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On This Day: Elizabeth I Becomes Queen of England

Last updated: February 12, 2023

On Nov. 17, 1558, Queen Elizabeth I ascended the throne of England, succeeding her half-sister Mary.

Elizabeth was the first-born child of Anne Boleyn, King Henry VIII’s second wife. In 1536, while Elizabeth was 2 years old, her mother was executed due in large part to her inability to bear Henry a son.

Elizabeth was taken away from the court, and raised in the Hatfield House north of London. “Katherine Parr, Henry’s sixth wife, took a keen interest in the young Elizabeth and made sure that she was educated to the highest standards,” writes the BBC.

Henry died in 1547 and was succeeded by his son Edward, born to Henry’s third wife, Jane Seymour. The young king died six years later, and Mary, the daughter of Henry’s first wife, Catherine of Aragon, soon ascended to the throne. The Catholic Mary sought to restore Catholicism in England, and married the Catholic Prince Philip of Spain, which sparked uprisings in the country.

“The persecuted Protestants saw Elizabeth as their savior, since she was seen as an icon of ‘the new faith,’” according to Tudor History. “After all, it was to marry her mother Anne Boleyn that Henry instituted the break with Rome.”

Judging that Elizabeth was a threat to her rule, Mary imprisoned her half-sister in the Tower of London in 1554. She considered executing Elizabeth, but, believing that she was pregnant with an heir, allowed Elizabeth to return to Hatfield under house arrest. Mary, however, was not pregnant and it became clear that she would not bear an heir. Elizabeth, therefore, was nearly assured of succeeding Mary.

Mary died on Nov. 17, 1558. Elizabeth is said to have been sitting under an oak tree at Hatfield when a horseman arrived with the news of her Mary’s death. “Upon hearing that she was Queen,” writes Tudor History, “legend has it that Elizabeth quoted the 118th Psalm's twenty-third line, in Latin: ‘A Dominum factum est illud, et est mirabile in oculis notris’—‘It is the Lord's doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes.’”

Two months later, 25-year-old Elizabeth was coronated in an elaborate ceremony. “As Elizabeth walked along the carpet laid out for her journey to Westminster Abbey, the crowds rushed forward to cut out pieces as souvenirs,” writes the BBC. “Elizabeth made sure that everyone—down to the lowliest beggar—played a part, pausing to listen to congratulations from ordinary people on the street. … For their part, the people were thrilled with their new Queen. Elizabeth was an instant hit.”

Elizabeth’s Reign

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Elizabeth ruled for 44 years, a period known as England’s “Golden Age.” During the Elizabethan Age, the Church of England again broke from Rome, English explorers made discoveries in the Americas and other parts of the world, and the arts flourished. Elizabeth also oversaw the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588, one of England’s military victories.

A Woman in Power

Sources in this Story

  • The BBC: Elizabeth I: An Overview
  • Luminarium: Elizabeth
  • Tudor History: Elizabeth I Queen of England
  • Official Website of the British Monarchy: Elizabeth I
  • Brooklyn Museum: Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art; The Dinner Party: Place Setting: Elizabeth R.
  • National Endowment for the Humanities: An Imperial Intellect, Elizabeth's Legacy 400 Years Later

Henry was quite worried “about a woman occupying the throne,” but Elizabeth proved his fears to be unfounded. She is known for having redefined “the expectations of women in power,” according to the Brooklyn Museum, and “quickly and consistently proved herself to be a powerful and intelligent ruler and an inimitable symbol of female strength.”

In her 2003 essay, “An Imperial Intellect: Elizabeth’s Legacy 400 Years Later,” Lisa Rogers examines the queen’s approach to rule, and the challenges and contradictions she faced as a woman monarch. Rogers’ essay quotes one of Queen Elizabeth’s teachers, who said of her royal pupil, “Her mind has no womanly weakness. Her perseverance is equal to that of a man, and her memory long keeps what it quickly picks up.”

Observing her father’s strengths and weaknesses helped Elizabeth craft her own diplomatic strategy, experts say. Clark Hulse, a University of Illinois at Chicago professor, told Rogers that Elizabeth “was brilliant at spotting when people were playing games,” and was famous for never allowing herself to be underestimated.

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