Elizabeth I: 9 facts about the Virgin Queen and the Elizabethan era

The famous Rainbow Portrait of Elizabeth I from Hatfield House.

The famous Rainbow Portrait of Elizabeth I from Hatfield House. - Credit: (c) Marquess of Salisbury, Hatfield House

It’s almost 500 years since the birth of one of our most famous monarchs – Elizabeth I.

The young Princess Elizabeth spent much of her childhood living in Hatfield Palace. All that remains of that building today is the Old Palace at Hatfield House.

The Old Palace at Hatfield House. Picture: Alan Davies.

The Old Palace at Hatfield House. - Credit: Alan Davies

Later, when she was 25, Elizabeth ascended to the throne of England after hearing of the death of Queen Mary I. She was reputedly sitting under an oak tree in Hatfield Park when she heard the news.

Elizabeth held her first Council of State as Queen in the Old Palace.

The Old Palace at Hatfield House in Hertfordshire where Queen Elizabeth I grew up.

The Old Palace at Hatfield House in Hertfordshire where Queen Elizabeth I grew up. - Credit: Alan Davies

Here former primary school teacher Laura Steele, of education resources experts PlanBee, helps you brush up on your knowledge of Elizabeth's reign with 9 facts about the 'Virgin Queen' as we celebrate her birthday.


1. Who was Elizabeth?

On September 7, 488 years ago, in 1533, a baby girl was born to Anne Boleyn and King Henry VIII.

She was named Elizabeth, and would eventually become Queen Elizabeth I, who many believe was one of the greatest monarchs of England.

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She reigned for more than 44 years, from 1558 to her death in 1603.


2. The girl her father didn’t want

Her father, Henry VIII, had been fervently hoping for a boy and was bitterly disappointed when Elizabeth was born. He did not even attend her christening.

Her mother, Anne Boleyn, was executed by her father when Elizabeth was just three years old.

Princess Elizabeth.

Princess Elizabeth. - Credit: Alan Davies

Despite her chaotic early life, Elizabeth grew into an intelligent and clever young woman.

She was extremely well educated, fluent in several languages including French, Italian and Latin.

She also excelled at music, and was accomplished in mathematics and astronomy.


3. Imprisoned in the Tower

In 1553, Mary Tudor, Elizabeth’s half-sister, and the daughter of Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon, became Queen.

At first the two sisters were on friendly terms, but then in 1554, Elizabeth was implicated in a plot to overthrow Mary. She was imprisoned in the Tower of London.

Queen Elizabeth I's signature

Queen Elizabeth I's signature. - Credit: Alan Davies

Letters written by Elizabeth at the time show that she was truly terrified, and was convinced that she would be executed.

She spent two months in the Tower. Eventually she was released and put under house arrest until 1555.


4. Ascending the throne

When Queen Mary I died in November 1558, the crown passed to Elizabeth.

Her coronation took place on January 15, 1559.


5. Religious beliefs

Elizabeth came to the throne with a dilemma – she was committed to the Protestant faith that she was brought up in.

However, a large part of the population were Catholic.

Elizabeth republished the English translation of the Bible. She brought back the Church of England, which her father Henry VIII had established, and made attendance at church compulsory.

However, Elizabeth believed that Catholicism and Protestantism were both essentially part of the same faith, Christianity. She is known to have said: "There is only one Christ, Jesus, one faith...all else is a dispute over trifles." 

Elizabeth’s more lenient approach to religion helped to calm the unrest in England at the time.


6. Mary, Queen of Scots: a threat to the Crown?

In 1568, Elizabeth’s cousin, Mary Queen of Scots, fled to England.

Mary was a Catholic, but many of her nobles were Protestants, and they did not always support her decisions, so she came to England to seek help and support from her cousin.

Elizabeth I Rainbow Portrait at Hatfield House. Picture: Alan Davies

Elizabeth I Rainbow Portrait at Hatfield House. Picture: Alan Davies - Credit: Alan Davies

Elizabeth was told by her advisers to be wary of Mary – she was a strict Catholic, with a claim to the English throne, which some believed was actually stronger than Elizabeth’s.

Mary was placed under house arrest and was effectively a prisoner for almost 20 years.

In 1586, evidence was found that Mary was involved in a Catholic plot to overthrow Elizabeth and sentenced to death. However, Elizabeth was reluctant to sign her cousin’s death warrant.

She put it off for four months before finally agreeing to the execution. The two women had never even met.


7. Under attack from the Spanish Armada

During Elizabeth’s reign, England and Spain were rivals, and there was constant unrest between the two countries.

King Phillip II of Spain was enraged when Mary, Queen of Scots was executed. He was also a Catholic and believed that Mary had a greater claim to the English throne than Elizabeth.

This, among other reasons, led King Phillip to attempt an attack on England in 1558. A fleet of warships, called the Armada, were assembled, and set sail for England.

The famous Ermine Portrait of Elizabeth I at Hatfield House. Picture: Alan Davies.

The famous Ermine Portrait of Elizabeth I at Hatfield House. - Credit: Alan Davies

Elizabeth rallied her troops and gave what is now considered to be one of her most famous speeches, which included the words: "I know I have the body of a weak, feeble woman; but I have the heart and stomach of a king".

After a disastrous fight at sea with the English fleet, the Spanish admitted defeat and attempted to sail home.

However, they encountered severe storms and many of the ships were wrecked off the west coasts of Scotland and Ireland.

Elizabeth was delighted by the defeat of the Spanish. She had the following sentence imprinted on medals to commemorate the victory: God blew and they were scattered.


8. The ‘Golden Age’

Art and music flourished during Elizabeth’s reign. Theatre also became a very popular form of entertainment. Playwrights such as William Shakespeare found huge success in London.

Due to improvements in navigation, the world could be more widely explored and more trade routes opened up.

Sir Francis Drake became the first Englishman to circumnavigate the globe between 1577-1580.

In 1601, the ‘Poor Law’ made every parish responsible for its own poor. Overseers were elected whose job it was to ensure the needs of the poor were met.


9. The end of the Elizabethan Era

A stone frieze of Queen Elizabeth I in the garden of Hatfield House.

A stone frieze of Queen Elizabeth I in the garden of Hatfield House. - Credit: Alan Davies

On March 24, 1603, Queen Elizabeth I, now aged 69, died. As she had no children, there was no direct heir.

After a 44-year reign, both the Elizabethan era and the Tudor period came to an end.

She was succeeded by Mary, Queen of Scots’ son, James VI of Scotland, who became King James I of England.

Hatfield House and gardens from the air looking towards the North Front

Hatfield House and gardens from the air looking towards the North Front - Credit: Supplied by Hatfield House

Robert Cecil, 1st Earl of Salisbury, was King James I's Lord High Treasurer. He built what is today's Hatfield House.

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