This series has four easy 5 minute installments. This first installment: Summation.
Elizabeth I was possibly the greatest ruler, king or queen, in history. Her biggest accomplishment was to realize that England was no longer a superpower, if it ever had been. No more Hundred Years War to acquire France. No more extravagant court expenses such her father Henry VIII had. While her policy of resisting Spanish growth contradicted this, the international situation rationalized this. Domestic policy accomplished public tranquility not seen in England for centuries.
This selection is from an article in Great Events by Famous Historians, Volume 10 by Henry R. Cleveland published in 1905. For works benefiting from the latest research see the “More information” section at the bottom of these pages.
The age of Elizabeth was preeminently distinguished by the operation of just principles, of generous sentiments, of elevated objects, and of profound piety. Elizabeth, it is true, was vindictive, arbitrary, and cruel. Two prevailing sentiments filled her mind and chiefly influenced her conduct throughout life. The first of these was the idea of prerogative. Any assumption of rights, any freedom of debate, any theological discussion or profession of sentiments which seemed to infringe on the sacred limits of royalty was sure to be visited with her severest wrath. She detested the Puritans, from whom she had suffered nothing, but whose republican spirit appeared to her at war with royalty in the abstract, far more than the papists, by whom her life had been made a life of danger and suffering, but who respected forms and ceremonies, and whose system encouraged reverence for the powers that be and loyal sentiment toward the person whom they regarded as the lawful sovereign. Nothing but the earnest entreaties of Cecil and the imminent danger of a French invasion could induce her to give assistance to the Scottish Protestants when they were persecuted by the Queen Regent. And even her hatred of Mary could not prevent her taking sides with that ill-fated Princess when the “Congregation” claimed the right of trying their sovereign for alleged crimes, after having deposed and imprisoned her.
The other sentiment which in no small degree influenced the conduct of the great Queen was her excessive fondness for admiration as a woman. She filled her solitary throne with a dignity and a majesty which could not be surpassed; and it is difficult, if not impossible, to conceive of a character which should have strength and impetuosity enough, even if marriage could have given the right, to overawe her lion-like spirit and assume the reins of government in defiance of her will. Certain it is that no such prince then lived. But while the queen resolutely excluded all human participation in the lonely eminence on which she stood, the woman was constantly claiming the tribute of sympathy and admiration. Her eager desire was to be a heroine, a beauty, the queen of hearts, cynosure of gallants’ eyes; to reign supreme in the court of love and chivalry; to be the watchword and war-cry of the knight and the theme of the troubadour.
Here was the source of the unbounded flattery which was lavished upon her by courtiers, even to the latest years of her life, and which appears to have at times actually deceived her, in spite of her extraordinary penetration. To this sentiment are owing nearly all of the few instances of disaster and disappointment which occurred during her splendid reign. She preferred to risk the safety of her allies, and the cause of Protestantism on the Continent, rather than to refuse the command of her troops to her favorite, who had entreated it. To gratify another favorite and insure his glory she forgot her habitual economy, levied an army larger than she had ever supported, except at the time of the invasion, and sent it to Ireland under the command of a man who was utterly unfit for the place. And when, beset by enemies, harassed by defeat, and overwhelmed with shame, the impetuous and noble-hearted Essex rushed into the presence of majesty as a lover would have sought his mistress, her woman’s heart forgave him all. Had this frame of mind continued, had not the resumed majesty of the queen condemned what the woman forgave, the world would have been spared the consummation of one of the most mournful tragedies in history, and the last days of Elizabeth might have been serene and happy, instead of being tortured with anguish and despair.
The former of these sentiments made her an object of dread, the latter of ridicule; and both conspired to render her tyrannical. But she was not a tyrant in the full sense of the word. She never acted upon the nation with that degrading influence which is always the attendant of selfish, cold-hearted, and perfidious tyranny; she never had the power, and we doubt if she ever had the wish, to make slaves of her people. She understood the English character; she comprehended, appreciated, and admired its nobleness; and she had sagacity enough to see that this very character constituted her chief glory. A thorough and hearty affection subsisted between her and her people; an affection Which was increased and cemented by many circumstances of a nature not to be forgotten. As a nation, England had been persecuted, distressed, and trampled upon during the reign of Mary. The party which triumphed in the ascendency of the Roman Catholic religion was small; the great majority of the people were not very zealous in favor of one side or the other; they had been ready to welcome Protestantism under Edward VI, and they were not disposed to fight against the Church of Rome under Mary. The number of zealous papists, they who were in favor of the rack and the stake, was not more than a thirtieth part of the nation. The other twenty-nine parts, though perhaps nearly equally divided on the question of religion, condemned alike the bigotry of their melancholy sovereign and looked on with sorrowful indignation while the bloody Mary, assisted by a few narrow-minded bigots, was carrying on the infernal work of persecution. It was a sorrow and a shame to all true Englishmen, whether Catholic or Protestant; and the hated Philip felt the effects of their vengeance till the day of his death.
In these times of tribulation there was one who shared in the common danger, suffering, and humiliation, and who, from the exalted rank which she occupied, and the station to which she seemed destined, was peculiarly an object of distrust and alarm to the bigots, who were exulting in their day of power. The gloom which overhung the whole country equally surrounded her; the fires of Smithfield and Oxford were kindled for her terror as for the terror of the people. She had been made to pass through that sorrowful passage from which few ever returned alive, the Traitor’s Gate in the Tower of London.
Her course was one and the same with that of the entire English nation; and the only light which shone upon the darkness, the only hope that cheered the universal despondency, the dependence of all real patriots, the trust of all friends of truth, and the pride of all free and honorable men were centred in the prison of Elizabeth.
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