Why was Elizabeth so successful as a female ruler?


Elizabeth I was the last Tudor monarch. She was born on 7 September 1533 as the daughter of Henry VIII and his second wife, Anne Boleyn. Her chances of succeeding to the English throne had seemed very slim following the birth of her half-brother, Edward, in 1537 and her father, Henry VIII was in favour of a male heir succeeding him as King of England rather than a female heir (which he greatly opposed) and this was a significant factor in Henry’s decision to remarry again and again. Henry VIII felt that if England were to be ruled by a female, this would result in a weak government, likely to lead to marriage to a ruler from another country, which in turn would lead to the end of England. However, despite Henry’s beliefs, Elizabeth came to the throne on the death of her half sister, Mary, in November 1558. She ruled for a period of 45 years. This essay will investigate the factors which determine the reasons why Elizabeth was so successful as a female ruler and will also examine drawbacks of Elizabeth, that gave rise to a case which opposes this particular view upon Elizabeth’s reign, before drawing upon a conclusion that agrees or disagrees with the view that Elizabeth was a successful female ruler in England.


Queen Elizabeth I was very well educated. She was fluent in six languages and “had inherited intelligence, determination and shrewdness from both parents”[1] Elizabeth’s 45 year reign is generally considered as one of the most glorious in English history[2] During this 45 year reign, a secure Church of England was established. “Is doctrines were laid down in the 39 Articles of 1563, a compromise between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism. Elizabeth herself refused to ‘make windows into men’s soulsthere is only one Jesus Christ and all the rest is a dispute over trifles’; she asked for outward uniformity. Most of her subjects accepted the compromise as a basis of their faith, and her church settlement probably saved England from religious wars like those which France suffered in the second half of the 16th Century”[3] This therefore indicates a major success during Queen Elizabeth I’s reign as her compromise between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism was very significant as it prevented a religious war breaking out in England like that in France and satisfied both spheres of the religious hierarchy- Roman Catholicism and Protestantism were the two major religions in England at this specific time.    


During Elizabeth’s reign, the arts flourished. Country houses were built such as Longleat and Hardwick Hall, miniature painting reached its high point and theatres thrived- Elizabeth attended the first performance of William Shakespeare’s’ ‘A Midsummer Nights’ Dream[4] “Investing in expensive clothes (to look the part, like all contemporary sovereigns), she cultivated this image by touring the country in regional visits known as ‘progresses’, often riding on a horseback rather than by carriage. Elizabeth made at least 25 progresses during her reign”[5] Examples such as her progresses and the fact that she travelled on horseback rather than by carriage highlight the reasons as to why Elizabeth was successful as travelling by horseback rather than by carriage brings Elizabeth and her supporters closer as travelling by carriage was seen as an ‘Upper Class activity’. Elizabeth was therefore travelling in a similar means as a Lower Class Englishman, not exercising her superior status. This was likely to generate increased support for the Queen and along with high support, the strength and status of the Queen is likely to be enhanced, which indicates success during her reign, and “the image of Elizabeth’s reign is one of triumph and success”[6]  


Although Elizabeth I was ‘autocratic’ and ‘capricious’[7], she had incisive political judgement and chose her ministers, which included William Burghley as Secretary of State; Christopher Hatton as Lord Chancellor and Francis Walsingham who was in charge of intelligence as well as a Secretary of State, well. In all, Elizabeth’s administration consisted of roughly 600 officials administering the great offices of state with a similar number dealing with crown lands (which funded the administrative costs). The fact that Elizabeth was able to select her ministers well highlight a major factor in determining success and accounts for why Elizabeth I’s reign as Queen of England was so successful.


Queen Elizabeth I’s reign saw many courageous voyages of discovery by people such as Francis Drake, Walter Raleigh and Humphrey Gilbert, predominantly to the American islands. “These expeditions prepared England for an age of colonisation and trade expansion”[8] Elizabeth herself recognised this by establishing the ‘East India Company’ in 1600 as A. L. Rowse explains, “From which grew an Empire. It (the East India Company) is an interesting concatenation. Even so, it was not so much the absolute value of the bullion brought in that mattered as the indirect effect upon profit and enterprise, the increment of the country’s wealth in buildings, equipment, improvements”[9] The discovery of American colonies and the East India Company provide examples of successes during Elizabeth I’s reign. With the discovery of American islands comes revenue, which in turn affects the English economy as increased revenue leads to increased profitability and therefore benefits the economy at home. This therefore accounts very significantly in explaining why Elizabeth I was so successful as a female ruler of England as a flourishing profitability level leads to increased governmental disposable income which is likely to encourage increased spending on public improvements in England. 


Despite there being many examples, which account for Elizabeth being successful as a female ruler, there are also factors which reveal profound weaknesses of Elizabeth’s reign. For many, Elizabeth’s reign as Queen of England was “one of considerable danger and difficulty”[10] There were threats of French and Spanish invasion in England, with Spain travelling through Ireland and France passing through Scotland. In 1569-70, much of northern England was in rebellion and a 1570 papal bull specifically released Elizabeth’s subjects from their allegiance. These particular events, such as rebellion in northern England and the threat of external powers invading England put serious ‘dampeners’ upon the reign of Queen Elizabeth I and provide stimulation for the case that Elizabeth was not a successful female ruler in England. 


Plots to kill Elizabeth began to surface with one involving Mary, Queen of Scots, who was the heir to the English throne as Elizabeth’s cousin (as a result of Elizabeth not marrying and therefore not having children). Mary fled to England in 1568 following the murder of her second husband. She then subsequently planned to marry a man who was believed to have been involved in his (Mary’s second husband) murder. Mary spent 19 years as Elizabeth’s prisoner as Mary had been the focus for rebellion and possible assassination plots, as a result of her being a Roman Catholic, such as the 1586 Babington Plot. The Babington Plot was a plot to assassinate Elizabeth and place Roman Catholic, Mary, as the new Queen of England. John Warren explains, “The assassination of Protestant leader William of Orange in July 1584 reawoke a fear of a similar fate befalling Elizabeth”[11] Following the Babington Plot, in which Walsingham ‘trapped’ Mary in order of her being seen and as a result she was, Mary, on the insistence of Parliament and Elizabeth’s advisers, was tried, found guilty and as a result was executed in 1587. Despite Elizabeth’s reluctance to take drastic action, the judicial murder of Mary took place in order to prevent a Roman Catholic succeeding Elizabeth to the English throne and this reveals profound weaknesses in Elizabeth’s reign as Queen of England as Elizabeth’s view was ‘undermined’ by her advisers and Parliament and this factor provides a strong argument in the case against the claim that Elizabeth was a successful female ruler of England.


1558 saw a Spanish invasion fleet of approximately 130 ships into England, known as the ‘Armada’. The Armada was another plot against Elizabeth, intending to overthrow the Queen. Philip II, as a result of his marriage to Mary, who had been executed a year before, believed he had a strong claim to the English throne and under the rule of Philip II, Roman Catholicism would have been re-established in England. However, in 1558, the English navy, with the aid of bad weather, was victorious over the Spanish invasion fleet. This highlights factors which account for why Elizabeth was so successful as a female ruler in England as this great victory at time, as a Protestant country, was under threat of becoming a Roman Catholic country, under the rule of the Spaniard, Philip II. Defeat of the Armada was very significant therefore in protecting the established order in England- as a Protest country and defeat would have been extremely costly for England.


On the other hand, however, the case that disagrees with the statement that Elizabeth was successful as a female ruler in England is strengthened further. During Elizabeth’s reign, England suffered from high prices and severe economic depression, most notably in the countryside, during the 1590s. The war with Spain was not very successful after the defeat of the Armada and added to other campaigns was very costly for the economy in England. Elizabeth departed, though she had kept a tight restriction upon government expenditure, leaving large debts to her successor. During Elizabeth’s reign, wars are estimated to have cost over £5 million, which Crown revenues could not match. £5 million war expenditure is an extremely high amount when compared with today’s prices after hundreds of years of inflation, etc. “In 1588, for example, Elizabeth’s total revenue amounted to some £392,000”[12] Although Elizabeth freely used her power to veto legislation, she attempted to avoid confrontation and did not attempt to define Parliaments constitutional position and its rights which reveal profound weaknesses in Elizabeth’s reign as Queen of England and these combined factors provide a strong case that Elizabeth was unsuccessful as a female ruler in England.       


Elizabeth chose not to marry. If she had chosen to marry a foreign prince it was very likely, as Henry VIII had predicted if the case arose, that the foreign prince would have used England for his own advantages in foreign affairs, as was the case with the marriage of the Spaniard, Philip II and Mary, Queen of Scots. Marrying a fellow countryman could have encouraged squabbling within the country and the failure of her marriage to the Frenchman, Alanceau, reveals weaknesses of Elizabeth as the decision was made on Elizabeth’s behalf by her privy council as a result of Alanceau’s link to Roman Catholicism- Elizabeth did not have a say in the decision of not being able to marry someone she loved. However Elizabeth was conveyed as a self-sacrificing woman for the good of the English nation, to which she was ‘married’. 


Based upon the evidence, which has been gathered in this essay, it is clear that although there is a strong case for the argument that Elizabeth I was unsuccessful, the factors and arguments in favour of Elizabeth as a successful female ruler are more weighted and therefore give a stronger case. Elizabeth’s shrewd and decisive leadership (when necessary- e.g. during a war) brought success in a period of immense danger both at home and abroad. Although profound weaknesses can be found during Elizabeth’s reign such as enormous expenditure in times of war, the fact that Elizabeth was able to satisfy Roman Catholics and Protestants and prevent a religion war like that in France in the 16th Century, as well as the fact that Elizabeth chose her ministers well and was able to survive plots to kill her and the victory over the Spanish invasion fleet of 130 ships, the Armada, etc, indicate the reasons as to why Elizabeth I was so successful as a female ruler of England, the first female ruler of England, from 1558-1603.


[1] http://www.virtualology.com/virtualmuseumof history/hallofexplorers/QUEENELIZABETHI.COM/

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] A. L. Rowse. ‘The England of Elizabeth’. London Macmillan and Co. Ltd., 1950. Page 111.

[10] http://www.virtualology.com/virtualmuseumof history/hallofexplorers/QUEENELIZABETHI.COM/

[11] John Warren. ‘Elizabeth I: Religion and Foreign Affairs’. Hodder and Stoughton, 1993.

[12] http://www.virtualology.com/virtualmuseumof history/hallofexplorers/QUEENELIZABETHI.COM/