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Queen Elizabeth the First

Elizabeth, daughter of Henry the Eighth and Anne Boleyn, was crowned Queen Elizabeth the first of England in November 1558. She was 25 years old.

After Queen Mary's death, her husband, Philip of Spain, proposed marriage to Elizabeth. Elizabeth never gave him an answer, but Philip maintained peace with England until the balance of power in Europe shifted.

Elizabeth was a protestant and sought to reinforce the Church of England and repealed laws passed by Mary that suppressed Protestantism. However, Elizabeth avoided antagonising the Catholics in England and resisted the demands of more radical protestants and puritans.

Queen Elizabeth never married and was childless, although she had several suitors. She seriously considered marrying Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, but the union was considered politically unacceptable. She remained close to him until his death in 1588. By 1570 it was widely accepted that she would never marry. She later insisted that she was married to the kingdom and her subjects.

Mary Queen of Scots was Elizabeth's cousin and a Catholic, although Scotland itself was strongly protestant by this time. After a series of scandals, Mary was forced to abdicate in favour of her protestant son James the sixth of Scotland. Mary Queen of Scots fled to England in 1568, where Elizabeth imprisoned her for 19 years. Mary became a focus for the Catholic cause in England, and there were a number of plots against Elizabeth which sought to put Mary on the throne. Elizabeth reluctantly agreed to the trial and execution of Mary Queen of Scots in 1587.

Queen Elizabeth avoided war until 1585 when she sent an army to aid Dutch protestant rebels against Philip of Spain – the former husband of queen Mary. The campaign was unsuccessful and prompted Philip to prepare an armada in an attempt to overthrow Elizabeth.

The Spanish Armada comprised about 130 ships containing 8,000 soldiers and 18,000 sailors. The armada set sail in July 1588, but the Royal Navy prevented them from making a landing, and a severe storm destroyed the bulk of the armada. 60 ships sank, and about 5000 men drowned. 67 ships made it back to Spain.

The defeat of the Spanish Armada was a major propaganda victory for Elizabeth. The English took the victory as a sign of God's favour for the protestant religion and for the queen. The following year Elizabeth sent her own armada, called the Counter Armada against Spain. It comprised 150 ships and over 23000 men and was led by Sir Frances Drake. The campaign was a disaster, with over 40 ships lost in the conflict with the Spanish or in storms. Up to 15000 men in the Counter Armada were killed or died of the disease. Spain remained the dominant naval power.

Between 1594 and 1603, Elizabeth faced a serious revolt in Ireland, which had steadfastly rejected the protestant reformation and remained Catholic. The rebellion was eventually put down with much bloodshed.

To the dismay of Catholic Europe, Queen Elizabeth established friendly trading relations with the Muslim Ottoman Empire and with Morocco. She also established the first English settlement in North America, claiming and naming the territory of Newfoundland in 1583 and establishing a colony in what is now North Carolina in 1587. Neither colony was successful.

Elizabeth the First also established the East India Company in December 1600. The company lasted for 250 years and would eventually control half of the world trade and held huge territories in India in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries with a private army 260,000 strong.

The last years of Elizabeth's reign were characterised by infighting among her lords and economic problems. However, there was also a flowering of English literature with William Shakespeare, Christopher Marlowe, and others at the height of their powers.

Queen Elizabeth the first died in March 1603. She was 70 years old and had reigned for 45 years.

She had no children, and King James, the sixth of Scotland, was invited to take the throne. The house of Tudor had come to an end, to be replaced by the house of Stewart.

Thank you for listening to this lesson. In our next lesson, we discuss the house of Stewart and the English Civil War.

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Written by

Ross Maynard