Reign On!

Four centuries after her death, Good Queen Bess still draws crowds. A regal rash of exhibitions and books examines her life anew.

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For her part, Elizabeth was threatened by a more intimate menace. Robert Devereux, the dashing and reckless Earl of Essex, moved into her good graces on the sudden death of his stepfather, the Earl of Leicester, in 1588. Essex was 33 years younger than Elizabeth and likely never aroused her ardor the way his stepfather had. He was neither adept as a military commander nor comfortable in taking orders, least of all from a woman. Openly insubordinate to the queen after bungling a military campaign in Ireland, he was banished from court in 1599. The Folger show includes a copy of a letter from him entitled, not very apologetically, “An Apologie of the Earle of Essex, against those which jealously, and maliciously tax him to be the hinderer of the peace and quiet of his country.” The author signed another appeal (possibly to Elizabeth): “a hart torne in peeces with care, greife, & travaile.” The Apologie didn’t work, and in February 1601, Essex and a band of followers tried to stir a popular rebellion against the queen’s councillors, and perhaps the queen herself. He was arrested, tried for treason and beheaded. Elizabeth’s chilly postmortem: “I warned him that he should not touch my scepter.”


By this time she had wielded it for 43 years. In November 1601, in her emotional “Golden Speech” to members of Parliament, the queen, now 68, reflected on her long reign. “Though you have had and may have many princes more mighty and wise sitting in this seat,” she declared, “yet you never had or shall have any that will be more careful and loving.” She owed her success, she said, to the loyalty and affection of the English people. “Though God hath raised me high, yet this I count the glory of my crown—that I have reigned with your loves.”


Elizabeth was no doubt sincere, but she was too smart to depend for her power purely on her subjects’ affection. “Machiavelli said it’s better to be feared than loved,” says Clark Hulse. “Elizabeth knew it was better to be both. She used force only as a last resort, but it was always on the table. Plenty of people were hanged during her reign.”


The end came a little more than a year after the Golden Speech. According to one account, “her appetite to meate grew sensibly worse & worse; whereupon shee became exceeding sad, & seemed to be much grieved at some thing or other.” Enfeebled by rheumatism and possibly pneumonia, the queen died March 24, 1603. She was 69.


A flood of books and poems mourned her passing. A century later, the date Elizabeth first gained the throne, November 17, was still celebrated with bonfires, and children were taught verses about a queen they never knew: “Gone is Elizabeth, / whom we have lov’d so deare, / She our kind Mistris was, / full foure and forty year.” In a time when most of England no longer worshiped the Virgin Mary, the Virgin Queen was a Protestant substitute they could adore instead.


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