Interesting, isn’t it, that throughout its long history England did its best to ensure that kings, not queens, ruled the country — elevating younger princes to the throne ahead of older female siblings, or even, on occasion, inviting foreign (male) royalty to assume the throne rather than be ruled by a native princess. Yet the two greatest monarchs in English history — at least the only two so consequential as to have entire “ages” named after them — are both women. Elizabeth and Victoria.
The former, Elizabeth I, was crowned this week (Jan. 15) in 1559, even though her chances of gaining the throne had been more remote than most English princesses. That is because before she finished childhood her father, Henry VIII, had her mother, Anne Boleyn, beheaded for adultery and treason, and then invalidated the marriage. That made Elizabeth illegitimate.
Even then, she was a distant third in line to the throne, after her younger brother Edward and her older sister Mary, although Edward’s untimely death in 1553 did bring her one step closer. But she still had a ways to go given that (“Bloody”) Mary’s crowning put in power a fanatic Catholic who distrusted Elizabeth’s Protestantism. What’s more, Mary never forgot that Papa Henry had divorced her mom, Catherine of Aragon, to marry Elizabeth’s mom, Anne Boleyn. Elizabeth continually faced imprisonment and death at Mary’s hands.
But somehow she survived and when Mary herself died childless, Elizabeth became queen, ruling England for 44 years before dying of old age. Yet it wasn’t longevity that gave the word “Elizabethan” to the age. It was her courage, her diplomatic skills, her knack for picking good advisors and, most of all, her single-minded devotion to her country. “I will have but one mistress (England) and no master,” she said upon turning down one of many marriage proposals. England was her mate for life.
It was during Elizabeth’s reign that the English navy, commanded by Sir Francis Drake, defeated the mighty Spanish Armada (with considerable help from inclement weather), thus making England a world power and sowing the seeds for the coming British Empire. But perhaps Elizabeth’s greatest contribution to both England and the world was the tone of moderation that she set. With great skill, Elizabeth was able to avoid plunging England into the religious strife and political turmoil that had dominated the reigns of her siblings. The resulting period of toleration not only allowed England to prosper economically, but also ensured a cultural and artistic flowering unlike any in history. Christopher Marlowe, Edmund Spenser, Ben Johnson and William Shakespeare are just some of the artists who prospered during the Elizabethan Age. Small wonder that many in England also call it their country’s Golden Age.