Queen Elizabeth : Woman as a Sovereign – Beacon Lights of History, Volume VIII : Great Rulers

Beacon Lights of History, Volume VIII : Great Rulers by John Lord

Beacon Lights of History, Volume VIII : Great Rulers

Alfred the Great : The Saxons in England
Queen Elizabeth : Woman as a Sovereign
Henry of Navarre : The Huguenots
Gustavus Adolphus : Thirty Years’ War
Cardinal Richelieu : Absolutism
Oliver Cromwell : English Revolution
Louis XIV : The French Monarchy
Louis XV : Remote Causes of Revolution
Peter the Great : His Services to Russia
Frederic the Great : The Prussian Power

Beacon Lights of History, Volume VIII : Great Rulers
John Lord

Topics Covered
The reign of Queen Elizabeth associated with progress
Her birth and education
Her trials of the heart
Her critical situation during the reign of Mary
Her expediences
Her dissembling
State of the kingdom on her accession to the throne
Rudeness and loyalty of the people
Difficulties of the Queen
The policy she pursued
Her able ministers
Lord Burleigh
Archbishop Parker
Favorites of Elizabeth
The establishment of the Church of England
Its adaptation to the wants of the nation
Religious persecution
Development of national resources
Pacific policy of the government
Administration of justice
Hatred of war
Glory of Elizabeth allied with the prosperity of England
Good government
Royal economy
Charge of tyranny considered
Power of Parliament
Mary, Queen of Scots
Palliating circumstances for her execution
Character of Mary Stuart
Her plots and intrigues
The execution of Essex
Other charges against Elizabeth
Her coquetry
Her defects
Her virtues
Her public services
Her great fame
Her influence contrasted with power
Verdict of Lord Bacon
Elizabethan era
Constellation of men of genius

Queen Elizabeth : Woman as a Sovereign

A.D. 1533-1603.

I do not present Queen Elizabeth either as a very interesting or as a faultless woman. As a woman she is not a popular favorite. But it is my object to present her as a queen; to show with what dignity and ability a woman may fill one of the most difficult and responsible stations of the world. It is certain that we associate with her a very prosperous and successful reign; and if she was lacking in those feminine qualities which make woman interesting to man, we are constrained to admire her for those talents and virtues which shed lustre around a throne. She is unquestionably one of the links in the history of England and of modern civilization; and her reign is so remarkable, considering the difficulties with which she had to contend, that she may justly be regarded as one of the benefactors of her age and country. It is a pleasant task to point out the greatness, rather than the defects, of so illustrious a woman.

It is my main object to describe her services to her country, for it is by services that all monarchs are to be judged; and all sovereigns, especially those armed with great power, are exposed to unusual temptations, which must ever qualify our judgments. Even bad men–like Caesar, Richelieu, and Napoleon–have obtained favorable verdicts in view of their services. And when sovereigns whose characters have been sullied by weaknesses and defects, yet who have escaped great crimes and scandals and devoted themselves to the good of their country, have proved themselves to be wise, enlightened, and patriotic, great praise has been awarded to them. Thus, Henry IV. of France, and William III. of England have been admired in spite of their defects.

Queen Elizabeth is the first among the great female sovereigns of the world with whose reign we associate a decided progress in national wealth, power, and prosperity; so that she ranks with the great men who have administered kingdoms. If I can prove this fact, the sex should be proud of so illustrious a woman, and should be charitable to those foibles which sullied the beauty of her character, since they were in part faults of the age, and developed by the circumstances which surrounded her.

The Ermine Portrait of Queen Elizabeth I of England

The Ermine Portrait of Queen Elizabeth I of England

She was born in the year 1533, the rough age of Luther, when Charles V. was dreaming of establishing a united continental military empire, and when the princes of the House of Valois were battling with the ideas of the Reformation,–an earnest, revolutionary, and progressive age. She was educated as the second daughter of Henry VIII. naturally would be, having the celebrated Ascham as her tutor in Greek, Latin, French, and Italian. She was precocious as well as studious, and astonished her teachers by her attainments. She was probably the best-educated woman in England next to Lady Jane Grey, and she excelled in those departments of knowledge for which novels have given such distaste in these more enlightened times.

Elizabeth was a mere girl when her mother, Anne Boleyn, was executed for infidelities and levities to which her husband could not be blind, had he been less suspicious,–a cruel execution, which nothing short of high-treason could have justified even in that rough age. Though her birth was declared to be illegitimate by her cruel and unscrupulous father, yet she was treated as a princess. She was seventeen when her hateful old father died; and during the six years when the government was in the hands of Somerset, Edward VI. being a minor, Elizabeth was exposed to no peculiar perils except those of the heart. It is said that Sir Thomas Seymour, brother to the Protector, made a strong impression on her, and that she would have married him had the Council consented. By nature, Elizabeth was affectionate, though prudent. Her love for Seymour was uncalculating and unselfish, though he was unworthy of it. Indeed, it was her misfortune always to misplace her affections,–which is so often the case in the marriages of superior women, as if they loved the image merely which their own minds created, as Dante did when he bowed down to Beatrice. When we see intellectual men choosing weak and silly women for wives, and women of exalted character selecting unworthy and wicked husbands, it does seem as if Providence determines all matrimonial unions independently of our own wills and settled purposes. How often is wealth wedded to poverty, beauty to ugliness, and amiability to ill-temper! The hard, cold, unsocial, unsympathetic, wooden, scheming, selfish man is the only one who seems to attain his end, since he can bide his time,–wait for somebody to fancy him.

Elizabeth had that mixed character which made her life a perpetual conflict between her inclinations and her interests. Her generous impulses and affectionate nature made her peculiarly susceptible, while her prudence and her pride kept her from a foolish marriage. She may have loved unwisely, but she had sufficient self-control to prevent a mésalliance. While she may have resigned herself at times to the fascinations of accomplished men, she yet fathomed the abyss into which imprudence would bury her forever.

On the accession of Mary, her elder sister, daughter of Catharine of Aragon, Elizabeth’s position was exceedingly critical, exposed as she was to the intrigues of the Catholics and the jealousy of the Queen. And when we remember that the great question and issue of that age was whether the Catholic or Protestant religion should have the ascendency, and that this ascendency seemed to hinge upon the private inclinations of the sovereign who in the furtherance of this great end would scruple at nothing to accomplish it, and that the greatest crimes committed for its sake would be justified by all the sophistries that religious partisanship could furnish, and be upheld by all bigots and statesmen as well as priests, it is really remarkable that Elizabeth was spared. For Mary was not only urged on to the severest measures by Gardiner and Bonner (the bishops of Winchester and London), and by all the influences of Rome, to which she was devoted body and soul,–yea, by all her confidential advisers in the State, to save themselves from future contingencies,–but she was also jealous of her sister, as Elizabeth was afterwards jealous of Mary Stuart. And it would have been as easy for Mary to execute Elizabeth as it was for Elizabeth to execute the Queen of Scots, or Henry VIII. to behead his wives; and such a crime would have been excused as readily as the execution of Somerset or of the Lady Jane Grey, both from political necessity and religious expediency. Elizabeth was indeed subjected to great humiliations, and even compelled to sue for her life. What more piteous than her letter to Mary, begging only for an interview: “Wherefore I humbly beseech your Majesty to let me answer before yourself; and, once again kneeling with humbleness of heart, I earnestly crave to speak to your Highness, which I would not be so bold as to desire if I knew not myself most clear, as I know myself most true.” Here is a woman pleading for her life to a sister to whom she had done no wrong, and whose only crime was in being that sister’s heir. What an illustration of the jealousy of royalty and the bitterness of religious feuds; and what a contrast in this servile speech to that arrogance which Elizabeth afterward assumed towards her Parliament and greatest lords! Ah, to what cringing meanness are most people reduced by adversity! In what pride are we apt to indulge in the hour of triumph! How circumstances change the whole appearance of our lives!

Elizabeth, however, in order to save her life, was obliged to dissemble. If her true Protestant opinions had been avowed, I doubt if she could have escaped. We do not see in this dissimulation anything very lofty; yet she acted with singular tact and discretion. It is creditable, however, to Mary that she did not execute her sister. She showed herself more noble than Elizabeth did later in her treatment of the Queen of Scots. History calls her the “Bloody Mary;” and it must be admitted that she was the victim and slave of religious bigotry, and that she sanctioned many bloody executions. And yet it would appear that her nature was, after all, affectionate, which is evinced in the fact that she did spare the life of Elizabeth. Here her better impulses gained the victory over craft and policy and religious intolerance, and rescued her name from the infamy to which such a crime would have doomed her, and which her Church would have sanctioned, and in which it would have rejoiced as much as it did in the slaughter of Saint Bartholomew.

The crocodile tears which Elizabeth is said to have shed when the death of her sister Mary was announced to her at Hatfield were soon wiped away in the pomps and enthusiasms which hailed her accession to the throne. This was in 1558, when she was twenty-five, in the fulness of her attractions and powers. Great expectations were formed of her wisdom and genius. She had passed through severe experiences; she had led a life of study and reflection; she was gifted with talents and graces. “Her accomplishments, her misfortunes, and her brilliant youth exalted into passionate homage the principle of loyalty, and led to extravagant panegyrics.” She was good-looking, if she was not beautiful, since the expression of her countenance showed benignity, culture, and vivacity. She had piercing dark eyes, a clear complexion, and animated features. She was in perfect health, capable of great fatigue, apt in business, sagacious, industrious, witty, learned, and fond of being surrounded with illustrious men. She was high-church in her sympathies, yet a Protestant in the breadth of her views and in the fulness of her reforms. Above all, she was patriotic and disinterested in her efforts to develop the resources of her kingdom and to preserve it from entangling wars.

The kingdom was far from being prosperous when Elizabeth assumed the reins of government, and it is the enormous stride in civilization which England made during her reign, beset with so many perils, which constitutes her chief claim to the admiration of mankind. Let it be borne in mind that she began her rule in perplexities, anxieties, and embarrassments. The crown was encumbered with debts; the nobles were ambitious and factious; the people were poor, dispirited, unimportant, and distracted by the claims of two hostile religions. Only one bishop in the whole realm was found willing to crown her. Scotland was convulsed with factions, and was a standing menace, growing out of the marriage of Mary Stuart with a French prince. Barbarous Ireland was in a state of chronic rebellion; France, Spain, and Rome were decidedly hostile; and all Catholic Europe aimed at the overthrow of England. Philip II. had adopted the dying injunction of his father to extinguish the Protestant religion, and the princes of the House of Valois were leagued with Rome for the attainment of this end. At home, Elizabeth had to contend with a jealous Parliament, a factious nobility, an empty purse, and a divided people. The people generally were rude and uneducated; the language was undeveloped; education was chiefly confined to nobles and priests; the poor were oppressed by feudal laws. No great work in English history, poetry, or philosophy had yet appeared. The comforts and luxuries of life were scarcely enjoyed even by the rich. Chimneys were just beginning to be used. The people slept on mats of straw; they ate without forks on pewter or wooden platters; they drank neither tea nor coffee, but drank what their ancestors did in the forests of Germany,–beer; their houses, thatched with straw, were dark, dingy, and uncomfortable. Commerce was small; manufactures were in their infancy; the coin was debased, and money was scarce; trade was in the hands of monopolists; coaches were almost unknown; the roads were impassable except for horsemen, and were infested with robbers; only the rich could afford wheaten bread; agricultural implements were of the most primitive kind; animal food, for the greater part of the year, was eaten only in a salted state; enterprise of all kinds was restricted within narrow limits; beggars and vagrants were so numerous that the most stringent laws were necessary to protect the people against them; profane swearing was nearly universal; the methods of executing capital punishments were revolting; the rudest sports amused the people; the parochial clergy were ignorant and sensual; country squires sought nothing higher than fox-hunting; it took several days for letters to reach the distant counties; the population numbered only four millions; there was nothing grand and imposing in art but the palaces of nobles and the Gothic monuments of mediaeval Europe.

Such was “Merrie England” on the accession of Elizabeth to the throne,–a rude nation of feudal nobles, rural squires, and ignorant people, who toiled for a mere pittance on the lands of cold, unsympathetic masters; without books, without schools, without privileges, without rights, except to breathe the common air and indulge in coarse pleasures and religious holidays and village fêtes.

On the other hand, it must be admitted that the people were loyal, religious, and brave; that they had the fear of God before their eyes, and felt personal responsibility to Him, so that crimes were uncommon except among the lowest and most abandoned; that family ties were strong; that simple hospitalities were everywhere exercised; that healthy pleasures stimulated no inordinate desires; that the people, if poor, had enough to eat and drink; that service was not held to be degrading; that churches were not deserted; that books, what few there were, did not enervate or demoralize; that science did not attempt to ignore the moral government of God; that laws were a terror to evil-doers; that philanthropists did not seek to reform the world by mechanical inventions, or elevate society by upholding the majesty of man rather than the majesty of God,–teaching the infallibility of congregated masses of ignorance, inexperience, and conceit. Even in those rude times there were the certitudes of religious faith, of domestic endearments, of patriotic devotion, of respect for parents, of loyalty to rulers, of kindness to the poor and miserable; there were the latent fires of freedom, the impulses of generous enthusiasm, and resignation to the ills which could not be removed. So that in England, in Elizabeth’s time, there was a noble material for Christianity and art and literature to work upon, and to develop a civilization such as had not existed previously on this earth,–a civilization destined to spread throughout the world in new institutions, inventions, laws, language, and literature, binding hostile races together, and proclaiming the sovereignty of intelligence,–the [Greek: nous kratei] of the old Ionian philosophers,–with that higher sovereignty which Moses based upon the Ten Commandments, and that higher law still which Jesus taught upon the Mount.

Yet with all this fine but rude material for future greatness, it was nevertheless a glaring fact that the condition of England on the accession of Elizabeth was most discouraging,–a poor and scattered agricultural nation, without a navy of any size, without a regular army, with factions in every quarter, with struggling and contending religious parties, with a jealous parliament of unenlightened country squires; yet a nation seriously threatened by the most powerful monarchies of the Continent, who detested the doctrines which were then taking root in the land. Against the cabals of Rome, the navies of Spain, and the armies of France,–alike hostile and dangerous,–England could make but a feeble show of physical forces, and was protected only by her insular position. The public dangers were so imminent that there was needed not only a strong hand but a stout heart and a wise head at the helm. Excessive caution was necessary, perpetual vigilance was imperative; a single imprudent measure might be fatal in such exigencies. And this accounts for the vacillating policy of Elizabeth, so often condemned by historians. It did not proceed from weakness of head, but from real necessity occasioned by constant embarrassments and changing circumstances. According to all the canons of expediency, it was the sign of a sagacious ruler to temporize and promise and deceive in that sad perplexity. Governments, thus far in the history of nations, have been carried on upon different principles from those that bind the conduct of individuals, especially when the weak contend against the strong. This, abstractly, is not to be defended. Governments and individuals alike are bound by the same laws of immutable morality in their general relations; but the rules of war are different from the rules of peace. Governments are expediencies to suit peculiar crises and exigencies. A man assaulted by robbers would be a fool to fall back on the passive virtues of non-resistance.

Elizabeth had to deal both with religious bigots and unscrupulous kings. We may be disgusted with the course she felt it politic to pursue, but it proved successful. A more generous and open course might have precipitated an attack when she was unprepared and defenceless. Her dalliances and expediencies and dissimulations delayed the evil day, until she was ready for the death-struggle; and when the tempest of angry human forces finally broke upon her defenceless head, she was saved only by a storm of wind and rain which Providence kindly and opportunely sent. Had the “Invincible Armada” been permitted to invade England at the beginning of her reign, there would probably have been another Spanish conquest. What chance would the untrained militia of a scattered population, without fortresses or walled cities or military leaders of skill, have had against the veteran soldiers who were marshalled under Philip II., with all the experiences learned in the wars of Charles V. and in the conquest of Peru and Mexico, aided, too, by the forces of France and the terrors of the Vatican and the money of the Flemish manufacturers? It was the dictate of self-preservation which induced Elizabeth to prevaricate, and to deceive the powerful monarchs who were in league against her. If ever lying and cheating were justifiable, they were then; if political jesuitism is ever defensible, it was in the sixteenth century. So that I cannot be hard on the embarrassed Queen for a policy which on the strict principles of morality it would be difficult to defend. It was a dark age of conspiracies, rebellions, and cabals. In dealing with the complicated relations of government in that day, there were no recognized principles but those of expediency. Even in our own times, expediency rather than right too often seems to guide nations. It is not just and fair, therefore, to expect from a sovereign, in Queen Elizabeth’s time, that openness and fairness which are the result only of a higher national civilization. What would be blots on government to-day were not deemed blots in the sixteenth century. Elizabeth must be judged by the standard of her age, not of ours, in her official and public acts.

We must remember, also, that this great Queen was indorsed, supported, and even instructed by the ablest and wisest and most patriotic statesmen that were known to her generation. Lord Burleigh, her prime minister, was a marvel of political insight, industry, and fidelity. If he had not the commanding genius of Thomas Cromwell or the ambitious foresight of Richelieu, he surpassed the statesmen of his day in patriotic zeal and in disinterested labors,–not to extend the boundaries of the empire, but to develop national resources and make the country strong for defence. He was a plodding, wary, cautious, far-seeing, long-headed old statesman, whose opinions it was not safe for Elizabeth to oppose; and although she was arbitrary and opinionated herself, she generally followed Burleigh’s counsels,–unwillingly at times, but firmly when she perceived the necessity; for she was, with all her pertinacity, open to conviction of reason. I cannot deny that she sometimes headed off her prime-minister and deceived him, and otherwise complicated the difficulties that beset her reign; but this was only when she felt a strong personal repugnance to the state measures which he found it imperative to pursue. After all, Elizabeth was a woman, and the woman was not utterly lost in the Queen. It is greatly to her credit, however, that she retained the services of this old statesman for forty years, and that she filled the great offices in the State and Church with men of experience, genius, and wisdom. She made Parker the Archbishop of Canterbury,–a man of remarkable moderation and breadth of mind, whose reforms were carried on without exciting hostilities, and have survived the fanaticisms and hostile attacks of generations. Walsingham, her ambassador at Paris, and afterwards her secretary of state, ferreted out the plots of the Jesuits and the intrigues of hostile courts, and rendered priceless service by his acuteness and diligence. Lord Effingham, one of the Howards, defeated the “Invincible Armada.” Sir Thomas Gresham managed her finances so ably that she was never without money. Coke was her attorney. Sir Nicholas Bacon–the ablest lawyer in the realm, and a stanch Protestant–was her lord-keeper; while his illustrious son, the immortal Francis Bacon, though not adequately rewarded, was always consulted by the Queen in great legal difficulties. I say nothing of those elegant and gallant men who were the ornaments of her court, and in some instances the generals of her armies and admirals of her navies,–Sackville, Raleigh, Sidney, not to mention Essex and Leicester, all of whom were distinguished for talents and services; men who had no equals in their respective provinces; so gifted that it is difficult to determine whether the greatness of her reign was more owing to the talents of the ministers or to the wisdom of the Queen herself. Unless she had been a great woman, I doubt whether she would have discerned the merits of these men, and employed them in her service and kept them so long in office.

It was by these great men that Elizabeth was ruled,–so far as she was ruled at all,–not by favorites, like her successors, James and Charles. The favorites at the court of Elizabeth were rarely trusted with great powers unless they were men of signal abilities, and regarded as such by the nation itself. While she lavished favors upon them,–sometimes to the disgust of the old nobility,–she was never ruled by them, as James was by Buckingham, and Louis XV. by Madame de Pompadour. Elizabeth was not above coquetry, it is true; but after toying with Leicester and Raleigh,–never, though, to the serious injury of her reputation as a woman,–she would retire to the cabinet of her ministers and yield to the sage suggestions of Burleigh and Walsingham. At her council-board she was an entirely different woman from what she was among her courtiers: there she would tolerate no flattery, and was controlled only by reason and good sense,–as practical as Burleigh himself, and as hard-working and business-like; cold, intellectual, and clear-headed, utterly without enthusiasm.

Perhaps the greatest service which Elizabeth rendered to the English nation and the cause of civilization was her success in establishing Protestantism as the religion of the land, against so many threatening obstacles. In this she was aided and directed by some of the most enlightened divines that England ever had. The liturgy of Cranmer was re-established, preferments were conferred on married priests, the learned and pious were raised to honor, eminent scholars and theologians were invited to England, the Bible was revised and freely circulated, and an alliance was formed between learning and religion by the great men who adorned the universities. Though inclined to ritualism, Elizabeth was broad and even moderate in reform, desiring, according to the testimony of Bacon, that all extremes of idolatry and superstition should be avoided on the one hand, and levity and contempt on the other; that all Church matters should be examined without sophistical niceties or subtle speculations.

The basis of the English Church as thus established by Elizabeth was half-way between Rome and Geneva,–a compromise, I admit; but all established institutions and governments accepted by the people are based on compromise. How can there be even family government without some compromise, inasmuch as husband and wife cannot always be expected to think exactly alike?

At any rate, the Church established by Elizabeth was signally adapted to the wants and genius of the English people,–evangelical, on the whole, in its creed, though not Calvinistic; unobtrusive in its forms, easy in its discipline, and aristocratic in its government; subservient to bishops, but really governed by the enlightened few who really govern all churches, Independent, Presbyterian, or Methodist; supported by the State, yet wielding only spiritual authority; giving its influence to uphold the crown and the established institutions of the country; conservative, yet earnestly Protestant. In the sixteenth century it was the Church of reform, of progress, of advancing and liberalizing thought. Elizabeth herself was a zealous Protestant, protecting the cause whenever it was persecuted, encouraging Huguenots, and not disdaining the Presbyterians of Scotland. She was not as generous to the Protestants of Holland and Trance as we could have wished, for she was obliged to husband her resources, and hence she often seemed parsimonious; but she was the acknowledged head of the reform movement in Europe. Her hostility to Rome and Roman influence was inexorable. She may not have carried reforms as far as the Puritans desired, and who can wonder at that? Their spirit was aggressive, revolutionary, bitter, and, pushed to its logical sequences, was hostility to the throne itself, as proved by their whole subsequent history until Cromwell was dead. And this hostility Burleigh perceived as well as the Queen, which, doubtless led to severities that our age cannot pretend to justify.

The Queen did dislike and persecute the Puritans, not, I think, so much because they made war on the surplice, liturgy, and divine right of bishops, as because they were at heart opposed to all absolute authority both in State and Church, and when goaded by persecution would hurl even kings from their thrones. It is to be regretted that Elizabeth was so severe on those who differed from her; she had no right to insist on uniformity with her conscience in those matters which are above any human authority. The Reformation in its severest logical consequences, in its grandest deductions, affirms the right of private judgment as the mighty pillar of its support. All parties, Presbyterian as well as Episcopalian, sought uniformity; they only differed as to its standard. With the Queen and ministers and prelates it was the laws of the land; with the Puritans, the decrees of provincial and national synods. Hence, if Elizabeth insisted that her subjects should conform to her notions and the ordinances of Parliament and convocations, she showed a spirit which was universal. She was superior even in toleration to all contemporaneous sovereigns, Catholic or Protestant, man or woman. Contrast her persecutions of Catholics and Puritans with the persecution by Catherine de Médicis and Charles IX. and Philip II. and Ferdinand II.; or even with that under the Regent Murray of Scotland, when churches and abbeys were ruthlessly destroyed. Contrast her Archbishop of Canterbury with the religious dictator of Scotland. She kindled no auto-da-fé, like the Spaniards; she incited no wholesale massacre, like the demented fury of France; she had a loving care of her subjects that no religious bigotry could suppress. She did not seek to exterminate Catholics or Puritans, but simply to build up the Church of England as the shield and defence and enlargement of Protestantism in times of unmitigated religious ferocity,–a Protestantism that has proved the bulwark of European liberties, as it was the foundation of all progress in England. In giving an impulse to this great emancipating movement, even if she did not push it to its remote logical end, Elizabeth was a benefactor of her country and of mankind, and is not unjustly called a nursing-mother of the Church,–being so regarded by Protestants, not in England merely, but on the Continent of Europe. When was ever a religious revolution effected, or a national church established, with so little bloodshed? When have ever such great changes proved so popular and so beneficial, and, I may add, so permanent? After all the revolutions in English thought and life for three hundred years, the Church as established by Elizabeth is still dear to the great body of English people, and has survived every agitation. And even many things which the Puritans sought to sweep away–the music of the choir, organs, and chants, even the holidays of venerated ages–are now revived by the descendants of the Puritans with ancient ardor; showing how permanent are such festivals as Christmas and Easter in the heart of Christendom, and how hopeless it is to eradicate what the Church and Christianity, from their earliest ages, have sanctioned and commended.

The next great service which Elizabeth rendered to England was a development of its resources,–ever a primal effort with wise statesmen, with such administrators as Sully, Colbert, Richelieu. The policy of her Government was not the policy of aggrandizement in war, which has ever provoked jealousies and hatreds in other nations, and led to dangerous combinations, and sowed the seed of future wars. The policy of Napoleon was retaliated in the conquests of Prussia in our day; and the policy of Prussia may yet lead to its future dismemberment, in spite of the imperial realm shaped by Bismarck. “With what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again,”–an eternal law, binding both individuals and nations, from which there is no escape. The government of Elizabeth did not desire or aim at foreign conquests,–the great error of European statesmen on the Continent; it sought the establishment of the monarchy at home, and the development of the various industries of the nation, since in these industries are both power and wealth. Commerce was encouraged, and she girt her island around with those “wooden walls” which have proved England’s impregnable defence against every subsequent combination of tyrants and conquerors. The East India Company was formed, and the fisheries of Newfoundland established. It was under Elizabeth’s auspices that Frobisher penetrated to the Polar Sea, that Sir Francis Drake circumnavigated the globe, that Sir Walter Raleigh colonized Virginia, and that Sir Humphrey Gilbert attempted to discover ‘a northwestern passage to India. Manufactories were set up for serges, so that wool was no longer exported, but the raw material was consumed at home. A colony of Flemish weavers was planted in the heart of England. The prosperity of dyers and cloth-dressers and weavers dates from this reign, although some attempts at manufactures were made in the reign of Edward III. A refuge was given to persecuted foreigners, and work was found for them to do. Pasture-land was converted to tillage,–not, as is now the case, to parks for the wealthy classes. Labor was made respectable, and enterprise of all kinds was stimulated. Wealth was sought in industry and economy, rather than in mines of gold and silver; so that wealth was doubled during this reign, and the population increased from four millions to six millions. All the old debts of the Crown were paid, both principal and interest, and the debased coin was called in at a great sacrifice to the royal revenue. The arbitrary management of commerce by foreign merchants was broken up, and weights and measures were duly regulated. The Queen did not revoke monopolies, it is true; the principles of political economy were not then sufficiently understood. But even monopolies, which disgraced the old Roman world, and are a disgrace to any age, were not so gigantic and demoralizing in those times as in our own, under our free institutions; they were not used to corrupt legislation and bribe judges and prevent justice, but simply to enrich politicians and favorites, and as a reward for distinguished services.

Justice in the courts was impartially administered; there was security to property and punishment for crime. No great culprits escaped conviction; nor, when convicted, were they allowed to purchase, with their stolen wealth, the immunities of freedom. The laws were not a mockery, as in republican Borne, where demagogues had the ascendency, and prepared the way for usurpation and tyranny. All the expenses of the government were managed economically,–so much so that the Queen herself received from Parliament, for forty years, only an average grant of £65,000 a year. She disliked to ask money from the Commons, and they granted subsidies with extreme reluctance; the result was that between the two the greatest economy was practised, and the people were not over-burdened by taxation.

Elizabeth hated and detested war as the source of all calamities, and never embarked upon it except under compulsion. All her wars were virtually defensive, to maintain the honor, safety, and dignity of the nation. She did not even seek to recover Calais, which the French had held for three hundred years; although she took Havre, to gain a temporary foothold for her troops. She did not strive for military éclat or foreign possessions in Europe, feeling that the strength of England, like the ancient Jewish commonwealth, was in the cultivation of the peaceful virtues; and yet she made war when it became imperative. She gave free audience to her subjects, paid attention to all petitions, and was indefatigable in business. She made her own glory identical with the prosperity of the realm; and if she did not rule by the people, she ruled for the people, as enlightened and patriotic monarchs ever have ruled. It is indisputable that the whole nation loved her and honored her to the last, even when disappointments had saddened her and the intoxicating delusions of life had been dispelled. She bestowed honors and benefits with frankness and cordiality. She ever sought to base her authority on the affections of the people,–the only support even of absolute thrones. She was ever ready with a witticism, a smile, and a pleasant word. Though she gave vent to peevishness and irritability when crossed, and even would swear before her ministers and courtiers in private, yet in public she disguised her resentments, and always appeared dignified and graceful; so that the people, when they saw her majestic manners, or heard her loving speeches, or beheld her mounted at the head of armies or shining unrivalled in grand festivals, or listened to her learning on public occasions,–such as when she extemporized Latin orations at Oxford,–were filled with pride and admiration, and were ready to expose their lives in her service.

The characteristic excellence of Elizabeth’s reign, as it seems to me, was good government. She had extraordinary executive ability, directed to all matters of public interest. Her government was not marked by great and brilliant achievements, but by perpetual vigilance, humanity, economy, and liberal policy. There were no destructive and wasting wars, no passion for military glory, no successions of court follies, no extravagance in palace-building, no egotistical aims and pleasures such as marked the reign of Louis XIV., which cut the sinews of national strength, impoverished the nobility, disheartened the people, and sowed the seeds of future revolution. That modern Nebuchadnezzar spent on one palace £40,000,000; while Elizabeth spent on all her palaces, processions, journeys, carriages, servants, and dresses £65,000 a year. She was indeed fond of visiting her subjects, and perhaps subjected her nobles to a burdensome hospitality. But the Earl of Leicester could well afford three hundred and sixty-five hogsheads of beer when he entertained the Queen at Kenilworth, since he was rich enough to fortify his castle with ten thousand men; nor was it difficult for the Earl of Derby to feast the royal party, when his domestic servants numbered two hundred and forty. She may have exacted presents on her birthday; but the courtiers who gave her laces and ruffs and jewelry received monopolies in return.

The most common charge against Elizabeth as a sovereign is, that she was arbitrary and tyrannical; nor can she be wholly exculpated from this charge. Her reign was despotic, so far as the Constitution would allow; but it was a despotism according to the laws. Under her reign the people had as much liberty as at any preceding period of English history. She did not encroach on the Constitution. The Constitution and the precedents of the past gave her the Star Chamber, and the High Commission Court, and the disposal of monopolies, and the absolute command of the military and naval forces; but these great prerogatives she did not abuse. In her direst necessities she never went beyond the laws, and seldom beyond the wishes of the people.

It is expecting too much of sovereigns to abdicate their own powers except upon compulsion; and still more, to increase the political power of the people. The most illustrious sovereigns have never parted willingly with their own prerogatives. Did the Antonines, or Theodosius, or Charlemagne, or ‘Frederic II.? The Emperor of Russia may emancipate serfs from a dictate of humanity, but he did not give them political power, for fear that it might be turned against the throne. The sovereign people of America may give political equality to their old slaves, and invite them to share in the legislation of great interests: it is in accordance with that theory of abstract rights which Rousseau, the creator of the French Revolution, propounded,–which gospel of rights was accepted by Jefferson and Franklin, The monarchs of the world have their own opinions about the political rights of those whom they deem ignorant or inexperienced. Instead of proceeding to enlarge the bounds of popular liberties, they prefer to fall back on established duties. Elizabeth had this preference; but she did not attempt to take away what liberties the people already had. In encouraging the principles of the Reformation, she became their protector against Catholic priests and feudal nobles.

It is not quite just to stigmatize the government of Elizabeth as a despotism, A despotism is a régime supported by military force, based on an army, with power to tax the people without their consent,–like the old rule of the Caesars, like that of Louis XIV. and Peter the Great, and even of Napoleon. Now, Elizabeth never had a standing army of any size. When the country was threatened by Spain, she threw herself into the arms of the militia,–upon the patriotism and generosity of her people. Nor could she tax the people without the consent of Parliament,–which by a fiction was supposed to represent the people, while in reality it only represented the wealthy classes. Parliament possessed the power to cripple her, and was far less generous to her than it was to Queen Victoria. She was headed off both by the nobles and by the representatives of the wealthy, powerful, and aristocratic Commons. She had great prerogatives and great private wealth, palaces, parks, and arbitrary courts; but she could not go against the laws of the realm without endangering her throne,–which she was wise enough and strong enough to keep, in spite of all her enemies both at home and abroad. Had she been a man, she might have turned out a tyrant and a usurper: she might have increased the royal prerogatives, like Richelieu; she might have made wars, like Louis XIV.; she might have ground down the people, like her successor James. But she understood the limits of her power, and did not seek to go beyond: thereby proving herself as wise as she was mighty.

By most historical writers Elizabeth is severely censured for the execution of Mary Queen of Scots, and I think with justice. I am not making a special plea in favor of Elizabeth,–hiding her defects and exaggerating her virtues,–but simply seeking to present her character and deeds according to the verdict of enlightened ages. It was a cruel and repulsive act to take away the life of a relative and a woman and a queen, under any pretence whatever, unless the sparing of her life would endanger the security of the sovereign and the peace of the realm. Mary was the granddaughter of Margaret Tudor, sister of Henry VIII, and was the lawful successor of Mary, the eldest daughter of Henry VIII. On the principle of legitimacy, she had a title to the throne superior to Elizabeth herself, and the succession of princes has ever been determined by this. But Mary was a Catholic, to say nothing of her levities or crimes, and had been excluded by the nation for that very reason. If there was injustice done to her, it was in not allowing her claim to succeed Mary. That she felt that Elizabeth was a usurper, and that the English throne belonged by right to her, I do not doubt. It was natural that she should seek to regain her rights. If she should survive Elizabeth, her claims as the rightful successor could not be well set aside. That in view of these facts Elizabeth was jealous of Mary I do not doubt; and that this jealousy was one great cause of her hostility is probable.

The execution of Mary Stuart because she was a Catholic, or because she excited fear or jealousy, is utterly indefensible. All that the English nation had a right to do was to set her succession aside because she was a Catholic, and would undo the work of the Reformation. She had a right to her religion; and the nation also had a right to prevent its religion from being overturned or jeopardized. I do not believe, however, that Mary’s life endangered either the throne or the religion of England, so long as she was merely Queen of Scotland; hence I look upon her captivity as cruel, and her death as a crime. She was destroyed as the male children of the Hebrews were destroyed by Pharaoh, as a sultan murders his nephews,–from fear; from a cold and cruel state policy, against all the higher laws of morality.

The crime of Elizabeth doubtless has palliations. She was urged by her ministers and by the Protestant part of the nation to commit this great wrong, on the plea of necessity, to secure the throne against a Catholic successor, and the nation from embarrassments, plots, and rebellions. It is an undoubted fact that Mary, even after her imprisonment in England, was engaged in perpetual intrigues; that she was leagued with Jesuits and hostile powers, and kept Elizabeth in continual irritation and the nation in constant alarm. And it is probable that had she succeeded Elizabeth, she would have destroyed all that was dear to the English heart,–that glorious Reformation, effected by so many labors and sacrifices. Therefore she was immolated to the spirit of the times, for reasons of expediency and apparent state necessity. That she conspired against the government of Elizabeth, and possibly against her life, was generally supposed; that she was a bitter enemy cannot be questioned. How far Elizabeth can be exculpated on the principle of self-defence cannot well be ascertained. Scotch historians do not generally accept the reputed facts of Mary’s guilt. But if she sought the life of Elizabeth, and was likely to attain so bloody an end,–as was generally feared,–then Elizabeth has great excuses for having sanctioned the death of her rival.

Mary, Queen of Scots painting after Nicholas Hilliard

Mary, Queen of Scots painting after Nicholas Hilliard

So the beautiful and interesting Mary dies a martyr to her cause,–a victim of royal and national jealousy, paying the penalty for alleged crimes against the state and throne. Had Elizabeth herself, during the life of her sister Mary, been guilty of half they proved against the Queen of Scots, she would have been most summarily executed. But Elizabeth was wise and prudent, and waited for her time. Mary Stuart was imprudent and rash. Her character, in spite of her fascinations and accomplishments, was full of follies, infidelities, and duplicities. She is supposed to have been an adulteress and a murderess. She was unfortunate in her administration of Scotland. She was ruled by wicked favorites and foreign influence. She was not patriotic, or lofty, or earnest. She did what she could to root out Protestantism in Scotland, and kept her own realm in constant trouble. She had winning manners and graceful accomplishments; she was doubtless an intellectual woman; she had courage, presence of mind, tact, intelligence; she could ride and dance well: but with these accomplishments she had qualities which made her dangerous and odious. If she had not been executed, she would have been execrated. But her sufferings and unfortunate death appeal to the heart of the world, and I would not fight against popular affections and sympathies. Though she committed great crimes and follies, and was supposed to be dangerous to the religion and liberties of England, she died a martyr,–as Charles I. died, and Louis XVI.,–the victim of great necessities and great animosities.

The execution of Essex is another of the popular rather than serious charges against Elizabeth. He had been her favorite; he was a generous, gifted, and accomplished man,–therefore, it is argued, he ought to have been spared. But he was caught with arms in his hands. He was a traitor to the throne which enriched him and the nation which flattered him. He was at the head of foolish rebellion, and therefore he died,–died like Montmorency in the reign of Henry IV., like Bassompierre, like Norfolk and Northumberland, because he had committed high-treason and defied the laws. Why should Elizabeth spare such a culprit? No former friendship, no chivalrous qualities, no array of past services, ever can offset the crime of treason and rebellion, especially in unsettled times; and Elizabeth would have been worse than weak had she spared so great a criminal, both according to the laws and precedents of England and the verdict of enlightened civilization. We may compassionate the fate of Essex; but he was rash, giddy, and irritated, and we feel that he deserved his punishment.

The other charges brought against Elizabeth pertain to her as a woman rather than a sovereign. They say that she was artful, dissembling, parsimonious, jealous, haughty, and masculine. Very likely,–and what then? Who claimed that she was perfect, any more than other great sovereigns whom on the whole we praise? These faults, too, may have been the result of her circumstances, rather than native traits of character. Surrounded with spies and enemies, she was obliged to hide her thoughts and her plans. Irritated by treason and rebellions, she may have given vent to unseemly anger. Flattered beyond all example, she may have been vain and ostentatious. Possessed of great powers, she may have been arbitrary. Crippled by Parliament, she may have nursed her resources. Compelled to give to everything, she may have been parsimonious. Slandered by her enemies, she may have been resentful. Annoyed by wrangling sects, she may have too strenuously paraded her high-church principles.

But all these things we lose sight of in the undoubted virtues, abilities, and services of this great Queen. Historians have other work than to pick out spots on the sun. The dark spot, if there is one upon Elizabeth’s character, was her coquetry in private life. It is impossible to tell whether or not she exceeded the bounds of womanly virtue. She was probably slandered and vilified by treacherous, gossiping ambassadors, who were foes to her person and her kingdom, and who made as ugly reports of her as possible to their royal masters. I am sorry that these malicious accusations have been raked out of the ashes of the past by modern historians, whose literary fame rests on bringing to light what is new rather than what is true. The character of a woman and a queen so admired and honored in her day, should be sacred from the stings of sensational writers who poison their darts from the archives of bitter foreign enemies.

The gallant men of genius whom Elizabeth admired and honored–as a bright and intellectual woman naturally would, especially when deprived of the felicities of wedded life–never presumed, I have charity to believe, beyond an undignified partiality and an admiring friendship. When Essex stood highest in her favor, she was nearly seventy years of age. There are no undoubted facts which criminate her,–nothing but gossip and the malice of foreign spies. What a contrast her private life was to that of her mother Anne Boleyn, or to that of Mary, Queen of Scots, or even to that of the great Catherine of Russia! She had, indeed, great foibles and weaknesses. She was inordinately fond of dress; she was sensitive to her own good looks; she was jealous of pretty women; she was vain, and susceptible to flattery; she was irritable when crossed; she gave way to sallies of petulance and anger; she occasionally used language unbecoming her station and authority; she could dissimulate and hide her thoughts: but her nature was not hypocritical, or false, or mean. She was just, honest, and straightforward in her ordinary dealings; she was patriotic, enlightened, and magnanimous; she loved learning and learned men; she had at heart the best interests of her subjects; she was true to her cause. Surely these great virtues, which it is universally admitted she possessed, should more than balance her defects and weaknesses. See how tender-hearted she was when required to sign death-warrants, and what grief she manifested when Essex proved unworthy of her friendship! See her love of children, her readiness of sympathy, her fondness for society,–all feminine qualities in a woman who is stigmatized as masculine, as she perhaps was in her mental structure, in her habits of command, and aptitude for business: a strong-minded woman at the worst, yet such a woman as was needed on a throne, especially in stormy times and in a rude state of society.

And when we pass from her private character to her public services, by which the great are judged, how exalted her claims to the world’s regard! Where do we find a greater or a better queen? Contrast her with other female sovereigns,–with Isabella, who with all her virtues favored the Inquisition; with her sister Mary, who kindled the fires of Smithfield; with Catherine de Médicis, who sounded the tocsin of St. Bartholomew; with Mary of Scotland, who was a partner in the murder of her husband; with Anne of Austria, who ruled through Italian favorites; with Christiana of Sweden, who scandalized Europe by her indecent eccentricities; with Anne of Great Britain, ruled by the Duchess of Marlborough. There are only two great sovereigns with whom she can be compared,–Catherine II. of Russia, and Maria Theresa of Germany, illustrious, like Elizabeth, for courage and ability. But Catherine was the slave of infamous passions, and Maria Theresa was a party to the partition of Poland. Compared with these even, the English queen appears immeasurably superior; they may have wielded more power, but their moral influence was less. It is not the greatness of a country which gives greatness to its exalted characters. Washington ruled our empire in its infancy; and Buchanan, with all its majestic resources,–yet who is dearest to the heart of the world? No countries ever produced greater benefactors than Palestine and Greece, when their limits were scarcely equal to one of our States. The fame of Burleigh burns brighter than that of the most powerful of modern statesmen. The names of Alexander Hamilton and Daniel Webster may outshine the glories of any statesmen who shall arise in this great country for a hundred years to come. Elizabeth ruled a little island; but her memory and deeds are as immortal as the fame of Pericles or Marcus Aurelius.

Last Moments of Queen Elizabeth painting by Paul Delaroche

Last Moments of Queen Elizabeth painting by Paul Delaroche

And the fame of England’s great queen rests on the influence which radiated from her character, as well as upon the power she wielded with so much wisdom and ability. Influence is greater than power in the lapse of ages. Politicians may wield power for a time; but the great statesmen, like Burke and Canning, live in their ideas. Warriors and kings, and ministers of kings, have power; but poets and philosophers have influence, for their ideas go coursing round the world until they have changed governments and institutions for better or for worse,–like those of Paul, of Socrates, of Augustine, of Dante, of Shakspeare, of Bacon, yea, of Rousseau. Some few favored rulers and leaders of men have had both power and influence, like Moses, Alfred, and Washington; and Elizabeth belongs to this class. Her influence was for good, and it permeated English life and society, like that of Victoria, whose power was small.

As a queen, however, more than a woman, Elizabeth is one of the great names of history. I have some respect for the critical verdict of Francis Bacon, the greatest man of his age,–if we except Shakspeare,–and one of the greatest men in the history of all nations. What does he say? He knew her well, perhaps as well as any modern historian. He says:–

“She was a princess, that, if Plutarch were now alive to write by parables, it would puzzle him to find her equal among women. She was endowed with learning most singular and rare; and as for her government, I do affirm that England never had forty-five years of better times, and this, not through the calmness of the season, but the wisdom of her regimes. When we consider the establishment of religion, and the constant peace of the country, the good administration of justice, the flourishing state of learning, the increase of wealth, and the general prosperity, amid differences in religion, the troubles of neighboring nations, the ambition of Spain, and the opposition of Home, I could not have chosen a more remarkable combination of learning in the prince with felicity of the people.”

I can add nothing to this comprehensive verdict: it covers the whole ground. So that for virtues and abilities, in spite of all defects, I challenge attention to this virgin queen. I love to dwell on her courage, her fortitude, her prudence, her wisdom, her patriotism, her magnanimity, her executive ability, and, more, on the exalted services she rendered to her country and to civilization. These invest her name with a halo of glory which shall blaze through all the ages, even as the great men who surrounded her throne have made her name illustrious.

The Elizabethan era is justly regarded as the brightest in English history; not for the number of its great men, or the magnificence of its great enterprises, or the triumphs of its great discoveries and inventions, but because there were then born the great ideas which constitute the strength and beauty of our proud civilization, and because then the grandest questions which pertain to religion, government, literature, and social life were first agitated, with the freshness and earnestness of a revolutionary age. The men of that period were a constellation of original thinkers. We still point with admiration to the political wisdom of Cecil, to the sagacity of Walsingham, to the varied accomplishments of Raleigh, to the chivalrous graces of Sidney, to the bravery of Hawkins and Nottingham, to the bold enterprises of Drake and Frobisher, to the mercantile integrity and financial skill of Gresham, to the comprehensive intellect of Parker, to the scholarship of Ascham, to the eloquence of Jewel, to the profundity of Hooker, to the vast attainments and original genius of Bacon, to the rich fancy of Spenser, to the almost inspired insight of Shakspeare, towering above all the poets of ancient and of modern times, as fresh to-day as he was three hundred years ago, the greatest miracle of intellect that perhaps has ever adorned the world. By all these illustrious men Queen Elizabeth was honored and beloved. All received no small share of their renown from her glorious appreciation; all were proud to revolve around her as a central sun, giving life and growth to every great enterprise in her day, and shedding a light which shall gladden unborn generations.

It is something that a woman has earned such a fame, and in a sphere which has been supposed to belong to man alone. And if men shall here and there be found to decry her greatness, let no woman be found who shall seek to dethrone her from her lofty pedestal; for in so doing she unwittingly becomes a detractor from that womanly greatness in which we should all rejoice, and which thus far has so seldom been seen in exalted stations. For my part, the more I study history the more I reverence this great sovereign; and I am proud that such a woman has lived and reigned and died in honor.


Fronde’s History of England; Hume’s History of England; Agnes Strickland’s Queens of England; Mrs. Jameson’s Memoirs of Queen Elizabeth; E. Lodge’s Sketch of Elizabeth; G.P.R. James’s Memoir of Elizabeth; Encyclopaedia Britannica, article on England: Hallam’s Constitutional History of England; “Age of Elizabeth,” in Dublin Review, lxxxi.; British Quarterly Review, v. 412; Aikin’s Court of Elizabeth; Bentley’s Elizabeth and her Times; “Court of Elizabeth,” in Westminster Review, xxix. 281; “Character of Elizabeth,” in Dublin University Review, xl. 216; “England of Elizabeth,” in Edinburgh Review, cxlvi. 199; “Favorites of Queen Elizabeth,” in Quarterly Review, xcv. 207; Reign of Elizabeth, in London Quarterly Review, xxii. 158; “Youth of Elizabeth,” in Temple Bar Magazine, lix. 451, and “Elizabeth and Mary Stuart,” x. 190; Blackwood’s Magazine, ci. 389.

Henry of Navarre : The Huguenots

Beacon Lights of History, Volume VIII : Great Rulers