With just a week to go before voting closes in the Grand Final of Rex Factor, who do you think deserves to be crowned the Rex Factor champion? We’ve already give you reasons to vote for Alfred the Great, and Henry II but if you are still to cast your vote then you should give serious consideration to the Tudor Queen – Elizabeth I.
Elizabeth I’s birth in 1533 came as something of a disappointment – her father had gone to incredible effort to divorce his first wife in order to produce a son and heir, so a “boy without a winkle” was not on his Christmas list! Elizabeth’s mother, Anne Boleyn, was executed just three years later and the young Elizabeth found herself declared illegitimate. The next twenty years of her life saw the Tudors at their most chaotic: Henry VIII broke from Rome, dissolved the monasteries and created his own Church of England; his infant son, Edward VI, enacted a Protestant Reformation only for him to be succeeded by his Catholic sister Mary (after ending the nine day rule of Lady Jane Grey) leading to the restoration of Catholicism and burning of Protestants. Elizabeth did well to survive, being under suspicion as the figurehead for Protestant plots such as the Wyatt Rebellion. That Elizabeth survived was due largely to her intelligence (she spoke numerous languages and translated classical texts for fun) and her political nous. When she came to the throne, her motto was Semper Eadem (always the same) indicating a focus on stability: more moderate in religion than her predecessors, loyal to her ministers and mindful of public opinion. This did not free her reign from danger, however: as only the second woman to rule England, there was great pressure on Elizabeth to marry; she was excommunicated by the Pope, whose calls for Catholics to assassinate her led to numerous plots on her life; her Catholic cousin, Mary Queen of Scots, was a focal point for plots when she was exiled in England and, following Mary’s execution, the Spanish launched a huge naval invasion force (the Armada) only to be foiled by Sir Francis Drake and the weather. When Elizabeth died in 1603, the country had come through the threat of civil war and invasion and instead enjoyed a golden age that lay the roots for future glories.
BattleynessUnlike Alfred and Henry II, Elizabeth did not fight in battle but England was not without military success in this period. A successful intervention in Scotland at the start of the reign defeated French/Catholic forces and helped establish a more amenable Protestant regime. It took a lot of time, money and men (and was a far from savoury endeavour) but Ireland was conquered by the end of the reign. Elizabeth financed privateers/explorers/pirates like Francis Drake and Walter Raleigh, leading to the first English colonies in America with Newfoundland and Virginia. This, along with the granting of a royal charter to the East India Company, were key foundation stones in the British Empire. Most famous, however, was the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588. Spain was the most powerful country in Europe and the Armada (with 150 ships and c. 18,000 troops) was primed to overthrow Elizabeth. Instead, it ended in disaster for Spain with most of their ships wrecked on the Irish and Scottish coasts while Elizabeth passed into legend with her speech to the troops at Tilbury Fort: “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 Parma or Spain, or any prince of Europe, should dare to invade the borders of my realm; to which rather than any dishonour shall grow by me, I myself will take up arms.”
ScandalWhile Elizabeth had a focus on stability, she also had a wilder side to her character that led to rumours of indiscretion. After the death of her father, she lived with her step-mother, Katherine Parr, and Thomas Seymour but was sent away after Katherine caught them “dallying” in bed. It was after Katherine died that Thomas Seymour renewed his efforts with Elizabeth and was executed for supposedly plotting to overthrow Edward VI and marry Elizabeth. Elizabeth herself was interrogated and, while giving nothing away in her interviews, her interrogator though she knew more than she was less naive of the situation than her answers implied. The love of Elizabeth’s life was Robert Dudley – like Thomas Seymour, a tall, dark and handsome rogue with a mischievous sense of humour. Ambassadors reported that Dudley used to visit Elizabeth’s bedchamber and some even suggested that they had secretly had a child together. It was thought that they intended to marry, but inconveniently Dudley had a wife, Amy Robsart. When said wife was found with a broken neck at the bottom of a small flight of stairs, it didn’t take a huge leap of the imagination to consider this somewhat suspicious! (Though in reality the mere rumour of foul play made marriage impossible) Elizabeth also (albeit with great reluctance and after 20 years of pressure) agreed to the execution of her cousin and fellow monarch, Mary Queen of Scots.
SubjectivityThe Elizabeth era is often seen as a golden age for England: playwrights like William Shakespeare and Christopher Marlow, poets like Spenser and Sidney, composers like Byrd and Dowland. Explorers expanded England’s horizons as never before, not least Francis Drake circumnavigating the globe in the Golden Hind. Meanwhile, Elizabeth’s courtiers tried to outdo each other with magnificent palaces (e.g. Burghley House) or sumptuous gardens (such as at Kenilworth Castle). Elizabeth herself was very much at the centre of this golden age and set the tone for the reign. Her focus on stability is shown in the longevity of her leading ministers (none of the literal chop and change of her father, Henry VIII!) while her Religious Settlement was much more moderate than her predecessors and is the basis of the Church of England today far more than that of Henry VIII. Elizabeth was highly adept at propaganda (as demonstrated in her various portraits, full of symbolism) and had the popular touch, delighting the crowds on walkabouts and processions. Like Alfred and Henry, she also seems to have had a genuine desire to rule for the good of the people and to be loved rather than feared, as summarised in her Golden Speech to Parliament, a virtual farewell at the end of her life: “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.”
Elizabeth ruled from 1558 to 1603, a reign of 44.33 years (the sixth longest in English history). At 69 years old, she was easily the longest-lived of the Tudor monarchs.
Arguably, this factor is Elizabeth’s Achilles heel. Despite the protestations of Parliament, she never married and consequently did not have any children. In dynastic terms, this meant that the Tudor dynasty died with her, though there was a peaceful succession to James I (VI of Scotland) and the Stuart dynasty.
Rex FactorElizabeth is one of the most iconic of English monarchs and it is easy to see why. Her court was colourful and dynamic, the nation flowering in culture while exploring the world to an extent that previous generations could scarcely have imagined. Elizabeth herself shines through as a character – a cautious and astute ruler but someone full of life, enjoying and encouraging the culture of her age. With her iconic speeches and portraits and one of the most exciting and vivid periods of English history, Elizabeth certainly has star quality.
Devil’s Advocate – Why you should NOT vote for Elizabeth
It is easy to get swept away by the mythology of Elizabeth, but there are limitations to her achievements and rather a strong reliance on good fortune.The Spanish Armada is celebrated as a great English victory but in reality it was almost entirely due to the weather that England was saved from invasion. Elizabeth’s Tilbury speech is powerful but it was delivered to the troops preparing to meet the Spanish if they had landed – the men on the ships didn’t hear it. Elizabeth was notoriously indecisive in making decisions, which infuriated many of her nobles when she would not commit to fighting Spain more proactively. While it is perhaps harsh to criticise her for not marrying and producing an heir, she did nothing to ensure a stable succession for fear that naming a successor would have created an alternative power. When she almost died of smallpox in 1562, her councillors could not agree who should succeed her and it was only by virtue of living so long (and James VI of Scotland being so keen to please) that it was not more troublesome when she died. While many great things were done in her reign, it was not without its hardships – the Tudor conquest of Ireland was hardly the most positive of legacies and while she was moderate in religion, there were still 183 Catholics executed in her reign.
However, all leaders rely on good fortune at times and it is the ability to take advantage of these moments that is important. The ifs and buts of the succession are ultimately just hypotheticals as in the event it passed without serious difficulty. The religious settlement did not solve everything but the Pope did rather force Elizabeth’s hand by beseeching English Catholics to assassinate her! No reign is perfect but Elizabeth’s is surely to be considered successful, all the more impressive given the chaos and upheaval that had been Tudor England for the previous twenty years.