Despite being born to royalty, Elizabeth’s life wasn’t an easy one. Her mother was executed less than three years after her birth and her father had her declared illegitimate, neglecting her to such an extent that her nurse had to beg his chancellor for money to buy young Elizabeth new clothes. Things improved a bit as Henry got older, and she received an excellent education, becoming known as the best-educated woman of her generation. By the time Henry VIII died in 1547, Elizabeth and her older half-sister Mary had also been restored to the succession, following their younger brother, Edward.
Elizabeth’s last stepmother, Katherine Parr, quickly remarried to Thomas Seymour and took Elizabeth into her household. What happened at the house has been the subject of much debate amongst historians ever since. Thomas Seymour immediately began paying the young princess a lot of attention and behaving in a way everyone except his wife deemed wildly inappropriate. It’s possible the two had an all-out affair, but this has never been proven. Katherine finally lost her patience when she found the two embracing, and Elizabeth was sent away in May 1548. Katherine died that September, shortly after giving birth to her only child. Many historians speculate that the deaths of Anne Boleyn, Katherine Seymour, and Elizabeth’s fifth stepmother, her mother’s cousin Katherine Howard, gave Elizabeth a lifelong aversion to marriage. That didn’t stop Seymour from trying to marry her after his wife’s death. After that plan failed, he attempted to take control of the young king, and he was arrested and executed for treason in 1549.
Edward died in 1553, and after a brief interlude with Lady Jane Grey on the throne, Mary I was named queen and rode into London with Elizabeth at her side. Devoutly Catholic, Mary set out to return England to “the true faith” and destroy Protestantism. Elizabeth, who had been raised as a Protestant, outwardly conformed to Catholicism, but she quickly became the focus of Protestant uprisings throughout the country. After Wyatt’s Rebellion in 1554, she was imprisoned in the Tower of London, and then placed under house arrest for a year. After coming to the throne on a wave of popularity, Mary’s support ebbed sharply, and when she died in 1558, many in the country rejoiced to see Elizabeth become queen.
Despite being a Protestant, Elizabeth was no zealot. She refused to embrace the radical Puritans and instead opted for a church that had the monarch as its head but retained many Catholic elements. She quickly repealed the heresy laws passed by Mary and used to persecute dissenters.
The question of marriage soon became an important one. Elizabeth was young and was the last of the Tudors. Several European princes and noblemen vied for her hand throughout her reign, but she avoided marriage her entire life, instead skillfully playing her suitors off one another for political gain. Fearing a political coup, she also refused to name an heir to her throne.
The most likely heir was Mary, Queen of Scots, a great-granddaughter of Henry VII. But Mary was Catholic and Elizabeth was reluctant to bring her closer to the English throne. After Mary was forced to abdicate and flee to England, Elizabeth had her imprisoned for nearly 20 years. Mary became the focus of Catholic plots against Elizabeth’s life, and finally Elizabeth had her executed.
Unlike her father, Elizabeth was reluctant to engage herself in foreign military squabbles. She did, however, send an army to aid Protestant Dutch rebels against Philip II of Spain in 1585, kicking off the Anglo-Spanish War, which lasted until 1604 and was highlighted by the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588. Elizabeth instead focused on establishing trade with other countries, including Russia, the Barbary states, and the Ottoman Empire.
Elizabeth became increasingly paranoid in her later life, cracking down on Catholics and executing Mary of Scotland. The country started going through a difficult time: crops failed and taxes rose to pay for ongoing wars with Spain and in Ireland. She also unwisely started handing out monopolies like Halloween candy, which led to price fixing and even more resentment.
Still, the latter part of her reign wasn’t all doom and gloom. It was, perhaps, one of the greatest moments in English literary history, as Shakespeare, Edmund Spenser, and Christopher Marlowe were all active, and Elizabethan theater finally came into its own.
Even as she aged, Elizabeth refused to name an heir to her throne. By the turn of the century, her chief advisor, Robert Cecil, took matters into his own hands and started secretly negotiating with James VI of Scotland. He coached James to humor and flatter Elizabeth, and James obeyed, to Elizabeth’s delight.
Elizabeth remained in good health until the autumn of 1602, when several deaths amongst her friends pushed her into a depression. She fell ill in March 1603 and died on March 24 at Richmond Palace. A few hours after her death, Cecil and the council proclaimed James VI of Scotland king of England, and the Stuart dynasty began.