life was overcast and her death hastened by the execution of Essex. The misguided earl had been guilty of the grossest breach of trust and treachery at the head of the government and armies of Ireland; he had repeated his treason, and menaced her existence and crown, in the midst of her capital. He had a solemn trial, and was inevitably condemned. He confessed the enormity of his guilt, and the queen shortly after assured the ambassador of Henry IV that she felt no scruples in regard to his punishment.
Whatever may be thought on these points, which will always be disputed, the spirit, the conduct, and the measures of Elizabeth encouraged and produced the most splendid outburst of national prowess and of varied abilities that any age has ever witnessed. Strong men surrounded her from the first — men of marked capacity as statesmen, of eminent qualities as precursors of the approaching splendor — Sir William Cecil, Sir Nicholas Bacon, Sir Francis Walsingham, Sir Ralph Sadler, the earl of Sussex, and lord Sackville. But she had been a quarter of a century on the throne, more than half her reign was passed, and she was verging to old age before the great names which immortalized her times commenced those achievements which have immortalized themselves. It was under the inspiration of her rule, and of the results attained by her rule, that the brilliant generation grew up which has left to all future admiration the names of Sidney, and Spenser, and Shakespeare, and Bacon — of Raleigh, and Vere, and Essex, and Grenville — of Hooker and Gilbert — the generation which confirmed the independence of England and of Europe, which invented new arts, extended and applied the principles of law and government, secured the Protestant ascendency, founded colonies, extended commerce, glorified letters, discovered new sciences, and established the political eminence, the industrial wealth, and the intellectual empire of England.
The first twenty years of Elizabeth's reign were occupied in consolidating her throne, by averting foreign aggression through the encouragement given by her to the insurgents in each neighboring state, by suppressing disorder and divisions at home, and by promoting Protestant interests at home and abroad. The next twenty years, which terminated with the peace of Vervins, was a period of secret or open contention with Philip of Spain. The execution of Mary, queen of Scots, 1587, and the defeat of the Spanish Armada, 1588, marked the culmination of this perilous struggle. It was closed by the death of the great minister, lord Burleigh. The last five years of her reign were free from serious apprehensions of foreign dangers, but they were distracted by the disturbances in Ireland, by the treacherous intrigues of the court, and by the ambitious designs of the reckless and ungrateful Essex. Her whole life was one long succession of hazards, and after all her glories she died lonely, unloved, and without friends.
Few sovereigns have ever impressed themselves more strongly than Elizabeth upon the imaginations and hearts of their people; few ever bestowed greater or more permanent benefits upon them; yet few have met with blinder admiration or more undistinguishing vituperation. The presumptions are all adverse to this great queen. Contemporary slanders, designed for political objects, have crystallized themselves into commonly accepted facts. But with each addition to our knowledge of the period, the perception of her heroism, and even of her virtues, becomes clearer, and the exaggeration or false coloring of her frailties diminishes. It was an age of great crimes and of multitudinous vices, and Elizabeth did not escape the contamination; but a minute study of the fearful difficulties of her position from infancy to old age will produce profound commiseration rather than bitter censure.
It is only in the diaries and journals of Parliament; in the state papers of the time; in the records of the religious and political intrigues of the period; in the reports of Venetian, French, and Spanish ambassadors; in contemporaneous memoirs, and in the numerous miscellaneous letters and papers of the age, that the true characteristics of Elizabeth and her reign can be discovered. Perhaps a definite conclusion cannot be reached until the voluminous calendars and other records, now in process of publication under the auspices of the Master of the Rolls, have been given to the world. Certainly the portrait offered by the latest historian of her reign, Mr. Froude, cannot be accepted with any confidence, for it is as strangely distorted and miscolored as his picture of Henry VIII. The commendation of her earliest eulogist, lord Bacon, who knew her well, is still appropriate: "To say the truth, the only commender of this lady's virtues is time, which, for as many ages as it hath run, hath not yet showed us one of the female sex equal to her in the administration of a kingdom." The literature of this subject is so extensive that it is scarcely necessary to enumerate particular works. Any or all of the historians of England may be consulted; but further researches may be aided by examining Camden, Annals of Queen Elizabeth; Strype's Annals of the Reformation in
England; Harrison's Description of England in Hall's Chronicle; Sir Robert Naunton, Fragmenta Regalia; Symonds d'Ewes's Diary; Rushworth's Collections; Harleian Miscellany; Felicities of Queen Elizabeth, in the works of Lord Bacon; Egerton, Sidney, and Burleigh Papers; Miss Strickland's Life of Queen Elizabeth; Miss Aiken's Memoirs of Queen Elizabeth; Wright's Elizabeth; Mignet, Hist. Mary, Queen of Scots; Caird, Mary Stuart; Froude's Hist. England, and the Calendars of State Papers for the period published by the British government. A very able essay on queen Elizabeth and queen Mary appeared in the Edinburgh Review for October, 1866. (G.F.H.)