Elizabeth I came to the throne in November 1558 upon the death of her Catholic sister, Mary. The new queen did not hurry religious change other than make some small adjustments in her private chapel, mostly ordering the clergy not to elevate the host or chalice at the consecration. She was a convinced Protestant though she was not anxious to foist her personal beliefs on either her Catholic subjects or on the more ardent Protestant wing now known as the Puritans. Elizabeth is the greatest monarch yet to sit on England’s throne. She was a brilliant woman, not only well educated but wise and savvy. And like most intellectuals, she tended towards liberal thought, never afraid to explore a subject for better understanding and willing to consider new ideas with an open mind.
She was not, however, secure on her throne. There were many who still chaffed at the idea of a woman monarch. France and several other European nations did not allow their crowns to pass to a woman. Moreover, while her sister Mary still reigned in England, the Scots/English Protestant who was winning Scotland to the Protestant cause, John Knox, had written a diatribe against women monarchs entitled “First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regimen of Women”—which made the claim that was unnatural for women to hold governance. Knox’s tract is a truly wonderful exercise in misogyny. It was also a hugely politically stupid thing to do. While this tract was directed primarily against Mary Tudor and secondarily against the Scots Queen, the Catholic Mary Stuart and her regent, Mary of Guise, Elizabeth took it personally, very personally. She was, after all, a woman ruler, and she was sensitive to the fact that Knox’s shoe fit her feminine foot. And she was already under pressure to cede her crown to a man—England was pretty much united in the expectation that she would marry and give them a king—the question would be whom would she marry? And of what religion would he be?
Today when a woman inherits a crown, her husband is usually accorded the rank of prince consort, but in the sixteenth-century he was traditionally given “the crown matrimonial” and made king. And while it was acknowledged that his power came from his wife’s title, it was he, and not she, that held the power. Consequently there was much pressure on Elizabeth to marry and turn her power over to a husband. The concern was what sort of a husband. The Protestant party was afraid of a French or Austrian marriage which would most likely lead to a Catholic King. The most serious of the Catholic suitors was Francis, Duke of Anjou but by that time Elizabeth was forty and the Duke 22 years her junior. She was obviously just stringing him along for political reasons. The Protestant Eric XIV of Sweden had been a possibility earlier in her reign but nothing came of it. The Protestant party would have been happiest with the English courtier Robert Dudley. He lacked Royal Blood—and it was somewhat uncommon for royalty to marry out of the club (though Elizabeth’s father, Henry VIII, had only two wives of his six who had the blood of sovereignty in their veins, Elizabeth’s mother, Anne Boleyn herself being a non-royal.) Elizabeth seemed to favor Dudley and undoubtedly was deeply in love with him. But he was a married man. And even when his wife died—under somewhat suspicious circumstances—Elizabeth made no moves for marriage.
It seems that Elizabeth probably never had a serious intention of marriage. She knew that it would mean a loss of power and while others may have been foolish enough to think that a woman could not rule, Elizabeth had not such doubts. There is some speculation that Elizabeth may have been sexually abused in her teen years and consequently developed an antipathy towards sexual relations, but this seems a bit anachronistic. Elizabeth’s sexual life as an adult had engendered much discussion and speculation with some claiming that her appetites were insatiable and others maintaining that she did indeed merit the appellation “The Virgin Queen.” All we know for certain is that she never married and that seems to have been a political choice rather than a personal one.
The problem with her not marrying, of course, was who would be the heir to the English throne. She was the last remaining descendent of Henry VIII and if she died childless, his line would come to an end. But not the Tudor line! Her father had a sister, a daughter of Henry VII Tudor, the founder of the Tudor dynasty, who had married into the Scots Royal House of Stuart. Elizabeth’s closest relative and heir apparent was the Catholic Queen of Scotland, Mary Stuart. This panicked the English Protestants as it meant the crown would revert to a Catholic and the Church would most likely be restored to the Roman Communion. Elizabeth was well aware of the problem and used it to her advantage in maintaining the power balance and checking the power of extreme Protestants.
Indeed Elizabeth tried to steer a middle course, a via media as it would come to be known, between the Protestant and Catholic factions. Many of the old nobility and much of the rural populace was still firmly Catholic, and loving it. The mercantile classes of the cities, on the other hand, and the new nobility of her father’s reign, were convincedly Protestant. Elizabeth was anxious that all should live in peace together. For the first ten years of her reign she was able to do this. Catholicism was officially proscribed but discreetly tolerated and there were no martyrdoms. This did not please the Protestant party, most of whom wished for a more aggressive propagation of the new religion by a forceful suppression of the old, but that was not Elizabeth. She did not want her Church subject to a foreign prince—the Pope—and she certainly believed in Protestant doctrine, at least as regards the sacraments. But on the other hand, she had a taste for ritual and tradition that she did not want to lose. She saw how traditional religion propped up monarchial authority and she wanted to use that to her advantage. She also does not seem to have bought into the extremely negative anthropology or soteriology of the Calvinist faction that was hijacking the Protestant wing of the English Church. In fact, I think it is fair to say that while Elizabeth was perhaps the best theological mind of the Tudors, she was also the least pious and she lacked any sort of fanaticism towards those whose religious opinions differed from her own. This was in part practicality: “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” And it was in part her natural liberality of being comfortable with multiple opinions on matters intellectual.