Elizabeth I of England
Elizabeth I was the daughter of Henry VIII and his second wife, Anne Boleyn. Born early in their marriage, Elizabeth’s childhood was tumultuous after her mother’s beheading. She inherited the throne after the death of her half-sister Mary in 1558. Unlike her sister, she was a fine queen and a skilled ruler, so why do we remember her as one of the bloodiest of queens?
Just as Mary I punished Protestants during her reign, Elizabeth I banned Catholicism. Fines and prison were possible for anyone who even attended a Mass. Being a Catholic priest in England, or providing shelter to one, was treason, and punishable by death. Elizabeth certainly did put people to death when they threatened her reign; some 450 were executed after an uprising in the North, largely by Catholic nobles. During her reign, some 130 priests were executed solely for being priests, along with around 60 of their supporters.
While Elizabeth did not, by all accounts, take any pleasure in executions, she also signed the death warrant for a woman she knew rather well, although only through letters, Mary, Queen of Scots. Mary, the mother of Elizabeth’s successor James, became Queen of Scotland as an infant, but was raised in France. Throughout much of her adult life she was a pawn in various plots to execute Elizabeth and was eventually convicted for complicity in one such plot.
Elizabeth I did not succeed in limiting tensions with Spain, and may have escalated them. When Spain sailed into the English Channel in 1588, they did so, it was believed, with the support of English Catholics. Spain sent some 55,000 men to defeat England; fewer than 10,000 of those survived, and of the 130 ships, only 67 returned. The English victory established the prominence of the English navy that continued into the 20th century and allowed England to retain a key role in the political happenings of mainland Europe.
While she may have, when needed, been ruthless, and certainly did not support religious tolerance, Good Queen Bess was largely a fair and just ruler, and one fondly remembered by history.