Who was Elizabeth I? What was her part in the Spanish Armada?

Queen Elizabeth I at prayer, after the frontispiece to Christian Prayers, 1569
Queen Elizabeth I is often referred to as 'Gloriana' or 'Good Queen Bess' Credit: Classic Image / Alamy Stock Photo

Queen Elizabeth I presided over an age of discovery that saw the establishment of the English Protestant church, the defeat of the Spanish Armada and the flourishing of the arts. She reigned from 1558-1603 

The ‘Virgin Queen’ was the second daughter of Henry VIII and last of the Tudor monarchs, and was born into turmoil in 1533. Her mother, Anne Boleyn, Henry’s second wife, was beheaded when she was just a child and Elizabeth was declared illegitimate. Her half-brother, Edward VI, became king for six years from 1547, but died when he was just 15. He bequeathed the crown to Lady Jane Grey. However, his will was overturned within days and Elizabeth’s Catholic half-sister Mary was made queen. 

Mary I ascended to the throne in July 1553, becoming the first English queen to rule in her own right. She persecuted Protestants in a fruitless bid to restore the Catholic faith in England, earning her the nickname ‘Bloody Mary’. The Catholic queen even imprisoned her half-sister Elizabeth in the Tower of London on suspicion of supporting Protestant rebels. But Mary, who married King Philip II of Spain, died childless in 1558. Elizabeth assumed the crown amid public jubilation and patriotic demonstrations. 

The new queen set to work quickly, reducing the size of the Privy Council – a formal body of advisors to the sovereign. This was to increase efficiency and purge some of its Catholic members. She also appointed a series of loyal and trusted advisors, including Sir William Cecil, who would serve for 40 years as her chief advisor. 

Head of the church

By 1559, England was restored to Protestantism and Elizabeth was declared head of the church. This religious settlement marked a compromise between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism. Elizabeth’s urging of religious tolerance at all levels of society brought new stability to the country. 

None of this satisfied staunch Catholics or the Roman Catholic church, who still considered Elizabeth’s cousin Mary, Queen of Scots, the rightful heir to the English throne. Mary, an instigator and focus of Catholic rebellion, spent 19 years as Elizabeth’s prisoner, before being tried, found guilty and executed in 1587. 

Nevertheless, the rebellions continued and Elizabeth began to face threats from further afield. She had long had a strained relationship with her former brother-in-law, Philip II of Spain. He demanded England return to Catholicism. Their relationship worsened after Elizabeth sent aid to Dutch Protestants fighting for independence from Spanish rule. Philip retaliated by backing plots against Elizabeth, notably through Mary, Queen of Scots. 

Spanish Armada

The Spanish Armada is defeated by the sailors of the English fleet in the Channel
The Spanish Armada is defeated by the sailors of the English fleet in the Channel. Credit: Mary Evans Picture Library

The Scottish queen’s execution proved the final straw for Philip, so he prepared to invade England. In July 1588, the Spanish Armada reached England shores for what became one of the most famous naval battles in history. Informed the invasion was near, Elizabeth declared to her troops: “I know I have the body of a weak and feeble woman but I have the heart and stomach of a king, and of a king of England, too.” The English fleet went on to defeat the militarily superior Armada, which eventually retreated before the majority of its fleet was shipwrecked in Atlantic gales. 

Elizabeth also reigned over a period of adventure. Sir Francis Drake sailed around the world and Sir Walter Raleigh made his first journey to South America. These expeditions paved the way for England’s colonial expansion. The arts also flourished under the learned Elizabeth, most notably the career of William Shakespeare – the Queen herself attending the first performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. 

Virgin Queen

The Elizabethan era is popularly considered one of success and triumph, with the Queen often referred to as ‘Gloriana’ or ‘Good Queen Bess’. Her political guile and intellectual prowess had ensured a period of tolerance, prosperity and wealth. Perhaps the most lasting image of Elizabeth was, however, as the ‘Virgin Queen’ on account of her devotion to her role. She was surrounded by suitors such as Robert Dudley, the Earl of Leicester, whose hand in marriage she refused despite continuing to enjoy his company until his death. 

In fact, Elizabeth chose never to marry. Doing so with one of her many overseas suitors would have drawn England into another country’s foreign policy, and faced the risk of infighting with fellow countrymen. So instead she cultivated the image of a selfless woman “married” to England. She died alone on 24 March 1603, at the age of 63, having left an indelible legacy. 

Key notes

  • 1564 – Playwright William Shakespeare is born in Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwickshire, England
  • 1580 – Francis Drake returns from the first successful circumnavigation of the globe and receives a knighthood the following year
  • 1600 – The East India Company receives a Royal Charter. At its peak, it would account for half of all the world’s trade