Queen Elizabeth I
Elizabeth I had a thoroughly pragmatic attitude toward religion and, in fact, toward almost every affair of state. Elizabeth was hardly likely to profess or practice Catholicism, since the Church had excommunicated her father for marrying her mother. However, she was tolerant for a monarch of her era. She restored Anglicanism as the state religion, but believed that faith was a personal matter and should not be dictated by the crown. Elizabeth felt far more interest in managing affairs of state than in waging religious warfare.
One important aspect of Elizabeth’s realistic attitude toward ruling was her belief in the importance of personal popularity. It is clear from her actions and her writings that Elizabeth believed firmly in the divine right of kings (and queens); she considered herself an absolute monarch. However, she also knew that absolute monarchs could be overthrown or assassinated, and she knew that England’s only other experience with a female monarch, under Mary, had not inspired confidence in a woman’s ability to govern. Elizabeth’s goal as monarch was to rule a peaceful and prosperous realm. She understood that she would be able to achieve much more with a loyal population of subjects, and therefore cultivated popular goodwill as a matter of policy. She was highly successful: two of her people’s nicknames for her were “Gloriana” and “Good Queen Bess.”
Another aspect of Elizabeth’s pragmatism was her refusal to marry. Since she was a woman, she would have had to share her power with whatever prince she married, just as Isabel of Castile had recognized the wisdom of sharing her authority with Ferdinand. Elizabeth was only twenty-five when she became queen; therefore, it seemed quite likely that she would marry. In fact, she received several proposals, including one from Mary’s widower, Philip II of Spain, and another from Henry III of France. Any nation considering a matrimonial alliance with Elizabeth had to maintain good relations with England; therefore her single status, especially during her childbearing years, was very useful to her as a diplomatic tool. In fact, she never married. When she died in 1603, the Tudor dynasty ended and the crown passed to her cousin James Stuart, king of Scotland.
The period from about 1550 to 1650 is often known as the Elizabethan era. It is also called “the English Renaissance” due to a great flowering of music, visual art, poetry, and drama. Playwright and poet William Shakespeare (c. 1564–1616), who can safely be called the most important English-language writer in history, was active in London theater during Elizabeth’s reign. His colleagues included Christopher Marlowe, Ben Jonson, John Webster, and John Ford. Poets John Donne and John Milton, organist and composer Henry Purcell, and painter Hans Holbein (who had been active under Henry VIII and painted a number of the most famous images of the Tudors) were other notable creative artists of the era.
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