Family tree for Queen Elizabeth I showing:
Queen Elizabeth I was born on 7th September 1533 at Greenwich Palace. She was the only child of King Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn. Elizabeth was placed in the care of Lady Margaret Bryan and given her own household at Hatfield Place.
In 1534 the Act of Succession made her heir to the throne over her half-sister Mary. Everyone was required to swear an oath of acceptance of the Act. Those that refused, including Thomas More and John Fisher Bishop of Rochester, were executed. The same year, the Act of Supremacy broke with Rome and made the monarch head of the country and the church.
By 1536, Elizabeth remained the only child of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn and the King began to take an interest in Jane Seymour. Elizabeth’s mother was accused of adultery and executed for treason on 19th May 1536.
By the end of May Henry VIII had married Jane Seymour and in the Summer of 1536 a new Act of Succession relegated Elizabeth’s status and settled the succession on the children of Henry and Jane Seymour.
Elizabeth’s half-brother and heir to the throne, Edward, was born on 12th October 1537. Jane Seymour died 12 days after the birth.
Lady Margaret Bryan was transferred to Edward’s household while Katherine Champernowne, known as Kat Ashley, was appointed her replacement. Elizabeth was a keen scholar and was given lessons in French, Flemish, Italian, Latin and Spanish, music, dancing, sewing and riding. She also studied academic subjects – Geography, History, Mathematics and Astronomy.
Over the last ten years of her father’s reign Elizabeth had three more stepmothers: Anne of Cleves, Kathryn Howard and Katherine Parr. She saw little of the first two, but Katherine Parr made sure that Henry’s children were invited to court often.
King Henry VIII died on 23rd January 1547 at Whitehall Palace. He was succeeded by his son Edward who took the throne as King Edward VI. However, because Edward was a minor the country was ruled by a regency council headed by Edward Seymour.
After the death of her father, Elizabeth lived with her step-mother Katherine Parr. She remained in her care after Katherine Parr married Thomas Seymour in April 1547.
Soon after Thomas Seymour moved in he began behaving inappropriately with Elizabeth. It was passed off as ‘a bit of fun’ but it is likely that Seymour, who was an ambitious character, was hoping to eventually marry Elizabeth.
In May 1548, a pregnant Katherine Parr discovered Seymour embracing Elizabeth. She immediately sent Elizabeth to live with Sir Anthony Denny. Katherine died soon after giving birth to a daughter and Thomas Seymour began writing to Elizabeth. The letters were discovered and Seymour was charged with treason for plotting to marry Elizabeth and put her on the throne. He was executed on 20th March 1549.
Path to the Throne
Elizabeth’s brother, King Edward VI, did not live to see his majority. He died on 6th July 1553 aged 16 years. Before he died he signed a document known as the Devise for the Succession which named Protestant Lady Jane Grey, granddaughter of Henry VIII’s sister, Mary, as his successor.
Although Jane was proclaimed Queen, the people did not accept her and rose in favour of Elizabeth’s half-sister Mary. Mary was proclaimed Queen on 19th July 1553. Elizabeth attended her sister’s coronation but afterwards tried to keep a low profile.
Mary was a Catholic and vowed to restore England to the Catholic faith. She also married Philip II of Spain, a move which was very unpopular since it was feared that Philip would rule the country. Those that opposed Mary sought to depose her and place Protestant Elizabeth on the throne. Mary had Elizabeth arrested and sent to the Tower of London. She was released after two months and placed under house arrest at Woodstock.
For the rest of Mary’s reign, Elizabeth kept a low profile. On the rare occasions she was at court she attended mass and remained uncontroversial. Mary died on 17th November 1558 having named Elizabeth as her successor on her death bed. Elizabeth was crowned Queen of England on 15th January 1559.
Love and Marriage
From the beginning of her reign, Queen Elizabeth I was pressured by her ministers to marry and have children to secure the succession. Although she entered into marriage negotiations with several foreign powers over the course of her reign, all came to nothing. Having seen the damage and ill-feeling caused by her sister Mary’s marriage to Philip of Spain she likely never had any intention of marrying.
Elizabeth had a close relationship with two men during her lifetime. Robert Dudley was a year older than Elizabeth I. He was the son of John Dudley, Earl of Northumberland, who had been executed for plotting to put Jane Grey on the throne. The day after her accession, Dudley was given the position of Master of the Horse, a position that required him to be in Elizabeth’s company on a daily basis.
In September 1560, Dudley’s wife, Amy Robsart, died after falling down a flight of stairs. Many people believed that Dudley had murdered her so that he could marry Elizabeth I. If that had been Elizabeth’s intention it was now an impossibility. Nevertheless, Dudley, created Earl of Leicester in 1564, remained at court and often occupied the bedroom next to Elizabeth’s.
By 1578 it was clear to Dudley that Elizabeth I would never marry him so he secretly married Lettice Knollys. When Elizabeth found out about the marriage she banished Lettice from court.
In 1585, Dudley was sent to the Netherlands to support Protestants fighting against Philip II. He was instructed not to engage in fighting since Queen Elizabeth I wanted to negotiate a treaty with Spain. He became disillusioned by the fact that English troops were not well supplied and faced hardship and resigned his post. Elizabeth was heartbroken when he died on 4th September 1588.
Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex had replaced Robert Dudley as Master of the Horse in 1587. He was aged 22 years. Devereux was an educated young man who excelled in courtly love. Elizabeth enjoyed his attention and he soon became her favourite.
Devereux used his position with the Queen to gain preferment but he underestimated Elizabeth I and was arrested and executed for treason on 25th February 1601.
Queen Elizabeth I and Mary Queen of Scots
Queen Elizabeth I saw Mary Queen of Scots as a rival to her place on the throne. Mary, granddaughter of Henry VIII’s sister, Margaret, was a Catholic and the focus of Catholic plots to overthrow Elizabeth.
Mary Queen of Scots had been married to Francis II of France as a child, but after he died she returned to Scotland and sought to rule the country. She married Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley and they had a son, James. A year after the birth of James, Mary was implicated with Earl Bothwell in the murder of her husband. After she married Bothwell she was forced to abdicate and in 1568 sought sanctuary in England.
Queen Elizabeth I was concerned that with Mary in England, there would be more plots against herself. She placed the Scottish Queen under house arrest. As expected plots were uncovered the most notable being the Ridolfi plot in 1571, the Throckmorton Plot in 1583 and the Babington Plot in 1586.
Mary was tried for treason in October 1586, found guilty and sentenced to death. However, Elizabeth I, fearing reprisals from Catholic Europe, did not immediately sign the death warrant. Her ministers finally persuaded her to sign and Mary Queen of Scots was executed on 8th February 1587.
Soon after Elizabeth became Queen, Philip II of Spain, who had been married to her half-sister Mary, proposed marriage. Elizabeth I turned him down.
In 1571, it was revealed that Philip had supported the Ridolfi Plot to overthrow Queen Elizabeth I and place Mary Queen of Scots on the throne.
Tensions between England and Spain continued when Queen Elizabeth I sent troops to support the Protestant Dutch against Spain. Yet the two countries avoided hostilities until the execution of Mary Queen of Scots in 1587.
In the Spring of 1587 Philip began amassing ships at the port of Cadiz. Francis Drake disrupted his plans by raiding and burning a number of ships. But by the summer of 1588 Philip’s Armada was ready to sail.
The Spanish ships had instructions to sail to the Netherlands where they would pick up Spanish troops and invade England. However, the Spanish troops were not at the pick up point and English fireships destroyed several ships. Those that could sailed to the North Sea where many more were destroyed by a storm.
At the turn of the century, Queen Elizabeth I aged 66 years, became increasingly depressed. Her friends and trusted advisors were all dead, yet she feared death for herself. When she became ill she refused to go to bed, choosing to sit on cushions on the floor instead.
Queen Elizabeth I died on 24th March 1603. She was the last of the Tudor monarchs. Elizabeth was succeeded by the son of Mary Queen of Scots, King James VI of Scotland.
First published 2020; updated and republished Feb 12 2022 @ 6:48 pm – Updated –
Harvard Reference for this page:
Heather Y Wheeler. (2020 – 2022). Queen Elizabeth I 1533 – 1603. Available: https://www.treesofblue.com/queen-elizabeth-i-1533-1603. Last accessed May 26th, 2022