Elizabeth I


Four hundred and seven years ago today, Elizabeth I of England died, and was replaced by James VI of Scotland, who became James I of England and Scotland.

I studied the early reign of Elizabeth I, her religious policies, her use of council, and her relationship with Europe but I only really started to sit up and take full notice of her reign, when I read “Elizabeth” by David Starkey. A biography of the Elizabeth from her birth, to her coming to the throne. I have since read it twice more, it is a great read and supremely recommended.

Elizabeth, in my opinion, was the greatest monarch this Country has even seen. She reigned at a time when the country had spent the past 150 years in turmoil. The disastrous period of the wars of the roses, followed by the horrendous upheaval of Henry VIII and Edward VI’s attack on Catholicism, Mary’s attacks on Protestantism meant that England was at boiling point. Elizabeth created stability and prosperity, a sense of brotherhood, that did not exist prior to her reign. This relentless panic to produce an heir, plagued the Monarchy from Henry VIII, through to Mary, and the power hungry obsessiveness of the Seymour family after Henry died, needed to come to an end. I’d recommend reading “Edward VI: The Lost King of England” by Chris Skidmore for a detailed analysis of Edward’s reign. It’s a great read. The Seymore brothers, and Thomas in particular have become my favourite characters from Tudor history, since reading that book.

As a child, Elizabeth was brilliant. She was taught Latin, French, Philosophy, History, Maths and Greek from an early age, and according to her teacher, Roger Asham (one of the most formidable scholars of the day), she was one of the best and brightest students he’d ever taught.

I think perhaps Catherine Parr, last wife of Henry, gets overlooked in her significant role as step mother to Elizabeth. Starkey points out that:

“Catherine, in short, was running a Tudor Open University course in religion at Henry’s Court. Elizabeth was certainly a receptive student. We can imagine her listening, intent, and white faced, to the lectures in the Queen’s privy chamber. In religion at least, Elizabeth was the student, and Catherine was the tutor”.

This suggests that the religious turmoil that came to an end with the religious settlement that Elizabeth ingeniously put in place during her reign, can be traced back to her education under Catherine Parr.

Elizabether seems to embody Niccolo Machiavelli’s statement that a Renaissance ruler should strive to be both loved and feared. Machiavelli saw this as a bit of a Utopia; unachievable, and so he goes on to point out that whilst one cannot be both loved and feared, one should strive to simply be feared. This position has been rather manipulated over the years.

Elizabeth, as a woman, was expected to marry. As the daughter of the King, she was expected to marry a rich noble perhaps of foreign descent, whom would then rule England, and she would take a merely ceremonial position. She refused. She wanted to rule. During her early life, she had lost her mum, two step mums and another step mum was gone. She had witnessed the 16 year old Jane Grey become the pawn in a game of power between her young brother’s protectors, and the power hungry Grey family, that resulted in Lady Jane’s beheading at only 16 years old. All because of Royal marriage. She knew how Royal women get treated. And given the pain of the previous Tudor monarchs (although, Edward was far too young to have much influence, it could be argued that his reign, was the reign of Somerset and Northumberland), it was a miracle that she managed to achieve what she did. An acceptable religious settlement in 1559 that put to rest the problems between the Catholics and Protestants who’d spent the past thirty years at war throughout Europe. Although, it may be said that it was far more Protestant than Catholic, given that Pope Pius excommunicated her for it. But still, it was an acceptable religious settlement for most of the Country, and so she was loved for it.

She established close relations with the Russians and the Ottomans, effectively attempting to explore the World further than ever before. She even considered an alliance with the Muslim world, because she, like they, believed they were both under threat from the Catholic Church at the time. She oversaw the first English expedition to Japan also. The theatre flourished, English culture had witnessed a golden age because of a Queen who seemed far less narcissistic and power hungry than her predecessors.

She became feared across the known World, after the ruthlessly powerful Philip of Spain (ex-husband of the now dead Queen Mary of England, and so brother in law of Elizabeth, and staunch Catholic) attempted again to overthrow his sister-in-law because he believed he should be the true ruler of England, and reunite the Country with Rome. Philip, and Spain, lost. We won. Howard and Drake are largely unknown as military geniuses, but in my opinion, for their defeat of the Spanish Armada, they’re the best Britain has ever seen.

“Nevertheless a prince ought to inspire fear in such a way that, if he does not win love, he avoids hatred; because he can endure very well being feared whilst he is not hated.”

Here, Machiavelli describes how a feared leader, must not cross the line into a hated leader. It can be supposed that Machiavelli’s contemporary, and ruler of Florence, Giovanni de’ Medici, was hated. Supremely hated in fact. He had destroyed the Florentine Republic and the liberties upon which it stood. Giovanni become Pope Leo X in 1513, and was so hated, that an entirely new sect of Christianity (Protestantism) arose because of widespread disillusionment with the Catholic Church, on Leo’s watch. Perhaps Machiavelli was describing, subtly, the inadequacies of the Medici, in his writing. He goes on to describe how a ruler should not be cruel.

Elizabeth was neither hated nor cruel. She could so easily have been dismissed as the daughter of an adulterous mother who almost tore England apart. But she escaped that, owing to her own ingenuity in never mentioning her mother’s name in public. No doubt Elizabeth was influenced by the Protestant World she had been brought up around; if she had, she kept it to herself. Her father and her sister were cruel, and history has judged them to be tyrants. Elizabeth however, never crossed that line. She remained in power for close to fifty years, and was loved throughout. There has been no Monarch before her, or since, that has commanded that sort of respect and admiration.

Elizabeth I, who died on this day, 407 years ago, is the closest any ruler across the World, since her day, has come to being the Machiavelli Utopian ruler.

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