By Tim Lambert

The early life of Elizabeth

Elizabeth Tudor was born on 7 September 1533 in Greenwich Palace. Her father was Henry VIII and her mother was Anne Boleyn. Her unfortunate mother was beheaded on 19 May 1536 when Elizabeth was still an infant. Her father died in 1547 and he was succeeded by his son Edward. He in turn died in 1553. Mary the older sister of Elizabeth than became queen. She suspected Elizabeth of plotting against her and for a time had her imprisoned in the Tower of London. Fortunately Mary died in 1558.

Elizabeth I was crowned in January 1559. She was a Protestant but she was not a dogmatic woman. Elizabeth was a moderate Protestant and she treated Catholics leniently.

Most people in England accepted the religious settlement although some Catholics continued to practice their religion in secret.

The Elizabethan era (1558-1603) was one of prosperity for England. Living standards for the rich and the middle class rose substantially. However the prosperity was not shared equally. Conditions for the poor did not improve and there were many beggars.

In 1568 Mary Queen of Scots was forced to flee her own country. She fled to England and Elizabeth held her prisoner for 19 years.

In November 1569 Catholics in the north of England rebelled. The Catholic rebels hoped to murder Elizabeth and replace her with Mary Queen of Scots. However the uprising was quickly crushed and the last battle took place on 19 February 1570. Afterwards many of the rebels were hanged.

Meanwhile in 1570 the pope issued a bull of excommunication and deposition. This papal document decreed that Elizabeth I was excommunicated (excluded from the church) and deposed. Her Catholic subjects no longer had to obey her.

Furthermore in 1581 the fines for non-attendance at Church of England services (aimed at Catholics) were increased (although in some areas they were not imposed). In 1585 all Catholic priests were ordered to leave England within 40 days or face a charge of treason.

The Spanish Armada

Despite these measures most English Catholics remained loyal to the Queen when the Spanish Armada sailed in 1588. (The ships that fought the armada were commanded by a Catholic, Lord Howard of Effingham).

Meanwhile the Spanish king ruled the Netherlands. However the Dutch turned Protestant and in 1568 they rebelled against the Catholic king's rule. Elizabeth was reluctant to become involved but from 1578 onward the Spaniards were winning. In 1585 Elizabeth was forced to send an army to the Netherlands.

Then in 1586 there was a plot to murder the queen called the Babington Conspiracy. Because of her involvement Mary Queen of Scots was beheaded on 8 February 1587.

Meanwhile Philip II of Spain was planning to invade England. However in April 1587 Drake sailed into Cadiz harbor and destroyed part of the fleet that was preparing to invade. Drake boasted that he had 'singed the king of Spain's beard'.

Even so the next year the invasion fleet was ready and it sailed in July 1588. The Spanish Armada consisted of 130 ships and about 27,000 men. At that time the Spanish king ruled a large part of Northeast Europe. The plan was to send the Armada to Calais to meet a Spanish army grouped there. The armada would then transport them to England.

The English fleet was gathered at Plymouth. When the Spanish arrived they sailed in a crescent formation. The English harassed the Spanish ships from behind. In Drake's words they 'plucked the feathers'. However, the English were unable to do serious damage to the Armada until they reached Calais.

When the armada arrived the Spanish troops in Calais were not ready to embark and there was nothing the armada could do except wait at anchor in the harbor. However, the English prepared fire ships. They loaded ships with pitch and loaded guns which fired when the flames touched the gunpowder, and set them on fire then steered them towards the Spanish ships. In panic, the armada broke formation. Spanish ships scattered. Once the Spanish ships broke formation they were vulnerable and the English attacked doing considerable damage.

Finally the armada sailed north around Scotland and west of Ireland. However, they sailed into terrible storms and many of their remaining ships were wrecked. Eventually, the Spanish lost 53 ships.

Elizabeth died on 24 March 1603. She was 69. Elizabeth was buried in Westminster Abbey.

A Short Biography of Queen Mary

A Short Biography of Henry VIII

A Short Biography of William Shakespeare

A Short Biography of Bess of Hardwick

A Short Biography of Anne Askew

Life in Tudor England


Last revised 2018