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Tremors - The Virgin Queen, Elizabeth I

Updated Sunday, 7th January 2001

One of the great figures of British history: Elizabeth I - The Virgin Queen

Tudor ships at sea

Elizabeth I occupies a special place in English history: a curious amalgam of Boadicea, Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher, the virgin Queen who bested the Spanish Armada. She inherited many of her father's most admirable characteristics (a sense of majesty, determination, intelligence) and few of his unattractive ones. During her reign, England started to emerge as a leading maritime power and enjoyed a major cultural renaissance.

After the Calvinism of her brother and her half-sister's Catholicism, Elizabeth pursued a religious middle way which seemed to offer the best means of stabilising her authority and securing peace. Elizabeth was disinclined to pry into her subject's innermost thoughts, and as long as they offered outward conformity and political loyalty, she was prepared to turn a blind eye to many things. However, for those who offended her sense of fealty, punishment was swift and hard. Elizabeth restored England to the Protestant camp, but to the moderate, compromising wing.

On ascending the throne, Elizabeth confirmed the break with Rome and reaffirmed her own role as 'Supreme Governor' of the Church of England. However, in other areas, her religious policy was, in many ways, a mixture of compromise and equivocation. She reintroduced the Edwardian Prayer Book (in diluted form) but was prepared to countenance the continued use of traditional church robes, crucifixes, and religious images.

The 39 Articles of 1563 defined the Anglican faith and the words which describe what happens to the bread and wine during communion are a particularly stunning blend of ambiguity and equivocation, capable of meaning a wide range of things to many people. Elizabeth supported an English language liturgy and English Bible but was a firm advocate of bishops and archbishops, believing them to be essential adjuncts to her own rule. Catholic worship in private was often tolerated.

Because Elizabeth refused to sweep away many things associated with Catholicism (vestments, images, crucifixes) some more hard-line Protestants who wanted to purify the church of all remaining Popish influences started to form an opposition movement. These 'Puritans' remained numerically insignificant during Elizabeth's reign but became increasingly vocal. However, Elizabeth was able to defuse most of their protestations by tolerating their 'prophesyings' (unofficial church services), and by allowing Puritan MPs a state- approved outlet for their views in Parliament. For those who offered a more militant resistance, punishment was swift and severe.


Ireland also started becoming increasingly important in English politics during Elizabeth's reign. Although English monarchs had claimed lordship over Ireland since the middle ages, it was only in the mid- sixteenth century (following England's expulsion from Europe) that Ireland started assuming major significance. Henry VIII declared himself King of Ireland in 1541 and Mary Tudor initiated some new settlements in Leix and Offaly in the 1550s. In the 1570s and 1580s, Elizabeth attempted to impose religious uniformity on Ireland, sparking off a major rebellion (the Nine Years War, 1594- 1603) that was only put down with great bloodshed and expense. She also supported new English settlements in the province of Munster during the latter years of her reign.

Sixteenth and seventeenth century colonialism was also much more rigorous and systematic than that of earlier periods. In the middle ages, relatively small numbers of English Catholic invaders had taken control over parts of Ireland but, as their numbers were small and they shared a religion with the indigenous population, they were eventually absorbed into the mainstream of Irish culture in the long run.

The colonialism of the early seventeenth century was larger in scale, more all-pervasive and religiously antagonistic. By the middle of the sixteenth century, England was Protestant and Ireland was essentially Catholic, and the English and Scottish incomers tended to regard the indigenous Irish (and old English) as potentially disloyal savages. Under the plantation policy (mainly inspired by James VI/I) the indigenous population were pushed off their own land and reduced to the status of second class citizens in their own country. In essence, English policy towards Ireland in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries (even though it affected white European fellow-Christians) was the same as the imperialism which they implemented in North America, Asia, Africa and the Caribbean. In time, the festering resentment which this policy provoked would explode into bloody violence.

Elizabeth I enjoyed mainly positive relations with Parliament, mainly as a result of her pragmatism and the fact that she kept England out of long and expensive land wars. When she died in March 1603, Crown indebtedness stood at only £120,000, a remarkable achievement under the circumstances. Elizabeth I was succeeded by James Stuart of Scotland, a markedly different character.

Elizabeth I

Frugal and parsimonious in her use of public funds, Elizabeth made a point of aquiring a dazzling and expensive royal wardrobe to enhance her public status as 'Gloriana'. The modern political emphasis on presentation and 'power dressing' is not entirely novel.



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