Elizabeth, queen of England and Ireland, daughter of Henry VIII, king of England, and of his second wife, Anne Boleyn. She was the last of the Tudor rulers of England. Although her legitimacy was questioned and never settled (because an act of Parliament  invalidated the marriage of her parents and enabled Henry to marry his third wife, Jane Seymour), both Parliament and Henry named as heirs to his throne his children Edward, later Edward VI; Mary, later Mary I; and Elizabeth, in that order.
Childhood and Accession as Queen.
Born in London on Sept. 7, 1533, Elizabeth spent her childhood away from the court and received an excellent classical education under such scholars as Roger Ascham, who influenced her greatly. Henry's sixth wife, Catherine Parr, later became fond of the young Elizabeth and brought her back to court. She remained in Catherine's charge after Henry's death and took no part in the political intrigues following the coronation of her brother as King Edward VI. When Edward died, Elizabeth became a partisan of her sister Mary, refusing to support the revolt led by the English soldier and conspirator Sir Thomas Wyatt against Mary, who became queen in 1553. Nevertheless, Mary, a devout Roman Catholic, was made uneasy by the Protestantism of Elizabeth and her potential menace as an heir to the throne. In 1554, Elizabeth was imprisoned on the false charge of having been implicated in Wyatt's rebellion. She was later released, having outwardly professed Roman Catholicism, and regained Mary's favor.
At the death of Mary in 1558, Elizabeth became queen, beginning one of the greatest reigns in English history. At the time of Elizabeth's accession, England was torn by religious strife, was economically insecure, and was involved in a disastrous war with France. To these problems Elizabeth brought a thorough education, innate shrewdness, and a skill in diplomacy that she had constantly exercised during the reigns of Edward and Mary, when one mistake might have meant her death. Although she was excessively vain and capricious, her monarchial duties were always her primary concern. Her policies and her colorful personality made her extremely popular with her subjects. Elizabeth's statecraft was due, to a great extent, to her choice of able and wise advisers, most notably Sir Francis Walsingham and William Cecil, 1st Baron Burghley.
Religion was Elizabeth's initial problem as queen. She reverted to Protestantism immediately after Mary's death, and her first Parliament (1559) had a Protestant majority. Between 1559 and 1563, this Parliament passed religious legislation that became the doctrinal basis of the Church of England. In the Elizabethan Compromise (1559), the Church of England became the established church, and throughout Elizabeth's reign Roman Catholics and Puritans were persecuted.
A Popular Queen.
Elizabeth's domination of the period to which her name became attached was due in part to the exuberant national spirit that she inspired and that characterized all England during the second half of the 16th century. She restored popular confidence in the monarchy, and a wave of prosperity swept every field of endeavor. With the religious question settled and the war with France concluded by the Treaty of Cateau-Cambr้sis (1559), England was able to develop industrially and economically. Under Elizabeth's direction, the government began to regulate commerce and industry on a national scale. England grew to be a great maritime power with the exploits of such mariners as Sir Francis Drake and Sir Martin Frobisher. A new system of standard coinage was introduced in 1560 to replace the silver coins that had been considerably debased during the preceding three reigns. As a result, prices fell to normal levels and confidence in English money was restored. Foreign trade, encouraged by the government, became a great capitalistic enterprise. The Royal Exchange of London was opened in 1566, and the company of merchants that later became the English East India Co. was chartered in 1600. Above all this activity stood the figure of Elizabeth. In the eyes of her subjects, Elizabeth was England.
From the beginning of her reign, Elizabeth's marital status was a political concern because there was no English heir to the throne. Parliament insistently petitioned her to marry, but she replied with the statement that she intended to live and die a virgin, and she became known as the Virgin Queen. Her statement did not prevent her from toying constantly with the idea of marriage. She was besieged by royal suitors, each of whom she favored when it was in her political interest to do so. Her affections, however, were bestowed on a succession of favorites, notably Robert Dudley, 1st earl of Leicester, Sir Walter Raleigh, and Robert Devereux, 2d earl of Essex.
Elizabeth's most delicate political problem was that involving her Roman Catholic cousin, Mary, queen of Scots. Mary sought refuge in England after being defeated in battle by her half brother, James Stuart, earl of Moray. Elizabeth immediately imprisoned Mary because the Catholic monarchs of Europe and her own Catholic subjects considered Elizabeth illegitimate. By their reasoning, Mary was the lawful queen of England. Thus, to Elizabeth, Mary was the potential center of conspiracy. Mary was kept captive for years, giving rise to many plots by English Catholics for her release. When in 1586 Walsingham, then secretary of state, discovered a plot to assassinate Elizabeth and place Mary on the throne of England, Elizabeth reluctantly agreed to have Mary executed in 1587. The execution had serious results. Philip II of Spain had, for years, been troubled by the raids of English mariners on his colonial possessions. Because both Mary and Philip were Catholic, her death provided him with an added stimulus to prosecute the war with England that had been going on since 1585; he therefore sent a fleet to invade the country in 1588. The Spanish Armada, however, suffered an inglorious defeat, and England eventually took the place of Spain as the great colonizer of the New World and the reigning power on the seas. Moreover, by inflicting such defeat on Catholic Spain, England established Protestantism as a force in international politics.
End of an Era.
Elizabeth's popularity waned toward the end of her reign because of her heavy expenditures and abuse of royal power. Moreover, her policies became weaker, her later ministers being less able than Cecil or Walsingham. The close of Elizabeth's reign was disturbed by a revolt in Ireland that was led by Hugh O'Neill. The 2d earl of Essex, Elizabeth's favorite, unsuccessfully led an army against the Irish. When he returned to England, he led a revolt against the queen and was executed in 1601. Following his death, Elizabeth was disconsolate. She spent the last years of her life unhappy and alone, having outlived a glorious age, the beginning of the history of what would become modern England. She died in London on March 23, 1603.