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Elizabeth I
Elizabeth I

Elizabeth I (1533-1603), was queen of England from 1558 until her death in 1603. Her reign is often called the Golden Age or the Elizabethan Age because it was a time of great achievement in England. Elizabeth made the Church of England, a Protestant denomination, the country's main church. At the same time, she long avoided war with Europe's leading Roman Catholic nations. The English navy defeated a powerful Spanish fleet, and English merchants and sailors challenged the Spaniards with greater confidence throughout the world. The economy prospered, while Elizabeth's court became a centre for poets, musicians, and scholars.

Early years. Elizabeth was born at Greenwich, an estate near London. She was the daughter of Henry VIII and his second wife, Anne Boleyn. Elizabeth's mother was executed for treason in 1536. Henry died in 1547 and was succeeded by Elizabeth's half brother, Edward VI. Like Elizabeth, Edward had been raised a Protestant When he died in 1553, Elizabeth's half sister, Mary Tudor, became queen. Mary had been raised as a Catholic by her mother, Catherine of Aragon, and was determined to make Catholicism the state religion of England. She became known as "Bloody Mary" for her persecution of Protestants.

Queen Mary distrusted Elizabeth, who was next in line to the throne. Elizabeth cautiously avoided any involvement in politics during Mary's rule. But Elizabeth came under suspicion in 1554, following an uprising known as Wyatt's Rebellion. The rebels tried to overthrow Mary, but failed. Elizabeth was imprisoned for a time though no evidence linking her to the plot was found. Mary died in 1558, and Elizabeth became queen.

Problems at home and abroad challenged Elizabeth as queen. The previous year, Mary had involved England in a costly war with France. Struggling Protestant forces in Scotland, France, and the Netherlands sought Elizabeth's support. But, England's economy was poor, and the treasury lacked the revenue to support the routine costs of government. Elizabeth also had to decide whether England's religion would be Catholic or Protestant and to do so without causing a revolt.

With the aid of Parliament and her chief adviser, Sir William Cecil, Elizabeth ended the war with France. She also secretly sent money and weapons to the Scottish Protestants. Elizabeth hoped to satisfy most of her subjects by establishing a church that was primarily Protestant in doctrine. Under the Religious Settlement of 1559, the Act of Supremacy re-established the Church of England, which Henry VIII had set up and Mary had tried to abolish. This church was independent of the Roman Catholic Church, but had some similarities to it. The Act of Uniformity approved a new prayer book and enforced its use.

Elizabeth never married, and she used her single status as a foreign policy tool. She encouraged both Catholic and Protestant suitors, but committed herself to no one. By avoiding marriage to a Protestant, she gave encouragement to her own Catholic subjects, who remained loyal with few exceptions. Elizabeth's flirtations with Catholic suitors kept King Philip II of Spain, a Catholic, from taking direct military action against her for several years while the Church of England gained popular support. For a time, Elizabeth seemed to be in love with one of her subjects, Sir Robert Dudley, the Earl of Leicester. However, Elizabeth's cautious nature kept her from entering a marriage that lacked political benefit.

Elizabeth's cousin, Mary Stuart (Mary Queen of Scots), was forced to abdicate her throne as queen of Scotland in 1567. She later fled to England, where her presence caused a great deal of uneasiness. Mary was a Catholic and heir to the English throne. Many English people feared she would try to replace Elizabeth. Several plots against Elizabeth involving Catholic nobility proved unsuccessful. In 1584, the English aristocracy formed an association to protect their queen and vowed to prevent a Catholic succession in England. In 1586, Mary was implicated in another plot against Elizabeth. Public reaction against Mary was strong. Reluctantly, Elizabeth finally agreed to Mary's execution in 1587.

In 1586, Elizabeth sent an army to help Protestants in the Dutch Netherlands fight Spanish rule. She also encouraged English ships to raid Spanish fleets. Sir Francis Drake, Sir Walter Raleigh, and other "sea dogs" looted several Spanish ships. In 1587, Drake destroyed 30 Spanish ships in port at Cadiz. These events and the execution of Mary Stuart led King Philip II of Spain to approve an invasion of England. He assembled an armada and sent it to England in 1588. But the smaller and swifter English vessels routed the Spanish fleet. Fierce storms then wrecked many of the fleeing Spanish ships off the coasts of Ireland and Scotland. Spain's power was seriously damaged, but the war went on for 16 years.

Despite the armada's defeat, many English people still feared a Spanish invasion. But Elizabeth eased their fears in August of 1588 with a speech to soldiers assembled at Tilbury. English literature, in particular, thrived during this period. Francis Bacon composed his Essays; Christopher Marlowe wrote and staged The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus; Edmund Spenser wrote his epic poem, The Faerie Queene; and William Shakespeare wrote some of the world's greatest poetry and drama.

Problems at home marked the end of Elizabeth's reign. The Irish rebelled, and the economy soured. The Earl of Essex had captured Elizabeth's interest, but he became discouraged in his quest for power and led a rebellion in 1601. He was soon captured, convicted of treason, and executed. Elizabeth was succeeded by James VI, the Protestant son of Mary Stuart.