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Queen Elizabeth I (1533–1603) - BIOGRAPHY, CRITICAL RECEPTION

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Daughter of a king and herself one of the longest reigning monarchs of England, Queen Elizabeth’s life is well documented, recorded not only in her own speeches and letters but in the writings of contemporaries who chronicled her life even before its end. Yet even as documentation of events exists, little evidence of Elizabeth’s personal passions remains, and the desire to construct private emotions from public action remains strong for biographers eager to find motivation and intention in her royal activities.

Born in Greenwich on 7 September 1533 to Henry VIII and his second wife Anne Boleyn, Elizabeth spent her first years as a princess living in the royal household. At the age of three, however, her circumstances changed dramatically with her mother’s execution on charges of treason and adultery. Deemed illegitimate, Elizabeth moved from the royal household, joining her half-sister Mary. Despite the ill treatment of his wives, Henry nevertheless proved a decent father. While exiled from her father’s residence, Elizabeth continued to attend royal functions as her father’s daughter, and indeed some biographers read her as her father’s favorite.

In 1543, Henry married the last of his wives, Catherine Parr,* a woman who acted as mother to Elizabeth and her half-brother Edward, moving them into her household. Elizabeth’s years with Parr proved fundamental to the girl’s intellectual development. During this time, she received her education under the Protestant humanists Roger Ascham, Sir John Cheke, and William Grindal. As he records in The Schoolmaster (1570), Ascham tutored Elizabeth in classical and modern languages, as well as in humanist philosophy and theology, claiming of Elizabeth that “her mind has no womanly weakness.” Thomas Heywood mentions her devotion to study as well. In his account of her childhood with Catherine Parr, he writes of her and her brother Edward that “[t]heir horae matutinae were so welcome, that they seemed to prevent the nights sleeping for the entertainment of the morrows schooling.” Two hallmarks of the later queen, her linguistic competence and her religious moderation, both originate in these early years.

With her father’s death in 1547 and Catherine Parr’s death the following year, Elizabeth found herself in a more vulnerable political position. Courted by her stepmother’s second husband, the ambitious Thomas Seymour, she suffered under the investigation that followed Seymour’s arrest for plotting to marry her as a means to the Crown. Showing characteristic self-possession, Elizabeth successfully braved the interrogations into her own conduct with Seymour. She found herself again under suspicion in 1554, this time for her alleged role in Sir Thomas Wyatt’s* rebellion against the Catholic Queen Mary. For a short time following the Wyatt rebellion, she lived in confinement first in the Tower of London and subsequently at the manor Woodstock, where Elizabeth composed two of her six extant poems. One poem, scratched on the window, taunts “[m]uch suspected by me,/Nothing proved can be.” Both poems protest her innocence, although during the reign of her Catholic half-sister Mary, the Protestant Elizabeth was never free from suspicion.

Queen Mary died in 1558. Two months later, at age twenty-five, Elizabeth rode through London for her coronation. While records of the coronation note the celebrations greeting the queen as she rode through London, her ascension to the Crown was greeted with suspicion as well. First, Mary’s Catholic supporters vilified the Protestant Elizabeth, supporting her rival, Mary, Queen of Scots.* In addition, detractors of female rule, who found a voice in John Knox’s* The Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women , continued to protest a female sovereign. Yet Elizabeth’s rule proved a contrast to the instability marking the reigns of Edward VI and Mary I. With her fiscal conservatism and her moderate Protestantism, Elizabeth shaped a government reluctant to persecute subjects for religious beliefs or to involve them in foreign wars.

Attempts to gain stability in fiscal and foreign policy were counterbalanced by the unsettled state of Elizabeth’s marital affairs. Her famous flirtations and engagements, well documented in her own letters and in biographies, often allowed her to stabilize her European alliances. Yet Elizabeth remained elusive, reluctant to settle the ever-present question of succession. Parliament became increasingly demanding about her marital negotiations in the 1580s, provoking a series of well-known speeches from Elizabeth, who powerfully asserted her own control over the questions of marriage and succession. Twice addressing Parliament in 1563 on the question of marriage, Elizabeth again spoke on the issue in 1566, concluding, “I am your anointed queen. I will never be by violence constrained to do anything. I thank God I am endued with such qualities that if I were turned out of the realm in my petticoat, I were able to live in any place in Christendom.” Elizabeth vehemently asserts her self-sufficiency even when faced with Parliament’s demands. Yet Parliament’s demands were justified: at stake in the question of marriage was the religious fate of the country. Without an heir, the Catholic Mary, Queen of Scots would inherit the throne, as supporters of both Protestant Elizabeth and Catholic Mary knew. Yet, despite the obvious security threat that Mary posed, Elizabeth refused to execute her, reluctant to shed royal blood. Only after the discovery of Mary’s role in the infamous Rudolfi plot against her life did Elizabeth give the “answer-answerless,” a famously ambiguous phrase that allowed Elizabeth to appear equivocal even as Mary was executed in 1587.

Most foreign monarchs maintained amicable relations with the English queen, the notable exception being Spain. Despite all of Elizabeth’s efforts to stall, war erupted on the Continent, with England’s invading the Spanish Netherlands in 1585. Three years later, Spain attacked England. The Spanish Armada’s surprising defeat at the hands of the much smaller English navy proved the occasion for Elizabeth’s famous speech at Tilbury. The period of triumph immediately following the 1588 defeat is seen as the peak of Elizabeth’s reign in terms of national pride directed affectionately toward “the Virgin Queen.” In the decade following, Elizabeth continued to control her courtiers through a mixture of flirtation and domination, which had become her hallmark. At this point due to age, the question of succession that had dominated the early part of her reign was no longer an issue. On 24 March, Elizabeth I died, succeeded by James VI* of Scotland, James I.*


As Christopher Haigh notes in his recent biography, “It is almost impossible to write a balanced study of Elizabeth I. The historiographical tradition is so laudatory that it is hard to avoid either floating with the current of applauding opinion or creating an unseemly splash by swimming too energetically against it” (175). The majority of Elizabeth scholarship insists on her brilliant managing of the unstable state she inherited. William Camden’s Annales (1610) began this long tradition of representing Elizabeth’s reign as a golden age of progress. In the proliferation of studies of Elizabeth in the last fifteen years, however, scholars steer between unqualified praise and overexuberant critique. These scholars praise her statecraft, while often focusing on the latter decade of her reign as a time when her performance no longer enchants. Wallace MacCaffrey’s 1994 biography, for example, chronicles the queen’s frustrating oscillation between anger and indifference in her latter years. Feminist new historicist scholars point to the gender expectations that constrained Elizabeth, particularly during her latter years as her representation as the ever-youthful “Virgin Queen” increasingly contrasted with the reality of her age.

Given Elizabeth’s position as sovereign, balanced assessment of her poetry and translations could not begin until well after her death. In addition, her fame as a subject of literature generally overshadows her fame as an author. In the proliferation of recent studies, more scholars are turning to the queen’s own work, yet studying Elizabeth’s writings presents a singular challenge, for her own writings rarely expose her interior life or beliefs. As G. B. Harrison writes in his volume of the queen’s letters, “[t]hough few rulers have on occasion written better letters, she was not a good correspondent, for the famous letter writers are those who record intimate experiences and share secrets and observations….The Queen wrote to command, to exhort, to censure, to persuade, and sometimes to prevaricate: but she had no familiar confidant, man or woman.” Because Elizabeth remains the sovereign even in her private letters, the preponderance of historical rather than literary studies of her writings should not be surprising. Yet with the recent flowering of Elizabeth scholarship has come a new interest in her role as author, and the next decade may well result in a deeper understanding of Elizabeth in both historical and literary terms.

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