Women in Power: Queen Elizabeth I

Portrait painting of Queen Elizabeth I dressed in her famous clothing and covered in pearls 1588
Queen Elizabeth I of England painted by George Gower, circa 1588. Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

On January 15th, 1559, Elizabeth I was crowned the Queen of England with her coronation marking the beginning of a period of stability and prosperity for the country. Following her 45 year-long rule, Elizabeth I has gone down in history as one of the greatest female leaders to have ever ruled, with feminist politics and ideals that aren’t dissimilar to what we see today. 

We have investigated everything you need to know about Elizabeth I and her iconic role in English political history as the country’s ‘Gloriana’. 

Family Life

Parents of Queen Elizabeth I, King Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn
The parents of Queen Elizabeth I, King Henry VIII, and Queen Anne Boleyn. Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Elizabeth I was the only surviving child of Henry VIII’s relationship with Anne Boleyn. The young Elizabeth was only 2 years old when her father imprisoned and executed her mother on charges of adultery, treason, and witchcraft. It is well recorded that Elizabeth I excelled in her schooling and was multilingual by her adolescence. Historians believe that the Queen had a particular interest in music and played multiple instruments too, most famously the lute. 

It is often believed that Elizabeth thought very little of her late mother, Anne. However, historians now believe this to be untrue and that Elizabeth showed her affection towards her mother in more understated and subtle ways. For example, a famous portrait of Elizabeth was painted around 10 years prior to her coronation, and in the painting, you can quite clearly see that Elizabeth is wearing the same pearl and gold initialed necklace that Anne did in her royal portrait. Throughout her reign, it is also believed the Queen wore a pendant necklace with a small portrait of Anne on the other side of it.  

Early Reign

Queen Elizabeth I painted in her coronation robes and holding the crown jewels.
Queen Elizabeth in her coronation robes painted in circa 1600 as a copy of a lost 1559 original. Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

In fact, Elizabeth was actually never truly ‘meant’ to become queen. Not only did she have a brother, Edward, but also an older sister, Mary I. So a rule from Elizabeth was highly unlikely and only really happened through chance. Henry VIII also completely removed Elizabeth from the line of succession when the marriage between the King and Anne Boleyn was deemed void following her mother’s execution. It was only her stepmother, Catherine Parr, who intervened and asked for her to be reinstated.

Following the death of her brother, Edward, five years into his reign and Mary’s quick and terrible reign, Elizabeth was finally crowned Queen of England and Ireland in 1559.

A Rocky Start That Paid Off

Queen Elizabeth I sitting in the center of Parliament surrounded by Lords, Bishops and other peers that work within parliament.
A 1682 Engraving by After Renold Elstrack depicting Queen Elizabeth I in Parliament. Met Museum // Public Domain

Elizabeth inherited a divided and financially unstable country and she was immediately aware that England needed saving. The Queen is known to have inherited a debt of around £300,000 and concluded her reign with an overall surplus of £300,000 in England.

The Queen knew that she had to quell religious tensions in the country, so in her first session of Parliament in 1559, she introduced the common prayer book. She took a moderate and reasonable approach to religion and was recorded as explaining, ‘There is one Jesus Christ…the rest is a dispute over trifles’.

She surrounded herself with a court and council of advisors whom she could trust. Historians even believe she came up with nicknames for her courtiers, with her alleged lover and privy councilman, Robert Dudley, being known as her ‘eyes’.

Elizabeth I’s rule has been widely referred to as ‘Englands Golden Age’ because of how successful the Queen was at restoring peace and stability to the country and its people. In 1601, Elizabeth gave her ‘Golden Speech’ which is still one of the most well-known parliamentary speeches ever given. This was her last speech to her court where she explained, ‘though you have had, and may have, many mightier and wiser princes sitting in this seat, yet you never had, nor shall have, any that will love you better’.

The Virgin Queen

Painting of Robert Dudley in a yellow outfit with a sword. Painted in circa 1560.
Painting of Robert Dudley, 1st Earl of Leicester who was a favorite of the Queen. Painted in circa 1560. Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

As Elizabeth I never married, her relationships with the opposite sex were highly discussed and disputed not only throughout her court but also throughout the rest of the country. Various rumors seemed to constantly fly around about her relationship to Robert Dudley, even more so following the sudden death of Dudley’s wife. 

Especially during the early years of her reign, Elizabeth I almost constantly had suitors suggested to her from across Europe, the Archduke of Austria and King Henry III of France both asked for her hand in marriage. Although, it is believed that after her sister’s unpopular marriage to Philip II of Spain, Elizabeth always remained hesitant to agree to any of her suitors’ advancements.

A Fashion Icon

Painting of the Queen known as the Ermine Portrait, shows her wearing a decorated black dress covered in jewels. Painting attributed to William Segar in circa 1585.
Painting of Queen Elizabeth known as the Ermine Portrait, shows her wearing a decorated black dress covered in jewels. Painting attributed to William Segar in circa 1585. Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Aside from her political prowess, Elizabeth I was known for her love of fashion and was famously known as taking the longest to get dressed out of any monarch from the time. Historians estimate that it took four chambermaids to dress her every day and get her makeup ready.

In her youth, Elizabeth was known for her thick and curly ginger hair as well as her fair complexion. As she aged, Elizabeth began wearing elaborate wigs as her hair began turning grey. It is widely believed that Elizabeth feared having her people recognize her aging and so was determined to mask this at all costs.

After contracting smallpox, Elizabeth was left with extensive facial scarring so, throughout her life, she turned to makeup to conceal these marks. She asked for her face to be painted with ceruse, a mix of lead and vinegar. She also had rouge applied to her lips and a cream blusher made from red dye and egg whites applied to her cheeks. The lead and vinegar mix Elizabeth used ended up corroding her face and, ultimately, caused more harm than good. One of her chambermaids even explained, ‘those women who use it about their faces, do quickly become withered and grey-headed…this doth so mightily drie up the naturall moisture of their flesh’.

Elizabeth I was, like most people of the time, known to have struggled with rotting gums and teeth. By the end of her life, Elizabeth was left with almost no teeth due to this rot and historians believe she stuffed her cheeks with rags in order to disguise any damage.


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One Response

  1. Who took care of Young Queen Elizabeth I when the King murdered his wife & child’s mother?
    How old was Elizabeth when King Henry VIII married Catherine Parr?

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