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Elizabeth I, Good Queen Bess—Unmasked?

By any standards England’s famous 16th-century monarch was a remarkable human being: intelligent, cultured, charismatic and courageous. But, despite her fame, it is difficult to find much that she achieved.

Detail from "The Pelican Portrait" of Queen Elizabeth I (c. 1573-75) by Nicholas Hilliard. [Wikipedia]

Elizabeth I was one of England’s longest-reigning monarchs. Edward III outdid her by four years: Queen Victoria by eighteen. Queen Elizabeth II has reigned for nearly 70 years.

She was not the only female monarch of her time. During her first decade or so a forlorn Catherine de Medici struggled to control France. Throughout her first three, her cousin Mary Queen of Scots loomed (for most of the time as an unwelcome refugee in England).

But Elizabeth outlived them—and for nearly forty-five years held her own in a male-dominated world as they never did.

She has been the subject of numerous scholarly (and adulatory) biographies, like those of Sir John Neale and A.L.Rowse, and been celebrated in theatre, opera house and cinema—as Cate Blanchett’s recent Oscar-winning Elizabeth reminds us.

Indeed, no English monarch can match her fame.

Even a pope, Sixtus V (1585-90), rather admired her (even though a sainted predecessor, Pius V, had excommunicated her—in 1570).

And she has deserved all this. By any standards she was a remarkable human being: intelligent, cultured, charismatic and courageous.

And a gifted orator—as that famous speech when the Spanish Armada threatened in 1588 about having ‘the body of a weak and feeble woman, but the stomach and heart of a king—yes, a king of England’, reminds us.

But she was not a very likeable one. In truth, she was devious, aloof, vain, notoriously mean and indecisive.

Furthermore, despite her fame, it is difficult to find much that she achieved.

Yes, the famous ‘Settlement’ of 1558/9 returned England to the Protestant fold—that is, returned it to where it had been when her half-brother Edward died in 1553. It did not innovate—except to make her ‘Supreme Governor’(rather than ‘Supreme Head’) of the new Church of England created by her father.

Otherwise, probably her most decisive actions were the order to behead her cousin Mary Queen of Scots, made after much hesitation, and later, to execute a former heartthrob, but outrageously provocative, earl of Essex.

Though much has been written about them, most of Elizabeth’s Parliaments achieved little more than increasingly fierce persecution of Catholics and left-wing Protestants. She dreaded them and summoned them only when desperate for cash.

She was no great patron of the arts.

Spenser’s mighty Faerie Queen (a work which perhaps more begin than finish) was dedicated to, but not commissioned by, her—and, in the author’s estimation, was insufficiently awarded. Christoper Marlowe was paid for spying for the government in his younger days but not for play-writing later on. Indeed, he was about to be arrested for licentious atheism when he was stabbed to death in a drunken brawl.

As for Shakespeare—she showed as little interest in him as he did in her.

Hillyard’s miniatures are exquisite but no English works match the mighty canvases of such contemporaries as Titian and El Greco. Thomas Tallis and William Byrd were gifted court composers, but both crypto-Catholics. And England’s first Renaissance architect, Inigo Jones, was indeed patronised by a queen of England—James I’s wife, not Elizabeth.

It is more than arguable that a proto-Renaissance, led by Elizabeth’s admirable great-grandmother, Margaret Beaufort, John Colet, Thomas More, John Fisher, Holbein and Erasmus (not to mention composers like Robert Fayrfax and Thomas Taverner) had been flowering in early Tudor England; but was largely blighted by the Reformation.

Protestantism was no friend of humanism—or polyphony.

Between c.1500 and 1547 a record eight new Oxbridge colleges were founded: two thanks largely to that same Margaret Beaufort (a major benefactress of both universities) and one by a reluctant Henry VIII. Two more were founded in Mary’s short reign—with her support. Only three were founded in Elizabeth’s 45 years: none of them by her.

* * *

Elizabeth showed minimal interest in overseas exploration: and, as is now freely admitted, those famous Elizabethan sea-dogs like Raleigh and Drake were little more than pirates (the latter also a notorious slave-dealer). Their exploits were amateurish compared with what Spanish, Portuguese and soon Dutch sailors were accomplishing every day.

Yes, Elizabeth indeed faced heroically that famous attempt by Philip II of Spain in 1588 to destroy her—because she was a Protestant and persecutor of her Catholic subjects, but also because she had been covertly supporting his rebellious Dutch subjects (despite her lofty views on the obedience due to anointed princes).

But it was a ‘Protestant’ wind, not English guns, that eventually destroyed the Armada: that huge assembly of ships having sailed majestically past southern England despite attempts by a larger force to impede it.

* * *

A final striking fact.

Elizabeth spent much of her time ‘on progress’ around the Home Counties (just a few miles from London) notoriously inviting herself and her large entourage to dine at the homes of wealthier subjects en route. She visited East Anglia several times, but the furthest North she went was Stamford and Wolverhampton in the Midlands. She never got to the South West, let alone Yorkshire, Lancashire or Wales.

So she knew less than a third of her realm—and the great majority of her subjects probably never even saw her.

* * *

Nonetheless she is Good Queen Bess, Virgin Queen, Gloriana and all that. The myth-making began during the reigns of her rather dreary Stuart successors. It has since become an essential part of Britain’s national mythology.

Thus she had personified ‘Englishness’; defied popes and mighty Spain; enabled Britannia to rule the waves; inspired a golden age of English culture; and perhaps most of all, helped create that eminently sensible, and typically English, via media which is Anglicanism.

She had ‘had to’ happen.

* * *

Psychoanalysing historical figures is dangerous. But surely, with a father as ghastly as hers and a mother who had been brutally beheaded at his behest when she was scarcely three years old (and who—probably—had rarely held her in her arms), Elizabeth had not had a good start to life.

Then, bastardised and excluded from the succession by Parliament, she had spent a lonely childhood hidden from any family and public life, while her father continued his hectic matrimonial career and eventually his 9-year-old son Edward, Elizabeth’s half-brother, ascended the throne.

Yet worse, in her early teenage she had been sexually abused by the uncle of that Edward, one Thomas Seymour. The latter, a villainous man with ambitions even to share rule of England with his brother, repeatedly assailed her in her bedroom—even abetted by his wife (Catherine Parr, Henry VIII’s sixth and last wife and herself now on her fourth husband).

Today we understand better how wounding such abuse can be.

So, when Elizabeth plastered her face with make-up (as she did), was it merely to disguise pox-marks—or to mask deeper scars?

When, famously, she added yet more extravagant dresses to her wardrobe—and posed statuesquely in them—was this as much to display regality as to disguise (or recompense) a body that had been violated and to hide self-disgust?

When, equally famously, she failed to marry, was this simply because no suitable candidate was available?

And was there (perhaps as a result of that abuse) a sadistic streak in her?

She seems to have taken special interest in exacting the full penalty for treason—being hanged till half dead and then butchered—for Catholic priests. Indeed, while he was torturing (abominably) the gentle Jesuit-poet Robert Southwell, the monstrous torturer Richard Topcliffe wrote to her asking if there was any more ‘in her heart’ that she would like him to extract.

And that same sadistic Topcliffe, while torturing another Catholic priest-martyr in the Tower of London, recited to him in detail how the queen allowed him to fondle her intimately. There is no reason to suppose that he was boasting. He was well placed at court and she certainly befriended him all her life.

* * *

On her tormented deathbed she angrily dismissed as ’hedge priests’ the then archbishop of Canterbury, John Whitgift, and other prelates who had come to minister to her.

What did she mean by this? In common parlance, a ‘hedge priest’ was an ignorant country cleric—but it could also mean a bogus one.

The Elizabethan Church Settlement of 1558, which abolished the Mass, restored the Book of Common Prayer and established the queen as Supreme Governor of the Church of England, was largely the work Matthew Parker, Elizabeth’s first archbishop of Canterbury. She had chosen him because he had been a chaplain to her mother and kind to her during her childhood—though she strongly disapproved of the fact that he had married.

She had had a ferocious row with his more Protestant successor, Grindal (and had even suspended him for a while).

But the archbishop now at her deathbed, John Whitgift, had been much to her liking -deservedly so. He was flamboyant—on occasion he could travel with a train of 500 horsemen—learned and loyal. You could never call him a rustic. And he was single.

So why were he and the others now ‘hedge priests’?

Was Elizabeth saying that she had seen through them? Was she facing the fact that the breach with Rome, the royal supremacy and all that was largely the work of an angry, vengeful father—not God’s work?

She may not have been very devout (as we have recently been reminded, her Christianity had not prevented her from establishing cordial relations with the sultan of Constantinople, a sworn enemy of Christendom), but she was theologically informed.

Was she now admitting that the claim that Christ had intended His Church to consist of separate national churches ruled by lay monarchs was a ludicrous, outrageous novelty without any scriptural authority: that it rendered unto Caesar things that were God’s?

Had she even been affected also by the constancy of the nearly 200 Catholic priests, like Southwell, and lay men and women whom her regime had put to a hideous death—and the hundreds imprisoned and fined for refusing to attend services they knew were bogus?

Was she now saying what she had known ‘in her heart’ (to quote Topcliffe) that those prelates at her deathbed were frauds—and her title ‘Supreme Governor’ a sham?

Had that mask fallen?

In morte veritas.

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About Dr. Jack Scarisbrick 2 Articles
Dr. Jack Scarisbrick is a Cambridge graduate and emeritus professor of History in the University of Warwick. A specialist in Tudor history, he has written acclaimed works on Henry VIII and the English Reformation. He is cofounder of National Chairman of Life, a large prolife English charity.


  1. “admirable great-grandmother, Margaret Beaufort”

    Admirable, my left hind foot. She conspired to help her son steal the throne, with absolutely no right to it through descent. Massive numbers of people had a better claim, even if you ignore Richard III.

    “Psychoanalysing historical figures is dangerous.”

    Then perhaps it would have been better for you to refrain from doing it.

    “Yet worse, in her early teenage she had been sexually abused by the uncle of that Edward, one Thomas Seymour. The latter, a villainous man with ambitions even to share rule of England with his brother, repeatedly assailed her in her bedroom—even abetted by his wife (Catherine Parr, Henry VIII’s sixth and last wife and herself now on her fourth husband).”

    “Assailed” is rather an odd way to describe what happened.

    • Leslie:

      The Cambridge Dictionary (on line) defines “Assail,” in the 1st case, as this: “to attack violently.”

      Your finding fault with that word is more than a little overwrought. It weakens your voice in your other arguments.

      • But there wasn’t a violent attack in her bedroom. Read about it. It’s not overwrought to point out a choice of wording so poor as to amount to inaccuracy.

        • Leslie-

          Rather than being coy, since you apparently know about this, perhaps you might opt instead to say what you know, rather than withhold your information.

          A response to “read about it” sounds simply presumptuous and authoritarian…and might create the impression that in all probability, any of a number of books or essays on the topic might also be written with a presumptuous and authoritarian point of view. Having spent many years reading a good deal more than the average person, I find that there are books and essays etc that are not worth reading, for a variety of reasons.

          If, however, you are unwilling to divulge what you hold to be true, then that isn’t very persuasive…it’s just seems dismissive. Which sometimes indicates only that the intensity of conviction is indirectly proportional to the supply of facts.


          • “A response to “read about it” sounds simply presumptuous and authoritarian…”

            Or it does you the courtesy of assuming that you have the skills to do a two-second search online. Since that seems not be the case: “On two occasions, Katherine Parr joined Seymour in his morning visits to the now 14-year-old girl, and they tickled her in bed.”

            That’s it. There was inappropriate behavior going on, and we’d call it harassment or grooming or attempted seduction, but Katherine Parr didn’t abet her husband in “assailing” or “assaulting” Elizabeth.

  2. 35. Then, considering that this matter, although already decided, had been by certain persons for whatever reason recalled into discussion, and that thence it might follow that a pernicious error would be fostered in the minds of many who might suppose that they possessed the Sacrament and effects of Orders, where these are nowise to be found, it seemed good to Us in the Lord to pronounce our judgment.

    36. Wherefore, strictly adhering, in this matter, to the decrees of the pontiffs, our predecessors, and confirming them most fully, and, as it were, renewing them by our authority, of our own initiative and certain knowledge, we pronounce and declare that ordinations carried out according to the Anglican rite have been, and are, absolutely null and utterly void.

  3. Let’s face it, the 16th Century was just about as rotten for Protestants in Catholic countries as it was for Catholics in Protestant countries. Elizabeth I is obviously one of the great men (er, great women) of European history. She is part of our common heritage as children of Western Civilization. There’s no need for statue toppling!

    • Masked Catholic,
      Yes. The further back I look in my family tree the more Huguenots I find. There’s a reason they fled France en masse, seeking shelter in England, Ireland and eventually the British colonies.
      It wasn’t a pretty time for Protestants or Catholics alike.

    • What nonsense.

      The destruction of convents, schools, monasteries. The murders of thousands of priests and Catholic laymen alike.

      She was an ignorant butcher. Topple the damn woman’s statues instead of a puff piece by the author and commentators alike.

      • I can’t support toppling her statues or anyone else’s. If anything leaving them up is a good example of how propaganda works

  4. We should also note that the versions of her presented by the likes of BBC and PBS are totally laughable to any knowledgeable historian but unfortunately that is the image most have of her. Her so called golden age was the result of the efforts of a few of her more energetic subjects, a number of whose accomplishments were outside of the country proper. Finally, the comments on the arts during her reign are certainly well taken as noted on the quality of her own portraiture.

  5. The O.T . is much about family roots , effects of good and bad , to thus help us appreciate all the more , the power of deliverance and protection and the holiness we are given in and through The Lord and His Mother .
    The powers , like Jezebel , in the wisdom of the world , against The Church , as mentioned by St.Paul – Cor 3 :19- 24 ‘ wisdom of the world as foolishness ‘ and ‘the world and all belong to you and you to Christ’..
    all as belonging to Christ , to the Covenant , to the only binding love and its holiness that ought to matter , in every other relationship as well..
    and all the evils in the world related to the betrayal of that truth ..
    Such an understanding that the evils in the history of The West is from the same root as all other evils that pervade human nature and not as a result of the faith , as can be deduced through the article is always a worthy reminder .
    The difference with other faiths is , The Church looks at history with the Heart of a Mother and thus seeing those wounds too as occasions to bring The Blood and Water , through prayers for the departed as well .

    Thus , all these historical persons and their failures too , seen as part of the family history , seeing the wounds that are still amidst us that are to be taken to The Lord , to be transformed into gratitude for His holiness .

    Came across the article below that points to Islamic roots of the present rulers too , thus point to ? generational spirits of lust and related issues and God’s mercy in our times , for greater help in all such areas, as in the revelations and devotion to The Immaculate Conception ..

    • In the attached article we find, finally, that the ancestry of the 11th-century Muslim Princess Zaida is a “mystery” and, therefore, that there is most likely no basis for the supposed direct “family relationship between Queen Elizabeth II and the Prophet Muhammad himself.” Rather than descended from Muhammad’s daughter, Fatima (and her husband Ali who was also Muhammad’s cousin and third successor), Zaida is more removed.

      The American novelist Washington Irving spent several years in Madrid researching “Mahomet and His Successors” (1849), partly from the translation of rare Islamic volume found in the Jesuit Library of the Convent of St. Isidor.

      From Irving we find that Ali had three sons by Fatima (one predeceased him), and that after Fatima’s death in 632 A.D. (she outlived Muhammad by only a month or two) he had eight other wives—resulting in fifteen more sons and eighteen daughters. Descendants of these later and less direct blood lines, both male and female, are very numerous and still considered to be of noble blood. Along the way, Princess Zaida simply might be one of these.

      Interestingly, during the final expulsion of Islam from Iberia in 1492, the locality of Fatima in Portugal was so-named in thanksgiving by the local prince, after his Muslim wife converted to Christianity. Fatima in Portugal was named after this wife, rather than after Muhammad’s daughter at any time earlier during the nearly 800-year Muslim occupation.

  6. Elizabeth left the question of her succession undetermined right up to her death. Leanda de Lisle’s “After Elizabeth” (2006) describes how James VI & I (son of Mary, Queen of Scots) didn’t have a straightforward path to the English throne.
    Also, Elizabeth I’s older half-sister Mary made it possible for a woman to rule in her own right. Two biographies worth reading: Anna Whitelock’s award winning “Mary Tudor: England’s First Queen” (original UK title “Mary Tudor: Princess, Bastard, Queen”) and “The King’s Pearl” by Melita Thomas.

    • Mary was the legitimate heir of Henry VIII. She deserves far more recognition than shr gets.

      As to Catherine Parr, I don’t get why she wasted her time and talents on Elizabeth. But what can you expect from a heretic?

  7. Bloody Bess. A true opportunist and reprobate.
    But this was an excellent article and taught me things I didn’t know about her childhood.

  8. I used to admire her. But my eyes were opened.

    Queens such as Cleopatra (Eben if she was pagan), Isabella of Spain and MARY II and Anne anf Victoria were far better. Cleopatra actually cared about her subjects. Isabella was kind. Mary II was very kind and and Anne and Victoria accomplished a lot.

  9. Mary II and Anne betrayed their father. They certainly weren’t kind to him, ungrateful, undutiful little piglets that they were. Anne passed on lies about the birth of her father’s son and heir, though with nearly 70 witnesses to the birth she knew they were lies.

    Here’s an anecdote about King James, written by a contemporary. “At a supper he [James VII/II] fell a speaking of his daughters ; he never, he said, had any resentment against Mary, — she had no will nor sentiment but her husband’s ; for Anne he could not say so much, yet said something to soften her behaviour to him. This much offended David Floyd, one of the grooms of his bedchamber, a brave sea-captain, with a blunt wit, indulged in speaking ; he left the room, but put back his head, and said, ‘ Bitches both, by G — ! ‘”

    One can only concur.

    And I share your low opinion of Elizabeth I.

    • Why can’t the Catholic Church just admit they are wrong on this? Just saying. Without her you would be stuck in the bad old days before modern medicine

      • This author shoukd shove ir.

        Mary I of England was a tyrant and Elizabeth saved England from her wickedness.

        Also tje priests she killed egged Mary on in killing protestanta. And Catherine of Aragon’s queenshjp ended in 1533 and she deserved to die because she wore an angular headdress. An angular headdress!

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