The two Elizabeths

Very few monarchs have been so widely adored as Elizabeth I and Elizabeth II. Perhaps it is because they placed love at the centre of their relationship with their subjects.
Postage stamp of Queen Elizabeth I
Postage stamp of Queen Elizabeth I, 1967. Credit: Stan Pritchard / Alamy Stock Photo
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Everyone dies, members of the public and monarchs alike. But this death truly marks the end of an era — an era punctuated by great change. During Queen Elizabeth II’s lifetime, humankind developed more than it had done in several previous centuries: we landed on the moon; we experienced a true technological revolution which has taken over every aspect of our daily lives; we saw the end of colonialism and apartheid. We went through the age of terrorism — an age in which we unfortunately remain. During this age of upheaval, Elizabeth II became the  example of a constitutional monarch, who kept herself largely removed from the politics of her nation. It is through this neutrality that she has remained a constant, stable presence in Britain.   

Her reign was truly a second Elizabethan Age. The death of her namesake, Elizabeth I, also marked a significant shift in Britain. It brought the Tudor dynasty to a conclusion and cleared the path for a Scot who became king of England. Elizabeth I’s queenship was distinguished by her celibacy. Through her refusal to marry, she was both queen and king of England for forty-four years. Since the beginning of her reign, she had been pressured to marry and name a successor. She argued with members of parliament over such topics on multiple occasions, and, in 1566, she finally declared ‘it is monstrous that the feet should direct the head.’ An outstanding remark from a female monarch who would not allow anyone to tell her what to do or how to rule. 

The years passed and Elizabeth I faced incredible religious and political turmoil. After she was excommunicated in 1570, plots against her life intensified. Her cousin, and heir to the throne in all but name, Mary Queen of Scots, posed a real threat to her crown. This rivalry eventually ended with Mary’s execution in 1587 — but led to more hostilities and outright war with Philip II of Spain, the widower of Elizabeth’s sister Mary I. 

In 1588, England faced one of the greatest threats of invasion in its history as 130 ships of the Spanish Armada set sail, intent on attack.

Partly due to high winds and great storms, and partly due to its huge and unwieldy ships, the Spanish lost against the English navy. Days before the news of victory, Elizabeth I went to Tilbury, among her army, and uttered the famous words: ‘I know I have the body but of a weak and feeble woman but I have the heart and stomach of a king, and of a king of England too.’ 

The English victory was celebrated beyond Europe. Abd al-Aziz al-Fishtali a courtier at the court of Moroccan Sultan Mulay Ahmad al-Mansur, praised Elizabeth’s victory over their common enemy, Philip II of Spain: ‘Niglateera saw an opportunity and seized it: the [English] fleet attacked that strong fleet and brought upon it defeat.’

Elizabeth I had marked history. 

Alongside her image of the commanding warrior queen, Elizabeth’s reign was also characterised by the sense that she was a mother to the nation. In 1601, two years before her death, in what is known as her Golden Speech, she summarised her queenship in the following words: ‘I have reigned with your love.’ She in fact said much more than this. Her words could just as easily have been uttered by Elizabeth II: 

For myself, I have never so much enticed with the glorious name of a king or royal authority of a queen as delighted that God had made me His instrument to maintain His truth and glory, and to defend this kingdom from dishonour, damage, tyranny, and oppression. […] The cares and troubles of a crown I cannot resemble more fitly than to the confections of a learned physician, perfumed with some aromatical savour, or to bitter pills gilded over, by which it is made acceptable or less offensive which indeed is bitter and unpleasant to take. And for my part, were it not for conscience’s sake to discharge the duty which God hath laid upon me, and to maintain His glory and keep you in safety, in mine own disposition, I should willingly resign the place I hold to any other, and glad to be free of the glory with the labours. For it is not my desire to be or reign longer than life or reign shall be good for you. And though you have had and may have many mightier and wiser princes sitting in this seat, yet you never had nor shall have any that will love you better.

These words, which were uttered over 400 years ago, resonate today.  

Many monarchs had reigned before Elizabeth I. Many monarchs reigned between Elizabeth I and Elizabeth II. And yet not many monarchs are cherished in national memory as being good, benevolent, decent, but also loving, rulers. For all her flaws and mistakes, Elizabeth I marked her century. For all her flaws and mistakes, Elizabeth II marked two centuries. She remains Britain’s longest-reigning monarch. 

While Elizabeth I claimed to be ‘mother’ to the English people, during the last decades of her life, Elizabeth II self-fashioned her image as the grandmother to her country and members of her Commonwealth. It is undeniable that Elizabeth II — much like her predecessors, Elizabeth I and Victoria — has changed Britain’s history and has contributed to today’s views of the monarchy. By being so loved and cared for by the people, it will be challenging for anyone else to step into her shoes and try to maintain the constitutional monarchy she has preserved. The answer to whether anyone can will undoubtedly come soon enough. 

What is certain is that Elizabeth II has reigned with our love. Rest in peace, your Majesty.

Estelle Paranque

Dr Estelle Paranque is a historian, author, and academic. She is an expert in royal, diplomatic, and Elizabethan history.

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