Queen Elizabeth I (1533-1603)

  • First feminist. First spinmeister. Megawatt celeb. So might our age judge her. To 16th century England, Elizabeth I was the original feminine mystique: goddess Gloriana; Virgin Queen; finally and enduringly, Good Queen Bess. The most remarkable woman ruler in history can claim few traditional princely achievements, yet she gave her name to an age. Hers was a prodigious political success story built on the power of personality: the Queen as star. A woman so strong, a politician so skillful, a monarch so magnetic that she impressed herself indelibly on the minds of her people to reshape the fate of England. She brought her country safely through the Reformation, inspired a cultural renaissance and united a tiny, fragmented island into a nation of global reach.

    Elizabeth was born unpropitiously into a man's world and a man's role. Desiring a son, Elizabeth's father Henry VIII divorced his first wife and broke with the Roman Catholic Church to marry Anne Boleyn. When Anne bore him a girl, he ordered his wife beheaded and the child princess declared a bastard. Elizabeth grew up in loneliness and danger, learning the urgency of keeping her balance on England's quivering political tightrope. She was lucky to receive a boy's rigorous education, tutored by distinguished scholars in the classics, history, philosophy, languages and theology. She was serious and quick witted. "Her mind has no womanly weakness," said her teacher Roger Ascham, but she equally loved music, dancing and gaiety. During the bloody reigns of her Protestant half brother and zealously Catholic half sister, Elizabeth needed all her poise, discipline and political acumen just to survive.

    The bells of London tolled joyously on Nov. 17, 1558, when Elizabeth ascended the throne. She made her coronation the first in a lifetime of scintillant spectacles, visual manifestations of her rule. As she walked down the carpet in Westminster Abbey, citizens scrambled behind her to cut off pieces. Her power started as a grand illusion, but it was prophetic.

    With her political and personal security threatened from beginning to end, Elizabeth needed all her courage, cunning and caution to reign. She took the throne of a poor, isolated and deeply humiliated country. As a Queen, she faced special problems of marriage and succession, religious division, domestic discontent and foreign threats. Her Church of England restored the country firmly to Protestantism, yet she allowed Catholics freedom of worship, easing the bitter religious strife of Mary's reign.

    Elizabeth spent a lifetime contending with the issue of marriage and royal heirs and the challenges raised by men who would steal her scepter. Marriage is what 16th century women were for, and Queens needed heirs. She engaged in the most manipulative, interminable courtships, driven not by love but by politics--though she was tirelessly fond of suitors. Leading a weak country in need of foreign alliances, she brilliantly played the diplomatic marriage game: at one time she kept a French royal dangling farcically for nearly 10 years. Always she concluded that the perils of matrimony exceeded the benefits. She courted English suitors too, for both pleasure and politics. Yet when favorite Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, pressed too hard, she retorted, "I will have here but one mistress and no master." She did not wed because she refused to give up any power. "Beggarwoman and single far rather than Queen and married," she once said.

    Playing consciously on the cult of the Virgin Mary, she drew devotion to herself, virgin mother of the nation. "This shall be for me sufficient," she told Parliament, "that a marble stone shall declare that a Queen, having reigned such a time, lived and died a virgin." She was, in the end, married to England.

    Elizabeth's way of escaping gender restrictions and defining herself as a legitimate ruler lay in consummate imagemaking. She stage-managed her own personality cult. She dressed to kill, glittering with jewels in wondrous costumes to bedazzle her subjects. She went on royal progresses--the equivalent of photo-ops--to show off and get to know her people. She had the common touch, able to rouse a crowd or charm a citizen. She had flattering portraits painted and copies widely distributed. She encouraged balladeers to pen propagandistic songs. Her marvelous mythmaking machinery cultivated a mystic bond with the English people. "We all loved her," wrote her godson Sir John Harington, "for she said she loved us."

    Notoriously parsimonious--except for her own fashions--Elizabeth hated war for its costly wastefulness, yet embroiled England ineffectually in the long Continental struggles of the Counter-Reformation. When the Catholic threat of Spain reached its apogee in 1588, her penny pinching nearly cost England its independence before luck and the skill of her sailors defeated the Spanish armada. Yet at the moment of imminent invasion, she dressed in a silver breastplate to address her troops and imbue them with her dauntless courage. "I know I have the body of a weak and feeble woman," Elizabeth said, "but I have the heart and stomach of a King, and a King of England too." Her countrymen gloried in her victory, transforming the battle into an act of national consciousness that gave birth to nearly four centuries of patriotic imperialism. She spawned England's empire, chartering seven companies--including the East India--to plunder and colonize in the name of trade.

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