Elizabeth I – England’s Greatest Monarch?

Posted By claire on December 15, 2009

Elizabeth I accepting her trophy from The Elizabeth Files

Elizabeth I accepting her trophy from The Elizabeth Files

I thought it would be good to move away from the myths, rumour and scandal that surround this great lady, and, as Rochie said in her comment a few weeks ago, look at Elizabeth I’s achievements, after all, isn’t that the way she should be remembered. Let’s give Good Queen Bess the credit she deserves!

Elizabeth Files visitor, Jenny, commented a few weeks ago about the Festival of History debate back in 2007 at Kelmarsh Hall. At this debate, authors and historians, Sarah Gristwood, Alison Weir and Martyn Downer championed the causes of Queen Elizabeth I, King Henry VIII and Queen Victoria for the public to decide who exactly was England’s Greatest Monarch. According to Jenny, Henry VIII didn’t get a look in – Queen Victoria won on the Saturday and Elizabeth I won on the Sunday. Interesting!

So, let’s look at what Sarah Gristwood used in her argument for Elizabeth I:-

Elizabeth I’s Key Achievements

Sarah Gristwood said:-

“The England she inherited was described by one of her own agents as “a bone between two dogs” – France and Spain. Few believed then that she (a mere woman, with a disputed claim) could hold the throne without tying the country to some greater power. Instead, after 45 years of solo rule, she left a realm sure of its place in the world, with the confidence only half a century of stability could give. One that had seen the expansion of its interests, the securing of its borders, and the regularisation of its currency, as well as the great flowering of the Renaissance.”

Elizabeth I’s Personal Qualities

Sarah Gristwood said:-

“Brave, resourceful, charismatic, clever and extraordinarily cultured; a musician, linguist and poet. A terrible youth (her mother executed on her father’s orders; her own life threatened by her sister) unexpectedly bred in her a kind of humanity. She was instinctively merciful; and reluctant, until forced to it, to involve England in the wars of other countries. She counted the greatest triumph of her reign to have ruled with her people’s love; and though she could be vain, she was never vain enough to put her own wishes, her own dynasty, above the needs of her country.”

Elizabeth I’s Global Impact

Sarah Gristwood said:-

“The adventures of exploration and trade that later gave Great Britain its prosperity began in Elizabeth’s reign, as did the cultural achievements (Shakespeare) on which our reputation in the world still partially depends. She made England a major player in Europe – indeed her support for the Netherlands Protestants, and the Armada victory, made possible a Protestant Northern Europe. Promising to preserve her people from “oppression and wrong”, Elizabeth was a ruler whose own refusal “to open windows into men’s souls” paved the way for the religious settlement, and the secular state, that we still know today – a model that has since been followed by other countries.”

Elizabeth I’s Legacy

Sarah Gristwood said:-

“Without Elizabeth we would not be who we are today – children of a proud (and a Protestant) nation. The Virgin Queen (our first true patriot, after medieval monarchs who treated England as a piece of personal property) is a vital part of our national mythology. Women, from Queen Victoria to Margaret Thatcher, owe her a particular debt. It’s hard now to realise quite how unnatural her female rule at first seemed to her contemporaries. Before Elizabeth, no woman had ever successfully reigned over the country. After her, no-one could ever again relegate women to the sidelines so easily.”

Did Sarah Miss Anything Out?

I actually find it hard to believe that Elizabeth won over Henry VIII, although I agree that she should have, because if you look at Alison Weir’s arguments for Henry they are rather compelling – see http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/magazine/6936537.stm#graphic for all of the arguments put forward by Sarah, Alison and Martyn. Perhaps Sarah put forward a few more arguments in the actual debate.

In one of my first posts on the Elizabeth Files, I listed Elizabeth’s main achievements as being:-

  • Becoming queen
  • Defeating the Spanish Armada
  • Carrying on her father’s work with the Navy and making England a strong naval power
  • Defending England from the Scots and turning Scotland into an ally
  • Increasing literacy
  • Expanding England overseas
  • Founding the Church of England as we know it today through her religious settlement
  • Raising the status of England abroad
  • Surviving and defeating the plots and revolts against her
  • Helping the poor
  • Ruling as Queen in her own right
  • Her promotion of the arts

I would now add to that:-

  • Turning England round from a poor country riddled with problems to a strong and prosperous country
  • Her patronage of science and the Renaissance way of thinking
  • Her ability to pick excellent advisers like William Cecil
  • Her understanding that a monarch needed to work with advisers and Parliament, to be able to rule successfully
  • Showing the public and other countries that a woman could rule successfully without a man by her side

Have I missed anything out?

Elizabeth I – England’s Greatest Monarch

Some people have questioned whether Elizabeth’s reign was really a Golden Age and pointed out that her reign has a great many failures e.g the Irish problem. Historian David Loades, in “Elizabeth I”, said of Elizabeth:-

“She failed to deal with two issues of crucial importance which were to derail the regimes of her successors. Having encouraged the gentry to adopt a higher and higher profile in government, she failed to find a satisfactory definition of the constitutional relationship between crown, lords and commons, although several models were offered to her by William Cecil in the course of her reign. By refusing to define it she protected her prerogative from formal limitation, but left it vulnerable to attack, as was already becoming apparent before she died.

Secondly, she conspicuously failed to tackle the problem of inadequate revenue. By muddling along, and improvising from hand to mouth, she managed to survive; but the consequence was that nobody faced the fact that the crown needed a regular and substantial taxation income, even to conduct its normal peacetime operations, never mind to wage war. It was as much ignorance as extravagance or ill-will that caused the financial crises of the early Stuarts and for that ignorance Elizabeth was to blame. Her inability to act promptly and decisively was thus more damaging at home than it was abroad. It was caused directly by her fear that parliament, and particularly the House of Commons, would be empowered to exercise a measure of control which she believed should belong to herself alone.

Elizabeth chose for herself the motto Semper Eadem (Always the Same) and in most respects that consistency served her well, both as a person and as a ruler. It also meant an unwillingness, even an inability, to embrace change. It could be said that she was so concerned to remain in charge of the ship, and to avoid the icebergs of Spanish and papal hostility, that she failed to spot the other unobtrusive rocks lying in her path. She was not on the bridge when the ship went down.”

I respect Loades and think that he makes a great point her, but despite her failings I do think that Elizabeth deserves the title “England’s Greatest Monarch”. She was the first woman to rule England successfully in her own right and her reign is quite rightly known as the Golden Age, when you compare it to those before her.

The reigns  of Henry VIII, Edward VI and Mary I had depleted England’s resources, yet Elizabeth handed over to James I a country that was prosperous, powerful and a big player in Europe. This was an amazing achievement considering that she was a woman, living in a man’s world, that she was illegitimate and that she was just 25 when she came to the throne. She had no role model to copy, she was the one breaking the mould and I think we have to got give her credit for what she did for England and for women – she was the original source of girl power!

So, take your trophy, Elizabeth, you deserve it!

What Do You Think?

But what do you think Elizabeth I’s main achievements were? What arguments would you use to champion her cause and make her known as England’s Greatest Monarch?


5 Responses to “Elizabeth I – England’s Greatest Monarch?”

  1. Jenny says:

    Have any of you heard of “The Gold and Silver Cihildren”? If not, to explain, the “gold children” had it all in their youth but as age went on they did not know how to cope. However the”silver” children” had a hard life in youth but used those experiences to improve their lives.

    I can see this with Henry VIII, MaryTudor and Edwrd VI (who were all golden children). For most of her childhood adn youth Eliabeth was a “Silver child”. Wjen things were going well for HVIII, EVI and Mary Tudor, everything was fine but whoever went against their wishes, suffered. Wolsey, Moore and even Cromwell were supposed to be Henry’s greatest friends – He s supposed to have loved Katherne of Aragpn and Anne Bolyen (let’s forget the rest) and what happened to them when they didn’t “Deliver the goods” that Henry wanted. Thaomas Seymour was supposed to be Edward VI’s favourite uncle, but he did nothing to help him when the chips were down. Mary, who was fated for a number of years, became bitter beaue of circumstannces and alllowed herself to become known as “Bloody Mary”. Eliabeth’s childhood was a hard one in comparison. Yes she had a spendid education, but she was up it. On coming to thr throne he reduced her council by hlf, if I remember correctly, and she did not choose “yes” men but people who she would perhps abuse verbally but had confidence in them such as Cecil.

    And where did “piracy” began – With Spain, who “raped” South America and Seville for a few hundred years was the main port where the Gold of the Aztecs and the Incas found their way. To whom did these goods belong? “What is good for the goose is good for the gander” so they say!

    As a woman in those days, she hd a hard battle to fight but she was defnitely the “Marharet Thatcher” of her day who learned to combine hardness with charm (whether people agree with me on that lasy remark, Margaret T was admired all over the world even when she was being criticised in Britain)

    With the help of her chosen council, she did defeat her enemies – Maybe she was pressurised (and perhaps blckmailed) into the execution of Mary Queen of Scots – Who knows?

    After disastous reigns and I have to say that I believe after the demise of Katherine of Aragon and the dfall of the monasteries, people were wary of Henry,Edward was more or less controlled and Mary, when she inheritedthe throne was almost a bitter woman who married her cousin/nephew supposedly for love from which she recived nothing ut the los of Calais.

    Andwho was to be Elizabeth’ heir? She had already wrked out that the less said the better until the bitter end. But n reality James was the only option in any case as Katherine Grey has “supoosedly” disgraced herself. Arbella Stuart was deadordying and where were the others.

    I am sure I have left somethng out except to say that Victoria, wonece maried more or less threw the reigns of government at her husbnd and after that on Prime Ministers she likes such s Disaeili although she hated Gladstone.

    To conclude “VIVAT REGINA” Elizabeth 1st the best monarch we had in those times although wonder whatshe wouldhave been like in the 21st Century!

  2. Claire says:

    Hi Jenny,

    It’s interesting what you say about gold and silver children and it’s spot on when you look at Henry and Edward but I wonder about Mary because I don’t think she had a very happy childhood with the cruelty that was dished out to her and her mother. I think Mary’s problem was that she believed that women were not cut out for ruling a country and so she deferred to Philip or to her male advisers all the time. I found it fascinating the bit in Leanda de Lisle’s book where she explains the Tudor belief of order and why it was believed that only men could rule a country. Leanda says that women were “judged to be, like Eve, morally frail…While reason and intellect were associated with the male, women were considered creatures of the body: emotional, irrational and indecisive. As such they ranked below men in the chain of being…It did not seem fitting to Henry that a woman – by nature inferior to men – should sit at the apex of power, as a monarch did.” I think Mary may well have believed this too, whereas Elizabeth had the strength of character to believe in herself and rule in her own right.

  3. Jenny says:

    Hi Claire,

    From what I can see Mary was 10 years old when Henry fell for Anne Boleyn. As a mother, you would agree that this is an impressionable age for a child but in Tudor times , children had to grow up quickly. Until that time Mary was the “darling” which is why I nclude her in the “gold” children as opposed to Elizabeth who, at a much earlier age, was rejected by everyone at the time. Which is why I call Eliabeth a “Silver Child”.

    Yes I agree that the Tudors believed that women were weak but most of the aristrocracy made sure their daughters were educated at a very hgh standard – Jane Grey is a good example and, in theory, she should have never made the throne. but for the machnations of Dudley.

    Throughout history, as you know, there have been extremely powerful women – either overtly, or powers behind the throne – the latter being able to manipultae their men. Elizabeth stands out as one who learnt extremely early from her mistakes and never made the same error again.

    It would be interesting sometime in the future to compare these “powerful” women and how they influenced the life of their countries, don’t you think?

    I would still say that Elizabeth 1 would come out as top dog as most of the others relied on the length of life of their “protectors”, Eleanor of Acqutaine, possibly being any exception to the rule.

  4. rochie says:

    Elizabeth was not only a woman who ruled without a man at her side – like her contempoary Catherine de Medici, for example – but she was also a woman who was head of the Church without a Pope to govern the affairs of the church and the spiritual destiny of her people. It was the ultimate exercise in self-reliance and self-confidence – what she was called upon to do – and for a woman to carry it off, alone, and for such a length of time verges on the miraculous to my way of thinking. It was something so completely new and revolutionary in its implications that we forget perhaps just how new and exciting it was at the time, as well. Even today it would be pretty amazing.

  5. James says:


    Mary was most deffinitly a ‘Silver Child’. Although it was at the age of 9 when Henry first really started his fling with Anne Boleyn, Mary was still extremely immature and had not even started going through puberty(which was part of the plague of Mary’s late late child years, teenage years and even her grow-up life). Anne was extremely abusive to Mary and told the women of Elizabeth’s household to beat Mary for any little thing she did. As well as living in the smallest dirtiest room of the house where rain leaked in, all of her things were taken and was constantly shoved into uncomfortable, demeaning positions by the ladies of the house and Anne. Mary’s late childhood and teenage years beat out Elizabeth in all aspects of abuse, rough times, and pestilence; as Mary was basically Elizabeth and Edwards mother. Mary would buy Elizabeth clothing and other accessories, check on her studies, and make sure she had a ‘good enough’ staff of women. Mary was not back in her fathers favor until her mid twenties, and even then was in constant caution of her unstable aging father, and then her puppet of a brother.

    Elizabeth was not abused, hated, or had any need of fear internal or abroad. She was never out of favor with her father or her brother and indeed got the lucky life of staying always just out of reach of court. Elizabeth was more a ‘Golden Child’ than Mary.

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