If you read my blog regularly you already know about my big obsession with Queen Elizabeth I. Born on this day, September 7, 1533, she was one of England’s greatest monarchs, successfully ruling for forty five years.
Bess, however, started out as an unlikely candidate for the throne. She was the daughter of King Henry VIII and Queen Anne Boleyn. With a shaky upbringing that included her dad Henry beheading her mother Anne when Elizabeth was just three years old, the girl went in and out of favor with the King. Her title changed often. The precocious child was aware of this, often questioning her caretakers:
“For why yesterday I was the Princess Elizabeth and today only Lady?”
When Henry died, Bess was third in line for the crown. Her brother Edward became king at the tender age of nine and ruled until his untimely death just six years later. Her older sister Mary then reigned for five years. Mary, a devout Catholic, was often at odds with Elizabeth, a staunch Protestant. When Mary died in 1558, Bess finally took the throne.
The new queen was twenty five years old, highly intelligent, tall, red haired, lovely and possessing much of her father’s strong will. Her status (bastard or not a bastard?) was still considered questionable. Nonetheless, Bess became a much beloved monarch.
Elizabeth served time in the Tower of London, arrested for treason after she was wrongly accused of plotting to overthrow her sister Mary. It was, ironically, Phillip of Spain, Mary’s husband, who pled for Elizabeth’s release. His intentions were not entirely noble, as he knew his own wife was sickly and he planned to gain favor with Bess and wed her after Mary’s inevitable death. Needless to say, Bess refused him.
Her nicknames were Gloriana, Good Queen Bess and The Virgin Queen.
The Virgin Queen was also an astrological Virgo! She had many typical characteristics of the sign — pragmatism, good money management, discretion and concern for others.
Although most historians agree that Bess actually was a virgin, she had a long romantic involvement with her courtier and horse master Robert Dudley. This caused rumors and gossip. However, although there was great anticipation for her to be wed, Bess never married and produced no heirs. (At least not any legitimate heirs that we know about.)
The whiteness of her skin, as it appears in many portraits, was achieved through a makeup combination of eggshells and lead. (Yes lead! Its effects were apparently unknown at the time.)
She spoke Latin, French, German and Spanish.
She loved sweets. One of her favorite foods was sugar coated violets. Her dental health suffered because of this and Bess eventually had a mouth full of rotten teeth.
Regarding her so-called marriage plans, Bess was a master at bait and switch. She would often ‘consider’ marriage proposals, but only to gain political favor with a particular country. Once peace was established, she would send suitors on their merry way.
Bess often claimed she was ‘married to England’. She proved this to be true in her political actions. She once even tried to arrange a marriage between her cousin Mary Queen of Scots and her own love interest Robert Dudley — because she wanted Dudley to serve as a spy and keep track of the Scottish queen’s activities.
This suggestion caused the insulted Dudley to leave court in a huff. He then married Lettice Knollys, Bess’ lady in waiting, and did not speak to Bess for years.
What exactly was Queen Elizabeth’s aversion to marriage? Consider the circumstances. Her own father beheaded not only her mother, but also her cousin (Catherine Howard, Henry’s fifth wife) and several other kinsmen. Her relationship with Dudley was wrought with scandal and threats to her power. Sleazy Phillip of Spain tried to worm his way into her affections for political gain. My guess, she only ever equated marriage with danger. She saw it as an institution that threatened her realm and her life.
Bess was a lover of plays and supported Shakespearean drama. She herself was a musician, accomplished at the lute and virginals.
She, along with her secretary Sir Francis Walsingham, created the most notorious spy operation of Renaissance England. Walsingham undermined several plots to overthrow Elizabeth, including a Catholic scheme involving Mary Queen of Scots. Bess’ network of spies, which included Christopher Marlowe, often were turn coats — former Catholics who switched sides but remained savvy to Catholic networks and thus reported plans to Walsingham.
Bess was such a good spymaster, she even wore dresses to advertise the fact! Note this famous portrait:
Upon closer examination, we see that the detail of the fabric is decorated with tiny ears and eyes! This was to send the symbolic message: “I see and hear you” and more importantly “Don’t betray me.”
She never quite gave up her obsession for Robert Dudley. After her death, a letter was found among her most private belongings, hand written by Robert, with a note from Bess labeling it his last letter to her. She is said to have called out his name on her deathbed.
Elizabeth is still considered one of England’s best monarchs. Her great accomplishments include defeating the Spanish Armada, restoring prosperity to the realm and keeping relative peace in the country despite great religious divides. She died in 1603 of natural causes.
Elizabeth I has been portrayed by some of the world’s finest actresses, including Flora Robson, Bette Davis, Vanessa Redgrave, Glenda Jackson, Cate Blanchett, Judi Dench, Helen Mirren, and Anne-Mare Duff. This fun montage gives a sampling, hope you like it!
Happy Birthday Bess!