On today’s date in 1558, Mary I of England died, and her half-sister the Princess Elizabeth succeeded her as Queen. Elizabeth would reign almost 45 years and change the world. Americans should think of her as our Founding Mother; although Sir Walter Raleigh’s attempt at a colony failed, from her reign on the English planned the establishment of major settlements in what is now the United States. She patronized Shakespeare and presided over what is still the most glorious era in the history of English literature. She did her best to promote some kind of religious tolerance in an age of bigotry and religious war, and it is to her that we owe the survival of the beautiful liturgical music of the Church of England.
They aren’t very accurate historically, but two films directed by Shekhar Kapur do a good job of explaining to a modern audience what Elizabeth meant to her people. “Elizabeth” and “Elizabeth: The Golden Age” star Cate Blanchett in the title role. If you aren’t sure why this old time queen is such a big deal, those movies are a good place to start.
If she hadn’t been around, or been as clever or as forward thinking a ruler as she turned out to be, the world would be a much uglier place. As the daughter of an executed traitor (Anne Boleyn, for in those days adultery against the king counted as treason), and a focal point for opponents of Mary’s rule, Elizabeth led an often terrifying life. She seems to have been sexually approached by one of her adult guardians when she was still a girl; she was sometimes heir to the throne, sometimes under suspicion of treason and once confined in the Tower itself; yet out of this life of insecurity and fear she somehow managed to find the strength of character to give her subjects a stable government under which Parliament began to recover the liberties lost under her tyrannical father. Her life wasn’t easy, and not all of her deeds were good, but on the whole she did her job well in the place where God placed her, and that is about as much as any of us can hope to do.