Queen Elizabeth I of England lived from 7 September 1533 to 24 March 1603. She became Queen of England and Queen of Ireland on 17 November 1558, and was crowned Queen of England on 15 January 1559. Like her predecessors she also claimed the crown of France. From a Scottish perspective she is best remembered for holding as prisoner, and eventually executing, her cousin, Mary Queen of Scots. Elizabeth' succession by Mary's son, James VI of Scotland, who became James I of England, unified the crowns of England and Scotland. The wider picture in Scotland at the time is set out in our Historical Timeline.
In England, Elizabeth is remembered with considerable affection. In 2002 she came 7th in a poll conducted by the BBC to select the "100 Greatest Britons". She is variously remembered as The Virgin Queen, Gloriana, Good Queen Bess, and the Faerie Queene.
Elizabeth I was the fifth and last monarch of the Tudor dynasty. She reigned for nearly 45 years, during a period marked by considerable increases in English power and influence worldwide. Her reign was also marked, however, by intermittent warfare with Spain, France and Scotland, by religious turmoil at home, and by serious conflict in Ireland.
Elizabeth was the third child of Henry VIII of England. Her mother was Henry's second wife, Anne Boleyn. On birth, Elizabeth became the heiress presumptive to the throne of England despite having an older half sister, Mary; Mary was not considered by Henry VIII to be a legitimate heir because Henry had annulled his marriage to her mother, Catherine of Aragon.
Anne Boleyn was executed on 19 May 1536, and the three-year-old Elizabeth was declared illegitimate by her father. When Henry VIII died in 1547 he was succeeded by Elizabeth's younger half-brother, Edward VI. Edward was still only 15 when he died in 1553 of tuberculosis. The 1543 Act of Succession had enshrined Henry VIII's wishes that if Edward died childless he should be followed in the succession by Mary and Elizabeth. Edward VI's own will, however, appointed Lady Jane Grey as his successor. She ruled for less than two weeks before being deposed by Mary Tudor, with Elizabeth's support.
Queen Mary Tudor enthusiastically embraced Catholicism, and married Prince Philip of Spain, later King Philip II. She defeated the popular uprising that followed in England, and imprisoned the Protestant Elizabeth in the Tower of London for alleged involvement in it. Her increasingly ruthless reign of terror against Protestants across England led to her being remembered as Bloody Mary. Mary died in 1558, having been reconciled with Elizabeth largely thanks to the efforts of Mary's husband, Philip II of Spain. He wanted to ensure that Elizabeth should succeed his wife to the English throne instead of the alternative candidate, her cousin Mary Queen of Scots. He clearly took the view that a Protestant England (ruled by Elizabeth) would be less of a threat to Spain than a Catholic England ruled by a monarch (Mary Queen of Scots) with close links to France. This is another of those very intriguing "what if" moments in history: what if Philip had believed that the benefits of ensuring that England was pro-Catholic had outweighed the risks of it being too pro-French, and Mary Queen of Scots had succeeded Mary Tudor to the throne of England?
Elizabeth's early reign was marked by a swing back towards Protestantism in England, and by increasing conflict with France and with Scotland. Much of the conflict was focused on the person of Elizabeth's cousin, Mary Queen of Scots. Catholics both in England and abroad considered Elizabeth to be illegitimate: which would have made Mary the legitimate heir to the throne of England. It therefore came as a great surprise to Elizabeth when, on 19 May 1568, Mary Queen of Scots fled south from revolt in Scotland and asked Elizabeth for help.
For 19 years, Mary was held in captivity in various English castles. After being implicated in a Catholic plot to kill Elizabeth and replace her on the English throne, Mary was executed on Elizabeth's (apparently reluctant) orders at Fotheringhay Castle on 8 February 1587. The two never met.
Mary's son, James VI of Scotland, was restrained in his response to his mother's execution: he was widely recognised as the most obvious heir to the crown of England after Elizabeth, and did not wish to jeopardise his position. Meanwhile, however, Mary Queen of Scots' death opened the way for Mary Tudor's husband, Philip II of Spain, to assert his rights as the strongest surviving Catholic candidate for the throne held by (in Catholic eyes) the illegitimate Elizabeth. The result was his launching of the Spanish Armada in 1588: a determined attempt to take England by force.
The defeat of the Armada may have had much to do with luck and weather, but it proved Elizabeth's finest moment, and attributes to her one of history's most stirring speeches:
"Let tyrants fear, I have always so behaved myself that, under God, I have placed my chiefest strength and safeguard in the loyal hearts and good-will of my subjects; and therefore I am come amongst you, as you see, at this time, not for my recreation and disport, but being resolved, in the midst and heat of the battle, to live and die amongst you all; to lay down for my God, and for my kingdom, and my people, my honour and my blood, even in the dust. I know I have the body but of a weak and feeble woman; but I have the heart and stomach of a king, and of a king of England too, and think foul scorn that Parma or Spain, or any prince of Europe, should dare to invade the borders of my realm; to which rather than any dishonour shall grow by me, I myself will take up arms, I myself will be your general, judge, and rewarder of every one of your virtues in the field."
Elizabeth's later years were marked by considerable popularity in England, but continuing conflict with Spain, France, and the Netherlands, and with rebellion in Ireland. On her death in 1603 she was succeeded by the son of Mary Queen of Scots, James VI of Scotland, who became James I of England.