What Did Elizabeth I Achieve?

Tom Cropper

3 mins

17 Feb 2015

It was called the Golden Age – a time when England grew in wealth, power and culture. What’s even more remarkable is that this all happened with a woman at the helm.

History sees Elizabeth I as being one of our most successful and celebrated monarchs, but is this fair? How many of her achievements were down to her rule and how much is just good PR spin? Here are some key things that changed during the time of Elizabeth.

An iconic image of Elizabeth I as we think of her today

An iconic image of Elizabeth I as we think of her today

Becoming Queen of England

It was no easy matter to become queen. Elizabeth was the daughter of Henry VIII’s second wife, Anne Boleyn and almost as soon as she came into the world she was fighting an uphill battle. After Anne’s execution there were several attempts to have Elizabeth removed from the line of succession although these proved unsuccessful. The short reign of Edward VI was followed by the brutal one of her sister, Mary.

Mary’s accession was a problem. She was a devout Catholic and began rolling back the reforms of Henry’s time. Anyone who disagreed was tied to a stake and set on fire. Elizabeth as the leading protestant claimant quickly became the focal point of several rebellions. Sensing the threat Mary imprisoned Elizabeth in the Tower of London. It was perhaps only Mary’s death which left Elizabeth as the last woman standing.

Religious Tolerance

While Mary’s reign had been brutal and repressive, Elizabeth sought to be more tolerant, and although being a Catholic could earn you a fine, this was actually for missing church and the same penalty could be levied against radical puritans. Some of her more ardently Protestant advisors such as Sir Francis Walsingham would have liked a harder line taken against Catholics, but she resisted them. It was only with mounting threats from Catholic radicals that treatment became more severe.

This painting dramatically recreates a scene from one of Shakespeare's most famous plays, the Tempest.

This painting dramatically recreates a scene from one of Shakespeare’s most famous plays, the Tempest.

An English Renaissance

Elizabeth was perhaps fortunate to be ruling at a time when change was sweeping across Europe. The Renaissance saw an explosion in scientific, artistic and philosophical endeavour. In England writers such as Shakespeare, Ben Johnson, Philip Marlow and Francis Bacon transformed Engand into a hotbed of theatre and literature. Elizabeth encouraged all these developments, creating an environment in which the arts were allowed to thrive.

Exploring the World

Elizabeth’s reign saw England reach beyond its shores for the first time in and attempt to discover new lands. Explorers such as Sir Walter Raleigh were charged with heading off around the word and bringing Christianity to the barbaric worlds. She made several attempts to establish an English colony in the North East coast of America although this would not be finally realised until after her death. Meanwhile, Sir Francis Drake became the first Englishman to circumnavigate the world.

A modern replica of Sir Francis Drake's ship the Golden Hind.

A modern replica of Sir Francis Drake’s ship the Golden Hind.

Naval Power

We associate Elizabeth for her defeat of the Spanish Armada, and although this owed as much to luck as anything else, she did manage to put a check on the advances of England’s most feared foreign foe – the Spanish. Using Privateers such as Sir Francis Drake, she also mounted a number of secret missions to raid colonies bringing treasure from the new world.

Overall then there were plenty of solid achievements racked up during Elizabeth’s time. True, much of her reputation might owe something to PR spin, but in general she deserves her reputation as our finest monarch.