Queen Elizabeth I was born on 7 September 1533 in Greenwich Palace, the first and only living child of Henry VIII of England and his second wife, Anne Boleyn. Her mother would be murdered and Elizabeth herself declared illegitimate just 2.5 years later, in May 1536, but she would survive the reigns of her father, brother, and older sister to succeed to the throne herself, becoming on of Britain’s most legendary monarchs.
Although we tend to think of Elizabeth as an authoritarian monarch, during much of her rule she was in a precarious state and didn’t dare exercise her full sovereignty. As a queen, and one whose mother was ‘suspect’, she had to coax where a king could compel, and imply where a king would impel. More than once, commanders in the field ignored her direct order on military matters and kept their heads anyway. Her ministers would do things against her explicit injunctions “for her own good” yet still live and hold their positions at court.
Is it no wonder that she became a tyrant in domestic matters, the one area she the most control? And can we boggle at her genius in crafting the ideology of Gloriana around her, so that she transformed her status as figurehead into actual power?
She became the master of propaganda and symbolism, and eventually transformed herself into more than a representative of England; she became an avatar for the kingdom. Loyalty to her was loyalty to the state. Devotion to her was patriotism. Yes, courtiers knew they were flattering a woman who could make or break them from a socioeconomic standpoint, but she was also something more, something other.
She was Cynthia, the virgin goddess of the hunt, lady of moonlight, whose abilities were beyond that of mere mortals.
She was Belphoebe, the daughter of Poseidon, the radiant maiden stronger than any man.
She was Astraea, the untouched and untouchable astral guardian of justice.
She was the anointed Protestant leader for whom God sent the storms to destroy the Spanish Armada, the mighty fist of the greatest European empire of its time.
She became as much icon as queen, and after her death a kind of nationalistic cult formed around her. Her reign was perceived as The Golden Age, the age of Shakespeare and exploration, when Britain became a global force to be reckoned with. The Georgians invoked her during the Napoleonic Wars as proof that France’s hopes of invading England would end as fruitlessly as had Spain’s attempt. For the Victorians, she was the nostalgic idealization of England’s triumphant and august past, the sublimity that colonialist expansion was ‘reclaiming’.
Not a bad legacy for a woman once condemned as the bastard, heretical, daughter of an evil harlot.