Elizabeth I: Ruler and Legend


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Elizabeth I: Ruler and Legend


CHICAGO—Queen Elizabeth I claimed to have the heart and stomach of a king, but it was her sharp and cunning mind that secured her livelihood, guided her judgments, ruled her actions, and led to one of the most celebrated eras in English history. When Elizabeth ascended the throne in 1558, at the age of 25, England was an impoverished country torn apart by religious discord and economic recession. When she died in 1603, England was one of the most powerful and culturally rich countries in the world.

Four centuries later, Elizabeth’s life story continues to fascinate and inspire. This fall, Chicago’s Newberry Library examines Elizabeth’s enduring legacy with Elizabeth I: Ruler and Legend, the largest, most comprehensive North American exhibit commemorating Elizabeth’s reign on the 400th anniversary of her death. The exhibit runs from Sept. 30, 2003, through Jan. 17, 2004, at the Newberry Library, 60 W. Walton St., Chicago, and is free and open to the public. A photo-panel version of the exhibit, produced by the American Library Association, will travel to dozens of cities across the country, while a separate Web-based exhibit will bring Elizabeth’s intriguing legacy to a worldwide audience. A catalogue provides information on Elizabeth’s reign as well as four-color reproductions from the exhibit.

Elizabeth I: Ruler and Legend features more than 100 rare books, manuscripts, maps, letters, paintings, and artifacts, primarily drawn from the Newberry Library’s renowned Renaissance collections. Significant items are also on loan from the British Library, the libraries at the University of Kansas and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and distinguished private collections. The exhibit items are arranged in six thematic sections that trace Elizabeth’s lineage, life, and legend.

Youth and Family

Elizabeth Tudor was born September 7, 1533, to King Henry VIII and his second wife, Anne Boleyn. Anne was two-month’s pregnant with Elizabeth when King Henry split with the Catholic Church, divorced his first wife, Katharine of Aragon, and married Anne. When she bore a girl, he was deeply disappointed. Elizabeth’s early struggle for survival began less than three years later, when Anne was beheaded and Elizabeth declared illegitimate.
Elizabeth proved to be a brilliant student. One of her tutors, Roger Ascham, wrote: “Her mind has no womanly weakness, her perseverance is equal to that of a man, and her memory long keeps what it quickly picks up.” She was fluent in French and Italian, knew Latin and Greek, and could play the virginal.
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Henry’s third wife, Jane Seymour, at last bore him a son. When Edward died in 1553, at the age of 15, King Henry’s first daughter Mary ascended the throne. As a devout Catholic, she rigorously persecuted the Protestants, earning the name “Bloody Mary,” and imprisoned Elizabeth in the Tower of London, fearing Protestant plots to take over the throne. Through the tumult of her siblings’ reigns, Elizabeth learned to craft her words and fashion her behavior to gain favor and secure her own well-being. When Mary died in 1558, Elizabeth’s patience and popularity paid off, and she ascended the throne of England.

Elizabeth the Queen

But what did Elizabeth inherit? The English economy was in a recession, subjects were violently divided over religion, and France and Spain were alternately threatening England’s security.

Only 25 at the time, Elizabeth rose to the challenge and took immediate steps to secure the nation from the inside out, focusing on creating domestic stability. She organized a reliable government anchored by an inner circle of loyal and capable advisors. Then she turned her attention to the problem of religion. Her predecessors and contemporaries had seen religious discord lead to persecution, civil war, and war between nations—an expense of lives and capital that she could ill afford. Therefore, Elizabeth, herself a living symbol of the national religious struggle, took a moderate route. She reinstated the Protestant bible and English mass, yet for a number of years refrained from persecuting Catholics. She said, “There is only one Christ, Jesus, one faith. All else is a dispute over trifles.” Elizabeth was greatly disheartened when politics and religion were so intertwined that some Catholics attempted to overthrow her rule; they were executed as traitors.

Having observed her father, Elizabeth knew how to suspend her subjects between love and fear. In her “Golden Speech” of 1601, she said, “You may have many a wiser prince sitting in this seat, but you never have had, or shall have, any who loves you better.” She expressed compassion for her people, yet she let it be known that she was not a weak-hearted woman who would be governed by others. She is rumored to have said, “I will have here but one mistress and no master.” Her fiery autonomy did not deter her, however, from encouraging suitors, especially when their advances served diplomatic purposes. Although the first half of her reign was marked by numerous attempts on the part of Parliament to persuade her to marry, by the time of her last serious courtship, those who had begged her to marry 20 years earlier were begging her, now, for the good of the nation, not to.

Sedition and Succession

Whereas her father created confusion over succession by marrying so often, Elizabeth complicated the issue by never marrying. Although she was named the third successor to the throne by King Henry VIII, some subjects still considered her illegitimate. Many Catholics, especially, viewed the Catholic Mary Queen of Scots, granddaughter of King Henry’s sister, to be the rightful heir.


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When Mary Queen of Scots fled rebellion in Scotland to seek refuge in England in 1568, conspiracy heated up among Elizabeth’s detractors. Elizabeth, fearing that Mary might conspire with her enemies or go abroad and raise an army, acted quickly to imprison her nemesis. Several plots against Elizabeth were discovered in the following years: the Ridolfi Plot (1571), the Throckmorton Plot (1582), and the Babington Plot (1586), in which Mary Queen of Scots was finally implicated and executed in 1587.

Although Elizabeth refused to be forced into marriage, perhaps preferring the diplomatic leverage and autonomy that remaining single provided her, she was sensitive to her subjects’ desire for a named successor. Elizabeth provided advice on the craft of monarchy to her cousin Mary Stuart’s son, King James VI of Scotland. Not wanting to be the setting sun to someone else’s rising one, Elizabeth never named him as her successor. But because of her skillful rule, there was a smooth succession to James in 1603.

Elizabeth’s England

Elizabeth’s name has come to be linked with a period of remarkable achievement in humanistic learning and literature. Elizabeth, like her father, loved music and dancing, pageantry and masques. She had no time for the Puritan theologians who deemed such things impious. She also enjoyed watching plays and created the atmosphere responsible for the flourishing of literary masterpieces. Many people associate the Elizabethan era with Shakespeare and his plays, although his career was just blossoming near the end of the queen’s life. Other notable writers from this era were playwright Christopher Marlowe, poets John Donne and Ben Jonson, and Edmund Spenser, author of Faerie Queen, which celebrated Elizabeth in the style of the Arthurian romance.

Europe, the Armada, and America

Perhaps the most famous event of Elizabeth’s reign, the threat of the Spanish Armada, was an international crisis, though it had roots in domestic issues and policies. Elizabeth’s father and her half sister Mary had both taken Spanish consorts, and Mary’s widowed husband, Philip II of Spain, had proposed marriage to Elizabeth. The pro-Reformation policies of Elizabeth’s government led her to support insurrections against Philip in the Spanish Netherlands, as well as to hamstring his gold fleets carrying bullion from the Americas. The execution of Mary Queen of Scots was seen by Philip and the papacy as a final provocation, and the Armada fleet assembled to carry an invasion force from the Netherlands to England was intended to coincide with an uprising among pro-Catholic Englishmen.

In 1588 the Spanish Armada sailed into the English Channel. During this critical time, Elizabeth toured the defenses, assuring her subjects that she would die for their protection. In her legendary rallying cry, delivered at Tilbury, she said she was resolved in the midst and heat of battle to live and die amongst her soldiers: “though I have but the weak and feeble body of a woman, I have the heart and stomach of a king, and a king of England too.”

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The English, whose ships were faster and more heavily armed than the Spanish fleet, met the enemy at sea. In a nine-day battle, the English inflicted terrible losses. The Spanish ships that managed to escape the attack ran into foul weather, and only a few returned to Spain. English ships then carried the war to Spain. When the struggle finally ended—after the deaths of both Elizabeth and Philip—no Spanish fleet dared to contest England’s command of the seas.

Elizabeth’s conflict with Spain was not limited to the waters off England. Her famous captains, including Sir Francis Drake and Sir Walter Raleigh, attacked the Spanish possessions in the Americas. In the process, they charted unmapped lands and from 1577 to 1580, Drake circumnavigated the globe in his ship, The Golden Hind. Raleigh founded the earliest English colony in the New World, and named it “Virginia” after his sovereign, the Virgin Queen.

Death, History and Legend

As exhibit curator Clark Hulse has said, “It is impossible now to disentangle the threads of history and legend within the image of Elizabeth. It likewise was impossible to disentangle the ruler from the woman in her own time.”

In the period preceding her death, Elizabeth put the final touches on the legacy that she would leave behind. In the speeches she presented in her latter years, she attempted to define her reign and shape her legend. In her Golden Speech in 1601, she said:
To be a King and wear a crown is a thing more glorious to them that see it, than it is pleasant to them that bear it. For myself, I was never so enticed with the glorious name of a King or royal authority of a Queen, as delighted that God hath made me His instrument to maintain His truth and glory, and to defend this Kingdom (as I said) from peril, dishonour, and tyranny and oppression.
Queen Elizabeth I died on March 24, 1603. She was 69 years old.

Elizabeth continues to be a controversial but renowned figure. Following her death, there was a flurry of histories that celebrated her virtue, life, and reign, as well as ones that speculated on, and even fictionalized, her supposed romances. By the late seventeenth century, Elizabeth’s love life became a subject of obsession in England and France, inspiring nineteenth-century operas and modern pulp fiction. Nearly 20 actresses have portrayed Elizabeth in films and television series, and she is the subject of at least two dozen volumes of fact and fiction every five years. Whether praised for her strong leadership, lauded for her love and patronage of the arts, or subject to speculative gossip about her furtive love life, Queen Elizabeth remains an elusive, but endlessly compelling, personality.


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