On 17th November 1558, a young woman of 26 called Elizabeth Tudor became Queen of England.
The auguries for her reign were not good. Her father had been a ruthless and unbalanced tyrant. He had executed her mother in a fit of insane jealousy when Elizabeth was three. He went on to marry four more wives in succession, divorcing one and executing another on the basis of a probably more justified jealousy. He had turned the kingdom upside down, destroying the ancient power of the Catholic Church, selling its property off cheaply and wasting the proceeds on pointless and unsuccessful foreign wars. His sickly young son, under the influence of reformers, had destroyed also the Church’s ancient ceremonial. When he died, his sister Mary reversed his policy, persecuted the reformers and made a very unpopular marriage with the arch-Catholic King of Spain. Then she died, leaving much bitterness and a divided kingdom.
Elizabeth was a woman. It seemed very unlikely that a woman would be a successful monarch. Everything would depend, of course, on who she married. Then England would again have a king and Elizabeth could concentrate on her main task in life – every queen’s main task in life – producing a healthy male heir. Yet Elizabeth never married and she became England’s greatest monarch, giving her kingdom peace, calm and prosperity, setting us on a new track for the future as a unified island, laying the foundations of future greatness. She was remembered for centuries as ‘Good Queen Bess’; her reign recalled as a Golden Age. Perhaps we should think of her again sometimes now.
She had superb political skills. As a young woman she was beautiful and as she became older she never lost her ability to captivate the crowds, always preserving her regal dignity but with a smile for everybody. Surrounded by brilliant courtiers who did their utmost to charm her, she chose her advisors from the beginning with mature wisdom. Her advisors never ceased to tell her to marry; she must give the kingdom an heir; but although she used the prospect of marriage as a political tool, she never did marry; and strangely, precisely by not marrying, she not only gave her kingdom an undisputed adult male heir, but made possible the future unification of the island of Britain. For her cousin and heir was the young king of Scotland.
Although it was always difficult to restrain her subjects’ turbulent religious passions, she established a tradition of peace and mercy above everything, and nobody died for their beliefs in her reign, nor would they again in England unless a foreign loyalty led to rebellion. She always tried to avoid war, but when she could no longer avoid it, her sailors gave her the legendary victory over the Spanish Armada. She recognised that England’s future lay on the sea and in the Americas, not in continental Europe, and although the expeditions which she encouraged sometimes amounted to piracy, this was an age in which piracy and normal sea-going practice were still not entirely distinct. In her reign were laid the foundations of the British Empire and of the United States, and her sailors and merchants established contact with the Tsar of Russia, Ivan the Terrible, from whom also she received an offer of marriage.
Her reign became the great age of English literature: it produced Shakespeare. It established England as what it long remained and perhaps still remains: the most civilised country in the world. It also later became the most prosperous; for peace, civilisation and prosperity go together.
When Elizabeth II came to the throne in 1952, the press promised us a New Elizabethan Age. It hasn’t turned out that way. True, we have had peace and prosperity and that’s certainly something – our grandparents didn’t have much of them. But through no fault of our Queen, something has gone very seriously wrong with our country during her reign and our grandchildren may not be able to count on peace and prosperity in the future. Queen Elizabeth II still retains her title, but in law, it appears, she is just one of the better-known and more affluent citizens of the European Union.
And yet … perhaps not. The magic of monarchy remains as powerful as ever. It only needs an occasion like the Royal Wedding to remind us of it. The magic of the British monarchy is fascinating not only to us, but to people of other countries who no longer have monarchs of their own. It’s a unique national symbol which makes this country different from every other country and re-establishes our continuity with the past. So that curiously we can still say: “No, you’re wrong, we still have our independence, our sovereignty. There are some legal problems with it, but they’re temporary hitches, we’ll sort them out, England will always be something special. We still have our monarchy.” And because somewhere underneath, we all still consider ourselves subjects of the Queen, some of us are still actually prepared to fight and die for our country. That’s good, because we may have to.
It was in Elizabeth I’s reign that the English people first became fully conscious of our unique identity as a nation.