No king of England save Alfred has ever been called “The Great,” but if anyone was given that title, it would probably have been Queen Elizabeth I.
She came to the throne on the heels of both religious and political turmoil. Her grandfather had taken the crown from a hawthorn bush in the last battle of the War of the Roses; her father had torn England asunder and changed her very religion to gain a male heir; her brother – the long-hoped-for male heir – had called in Reformers from abroad to make a truly Protestant realm but died with his mission half-accomplished only to see his elder sister Mary return to Rome. Yet now, Princess Elizabeth had survived – survived, still Protestant, despite Mary’s coercion – survived, still unmarried, to rule England in her own name.
Her Grace’s loving behavior… in deed implanted a wonderful hope in them touching her worthy government in the rest of her reign. For in all her passage she did not only show her most gracious love toward the people in general, but also privately, if the baser personages had either offered her Grace any flowers or such like, as a signification of their good will, or moved to her any suite, she most gently, to the common rejoicing of all the lookers on, and private comfort of the parties, stayed her chariot, and heard their requests.
— “The Festival Book,” describing the procession to Queen Elizabeth’s coronation.
“Good Queen Bess,” she was called. After Mary’s seeming haughtiness, Spanish marriage, and burning of heretics, Elizabeth seemed a breath from Heaven, an embodiment of all that was good in England. And she continued to inspire her people as much as she could throughout her reign. First, she brought peace and stability. After two reigns of religious strife, she brought a settlement where she “would not make windows into men’s hearts.” It wasn’t perfect religious freedom – which existed nowhere in Europe at the time – but freedom for all who would at least sit in the Church of England, under a system of worship written out that would not change next year. Nor, she vowed, would she insist on a marriage against the will of her Parliament; there would be no unwanted foreign prince sitting beside her like Philip of Spain reigned beside Mary. “When wars and seditions with grievous persecutions have vexed almost all kings and countries round about me, my reign hath been peacable,” she said in thanksgiving.
But Europe was not as peaceful as England. The Counter-Reformation was attempting to exterminate Protestantism, and the English saw themselves as its defender. Meanwhile, Queen Mary’s widower, the very Catholic Philip of Spain, continued to claim the English throne (contrary to all English laws). Elizabeth first responded by dallying – claiming to be thinking of changing her religion, flirting with first Philip, then Eric of Sweden (a Protestant), then Charles of Austria (a Catholic), then Henry of Anjou (a Catholic)… all the meantime also flirting with several English noblemen (all Protestants)… This uncertainty did lead to some disquiet among normal Englishmen, which led her to pledge to not marry abroad without Parliament’s consent – but even as Englishmen started to hail her as the “Virgin Queen” and give masques in honor of the Virgin Mary and the virgin goddess Diana, foreign negotiations continued. And peace continued. Finally, when the Spanish ambassador wrote (once more) that Elizabeth was leaning toward restoring England to Catholicism, King Philip simply remarked, “Get it in writing with her signature.”
This shrewd policy of delay delayed open war for twenty-seven years after Elizabeth’s coronation – a full generation of peace. Even the Pope exclaimed, “Just see how well she governs! She is only a woman, only a mistress of half an island, and yet she makes herself feared by all!”
Yet, not content with a quiet peace that leaves “hardly anything to put into the History Books” (as Lewis said), Elizabeth also sponsored dreams of proud gallantry. Funded by what was effectively joint stock companies, Drake, Raleigh, and other privateers would periodically raid Spanish treasure fleets. New World gold had flooded into Spain in such volumes that it sank the Spanish economy; the few shiploads diverted to England made all their investors (including, quietly, the Crown) rich. What was more, their published records gave England visions of adventure and a wider world. Even when they failed – such as the Virginia Company’s settlement at Roanoke, or the Muscovy Company’s attempt to establish Arctic Ocean trade routes to Russia and China – the sense of bright possibilities continued.
Elizabeth’s delay and peace did not last forever. Roman Catholic conspiracies threatened to assassinate her in support of Mary, the exiled Catholic Queen of Scots who had fled to England for refuge from her Protestant subjects; the Protestant Dutch rebels offered her their crown in exchange for support against Spain. She played for time again – she imprisoned Mary but in comfort, and refused the Dutch crown but sent her general Leicester under orders “to avoid at all costs any decisive action with the enemy.” Yet, Mary continued plotting, and Elizabeth was forced to execute her. Meanwhile, the Dutch campaign dragged on without result… except to spur Spain to open war.
When the Spanish Armada finally loomed in the channel, amid fear of assassins, Elizabeth opened her famous speech:
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 goodwill 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 battle, to live or die amongst you all… I know I have the body 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 should grow by me, I myself will take up arms.
And the navy – commanded by Drake the privateer, now openly in Elizabeth’s service – responded. With skills from years of needling the Spanish, they stayed out of the enemy’s reach while bombarding them from afar. And then, after that needling…
God blew, and they were scattered.
“The Protestant Wind,” it was called – even Philip of Spain acknowledged, “I sent the Armada against men, not God’s winds and waves.” Only 67 out of 130 ships survived to return to Spain. Even when her policy had broken down, Elizabeth had shrouded England in victory, peace, and glory.
“Gloriana,” Elizabeth was called, the fairy queen of glory; and “Astraea,” the virgin goddess of innocent purity. Yet her achievement was not merely that she was called those titles but that – in several real senses – she had earned them. She won her people’s approval not by meaningless gestures but by very meaningful gifts: peace, honor, dignity, all bought through her shrewdness and her care for her people. And the people responded by filling her reign with even more glory: for just one example, Shakespeare was never funded by the crown, but his plays are even now remembered as being part of Elizabeth’s era. And that is well said – for it was Elizabeth’s wise rule that made it possible.
She was a great queen.