What Faced Elizabeth upon her Accession?

Key Terms

England was not used to having Queens. Indeed, Henry VIII had gone to such lengths to have a male heir so that England could still have a King. Furthermore, Lady Jane Grey had only lasted nine days, and Mary still only lasted a disastrous five years. It was not going to be easy for Elizabeth to inherit the throne and make a success of it. What’s more, the turbulence of the Tudor Dynasty – politically, socially, religiously, and economically – meant that Elizabeth inherited an England which was in many ways… a mess.

Key Terms

  1. Patriarchy: a society in which men are dominant, and women seen as inferior. Elizabethan England was a highly patriarchal society.
  2. Succession: the route that the Crown would follow in the case the monarch died. The heir is next in line for succession.
  3. Debt: owing money.
  4. Catholic: Christians who follow the Pope in Rome. The ‘opposite’ of Protestants.
  5. Protestant: Christians who follow Churches which broke away from Rome in the 15 and 16th Century onwards. Henry VIII brought the first Protestant Church to England.

Problems Facing Elizabeth when she Came to the Throne

  1. She was a woman, which people would question. Society was sexist (see Patriarchy), and people believed that Lady Jane Grey and Bloody Mary showed why it was a bad idea to have a female monarch.
  2. She was young, only 25, when she became Queen. She had spent the last few years locked up by her sister, so was not very well known. Elizabeth was unfamiliar with the current court, and seen by many as a political novice.
  3. Britain was at war with France and had no allies. Spain had been a potential ally when Mary was married to Phillip I, but this was no longer the case. Phillip was very suspicious of a Protestant Elizabeth.
  4. Henry VIII had declared Elizabeth ‘illegitimate’, because of the execution of Anne Boleyn. Some people therefore questioned her legitimacy on the throne.
  5. Elizabeth was unmarried and had no children. She was also the last of Henry VIII’s children, and so the Tudor Dynasty was potentially in danger. Other important nobles realised they might be able to take the Throne. This also encouraged people to try and marry her just for access to the Throne.
  6. Britain had suffered economically, and many people live in dire poverty. Their lives got worse throughout the reigns of Henry, Edward, and Mary. There is the strong possibility of a rebellion.
  7. The government had enormous debts, inherited from Mary and Henry, both of whom spent madly.
  8. Elizabeth’s cousin was Mary Queen of Scots (not the same Mary as her (deceased) sister, Mary I). Mary does not want Elizabeth to be Queen, and wants the English throne for herself – to unite England and Scotland.
  9. Elizabeth’s Protestant beliefs also threatened to get her in trouble with the Pope, who was determined to return England to the Catholic Church. Spain and France agreed with this goal. Elizabeth feared a coordinated Catholic invasion.

As such, you can see that Elizabeth did not have an easy road ahead. We are now going to focus in on two main problems which are highlighted on the specification: the difficulties for a female ruler, and her relation with Parliament over the issue of marriage.

The Difficulties of a Female Ruler

To understand this, it is crucial to remember that England, and indeed most of the world, in the 16th Century was a sexist and patriarchal place.

This was evident in all aspects of society, such as:

  1. Property passed to male heirs, just like the Crown.
  2. Women could only own property if they were widowed.
  3. Men held literally all of the powerful positions. There were no women in Government.
  4. Women were expected to obey all men, especially their husbands and fathers.
  5. It was not much different to the Middle Ages, when women were legally owned by their husband or father.
  6. Women were not expected to voice their opinion in the presence of men.

Whilst Elizabeth escaped the strict rules, as she was the monarch, this attitude pervaded society. Many people treated Elizabeth much more poorly, and disrespected her authority, simply because she was a woman.

There was a strong critic of Elizabeth, John Knox, who wrote this:

To promote a woman to rule and have superiority over any. Nation is insulting to God because it goes against His design for order and government. It is the overturning of good order and all principles of justice. For no man ever saw the lion bow down to the lioness.

This shows how some people believed that it was unnatural to allow a woman to have any authority. They even believed it went against God’s will, because he had designed man to lead.

Being a woman also meant that Elizabeth was expected to bear a child and provide an heir for the throne. To do this, society insisted that she would have to marry. This shows how being a woman also brought about the second main challenge upon which we focus: Elizabeth’s relationship with Parliament over marriage and the succession.

Arguments for and Against Marriage


  1. Marrying a foreign King or Prince could forge a crucial alliance with a foreign country. This might be valuable when England currently had no allies.
  2. Elizabeth could have a child, which would secure the succession.
  3. A secure marriage and heir would block the threat from Mary Queen of Scots.


  1. Marry and foreign King or Prince, and handling it wrong, could lead to losing influence to them. This could potentially lead to England becoming part of a foreign country.
  2. Marrying someone English could create conflicts of interest and make Elizabeth seem favouritist.
  3. Elizabeth could be independent when not married. Many expected that, if she married, power would hand over to the King.
  4. Giving birth at this time was very risky, and Elizabeth could well have died in childbirth.
  5. Mary’s marriage with Philip of Spain had generally been seen as a disaster, and had not produced an heir.


Elizabeth received offers from many different suitors, both from England and abroad.

The most important of these were:

  1. Philip I of Spain. Her sister’s husband, and a Catholic.
  2. Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester. Her childhood friend. A rumour spread that he had killed his first wife in order to marry Elizabeth.
  3. Francis, Duke of Alencon. A French noble, who was closely connected to the French throne. Also a Catholic.

Historians still debate whether she remained single by choice or just due to the circumstances. For each, there were several disadvantages to marrying them.

Possible Heirs

In October 1562, Elizabeth caught smallpox and the Doctor told her that her chances of survival were slim. Although her face was left permanently scarred, she recovered. Had she died there would have been a huge problem as there was no clear heir to the throne. This panicked the Parliament and Privy Council.

There was a three ways split between the Privy Council on what to do in the event of the Queen’s death and later, when she had recovered, she was asked to either marry or nominate an heir. Elizabeth refused to do both of these things, saying that she would only marry when the time was right, and that securing an heir could place in her in a vulnerable position.

The problem was not that there was a shortage of people to take the throne, but too many people who could have a possible claim. Elizabeth seemed to be warming to the idea of making Catherine Grey an official heir, however she was furious when Catherine married without her permission and she had her both locked in the Tower of London. This was the last time Elizabeth discussed the succession.

Issue Resolved?

By the end of Elizabeth’s reign, the succession crisis had resolved itself, almost by accident as most of the eligible contenders had died. The obvious heir wads the Scottish King, James VI, the only child of Mary Queen of Scots.

By the 1590’s it was decided that James would be the next King after Elizabeth died. Although Elizabeth refused to officially name James as heir, she even sent him letters teasing him about it. Near the end of Elizabeth’s life, Robert Cecil (The Queen’s advisor) began to speak with James in secret, to prepare for after Elizabeth’s death. After all the worry about who would succeed Elizabeth, when she died in 1603 Cecil sent a messenger from London to Edinburgh (Which took three days!) to tell James that he was now the King of Scotland and England. The Tudor dynasty gave way to the Stuart Dynasty smoothly and for the first time in History, the whole country was sharing the one monarch.

Define the following key terms:

Your answer should include: society / men / dominant / women / inferior
Your answer should include: crown / passed / pass / down / heir
Your answer should include: christian / follow / Pope
Robert Dudley
Your answer should include: childhood friend / suitor / English rumour killed wife
Philip I
Your answer should include: King / Spain / Mary / husband / suitor
James I (James Stuart)
Your answer should include: Elizabeth / heir / Mary / Scottish / 1603

Elizabeth’s Relationship with Parliament over Marriage and the Succession

Elizabeth was__ 25 years old__ when she succeeded to the throne. By Tudor standards, this was old to be unmarried. She had not married because of her awkward position during Henry’s and Mary’s reigns. Everyone assumed that when she became Queen, marriage would be high on her priorities. They expected a suitable wedding to be arranged quickly. To make this more urgent, she was the last of Henry VIII’s children and neither Mary nor Edward had had children of their own. If she died without an heir, the Tudor dynasty would end.

Her Privy Council became annoyed when Elizabeth hesitated, or refused, to choose. Ther tried to keep pressing the issue with her, encouraging her to marry. (We will learn about the Privy Council in the next lesson). Her Parliaments, encouraged by the council, also tried to pressure her to marry. She gave vague answers and then famously lost her temper with her third Parliament in 1566 for daring to raise the issue. After this, Parliament was not allowed to discuss marriage again.