Elizabeth I’s Legacy: Was She Brilliant or Lucky?

History Hit Podcast with Jessie Childs

3 mins

01 Oct 2018

Image credit: Commons.

This article is an edited transcript of The Tudor Series Part One with Jessie Childs on Dan Snow’s History Hit, first broadcast 28 January 2016. You can listen to the full episode below or to the full podcast for free on Acast.

Of course Elizabeth I was brilliant.

Yes, she was lucky, anyone who rules for 44 years in that period was lucky, but she was very canny with the decisions she made and, a lot of the time, the decisions she didn’t make.

She kept people hanging on, she didn’t jump at things as her father Henry VIII did. She was so careful of her image, which, as a renaissance queen, was really important.

Yes, she was lucky, anyone who rules for 44 years in that period was lucky, but she was very canny with the decisions she made and, a lot of the time, the decisions she didn’t make.

If you look at Mary Queen of Scots who was, in many ways, her great nemesis during this period, Mary just couldn’t control her image.

There are many stories about her being a slut and being hopeless and not looking out for her country, whereas Elizabeth had all the right people around her, saying the right things and celebrating her in the right way.

Elizabeth was very good at the common touch, but she could also keep her distance in her portraits and maintain her eternal youth. She was very canny and utterly ruthless.

Mary, Queen of Scots (1542-87), who was in many ways, Queen Elizabeth’s great nemesis. Credit: François Clouet / Commons.

How did Elizabeth handle the question of who her successor would be?

Elizabeth knew exactly what she was doing. The moment you name your successor then people will look to them.

She could never name Mary Queen of Scots because she was Catholic, and that just wasn’t going to happen. All the back channels were being worked all the time. Everyone knew that James, Mary’s son, was going to take over, and she knew too.

But she was very clever in not naming him and making sure that the sun shone on her, which is very important as a ruler.

She was under a lot of pressure and facing assassination plots all the time from dissident Catholics. But had she collapsed, so too would the whole Protestant state, so it was extremely important that she stayed alive.

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What was Elizabeth’s legacy as a leader?

The Church of England is an incredible legacy of her reign. It’s an amazing construct in that it established a middle way in difficult circumstances. It wasn’t Catholic, there was no mass, but it kept enough features of the mass to satisfy crypto-Catholics.

Equally, the Church of England wasn’t fully Calvinist. The puritans wanted far more reform and Elizabeth resisted that continually. She was often a check on her ministers, who wanted to go further.

The Church of England is an incredible legacy of her reign. It’s an amazing construct in that it established a middle way in difficult circumstances.

She should get credit for many things. The poor laws and various economic reforms spring to mind, but also the sense that she could delegate, which is a very important part of her legacy.

There’s a great debate over whether she actually presided over what you might call a monarchical republic and that it was people like the Cecils who were in fact running affairs. I think one of her best instincts was to know and to trust the right people.