Reign On!

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

Rainbow portrait
The "Rainbow Portrait" of Queen Elizabeth I, painted in the early 17th century. Isaac Oliver via Wikimedia Commons

Though more than 400 years have passed since they were painted, her portraits are as recognizable as a movie star’s: the receding red hair studded with pearls, the lace ruff hugging the neck from ears to collarbone, the ghostly white face with its haughty, confident gaze. England’s exalted Queen Elizabeth I insisted her face be depict-ed in this way, luminous and shadow-free. A former lady-in-waiting gossiped that the queen loved to be told no one could look her full in the face because her radiance rivaled the sun’s.

“There was a lot of mystique around Elizabeth,” says Georgianna Ziegler, head of reference at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C., which claims the largest collection of Elizabethan writings and artifacts outside Britain. Popular poetry of the day celebrated the queen as Diana, the chaste goddess of the moon. To her subjects, England’s maiden queen seemed slightly unnatural, more divine than mortal. “She saw herself as wedded to her realm,” Ziegler says. “In a sense, for almost half a century she was the realm.” And she managed to exploit the very peculiarity of her status as an unmarried woman to help shape the most glorious era of English history.

This year marks the 400th anniversary of the Virgin Queen’s death, and a string of new exhibitions has been organized to commemorate her reign. The Folger has mounted a lavish tribute, “Elizabeth I, Then and Now,” which opened in March—the month she died—and runs through August 2. At London’s NationalMaritimeMuseum, a major exhibition is on view through September 14, and in Chicago, “Elizabeth I: Ruler and Legend” will open at the Newberry Library on September 30. “Elizabeth is a figure of great interest now,” says Ziegler, “because she was a powerful woman who carved out her own place and made herself a queen at a time when there weren’t models for doing that successfully.”

In fact, Good Queen Bess is a full-fledged pop phenomenon. New romance novels and thrillers about Elizabeth or her archrival, Mary Queen of Scots, appear almost monthly. A recent book, Oxford: Son of Queen Elizabeth I, posits that the Earl of Oxford was not only the author of Shakespeare’s plays but also Elizabeth’s secret love child. Several new biographies are due out this year, and films and plays about her reign are being revived. “Her life was a classic survival story,” says Sian Flynn, curator of the London exhibition. “She was nearly executed twice by her own siblings, and she succeeded as a woman in a man’s world.”

And what a cutthroat world it was. Elizabeth’s father was King Henry VIII, rotund, red-haired and irascible. Her mother was Anne Boleyn, a coquettish young lady of the court who was pregnant with Elizabeth when Henry was still married to Catherine of Aragon. Henry, who was Roman Catholic, established the Church of England largely so he could have his marriage to Catherine annulled and marry Anne (a marriage the Catholic Church never recognized). Princess Elizabeth was born September 7, 1533. Within three years, Henry had her mother beheaded on a trumped-up charge of adultery. He married another fetching young lady of the court, Jane Seymour, 11 days later.

Small wonder that at age 6 Elizabeth was said to have the gravity of a 40-year-old. Dignified and studious, she was educated as befitted a Renaissance princess, versed in history, geography, astronomy, mathematics and music. Throughout her life, she translated Greek and Latin for recreation and, as queen, wrote poetry and composed prayers that were printed and sold for popular consumption. The Folger exhibition includes a bound edition of one of her earliest literary efforts, a long religious poem that she translated from the French. The work was a gift to her father’s sixth wife, Catherine Parr, whom he married after sending wife number five, Catherine Howard, to the block for adultery. In the preface, Elizabeth explains that she worked at “joining the sentences together as well as the capacity of my simple wit and small learning could extend themselves.” She was 11 at the time.

Henry died three years later in 1547, and Elizabeth’s younger half brother, Jane Seymour’s son, was crowned Edward VI. Elizabeth was soon in danger. Barely two months after Henry’s death, the widowed Catherine unwisely married Thomas Seymour, an ambitious uncle of the boy-king.

When Catherine died in childbirth a year later, Seymour schemed to marry the 15-year-old Elizabeth (who had been living in his household), gain control over Edward and seize power for himself. He was arrested and beheaded for treason in 1549. Elizabeth was suspected of being in on the plot. Seymour had enjoyed hugging the young princess and liked to turn up in her bedroom in the early morning. She was even rumored to be carrying his child. But under interrogation Elizabeth denied misbehavior of any kind. “I do see it in her face that she is guilty,” the crown’s investigator fumed. “She hath a very good wit, and nothing is gotten of her but by great policy.”

At 20, Elizabeth found herself in even greater peril. After Edward died in 1553 at age 15, most likely of tuberculosis, Mary Tudor, Elizabeth’s staunchly Catholic half sister, ruled England with her fiancé, Philip of Spain. England had been convulsed by religious violence for decades, and under “Bloody Mary,” as the queen was called, hundreds of English Protestants were burned at the stake for heresy. When a plot against the throne was uncovered in 1554, Mary was convinced that the Protestant Elizabeth—now next in line to be queen—was involved. Mary had her half sister arrested and sent to the Tower of London, the customary last stop before execution. Debarking in a wintry downpour at Traitor’s Gate, Elizabeth called out, “Here landeth as true a subject, being prisoner, as ever landed at these stairs.” She then dropped to the rain-soaked flagstones, saying, “It is better sitting here than in a worse place.” The sodden princess refused to budge until one of her manservants broke down in tears. Disgusted by his show of weakness, Elizabeth collected herself and strode into the prison. Ultimately, Mary’s fear of a Protestant rebellion probably spared Elizabeth, and she was released after two months.

Four years later, in 1558, Elizabeth took to the throne with alacrity, slipping into the royal plural on learning that Mary Tudor was dead of cancer: “This is the doing of the Lord, and it is marvellous in our eyes,” she declared on becoming queen, quoting Psalm 118. After Mary’s unpopular reign, much of England was elated at Elizabeth’s accession. She was now 25 years old, slender, with long golden-red hair and a suitably regal comportment. Accompanied by 1,000 mounted courtiers the day before her coronation, in January 1559, she rode smiling through the streets of London. She stopped the procession from time to time to accept bouquets, a purse of coins, a Bible, even a sprig of rosemary from an old woman. “I will be as good unto you as ever queen was to her people,” she vowed to the delight of onlookers.

Says Clark Hulse, dean of the graduate college at the University of Illinois at Chicago and curator of the Newberry Library’s exhibition, “Elizabeth’s popularity had a lot to do with her manner—riding in an open carriage and all that. If her sister Mary was sober and inclined to burn people at the stake, Elizabeth projected the idea of ‘Merry England.’ ” Many, however, were horrified at the prospect of a queen reigning without a king. In a manifesto published the previous year, “The First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women,” a fiery Calvinist named John Knox had pronounced female rulers “repugnant to nature,” women being “weak, frail, impatient” and “inconstant.”

From the start, Parliament pressured the new queen to marry, but she was defiant. “A strange thing that the foot should direct the head in so weighty a cause,” she upbraided Parliament in 1566. What to the M.P.s was a matter of state—England needed a king and princes who would grow to be kings—was to Elizabeth a near-treasonous affront.

The Folger’s Ziegler says that Elizabeth’s marriage would surely have led to turmoil, even if Parliament and her Privy Council failed to realize it. “She was very astute politically,” Ziegler explains. “If she married a Catholic or a foreigner, that would upset a lot of people. If she married an English nobleman, it would create factions among the other nobles.”

Nevertheless, the royal families of Scotland, France, Spain, Sweden and the Holy Roman Empire eyed England covetously, and various male royals courted her from afar, using ambassadors as go-betweens. “Elizabeth played along with one foreign prince or another, but it was mostly a political ploy,” says Ziegler. Soon after she became queen, Elizabeth kept Spain’s enmity in check by letting her late sister’s husband, Philip II, now king of Spain, imagine he might marry her next. Later she kept France a wary ally against Spanish hegemony by pursuing a courtship with the French king’s brother, the Duke of Alençon, complete with mutual love letters. “There is no prince in the world to whom I would more willingly yield to be his,” the 45-year-old queen wrote him in 1579.

That year, the 25-year-old duke had called on Elizabeth in person, the only foreign suitor to do so. (The queen never set foot outside England.) The pair played at being courtly lovers, and Elizabeth was evidently quite fond of the gallant young man, whom she affectionately called “our frog.” Ultimately, says Carole Levin, a professor of history at the University of Nebraska,“I don’t think she ever wanted to marry. But I think she loved courtship and flirtation. I think she adored it.” She is vain, wrote the Spanish ambassador in 1565, “and would like all the world to be running after her.” As for men at the English court, a number of them, both married and unmarried, vied for Elizabeth’s attentions with flattery and gifts. It was how one did business with the queen. Thus, wrote British historian J. E. Neale in his classic 1934 biography, Queen Elizabeth, “The reign was turned into an idyll, a fine but artificial comedy of young men—and old men—in love.”

If Elizabeth herself ever fell passionately, foolishly in love, it was with Robert Dudley, her “sweet Robin.”He was handsome and headstrong, an accomplished horseman and jouster, popular with the ladies at court and unpopular with the men. He and the queen flirted openly; the gossipy Spanish ambassador reported rumors in 1559 “that her Majesty visits him in his chamber day and night.” It apparently bothered neither of them that Dudley was already married. He might well have sued for divorce in hopes of marrying the queen had his wife not been found in 1560 at the bottom of a staircase, dead of a broken neck. Though her death was more likely a suicide or an accident than a homicide, the ensuing scandal doomed Dudley’s chances of ever becoming king. He remained the object of Elizabeth’s affection all the same. When he knelt before her to be made Earl of Leicester (pronounced “Lester”) four years later, the then 31-year-old queen couldn’t resist tickling his neck. “I think she had an emotional and romantic relationship with Leicester,” says Carole Levin. “I think there was some intimacy, but I don’t think it ever went all the way.”

Quick-witted, tough-minded and imperious, Elizabeth wrote her own speeches to Parliament and was England’s chief diplomat—she spoke six languages in an age when none of the ambassadors to London spoke English. She once dressed down a Polish ambassador whom she found impertinent with a long, fluent harangue—in Latin. Her godson, Sir John Harington, wrote that she “left no doubtings whose daughter she was.”

Like her father, Elizabeth was vain, manipulative and a bit coarse. She spat, swore, gambled at cards and backgammon, and picked her teeth in public. She silenced those who tried her patience, even priests in mid-sermon, with oaths like “Jesus!” and “God’s death!” With questionable humor, given her mother’s fate, she joked just before naval hero Francis Drake was knighted that she had “a gilded sword to strike off his head.” And she was a practiced liar as well as a wit. Sometimes she lied apparently for her own amusement. In 1559, with Catholic Europe outraged at her steadfast Protestantism, Elizabeth toyed with the Spanish ambassador by telling him she wanted nothing more than “to be a nun and to pass her time in a cell praying.” The Spaniard was amazed by her gall, concluding, “This woman is possessed by a hundred thousand devils.”

On occasion—weighing a marriage offer, say, or a traitor’s sentence—Elizabeth could be maddeningly indecisive. But in large matters, notably foreign policy and religious affairs, her shrewd, deliberate style was what England needed. With rare exceptions, she refused to commit troops to Protestant insurrections on the Continent, sending the rebels modest cash payments instead. (Elizabeth was notoriously frugal in approving outlays from the royal purse.) At home, she preferred to threaten high-ranking miscreants with exposure rather than execution. Her natural caution, coupled with luck and political savvy, gave England nearly half a century of unaccustomed peace.

“Her refusal to cater to the extremes of politics or religion, at a time when civil wars were raging through the rest of Europe, was a triumph of the via media, the middle way,” says the NationalMaritimeMuseum’s Sian Flynn. “Somehow Elizabeth personified many things—stability and lack of extremism, for example—that are now considered to be quintessentially English.”

Thanks to the relative tranquillity of English life during her reign, the arts flourished. Two treasures in the Folger’s exhibition are first-edition quartos of Shakespeare’s Love’s Labour’s Lost and The Merry Wives of Windsor. “When Shakespeare’s plays were first printed during his lifetime, they appeared as these cheap little paperbacks,” Ziegler says. The title page of Love’s Labour’s notes that the text is “as it was presented before her Highnes this last Christmas.”

At the other extreme in the Folger’s collection is an enormous English-language Bible that the archbishop of Canterbury presented to Queen Elizabeth in 1568. The tome is bound in red velvet with ornate gilt clasps embossed with Tudor roses. Oddly, the text is accompanied by hand-colored woodcuts of Elizabeth’s court favorites, including Leicester. Vernacular Bibles were a potent symbol of English Protestantism in Elizabeth’s day—under her Catholic sister, Mary, prayers and scripture in any language but Latin were deemed a sacrilege. Playing to the crowd during her coronation parade, Elizabeth had hugged an English Bible to her chest.

To show herself to the populace beyond London, Elizabeth undertook frequent “progresses” from one estate to another. A court on the move was like an occupying army, involving as many as 400 luggage-filled carts. “There were so many people,” says Ziegler, “that they couldn’t stay in one place for more than a couple of weeks because the privies became a health hazard.” Learning she would pass through Sandwich in 1573, the town fathers ordered that the streets be paved, that all hogs be penned and that brewers “brew good beer.” At an open-air banquet the evening of her visit, the queen endeared herself to her hosts by giving her foodtasters the night off. “She was a master of publicity,” says Flynn. “She courted popularity the way Princess Diana did.”

On formal occasions when dignitaries gave long-winded orations praising her virtues, Elizabeth would bite her lip and shake her head with mock humility. But once, when a speaker cited her virginity, the queen called out proudly, “God’s blessing of thine heart, there continue!”

She made her chastity—real or not—a political asset, a badge of independence and incorruptibility. Then too, Elizabeth may have preferred being single. In an audience with the queen in 1564, the Scottish ambassador boldly suggested as much: “Ye think that if ye were married, ye would be but queen of England, and now ye are king and queen both. Ye may not suffer a commander.” By the 1570s, says Clark Hulse, “Elizabeth had made being unmarried one of her strengths. The very people who had pushed her to get married in the 1560s were now pushing her not to marry. The nation didn’t want a male who even thought he could order Elizabeth around—not that anyone could have.”

Elizabeth played the role of Virgin Queen with theatricality and pomp, and England was dazzled. “As she grew older and the chances of her marrying became unrealistic,” says Flynn, “she turned herself into ‘Gloriana,’ which is the Elizabeth that most people know, with the white-powdered face. She became the personification of state.” In surveyor Christopher Saxton’s grand atlas of Britain, published in 1579, an engraving of Elizabeth enthroned fills the title page. ElizabethwasEngland.

As she aged, her clothing grew more elaborate, and she took to concealing her thinning hair with red wigs topped with constructions shaped like leaves, globes or pyramids. Her clothes were an exhibition of power, says Cynthia Abel, costume director of the Shakespeare Theatre in Washington, D.C. “She dressed to look strong and be impressive.”

By the time she entered her 50s, her face was gaunt and pockmarked (from a near-fatal case of smallpox at age 29), her joints stiff, her teeth rotting. Coveting her throne was a younger, more hot-blooded woman: Mary Queen of Scots. A Catholic educated at the French court and a grandniece of Henry VIII, Mary Stuart was a vivacious but arrogant woman with a knack for attracting unsavory men and no knack whatsoever for governing.

“Mary is usually portrayed as sexier-looking than Elizabeth,” says Ziegler. “She had quite a cult following.” Her followers, however, were mostly in France. At 25, she’d been toppled from the Scottish throne by a rebellion after she married the unpopular Earl of Bothwell in 1567. The earl was widely suspected of murdering her previous husband, Lord Darnley, an ambitious schemer and drunkard whom Mary had named king of Scotland. After her ouster, she fled south to England, where Elizabeth kept her under house arrest for the next 19 years. Mary passed her time doing embroidery and sending coded messages to one plotter or another. In 1586, England’s spymaster, Sir Francis Walsingham, intercepted and decoded letters smuggled out in beer kegs in which Mary discussed plans for Elizabeth’s murder and Mary’s own rescue by a Spanish invasion. It was one plot too many. Elizabeth dithered for a year before reluctantly approving her cousin’s execution. (For more than a century, playwrights and filmmakers have staged dramatic confrontations between the two willful queens; in fact, the women never met.) After Mary was beheaded in 1587, the Continent mourned her as a martyr to her religion.

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.

Eventually, Elizabeth’s own carefully tended image was supplanted by a more romantic one: that of the pining virgin fated to rule alone. Popular tales like The History of Queen Elizabeth and Her Great Favorite, the Earl of Essex, in Two Parts—a Romance began appearing anonymously by the late 17th century. By the 20th, the pantomimes of courtly love in which Elizabeth and her courtiers had indulged had become dramas of passion and betrayal in which Leicester, Essex and Mary Queen of Scots were stock characters. For many today, the Earl of Essex is inseparable from Hollywood’s swashbuckling Errol Flynn, who brought Bette Davis to grief in the 1939 hit The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex.

In historical terms, Queen Elizabeth I was an unsurpassed model of a learned, intelligent woman. She proved that a queen could rule and rule triumphantly. Sarah Jinner, author of a 1658 “almanack,” asked, “When, or what Commonwealth was ever better governed than this by the virtuous Q. Elizabeth? I fear I shall never see the like again, most of your Princes now a dayes are like Dunces in comparison of her.” In a paean from the 1640s, American poet Ann Bradstreet used the memory of “That High and Mighty Princess Queen Elizabeth” to aim a zinger at 17th-century male chauvinists:

Let such as say our sex is void of reason,

Know ’tis a slander now, but once was treason.

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