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.