Queen Elizabeth I took the crown of England on January 15, 1559. To honor the 456th anniversary of her coronation, here are 15 things you might not know about Good Queen Bess.
1. She very nearly wasn’t queen at all.
Elizabeth’s ascension to the throne required a great deal of good luck… or bad luck, depending on whose perspective you take. Following the death of her father, King Henry VIII, Elizabeth was third in line for the throne after her younger half-brother Edward and her older half-sister Mary. A 10-year-old Edward took the throne in 1547, ruling for only six years before dying of a fever.
Just before his passing, Edward named his cousin, Lady Jane Grey, his successor (bumping Elizabeth down yet another spot). However, Jane’s stint on the throne was a brief 13 days—Mary succeeded in having Jane deposed and took over the crown herself for five years. Influenza took the childless Mary’s life in 1558, allowing Elizabeth to at last become the Queen of England, Wales, and Ireland.
2. Before she was queen, she was a political prisoner.
In 1554, Elizabeth was tried and imprisoned on suspicion of abetting Wyatt’s Rebellion, an uprising against Queen Mary I that many believed to be motivated by the quest for Protestant liberation.
3. She was a clotheshorse.
Even though she’s remembered for her high fashions, it’s surprising to know just how expansive Elizabeth’s wardrobe was. According to one estimate, she may have owned as many as 2,000 pairs of gloves!
4. She was a firm believer in astrology.
The Queen kept a personal advisor named John Dee—a renowned mathematician, astronomer, astrologer, and professed alchemist—in her regular company. Elizabeth relied on Dee’s counsel in the scheduling of important events and, as one rumor suggests, in the removal of a troublesome “death curse.”
5. There was a “cult” surrounding her.
Upon Elizabeth’s claim of the throne, her team of advisors encouraged a trend of flattering depictions among her portrait artists. As time went on, depictions of Queen Elizabeth I in both visual and written media began to incorporate likenesses of classic goddesses—she was compared to Venus, Astraea, and the Greek deity Diana, all in an effort to espouse connotations of divinity and purity. This trend of work is known as the Cult of Elizabeth, or the Cult of the Virgin Queen.
6. She pioneered legislation to help feed the poor.
When it wasn’t spreading propaganda, Elizabeth’s administration was actually doing some good. The Queen oversaw the nation’s first attempts at poverty relief: a gradual accumulation of rulings like mandatory taxation towards this end, which culminated with the 1601 Elizabethan Poor Law.
7. She could speak many languages.
In addition to her native English, Queen Elizabeth I was known to be fluent in French, Italian, and Latin, going so far as to translate collections of lengthy texts into these languages. The Queen is also believed to have spoken Spanish, Welsh, Irish, Flemish, Greek, and the now nearly defunct tongue of Cornish.
8. A few rumors still tie her to Shakespeare.
Clearly the intellectual type, Elizabeth made it her mission while in power to patronize the theatrical arts. Her devotion to stage led to an assortment of musings regarding her relationship to William Shakespeare. Some scholars surmise that the Queen had a personal kinship with the playwright, who alludes to her (quite amorously) in the second act of A Midsummer Night’s Dream:
That very time I saw, but thou couldst notFlying between the cold moon and the earth,Cupid all arm'd: a certain aim he tookAt a fair vestal throned by the west,And loosed his love-shaft smartly from his bow,As it should pierce a hundred thousand hearts;But I might see young Cupid's fiery shaftQuench'd in the chaste beams of the watery moon,And the imperial votaress passed on,In maiden meditation, fancy-free.
9. She was at the center of a romantic scandal…
If the tabloids had existed in the 16th century, they would have had a field day with Queen Elizabeth I. She turned down proposals from the likes of King Philip II of Spain, King Eric XIV of Sweden, Archduke Charles of Austria, and French brothers Henry III and Francis, Dukes of Anjou. Throughout her life, Elizabeth’s one true love remained her childhood friend Robert Dudley, whose marriage to Amy Robsart kept the two from achieving Elizabeth’s long desired union.
Even after the sudden death of Robsart in 1560 Elizabeth resisted marrying her lifelong friend. Eighteen years later, he’d go on to find a second wife, Lettice Knollys, whom Elizabeth was said to treat with merciless scorn.
10. Her scandals weren’t limited to proposals.
In addition to these many spotlighted proposals, Queen Elizabeth I found (and continues to find) herself the subject of plentiful rumors about secret love affairs, mainly to high-profile men: Aristocrat and writer Sir Walter Raleigh, Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex, and Lord Chancellor Christopher Hatton rank as her most noteworthy would-be loves.
11. She was the only English queen who never married.
Despite the many men who vied for her hand, Elizabeth never took a husband. She is the only English queen to bear this distinction, although eight kings before her also remained lifelong bachelors (Æthelstan, Eadred, Edward the Martyr, Harthacnut, Edgar the Ætheling, William II, Edward V, and Elizabeth’s brother Edward VI).
12. She can claim many “lasts.”
In addition to being the last monarch to reign unmarried, she was also the last to rule over England before its union with Scotland. Elizabeth died in 1603, the same year that the Treaty of Union (or the Union of England and Scotland Act) would take effect, under the watch of her successor, James I. Finally, Elizabeth was the final of five kings and queens to rule under the Tudor dynasty.
13. She held one impressive record.
Aged 69 at the time of her death, Elizabeth I was, at the time, the oldest monarch in English history (breaking the nearly 300-year record set by 68-year-old Edward I). Elizabeth held this honor until 1754 (151 years), when King George II hit a ripe old 70 while still ruling over what had become Great Britain.
14. Her looks were quite deceiving.
Following a bout with smallpox in the early 1560s, Elizabeth I suffered facial scarring and hair loss… but nobody would have known it. She kept up appearances with an ample supply of gallant wigs and the application of white makeup over her face, which was in keeping with the style of the era.
15. She cursed like a sailor.
Elizabeth was infamous for her proclivity for colorful language, a characteristic she is said to have inherited from her father, King Henry VIII.
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