Flame-haired, white-faced and always lavishly dressed, Elizabeth possessed the natural charisma of her father, Henry VIII, and was the darling of her people. Her finest hour came in 1588 when she defeated the Spanish Armada, catapulting her to legendary status.
Writing for HistoryExtra, Tracy Borman reveals some surprising facts about the famous Virgin Queen, Elizabeth I…
Elizabeth was never meant to be queen
Although Elizabeth is now hailed as one of our greatest monarchs, she should never have got anywhere near the throne. She was not only a girl at a time when the laws of succession favoured boys, but she had an elder sister, Mary. Elizabeth was also removed from the line of succession altogether when her parents’ marriage was declared invalid prior to Anne Boleyn’s execution, and was only reinstated thanks to the kindly intervention of her last stepmother, Katherine Parr.
By the time of Henry VIII’s death, therefore, Elizabeth was third in line to the throne behind her younger brother Edward and elder sister Mary. It is one of the greatest ironies of history that Henry VIII had been so obsessed with having a son, yet his cherished boy only reigned for six years, dying of tuberculosis at the age of just 15. The second in line, Mary, did not fare much better. Her brief, catastrophic reign ended after just five years.
It was up to Elizabeth to show them how it ought to be done.
Elizabeth I: a biography
Born: 7 September 1533
Died: 24 March 1603
Reigned: queen of England and Ireland for 44 years, from 17 November 1558 until her death in 1603. She was the last monarch of the Tudor period
Coronation: 15 January 1559, Westminster Abbey
Cause of death: Hotly debated – possible causes include blood poisoning; pneumonia; streptococcus (infected tonsils); or cancer
Succeeded by: King James VI and I
Elizabeth was a mummy’s girl
There is a common misconception that Elizabeth thought little of her ill-fated mother, Anne Boleyn. The fact that she hardly spoke of her and saved all of her praise for her adored father, Henry VIII, has often led to the conclusion that Elizabeth was ashamed of Anne.
On the contrary: all this proved was what a great pragmatist Elizabeth was. She had no wish to alienate swathes of her subjects by openly voicing her love for the woman who was still reviled as the ‘Great Whore’. Instead, Elizabeth chose more subtle ways to demonstrate her affection. For example, when posing for a portrait during her teenage years, she wore her mother’s famous ‘A’ pendant around her neck – an audacious stunt that would have landed her in hot water if her father had spotted it.
As queen, Elizabeth made sure that all of her late mother’s relatives were promoted to the best positions at court, and she also wore a pendant necklace that contained a miniature portrait of her mother opposite one of herself.
Elizabeth liked to give nicknames to her courtiers
Elizabeth was as famous a flirt as her mother, Anne Boleyn. She loved to surround herself with the most handsome men at court, and also entertained various foreign princes all hoping for her hand in marriage.
Elizabeth used her femininity to bring a male-dominated court to its knees, and gave playful nicknames to her favourites. Her chief minister, Burghley, was called her ‘spirit’, and her alleged lover, Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, was her ‘eyes’. Rather more cheekily, she called François, Duke of Anjou, her ‘frog’.
Was she really a Virgin Queen?
Elizabeth I was England’s ‘Gloriana’ – a virgin queen who saw herself as wedded to her country. Or was she?
Both at home and abroad, rumours about Elizabeth’s love life – real or imagined – circulated throughout her reign. Over the years, countless books, novels, plays and films have depicted Elizabeth I’s relationships with figures such as Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester; Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex, and the Duke of Anjou. In the absence of conclusive proof one way or another, the question ‘did they or didn’t they?’ will always linger.
Far from being the Virgin Queen, for some hostile observers Elizabeth was the ‘whore’ of Europe, says Dr Anna Whitelock.
Read more about Elizabeth I’s love life
Elizabeth used dirty tactics to outshine her rivals
Elizabeth exalted in being the queen bee at court. But although for the early part of her reign she was the most desirable bride in Europe, as her physical charms began to fade she employed dirty tactics to make sure that she kept all of the male attention to herself. Thus, while Elizabeth appeared at court bedecked in lavish gowns of rich materials and vivid colours, her ladies were obliged to wear only black or white.
No matter how attractive they might be in their own right, the plain uniformity of their dress would draw all eyes to the star of the show. To test the effect that this created, the queen once asked a visiting French nobleman what he thought of her ladies. He immediately protested that he was unable to ‘judge stars in the presence of the sun’. This was exactly the response Elizabeth required.
Elizabeth I’s war with England’s Catholics
“England’s Elizabethan Catholics were public enemy number one,” says Jessie Childs. “Their Masses were banned and their priests were executed”. Around 200 Catholics were executed, effectively for their beliefs, during Elizabeth’s reign.
Catholics in Elizabeth’s Protestant England couldn’t hold public office, they couldn’t take up arms for the monarch, and they were fined if they refused to attend Anglican services. They were also banned from observing Mass.
Read more about Elizabeth I’s war with England’s Catholics
Get inside the mind of Elizabeth I – Helen Castor explores the psychology of the Virgin Queen on our podcast
Elizabeth I took longer to get ready than any other monarch
Elizabeth was always fastidious about her appearance, but the ritual of dressing the queen became increasingly elaborate as age began to overtake her: it took her ladies a staggering four hours a day to complete the ceremony of dressing and undressing the queen.
Elizabeth had originally worn wigs that matched her own colouring, but as she grew older these were used to conceal her greying hair. At the same time, ever more layers of makeup were applied to complete the so-called ‘mask of youth’. Her face, neck and hands were painted with ceruse (a mixture of white lead and vinegar); her lips were coloured with a red paste made from beeswax and plant dye, and her eyes were lined with kohl.
Why did she wear white make-up?
“Elizabeth I, the all-glorious queen of magnificence and spectacular display, was celebrated for her ageless glamour, her white flawless skin and sumptuous clothing,” says Dr Anna Whitelock. Yet over the 40-plus years of her rule, the young and pretty Elizabeth aged into a balding, frail woman with black, rotten and foul-smelling teeth; scarred by pox, crippled by headaches and plagued by bouts of depression.
“Elizabeth’s contemporaries believed that beauty amplified female power, and so they regarded the queen’s splendour as confirmation of her claim to the throne,” Whitelock explains.
“An elderly, unmarried queen with no heir raised fears. Over the course of her reign the physical reality of Elizabeth’s weak, female and ageing ‘natural body’ had to be reconciled with the unerring and immortal ‘body politic’.”
Read more about Elizabeth I’s make-up regime
Ironically, most of these cosmetics did more damage to the skin than ageing ever could. Ceruse was particularly corrosive, and one contemporary observed with some distaste: “Those women who use it about their faces, do quickly become withered and grey headed, because this doth so mightily drie up the naturall moisture of their flesh.”
But Elizabeth insisted that she continue to be adorned with this and other dangerous cosmetics, and only ever let her closest ladies see what lay beneath. When the impetuous Earl of Essex famously burst into her chamber before Elizabeth was dressed or made up, he was so shocked by her haggard appearance that he secretly joked about her “crooked carcass” to his friends. Elizabeth found out and it was said that she cut off his head in revenge – although his rebellion against her [in February 1601] probably had something to do with it.
Elizabeth might have been a man (!)
Although she has gone down in history as the Virgin Queen, upon her accession it was widely expected that Elizabeth would marry. But as she continued to resist pressure from her councillors to take a husband, rumours began to circulate that there was some secret reason why she was so determined not to marry.
One of the most popular was that Elizabeth had some ‘womanish infirmity’ that prevented her from conceiving. This gained such currency that a foreign ambassador bribed the queen’s laundresses to report on the state of her sheets so that they might discover whether her menstrual cycle was normal.
- Did Elizabeth I and Mary, Queen of Scots really meet?
- Queens at war: Elizabeth I vs Mary, Queen of Scots
At the opposite end of the scale, there was a theory that the real reason Elizabeth would not marry was because she was really a man. According to the ‘Bisley Boy’ story, the real Elizabeth had died as a young girl and been replaced by the only redheaded child that could be found. The fact that he was a boy was inconvenient, but he spent the rest of his life dressing as a woman to continue the pretence.
The Bisley Boy theory has proved a curiously enduring one, despite the lack of any reliable evidence.
Deadly rivals: Elizabeth I and Mary, Queen of Scots
Elizabeth I’s relationship with Mary, Queen of Scots (her first cousin once removed) dominated English and Scottish politics for 20 years.
In November 1558 Elizabeth I acceded to the throne of England having been acknowledged as Henry VIII’s heir in her father’s will and testament. Yet for many Catholics in England and abroad, Elizabeth was illegitimate. They saw Mary Stuart, queen of Scotland and legitimate granddaughter of Henry’s sister Margaret Tudor, as the rightful queen of England.
Elizabeth eventually authorised the execution of Mary in February 1587.
Read more about the rivalry between Elizabeth I and Mary, Queen of Scots
Elizabeth is a screen star
Elizabeth has been portrayed more often in film and on television than any other British monarch. First was Sarah Bernhardt in Les Amours de la Reine Elisabeth (1912), then Bette Davis played her twice – first in The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939) and again in The Virgin Queen (1955).
Many more actresses followed, including the iconic portrayal by Glenda Jackson in the BBC television series Elizabeth R (1971). Perhaps inspired by the Bisley Boy legend, a man was cast to play her in 1992’s Orlando, when Quentin Crisp took on the role.
More recently, Cate Blanchett gave us a distinctly un-virginal Elizabeth in the films of 1998 and 2007, while Judi Dench won an Oscar for her brief but brilliant portrayal in Shakespeare in Love (1998). Helen Mirren took on the role with typical aplomb in the TV mini-series Elizabeth I in 2005. Time-travelling time lord, Doctor Who, has also bumped in Queen Elizabeth I in episodes from 1965 and 2007.
- Think you know Elizabeth I? Test your knowledge with our Elizabeth I quiz
Tracy Borman is a leading historian and joint chief curator for Historic Royal Palaces. The paperback of her biography, Thomas Cromwell: The Untold Story of Henry VIII’s Most Faithful Servant (Hodder & Stoughton, 2015) reached number four on The Times Bestseller list and number nine in the Sunday Times bestsellers. To find out more, visit www.tracyborman.co.uk.
This article was first published by HistoryExtra in April 2015