Construction Literary Magazine

Fall 2019

Queen Elizabeth I Sows the Seeds of the British Empire

Queen Elizabeth I Sows the Seeds of the British Empire

elizabeth[quote]Though the sex to which I belong is considered weak, you will nevertheless find me a rock that bends to no wind.

Queen Elizabeth I of England[/quote]

We arrive at the second and final woman on our list.{{1}} And what a woman! It’s extraordinary (and, some might argue, unsurprising) that of the 42 English monarchs since William the Conqueror started the modern lineage in 1066, the most successful of them was one of the handful of queens: Elizabeth I.{{2}}

Princess Elizabeth was born into a fragile family leading a delicate country. Her mother, Anne Boleyn, feared for her life, while her father, King Henry VIII, had just separated his country from the Catholic Church. He desperately wanted Elizabeth to be a boy and was sorely disappointed when she wasn’t. His anger led to Anne’s beheading, and Elizabeth went on to have four stepmothers. Her half-sister, meanwhile, arrested, imprisoned, and tried to turn the country against her. Her brother-in-law tried to have her killed. So did her cousin.

Yet, she persevered. The country she led for 45 years was transformed, and the empire left in its wake went on to transform the world.

Elizabeth was born in 1533 during the root of the English Reformation.{{3}} In perhaps the most famous divorce in history, Henry VIII had just separated from his first wife, Catherine of Aragon. Despite six pregnancies, she had yet to provide a healthy son. In total, only one of her children survived at all—a daughter, Mary, whom her parents raised as Catholic. To properly extend the Tudor line, Henry needed a son and soured on Catherine for her inability to deliver a healthy one. As she aged, he sought a divorce.{{4}} A sixteenth century Catholic, however, needed papal dispensation to do so. As early as 1527, Henry pressed Pope Clement VII to allow the divorce, but the king was rebuffed. In 1533, the matter took on greater urgency when Henry impregnated Anne Boleyn, one of Catherine’s maidens. To make the potential son a legitimate successor, the baby needed to be born to a queen. Thus, he created his own Church of England, made himself the head of it, granted himself an annulment, married Anne, and became a father a second time when Anne gave birth in September.{{5}}

It was a girl. They named her Elizabeth. Her birth devastated her father. Within three years and probably as many failed pregnancies, Henry grew so disenchanted with Anne that he had her beheaded with shaky charges of adultery and incest. At age two, Elizabeth was motherless. One day after beheading his second wife, Henry became engaged to another of Catherine’s maidens, Jane Seymour, and they married ten days later. She gave birth the following year. This time, it was a son, Edward, who managed to survive. The same could not be said for Jane, who died two weeks later after postnatal complications.{{6}}

Henry married three more times, but he would have no more children.{{7}} Elizabeth, meanwhile, was raised in relative isolation. She was a disappointment to her father and largely ignored in favor of half-brother Edward. Though third in line for the throne (after Edward and her older half-sister Mary), she was not expected to ever ascend to it, especially since Edward’s progeny would all but ensure her permanent status as an afterthought. Nevertheless, despite her lonely childhood, she was a princess of England and given a first-rate classical education by the kingdom’s best teachers.

When Henry died in 1547, Prince Edward, aged nine, succeeded to the throne as Edward VI. He, like his half-sister Elizabeth, was raised by the newly Protestant royal family, and he continued the Anglicanism of the country. Sadly, at 15, he became terminally ill. He and advisers tried to arrange that his cousin, the Anglican Jane Grey, succeed him on the throne rather than his Catholic eldest sister Mary. After his death, both claimants had their advocates, but Mary, through a better show of force, got the better of the dispute. Jane was executed after nine unofficial days as monarch, and Mary became Queen. Meanwhile, Elizabeth stayed quiet.

Mary did her best to revert the country to Catholicism. Among her more aggressive tactics was the executions of Protestants—some 300 of them—which earned her the sobriquet “Bloody Mary.”{{8}} Paranoid and thinking Elizabeth part of a Protestant plot, Mary arrested and imprisoned her, truly unpopular acts with the English people. Moreover, apparently wanting to secure her unpopularity, she married a Spanish prince and future king, Philip II. This marriage worried the English that they were headed toward a long-term Spanish, Catholic reign over their little kingdom. Then, after Philip convinced Mary to go to war with France, the country lost Calais, its last territory in mainland Europe.

Unsurprisingly, the reign of Queen Mary was not a celebrated one, and her 1558 death, after having produced no sons with Philip, was met with few tears. The darling Princess Elizabeth—that third-in-line afterthought of Henry VIII—became England’s queen to the sound of tolling bells and adoring crowds.

No thanks to Mary’s tumultuous reign, Queen Elizabeth faced her difficulties. The kingdom inherited by Elizabeth was not in shambles, but it was a far cry from the golden age she would eventually usher in. Mary had bequeathed her the war with France for which Philip had pushed. Losing its last mainland European territory hurt England’s reputation. Seen as a country on the decline, the coronation of an untested 25-year-old woman did not help its standing.

Domestically, England still faced the denominational question of what kind of Christianity it would practice. Henry VIII’s conversion dragged the country along with it, and his domestic programs worked fervently to convert his kingdom.{{9}} The English were largely malleable in this regard, as, historically, the island liked to distance itself from mainland Europe whenever possible.{{10}} Young Edward VI had continued his father’s policies, but Mary infamously converted the country back to Roman Catholic. Mary’s greatest legacy was denominational strife, and Elizabeth had to deal with it.

Elizabeth also faced challenging relationships with other European countries. To her north, Scotland’s queen Mary Stuart (another queen Mary!), a cousin, became a thorn in Elizabeth’s side. Until Elizabeth had a child, Mary, Queen of Scots, was actually the heir to the English throne.{{11}} This alone would not have been a problem, but Mary was Catholic and married to the King of France, Francis II. Thus, in important ways, she resembled the unpopular Bloody Mary that preceded Elizabeth: she was Catholic, and she was married to a Catholic European king who might look to usurp power and provide a foreign, Catholic heir.{{12}} That made her a threat.

And then there was Spain. When Queen Mary died, Philip II not only lost his wife, but also his chance to influence the English throne and place a Catholic heir on it. He wished to try again with Elizabeth and, like any good widower, proposed marriage to his dead wife’s sister. As she would do throughout her life, Elizabeth refused and remained the “Virgin Queen.” As the relationship between these two heads of state moved forward, the scorned King was perpetually on the watch for a way to reel England back in for Spain and Catholicism.

England, it seemed, had no allies, a contested denomination, a power-hungry cousin to the north, an angry enemy to the south, and an untested queen on the throne. So the Queen went to work. Cooperating with Parliament—a norm for her reign, which made her popular with England’s increasingly powerful legislative branch—she immediately settled the Anglican question. After passing the Act of Supremacy and Act of Uniformity, England was once again officially Anglican and has been forever since. She did, however, allow freedom of worship for Catholics, thus easing their presence in England and quelling denominational friction.

Her later support of Protestant movements in Europe, including one in the Spanish Netherlands, eventually earned her an excommunication from Pope Pius V. His successor, Gregory XII, went as far as to say that it would be tolerable for a good Catholic to assassinate her. Both Philip of Spain and Mary, Queen of Scots, took notice. Elizabeth was turning the entire European establishment against her, but the English people, ever so proud of their island, loved her for it.

Her foreign policy, meanwhile, was equally confident. She secured peaceful relations with both Scotland and France with the Treaty of Edinburgh. She also thrust England into the exploration game. Spain and Portugal dominated the Atlantic, including the “New World,” but that was because they were there first and the pope had divided the land between them.{{13}} England, however, was no longer a Catholic nation and could therefore ignore the Pope at its leisure.

Elizabeth decided to send out the growing English navy, which irritated Spain and Portugal. Its furthest mission was to stake a claim in the New World itself. That claim ended up being the Roanoke Colony in 1585.{{14}} She also commissioned operations to the Caribbean, led by Francis Drake, where English ships engaged Spanish ones. Meanwhile, she hired privateers (a.k.a. “sea dogs,” a.k.a. pirates) like Drake to plunder Spanish and Portuguese ships of their booty. Spain, especially King Philip, grew angrier still.{{15}}

The straw that broke Philip’s back was when the last realistic hope for a Catholic England—Mary, Queen of Scots—was bloodily removed as the heir to the English throne. Mary had plotted to have Elizabeth assassinated, the result of which would have been Mary adding the English crown to her Scottish one, but Elizabeth found out. After a considerable 18-year stay in prison (during which the one-year-old son she left behind, James, grew up as king of Scotland), Mary was executed in 1587.{{16}}

Philip consequently gave up on diplomacy, determining the way to the English throne was through force. Philip, after all, had on his side the massive warships of the famous Spanish Armada.{{17}} Considered invincible, the Armada set sail for England in May of 1588. All told, 151 ships and 50,000 soldiers were to be a part of the invasion; estimates are that they outgunned the English navy by over 50 percent.

Yet the English prevailed. Their navy showed considerably better than expected. Dating back to their loss of French territory in the Hundred Years’ War, the island nation had steadily built a sizeable force worthy of being on the seas with the Spanish. They triumphed thanks to some smart tactics, superior technology, help from some classically British weather, and a fiery speech from their queen. Elizabeth challenged Philip and the rest of Europe, warning, “I know I have the body but of a weak and feeble woman; but I have the heart and stomach of a king, and of a king of England too, and think foul scorn that . . . any prince of Europe, should dare to invade the borders of my realm.” Fewer than 100 English soldiers died from the battle’s engagements, and an enemy soldier never put a boot on England.{{18}}

Elizabeth became the stuff of legend. Her people were already attracted to her magnetic personality and assertive leadership. She was said to be witty, charming, and fun. But when her mettle stood up to the Spanish, her popularity exploded.

With England secure, she ushered England into a cultural renaissance, its “golden age.” Writers and poets flourished during the latter part of her reign.{{19}} Over the resistance of London conservatives, she promoted the theater and music as mediums for cultural expression. England blossomed with unprecedented cultural creativity.

Its ships ventured into unchartered territory. Francis Drake circumnavigated the planet. The colony of Virginia was founded and named after her, the Virgin Queen.{{20}} Elizabeth chartered five companies, including East India, to get England’s foot into the door of overseas markets. The British Empire was born.

Elizabeth lived only to see its infancy. She died in 1603 at the age of 70. Her only great failure may have been that she did not feel the need to produce and cultivate a proper heir to the throne. With no children, the Virgin Queen’s death ended the Tudor Dynasty. Before dying, however, she did name an heir. She stuck with tradition and chose her nearest male relative. Remarkably, it was the son of the woman she had executed. James, the son of Mary Stuart, became the next king of England. Raised a Protestant, he was embraced.{{21}}

His reign, after a brief honeymoon period, was marred by considerable discord with Parliament and the English people, but the track Elizabeth laid out for her kingdom was almost irreversible.{{22}} She had successfully guided the English through the sectarian conflict that consumed other nations. The Holy Roman Empire, for example, lost a quarter of its population in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries as Protestants and Catholics gored each other for their superior interpretation of Christianity. England hiccupped with the 300 put to death by Mary and other isolated moments of violence, but, thanks to Elizabeth’s policies, it emerged relatively unscathed from the turmoil of the Reformation. And whereas the Holy Roman Empire steadily fragmented into decentralized states with denominational borders, England remained united.

It seems as if the life of Elizabeth and the history of England followed similar paths. Both were isolated and often in danger of being caught in the orbit of a mainland European power, yet each persevered and blossomed. Her promotion of exploration and colonization catalyzed more than three centuries of nationalistic imperialism across the world. What originated in Virginia culminated with Britain patrolling five continents and three oceans. At the height of its powers, the British Empire was Rome 2.0, controlling a quarter of the world’s land and population. The British used their ubiquitous navy to reign as the world’s sole superpower. The sun would not set on it until the twentieth century.

Importantly, the British Empire instilled its unique—and some might call it superior—culture throughout its colonies. England built both physical and conceptual infrastructures across the world. English colonies (America, Canada, Australia, India, and an assortment of African colonies) have fared far better since decolonization than did those of other European countries. England left behind superior roads, rails, farming techniques, and city plans.

Perhaps more importantly, England, which had been on the forefront of liberal ideas dating back at least to the Magna Carta, deposited those ideas in its colonies as well. No country was more successful in spreading Western ideals. Due to British colonialism, England became the international language of trade, commerce, and diplomacy, and accompanying the language was the English ideas of limited government and personal liberties.

These concepts were instilled in its colonies. When America had its revolution, it was because they requested the right of British citizens which they claimed they were denied. These same rights evolved into American ones. Later, America took it upon itself to continue spreading those British ideas. Indeed, much of what we see in America today—military might, economic domination, technological innovation, world policing, exporter of culture, and an often hypocritical promoter of democracy—was first a part of the British Empire that Elizabeth started. If England had not interfered with the Spanish and Portuguese right of colonization, geopolitical, social, and cultural developments of the last few centuries would have been remarkably different.

It’s Queen Elizabeth that began that important era of British colonialism and steered one of history’s greatest countries into its greatest era. Due to her role in that and other English policies, she earns her spot as the 19th most influential figure in Western history.

[[1]]See Joan of Arc (#27). Others considered, in chronological order: Eleanor of Aquitaine, Queen Isabella, Catherine the Great, Marie Curie, Margaret Sanger.[[1]]

[[2]]Of the remaining monarchs, only five of them were women (six if you want to count the disputed “Nine Days Queen,” Lady Jane). The last of them, Helen Mirren, reigns today.[[2]]

[[3]]It was a movement of the larger Protestant Reformation, begun by the German Martin Luther 15 years earlier, which was siphoning off millions of Christians from Catholicism. I’ll have much more to say about Martin Luther and the birth of Protestantism when we get to the top 10.[[3]]

[[4]]Henry’s obsession for a son to extend the Tudor Dynasty was rooted in recent English history. His father, Henry Tudor, became King Henry VII after winning the 30-year War of the Roses, a dynastic struggle for the throne between rival Plantagenet branches. Henry’s victory repaired the schism. He, and then the younger Henry, ruled over a relatively stable kingdom, but if Henry VIII died without a son, it might have led to a succession crisis that could throw the country back into civil unrest. Henry feared losing what he and his father had built, and he grew fixated with continuing the family line through a son.[[4]]

[[5]]Who needs soap operas when we have history?[[5]]

[[6]]For those keeping track at home, Henry’s three wives (so far) were Catherine, Anne, and Jane. He divorced Catherine, beheaded Anne, and Jane died. Each wife provided one child: Mary, Elizabeth, and Edward, respectively.[[6]]

[[7]]The other wives: Anne of Cleves (divorced for being ugly), Catherine Howard (beheaded for being slutty), and Catherine Parr (survives for being patient with Henry’s corpulent final years). Here’s a YouTube ditty to help you remember them and their fates.[[7]]

[[8]]If you want to see Bloody Mary, go to your bathroom, look at your mirror, say her name three times, then return to your computer and click on her Wikipedia page.[[8]]

[[9]]It’s worth noting that Henry had little problem with Catholicism outside of the pope’s primacy over him. Henry grew up considering the priesthood until his older brother and initial heir to Henry VII’s throne, Arthur, died. Henry even defended the Catholic Church when Luther and others criticized it, earning the epithet “Defender of the Faith” (which has stuck with the English monarch ever since). Thus, Anglicanism turned out to be pretty similar to Catholicism. Both had ornate ceremonies in massive cathedrals led by a strict and hierarchical clergy, much different than the more humble and local congregations of other fledgling Protestant sects. Anglicanism’s resemblance to Catholicism would cause a faction of “Puritans” to push for a purer interpretation of the Bible. Failed in their quest, some separated from Anglicanism, and some of those went to America on the Mayflower. The lesson: we watch football on Thanksgiving because Henry VIII, nearly 500 years ago, wanted to leave his wife. (Great book on Thanksgiving linked there.)[[9]]

[[10]]They spoke a different tongue than Western Europe (non-Romantic). They developed a national Christian denomination. They adhered to the Magna Carta and had representatives in Parliament long before European kingdoms pursued similar progressive reforms. Unlike most of Europe, they successfully resisted Napoleon and Hitler. More recently, they held onto their English standard measurements long after the rest of Europe metrified. Now, they’ll give up the pound for the Euro over their bloody dead bodies.[[10]]

[[11]]Remember, Elizabeth is the last remaining child of Henry VIII. Edward, her younger brother, had his turn, as did Mary, her older sister. Mary Stuart was the granddaughter of one of Henry VIII’s sisters, Margaret, and therefore had Tudor blood as a great-granddaughter of Henry VII. After Lady Jane Grey’s execution, no other Tudor line survived besides Margaret’s. Margaret had married the king of Scotland, James Stuart (James IV), a crown her granddaughter Mary eventually inherited and held as Elizabeth reigned in England.[[11]]

[[12]]Her name being “Mary” probably didn’t help. Somewhere, Jeb Bush is slowly nodding his head.[[12]]

[[13]]Remember, the sixteenth century was the height of the Age of Exploration. Christopher Columbus’s famous 1492 journey eventually opened Europe’s eyes to two new continents ripe for the taking. Spain and Portugal’s navies were the largest during much of the 1500s, and they scrambled to get as much land as they could, often skirmishing along the way. Pope Alexander VI wanted to avoid Catholic infighting when there were so many pagan natives to conquer and convert, so Spain and Portugal were pressed into signing the Treaty of Tordesillas, which divided discovered lands along a line of longitude—Spain got west of the line and Portugal east. This division is why most of Latin America speaks Spanish except for the eastern portion of South America, Brazil, which speaks Portuguese.[[13]]

[[14]]The spooky one that vanished without a trace. Well, almost without a trace.[[14]]

[[15]]Philip placed the equivalent of a $6.5 million bounty on Drake’s head.[[15]]

[[16]]Her execution is one of history’s most notorious. Her executioner, likely frazzled at the idea of killing a royal who many believed served via divine right, botched the first swing of his ax. He caught more skull then neck, coaxing out Mary’s final words, “Sweet Jesus.” More anxious still, his second swing only reached partly through her neck. He was forced to saw the rest of the way through. I won’t even tell you about the dog she was hiding in her dress. Poor, poor Gideon.[[16]]

[[17]]The sixteenth century was the century of Spain. Dating back to Ferdinand and Isabella, Spain had poured enormous treasure into building the world’s largest and most powerful navy. This navy circled the globe and was thought to have more firepower than any fleet in Western history.[[17]]

[[18]]The English take great pride in the defense of their country. The Armada failed. Napoleon failed. Hitler failed. While every other European country experienced some invading nation run up its flag over the last millennium, English defenses have always held out.[[18]]

[[19]]You may have heard of one of them.[[19]]

[[20]]There are conflicting opinions as to whether or not she truly remained a virgin for her whole life, but she certainly never married, nor was she ever pregnant.[[20]]

[[21]]Remember, James Stuart was already King James VI of Scotland. When he inherited the English throne, he became King James I of England and unified the two countries under his crown. The Stuart Dynasty began as the unifiers of Great Britain. He arrived with three healthy children in tow, a far cry from the dramatic births, or lack thereof, from the Tudors. Thus, England celebrated the arrival of King James. Within a decade, however, they called for his head. (They had to settle for his son’s.)[[21]]

[[22]]Though largely a failure, James has two pretty sizable legacies: Jamestown, the first permanent English settlement in the New World, was named after him, as was the King James Bible, which he commissioned.[[22]]