The Heart and Stomach of a King

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Elizabeth I in her Coronation Robes

The Virgin Queen. Good Queen Bess. Gloriana. By whatever name one called her, Elizabeth I, daughter of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, granddaughter of the indomitable Elizabeth of York, was no woman to be trifled with. On September 7, we mark the 484th anniversary of her birth and the beginning of a long, tumultuous, vibrant life. Her reign is known as the Golden Age of England, during which time writers such as Shakespeare, Marlowe, and Spenser crafted their literary masterpieces; artists like Hilliard, Gower, and Segar painted portraits still recognized the world over; and the music of Tallis, Dowland, and Campion echoed in cathedrals and town squares alike. Elizabeth was quite possibly the apex of the British monarchy, but there are several things not commonly known about this Renaissance powerhouse.

Elizabeth may have been more traumatized by her mother’s execution than she could risk admitting to. She grew up hearing her mother called “The Great Whore,” who was beheaded by her father, Henry VIII, on false accusations of treason and adultery, before Elizabeth was three. However, there are signs that Elizabeth was secretly devoted to her lost mother in ways she couldn’t express openly. A locket ring was removed from her hand after her death which held a miniature of Anne. In a family portrait, she also wore a necklace with her mother’s “A” at her throat, an act which would have landed her in quite a lot of trouble had her father noticed it. At various times of her youth, she was a princess, declared a bastard and removed from the line of succession, reinstated, a political prisoner held in the Tower, and survived sexual scandal that led, in part, to the execution of Sir Thomas Seymour. All without a mother to comfort her.

Her difficult childhood tempered her, though, and her humanist education honed her already keen intelligence. Elizabeth was a polyglot, fluent in six languages by the time she was 11 years old – French, Greek, Latin, Spanish, Welsh and of course English. She also studied others and had a functional understanding of Flemish, Italian, and Gaelic. She learned Gaelic as part of her diplomatic attempts to subdue an Irish rebellion in the 1590s. Diplomacy and oration were great strengths for Elizabeth. She often used flirtation and flattery in her diplomacy to goad her male contemporaries into granting her political wishes. England was in dire straits when she came to the throne and she was pressured on many fronts to marry to secure various alliances and produce an heir, yet Elizabeth remained steadfastly unwed while still maintaining good relations with the majority of Europe throughout her reign. In a 1559 speech to Parliament, she said,

…I am already bound unto an husband, which is the kingdom of England, and that may suffice you. And this… makes me wonder that you forget, yourselves, the pledge of this alliance which I have made with my kingdom. … And reproach me so no more … that I have no children: for every one of you, and as many as are English, are my children and kinsfolks…. (Elizabeth I, 2000, p. 59)

Remaining unwed and fully in control of her government during a time in which women were most often used as bargaining chips, means to getting heirs, securing alliances, and bettering one’s social standing was a testament to Elizabeth’s strength of will and shrewd political acumen.

Another pressing issue of her reign was poverty. Elizabeth created the Act for the Relief of the Poor in 1597, which was the first fully comprehensive bill for poverty relief. It was later amended by the Elizabethan Poor Act of 1601, which remained unchanged until the mid-1800s. The Elizabethan Poor Act essentially taxed the wealthier citizens of the country to provide food, shelter, and clothing to the poor, generally within their own communities. People who were unable to work, such as the very young, the elderly, or the mentally or physically disabled, were cared for in an almshouse or poorhouse. People who could work were sent to “houses of industry.” These were the precursors to the infamous Victorian workhouses, but in Elizabeth’s time, they were a vast improvement over being labeled a vagrant, a hanging offence. Children who were old enough to work were made apprentices in various trades. People who were too lazy to work, though, were on their own and would either have to decide to work or would eventually wind up in prison or be hanged as a persistent beggar, as the term was known under the Vagrancy Act of 1547 (Rathbone, 2017). Elizabeth instituted what were, for the time, sweeping reforms for the care of the poor.

Elizabeth may be best known for reigning during the time of Shakespeare, Spenser, Marlowe, and the like, but her own contributions to her country and culture cannot be overlooked. She was the woman who was never meant to be Queen but who became one of the most beloved monarchs of the British monarchy. She was the woman who roused her troops with speeches worthy of the gods. Gloriana.

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The Darnley Portrait

Elizabeth I. (2000). Elizabeth I: Collected Works. Leah S. Marcus (Ed.). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Rathbone, Mark. “Vagabond!” History Review. March 2005, Issue 51, p. 8-13.

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