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The unwanted Princess
Elizabeth I was born on September 7, 1533 at Greenwich Palace near London. Her father was England's King Henry VIII; her mother was the king's second wife, Anne Boleyn. Elizabeth had an older half-sister, Mary, who was the daughter of the king's first wife, Catherine of Aragon.
King Henry had moved heaven and earth to marry Anne Boleyn. He had parted from the Catholic Church, established the Church of England, and annulled his twenty-four year marriage to Queen Catherine - partly because he loved Anne, and partly because he wanted the male heir Catherine could not give him. Henry and Anne were convinced that their first child would be a boy. The new queen even had a document drawn up ahead of time that announced the birth of a prince. When the prince turned out to be a princess, her parents were dismayed.
Over the next few years Anne had three miscarriages, and Henry - who had become disenchanted with her even before Elizabeth's birth - decided to be rid of her. In 1536 he had Anne arrested on false charges of adultery. The Archbishop of Canterbury bowed to the king's will by declaring that Henry's marriage to Anne had never been valid. Like her half-sister Mary, two-year-old Elizabeth was now considered illegitimate. Anne was executed, and two weeks later the king married Jane Seymour.
In 1537 Queen Jane died after giving birth to a son, Edward. Elizabeth and Mary participated in his christening ceremony. As Edward grew older, he and Elizabeth became close; although they lived in separate households, they wrote to each other often.
When Elizabeth was four, Katherine Champernowne became her governess. The well-educated Champernowne - known as Kat Ashley after her marriage in 1545 - began teaching Elizabeth astronomy, geography, history, math, French, Flemish, Italian, Spanish, and other subjects. Elizabeth was an excellent student. Her tutor Roger Ascham later wrote, "She talks French and Italian as well as she does English. When she writes Greek and Latin, nothing is more beautiful than her handwriting."
In 1540 Elizabeth's father married Anne of Cleves. Repelled by what he perceived as his bride's ugliness, Henry quickly had the marriage annulled and instead married Anne Boleyn's first cousin Katherine Howard. Katherine was very young - about fifteen - and something of a featherbrain, but she was kind to Elizabeth, who was surely appalled when, in a repetition of the past, the queen was arrested and charged with adultery. This time the charges were true. Queen Katherine was beheaded in 1542, when Elizabeth was seven years old.
Katherine Howard's violent death seems to have had a lasting impact on Elizabeth. At the age of eight she met one of Prince Edward's classmates, Robert Dudley, and told him of an important decision she had made. "I will never marry," she said. It was a decision that would shape her life.
In 1543 Elizabeth gained yet another stepmother when Henry married his sixth and final wife, Katherine Parr. Four years later Henry VIII died, leaving his crown to Edward. According to Henry's will, if Edward died without heirs he would be succeeded by Mary. If Mary died without heirs, Elizabeth would become queen.
Soon after Henry's death, Elizabeth received a marriage proposal from handsome Thomas Seymour, who was England's Lord Admiral and the brother of the late Queen Jane. Knowing that Seymour was simply seeking the power that marriage to the king's sister could bring him, Elizabeth turned him down. So Seymour proposed to the widowed Queen Katherine, who had been in love with him before her marriage to Henry VIII. Unaware of Seymour's previous proposal to her stepdaughter, Katherine happily accepted. They were quickly married, and the following year Elizabeth went to live with them at the royal Old Manor House in Chelsea.
Thomas Seymour still had designs on pretty red-haired Elizabeth. He took to visiting her bedroom in the morning before she was dressed. During these visits he sometimes tickled her or slapped her bottom; once he tried to kiss her. Elizabeth giggled and seemed to enjoy his attention, but Kat Ashley was disturbed by the Lord Admiral's behaviour, and the servants began to gossip. Queen Katherine was aware of what was going on, but saw it all as innocent romping. Once she even joined in the "joke," holding Elizabeth in the garden while her husband cut off Elizabeth's dress.
Hoping to further deceive his wife, Seymour told her that he had seen Elizabeth with her arms around a man's neck. Concerned, the queen questioned Elizabeth, who cried and insisted it wasn't true. Now Katherine began to suspect that her husband, not some mystery man, had been making advances to her stepdaughter. She started watching the Lord Admiral more carefully. One day Katherine went looking for him and Elizabeth and, according to one account, "came suddenly upon them, where they were all alone, he having her in his arms." Understandably upset, Katherine banished Elizabeth from the Old Manor House.
A few months later Katherine died after childbirth and Seymour resumed plotting to marry Elizabeth. Elizabeth knew that she could not legally marry without the permission of the king's council, and she refused to be drawn into the Lord Admiral's schemes. In 1549 Seymour was arrested on charges of conspiring to marry Elizabeth and take over the government. Kat Ashley was also arrested, along with another of Elizabeth's employees, and Elizabeth herself was closely interrogated. She kept her wits about her and denied any involvement in Seymour's treasonous activities. In the end she convinced the Council of her innocence, and her servants were released from prison.
When Elizabeth heard that Seymour had been beheaded for his crimes she supposedly said only, "This day died a man of much wit and very little judgement." She had learned that she must keep her feelings to herself if she hoped to survive.
Elizabeth continued to get along well with her brother, King Edward, but in 1553 Edward died. On his deathbed he was persuaded by the duke of Northumberland to name Lady Jane Grey to succeed him. Lady Jane tried to refuse the crown, but Northumberland (who was her father-in-law) proclaimed her to be the new queen. Meanwhile, Henry VIII's daughter Mary was proclaimed queen by her supporters. Northumberland surrendered to Mary's forces. He and Jane Grey were imprisoned and later executed.
Queen Mary was determined to restore Catholicism as the country's official religion. She pressured Elizabeth to convert. Elizabeth obediently attended one Mass, but complained the whole time of feeling ill. Because this and Elizabeth's popularity with the English people, Mary grew wary of her half sister.
When Sir Thomas Wyatt led an uprising against Mary, the queen suspected that Elizabeth was involved. Elizabeth was taken to London and confined at Whitehall Palace. Eventually, although no evidence against her could be found, she was sent to the Tower, where Anne Boleyn, Katherine Howard, Jane Grey and so many others had awaited execution. When Elizabeth saw that she was being brought into the Tower via the Traitor's Gate, she panicked and begged to be brought through some other gate.
Told that she must enter this way, she cried, "Oh Lord, I never throught to come in here as a prisoner . . . I come in as no traitor but as true a woman to the Queen's Majesty as any as is now living; and thereon will I take my death." She sat down on the stairs and refused to move. When told that it wasn't healthy to sit in the rain, she replied tearfully, "It is better sitting here than in a worse place!"
One of her servants started to sob and Elizabeth told him angrily that he shouldn't cry, saying, "I thank God that I know my truth to be such that no man can have cause to weep for me!" With that she continued into the Tower.
Despite her very reasonable fears, she was released from the Tower two months later, on the eighteenth anniversary of her mother's death. She remained a prisoner, however. In 1555 she was moved under heavy guard to Hampton Court, where the queen was staying. Mary refused to see her, but Mary's new husband Philip of Spain met with Elizabeth and fell under her spell. At his encouragement Mary finally reconciled with Elizabeth.
Over 250 Protestants were burned at the stake during the reign of "Bloody Mary," and Elizabeth's failure to truly convert to the Catholic faith put her in constant danger, as did other people's conspiracies to overthrow Mary and place Elizabeth on the throne.
Finally, on November 17, 1558, Mary died and Elizabeth's years of peril came to an end. She was now the queen of England.
Elizabeth's advisors urged the twenty-five-year old queen to quickly marry some foreign prince and produce heirs so that the throne would not pass to Henry VIII's great-niece, Mary Stuart, the queen of Scotland. Elizabeth stood by her early decision never to marry. (One of the many proposals she rejected was from Mary's widower, Philip of Spain.)
Elizabeth had a romantic nature, and may already have been in love her childhood friend, Robert Dudley, whom she later made the Earl of Leicester. Although Elizabeth was a hard-working monarch, like her father she had a great appetite for entertainment. She enjoyed archery, dancing, hunting, riding, and tennis. Whatever she did, Leicester was usually nearby. He was given a bedroom near hers, and rumours about the nature of their relationship were rampant.
Leicester had a wife named Amy. In 1559, while Leicester was at court, Amy fell down the staircase of her country home, broke her neck, and died. She had been alone in the house at the time of her accident, and it was whispered that she had been murdered so that Elizabeth and Leicester could marry. But Elizabeth did not marry Leicester. Twenty years later he infuriated the queen by secretly marrying her cousin Lettice Knollys, but Elizabeth forgave him, and he remained her favourite until his death.
Elizabeth was glorified by poets and artists as Gloriana, the Virgin Queen. With the help of fine clothes, jewels and cosmetics, the vain queen maintained a glamorous image despite her advancing age. In her mid-fifties she fell in love with Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex, son of Lettice Knollys. Essex was in his early twenties, good-looking, and extremely arrogant. Although he reigned as the queen's favourite for many years, he did not always show Elizabeth the deference she demanded. Once, when Elizabeth slapped him during an argument, Essex threatened to draw his sword on her. Elizabeth sent him to Ireland to quell a rebellion; while there, Essex ignored the queen's orders and pursued his own agenda. When he defied her by returning to England without permission, Elizabeth placed him under house arrest. After his release Essex attempted to lead an uprising against the queen, and the heartbroken Elizabeth had no choice but to sentence him to death. Essex was executed in 1601.
Two years later Elizabeth became very ill. Perhaps she did not want to live without Essex; when her doctors offered her medicine, she refused to take it. She died on March 24, 1603 at the age of 69.
During this period from 1485 to 1603, England developed into one of the leading European colonial powers, with men such as Sir Walter Raleigh taking part in the conquest of the New World. Nearer to home, campaigns in Ireland brought the country under strict English control. Culturally and socially, the Tudor period saw many changes. The Tudor court played a prominent part in the cultural Renaissance taking place in Europe, nurturing all-round individuals such as William Shakespeare, Edmund Spenser and Cardinal Wolsey. The Tudor period also saw the turbulence of two changes of official religion, resulting in the martyrdom of many innocent believers of both Protestantism and Roman Catholicism. The fear of Roman Catholicism induced by the Reformation was to last for several centuries and to play an influential role in the history of the Succession.
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