Who Was Elizabeth I?

Key Terms

This course focusses on the Elizabethan time period, but do not be fooled. Elizabeth herself is absolutely crucial to this. Not only did she hugely influence the period, but she is integrated in our historical understanding of it. As such, we start our study of the period with an investigation into who Queen Elizabeth I was.

Who Was Elizabeth I?, figure 1

Elizabeth is famous in history for her portraits - something we will look at in another lesson.

Key Terms

Because the Elizabethan era is such old history, there are several key terms that we will introduce in every lesson. As explained in the Course Overview, you need to be familiar with the ‘ins and outs’ of the period, and this means being fluent in the historical language used to discuss Elizabethan England.

  1. Accession: When an individual becomes a monarch. They ‘ascend’ or ‘accede’ to the Throne.
  2. Court: The Queen’s inner circle, nobility, and attendants to the Queen. The Court also included her household and staff.
  3. Heir: The person who is next in line to inherit the throne.
  4. Heretic: A person who does not follow the official religion of the country.
  5. HouseArrest: When a person is kept prisoner inside a house rather than a prison.
  6. Illegitimate: A child born outside of (valid or ‘legitimate’) marriage.
  7. Patronage: Using wealth, power and influence to promote individuals who then owe their patrons loyalty.
  8. QueenRegnant: A Queen ruling in her own right rather than because she is married to the King.
  9. Reformation: A movement which separated the church from Rome and formed the Church of England.
  10. Renaissance: An intellectual and cultural movement that originated in Italy in the middle ages and was influenced by the Ancient Greeks and Romans.
  11. Treason: A crime involving disloyalty to your country, monarch or government.

Who Was Elizabeth I?, figure 2

There was a Renaissance across most of Europe, but it happened at different rates in different countries. It spread from Italy in the 1400s, and was in full swing in Britain by the time of Elizabeth’s accession in 1558.

Elizabeth I’s Background

Early Childhood

Elizabeth’s mother was executed when she was two and she rarely saw her father – Henry VIII. She was mainly brought up by governesses and tutors. When Elizabeth’s mother was executed, Henry declared Elizabeth to be illegitimate, the way he had with her half sister Mary. This meant that she was not allowed to inherit the throne. It is said that Henry VIII never cared for his daughters, as he saw them as his failure to produce a male heir.

When Henry’s son, Edward, was born, all of Henry’s time and attention went to him. Elizabeth and Mary were very much forgotten.

Henry VIII changed religion in England so that he could become more powerful and be in charge of the church in England, as well as granting himself a divorce. He broke away from Rome in the 1530’s and set up the Church of England. This made the monarch head of the church in England. He closed down monasteries (where monks and nuns lived and worked, helping the poor and sick) and took the land and wealth.

Elizabeth had several of her childhood friends executed by Henry VIII, for various reasons. One friend who survived was Robert Dudley.

Henry’s actions set off a period of significant social and religious turbulence in England. Elizabeth would inherit all of these problems, and more.

Who Was Elizabeth I?, figure 1

Elizabeth is the daughter of Henry VIII, perhaps the most famous English King of all. She was his daughter with his second wife, Anne Boleyn. This meant that Elizabeth was part of the Tudor dynasty.


Elizabeth was bright and clever. By the time she was 16,
she could speak five languages – English, French, Italian,
Greek and Latin. She was highly educated, which was unusual for a woman in Tudor England.

An Overview

Elizabeth’s life before her accession was often unhappy and her family life was chaotic and dysfunctional. She did not have good relationships with her father and siblings or many childhood friends. She came dangerously close to execution for treason, but all of these things seemed to make her stronger and strengthen her character as Queen.

Elizabeth’s character as Queen

Whilst Elizabeth was certainly strong, she was also temperamental, paranoid, and had poor social skills. Events in her childhood, including being locked in the Tower of London and having teenage friends executed by her Father, in some ways made it hard for Elizabeth to see things from a normal point of view. She was very demanding as Queen, and insisted upon total respect and obedience.

She was also intelligent, as we have said, and very aware of the problems she was inheriting with the British Crown. Elizabeth went on to be one of Britain’s most successful monarchs.

Define the following key terms:

Your answer should include: next / throne
House Arrest
Your answer should include: prisoner / own / home
Your answer should include: not / follow / official / religion
Your answer should include: born / outside / valid / marriage
Queen Regnant
Your answer should include: Queen / Rule / no King
Your answer should include: crime / country / monarch / government

Teenage Years into Adulthood

The Reign of Edward

During Elizabeth’s teenage years, Henry’s sixth wife, Catherine Parr acted as a mother towards Elizabeth. The two women got on well and Catherine influenced Elizabeth towards Protestant views and to pursue her education.

When Henry died, Edward VI became King – even though he was only nine years old. Both Mary and Elizabeth were older, but they were women.

Edward had been brought up a strict Protestant – stricter than Elizabeth, and he changed England to reflect his views. He introduced the English Prayer Book instead of Latin, which was used in the Catholic faith, and destroyed images in churches. He also tore down statues of the Virgin Mary – a much more Catholic symbol than Protestant. Poverty in England grew in Edward’s reign due to inflation and he faced serious rebellions around the country because of these economic problems and changes to the church. Edward’s reign had a lot of political instability. As a ‘boy King’, Edward wasn’t the best ruler.

Edward’s rule added to the instability of the country which Henry VIII had also largely contributed to. Again, Elizabeth would inherit all of these problems.

Who Was Elizabeth I?, figure 1

Edward VI, the boy King, only ruled for six years. He died of Tuberculosis.

The Reign of Mary

Four years later, Edward died. He had made his cousin, called Lady Jane Grey, his heir. It should have been Mary, but she was Catholic. Lady Jane Grey was a strict Protestant as well. She only lasted 9 days before being overthrown and executed by Mary.

Mary became Queen and wanted to restore England to Catholicism. She hated Elizabeth as she felt that Elizabeth’s mother (Anne Boleyn) had replaced her own mother (Catherine of Aragon) as Queen. She also hated Elizabeth’s youth and beauty and her Protestant Faith.

Mary burned any Protestants who challenged her and this was nearly 300. Elizabeth tried to please Mary by attending Catholic Mass, but Mary still hated her and was suspicious of her. Through this, Mary earned the nickname Bloody Mary.

Mary was 37 and did not have any children which meant that Elizabeth was heir to the throne. She married Catholic Philip of Spain and this caused rebellions all over England.

Mary demanded Elizabeth go to Whitehall place where she could keep an eye on her, but Elizabeth said she was too ill to make the journey. Mary suspected Elizabeth of working with the rebels and had her imprisoned in the Tower of London for two months. Elizabeth was terrified this would lead to her execution and wrote long letters to Mary protesting her innocence. Eventually the charges against her were dropped but then she was instead placed on house arrest.

Who Was Elizabeth I?, figure 2

Mary I, nicknamed Bloody Mary, was a cruel and harsh ruler. She further added to the religious strife and political instability of England during her five year reign.

Elizabeth’s Accession

Mary and Elizabeth’s tense relationship continued until Mary’s death. Elizabeth was informed of her sister’s death, and was crowned Queen in Westminster Abbey on 15 January 1559, beginning a reign of more than 40 years.