16th Century: Queen Elizabeth I (1533-1603)

The goddess of the Reformation defeated Europe's greatest power and set Britain on its epic journey to empire

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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.

She was a larger-than-life royal with a genius for rule, who came to embody England as had few before her. The new spirit emanating from so brilliant a sovereign inspired a flowering of enduring literature, music, drama, poetry. Determinedly molding herself into the image of a mighty prince, she made of England a true and mighty nation.

--By Johanna McGeary

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