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The Age of Elizabeth I
1533 - 1603
From the execution of Mary, Queen of Scots to the defeat of the Spanish Armada; from the introduction to England of the humble potato to the ravages of the Black Death; and from the colonization of the New World to the creation of some of the greatest works in the English literary canon, the “Golden Age” of Queen Elizabeth I was a roller-coaster of colourful characters and momentous events
Born to the ill-fated Anne Boleyn during her brief marriage to King Henry VIII, Elizabeth was denounced as illegitimate following her mother’s beheading in 1536. Brought up far from the royal court, the young princess was nevertheless well educated and displayed a sharp intellect, proving herself a talented linguist, a keen sportswoman and an avid supporter of the arts, drawing pleasure from music, dancing, and theatre. Reinstated by her father in the line of succession in 1544, Elizabeth finally ascended to the throne in 1559, following the brief reigns of her half-brother Edward VI (1547–53), Lady Jane Grey, the “Nine Day Queen”, and finally her half-sister Mary I (1553–58) who had Elizabeth imprisoned in the Tower of London on suspicion of attempted treason.
Despite being linked romantically to Thomas Seymour, husband to her widowed stepmother Katherine Parr and a convicted traitor; Philip II of Spain, who sought her hand following the death of his wife Mary I; Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester; and two dukes of Anjou, Henri and Francis, Elizabeth never married. Whether her reasons were personal or political, driven by concerns over religious differences and loss of regal powers, the “Virgin Queen” died childless as the last monarch of the Tudor dynasty.
Upon her coronation Elizabeth cast out the Catholicism that had been in force during Mary’s reign, returning England to the Protestant faith and laying the foundations for the modern-day Church of England. For much of Elizabeth’s reign, her cousin Mary Queen of Scots posed a shadowy threat to the crown, exiled from her own country where her son James VI was declared king in her place in 1567. The next year, Mary sought refuge in England, where for nearly 20 years Elizabeth held her as prisoner until, in 1587, she authorized her cousin’s execution on suspicion of involvement in the Babington plot.
Elizabeth proved herself an exceptionally able strategist, leading her country through a period of rapid territorial expansion and military conquest. Under her rule, an English fleet of some 200 vessels defeated Philip II’s 130-strong Spanish Armada in 1588, while adventurers such as Sir Francis Drake, Sir Humphrey Gilbert and Sir Walter Raleigh began the English colonization of the New World, with the foundation of the first English colony at Roanoke Island, the naming and claiming of New Albion (California), Newfoundland, and Virginia. Her reign was a time of great cultural achievement also, encompassing the work of playwrights such as Christopher Marlow, Ben Johnson and, most notably, William Shakespeare and of poets such as Edmund Spenser and Sir Philip Sidney.
Upon her death in 1603, Elizabeth was succeeded by her cousin’s son James VI of Scotland, who as James I of England became the first king to unite the two countries under a single monarch.