Reign of Elizabeth I Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Anglicanism, or the Church of England, came to prominence during the reign of Elizabeth I, a reign also marked by a major peak in cultural accomplishments, especially in literature, the establishment of the nation as a world naval and trade power, and the beginnings of the largest colonial empire in world history.

Summary of Event

Two significant reigns preceded the reign of Elizabeth I. Her father, Henry VIII, separated the church in England from the Roman Catholic Church. The Act of Supremacy in 1534 made the monarch the Supreme Head of the Church of England, but made no doctrinal changes; some were made, however, under Henry’s son, King Edward VI. The second important reign was that of Queen Mary I, a Catholic who took the throne in 1553 and promptly realigned England with the Catholic Church in Rome. She earned the moniker Bloody Mary for the persecution of those who would not conform to the change. After her death, the stage was set for another ecclesiastical and doctrinal upheaval, this time beginning in 1558, when the Protestant Elizabeth I replaced her half sister as monarch. Elizabeth I Henry VIII Mary I Cecil, William Henry VIII (king of England) Mary Tudor (queen of England) Philip II (king of Spain) Tudor family Spenser, Edmund Cecil, William Marlowe, Christopher Shakespeare, William Foxe, John Ralegh, Sir Walter Drake, Sir Francis Elizabeth I (queen of England)

Elizabeth I in the later years of her long reign.

(R. S. Peale and J. A. Hill)

Elizabeth I being carried to Parliament.

(R. S. Peale and J. A. Hill)

Conditions in England at the time of Elizabeth’s ascension were far from ideal. Mary had joined her husband, King Philip II of Spain, in a war against France. English losses in that war included heavy debt, decline in trade, and a shortage of qualified military leadership. The nation was divided socially between those favoring Catholicism and those aligning with the Protestant Reformation and Protestantism Protestantism;England .

Elizabeth was the daughter of Henry VIII’s second wife, Anne Boleyn, whom the king later had beheaded for failing to produce a male heir and for reputed adultery and sorcery. Still, Elizabeth admired her father and tried to emulate his style of leadership. She followed the Tudor family pattern of ambition and power but often subordinated these traits to her duties as queen. Elizabeth rejected a marriage proposal, with conflicting political ramifications, from her former brother-in-law, Philip II of Spain. In spite of numerous other proposals, Elizabeth remained single and became known as the Virgin Queen. She later encouraged the poet Edmund Spenser to describe her as the bride of her people in his work The Faerie Queene (1590-1609).

The first major project of Elizabeth’s reign was to sort out and settle the ecclesiastical confusion of her realm. Her basic goal was an independent national church in which all of her subjects would feel comfortable. With the help of her major adviser, William Cecil, the Elizabethan Settlement Elizabethan Settlement (1559) was initiated in 1559. The settlement was a compromise involving two acts of Parliament. The first, a new Act of Supremacy, made Elizabeth the Supreme Governor of the church rather than the Supreme Head as Henry VIII had been. Clergy and government officials, but not laity, were required to swear allegiance to the Supreme Governor. The second act, the Act of Uniformity, required all to attend church on Sundays and holy days. It also mandated that church services would follow the second, and more Protestant, Book of Common Prayer, adopted in 1552. The first was adapted in 1549 and written mostly by church reformer Thomas Cranmer.

The Elizabethan Settlement was strengthened in 1563 by the Treason Act Treason Act (1563) , which made the expression of support for a return to papal jurisdiction punishable by death. In the same year the Thirty-nine Articles of Religion Thirty-nine Articles of Religion (1563)[Thirty nine Articles of Religion (1563)] established Protestant doctrines but also retained much Roman Catholic ritualism. Elizabeth’s goal of an independent national church had been attained, with all content except extreme Protestants (the later Puritans) and extreme Roman Catholics.

With a more tolerant religious attitude, England became the home of religious refugees from less-tolerant parts of Europe. Many of these immigrants were skilled artisans who had a major effect on English industrial development, both by improving established trades and by introducing new ones.

Elizabeth sought to increase foreign trade, as recent military losses, such as at Calais in France in 1558, weakened existing trade. New trading companies were established, many of which were granted monopolies. In 1600, the British East India Company British East India Company was chartered and controlled the colonization of India. These changes caused negative social changes, with a population shift from rural areas to urban centers.

The new prosperity paved the way for a cultural flowering, centered in London and marked by literary highlights. Poet Edmund Spenser led the way with his Shepheard’s Calendar Shepheard’s Calendar (Spenser)[Shepheards Calendar (Spenser)] in 1579 and later with Faerie Queene. English drama came into its own, first with the works of Christopher Marlowe and then William Shakespeare. Although often chaotic and lacking in unity, Marlowe’s plays did have originality and sometimes produced majestic effects, and they paved the way for Shakespeare.

Shakespeare’s plays, beginning in the last years of Elizabeth’s reign, are the most famous in English literature. They were performed in various theaters— including the first playhouse built for public performances, The Theatre—in or near London before the building of the Globe Theatre Globe Theatre in 1599. The most significant period for Shakespeare, from 1593 to 1601, includes his best-known romantic comedies, such as The Merchant of Venice and A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Among the historical works of this period is Actes and Monuments of These Later and Perillous Dayss by John Foxe, the English version of which was published in London in 1563. Better known as Foxe’s Book of Martyrs Foxe’s Book of Martyrs (Foxe)[Foxes Book of Martyrs (Foxe)] , this work tells the story of persecution and martyrdom throughout Church history, including the acts carried out under Queen Mary I. Martyrdom;England

For the future glory of England, the most significant event of Elizabeth’s reign was the English defeat of the Spanish Armada Armada, Spanish (1588) in 1588. To gain control of England following Elizabeth’s rejection of his marriage proposal, King Philip II of Spain planned an invasion. His armada of more than 130 ships, 7,000 sailors, and 17,000 soldiers was thought to be invincible, especially after a planned addition of 17,000 soldiers in the Netherlands. Inexperienced leadership, slow speed, lack of firepower, and weather conditions soon removed the armada’s invincible status. Anglo-Spanish War (1587-c. 1600)[Anglo Spanish War (1587-c. 1600)]

After its initial encounter with the smaller, faster, and more maneuverable English ships, the armada pulled into the French port at Calais rather than the Dutch port at Flushing to pick up the additional soldiers. With a favorable wind, the English floated fireships into the port, forcing the disorganized Spanish ships back out into the English Channel, where they were battered by superior English firepower. One by one the great Spanish vessels sank beneath the waters of the Channel. The surviving and heavily damaged ships sought to travel home by sailing around Scotland and Ireland, where the “the Protestant wind,” socalled by the English, damaged and sunk even more ships.

With this victory, England became the greatest naval power in the world. Sir Walter Ralegh, a favorite of Elizabeth, was a focal point in this victory. Although he built the Ark Royal, a huge ship that led the fleet against the Spanish, Ralegh himself was part of the coastal defenses and could only watch the English victory. However, in the aftermath he led privateers in capturing many Spanish ships that were bringing treasure from the New World. Privateers;English

Another of Elizabeth’s favorites was Francis Drake, a true hero of the Spanish defeat. Drake also became a privateer, whose effectiveness earned him the nickname El Draque (the Dragon) by the Spanish. Drake had previously led the first English circumnavigation of the world (1577-1580). In doing so, he claimed part of what is now called the California coast for Elizabeth, although his exact place of landing is in dispute.


The Elizabethan Settlement became the foundation for Anglican churches around the world, including the Episcopal Church in the United States and many African churches. The literary works of Spenser, Shakespeare, and others are among the world’s best-known literary works.

Naval superiority after the defeat of the Spanish Armada made England the Mistress of the Seas, a title retained for three and a half centuries. Being an island nation, this was vital, both in protecting the nation and in helping it build a vast colonial empire.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bucholz, Robert, and Newton Key. Early Modern England: 1485-1714, A Narrative History. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 2004. A detailed study of both the Tudor and Stuart monarchies of England. Chapters 4 and 5 provide in-depth analyses of the reign of Elizabeth I and chapter 6 summarizes the conditions in England at the time of her death in 1603.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Davies, Norman. The Isles: A History. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999. More of a cultural history of the British Isles, includes many references to the time of Elizabeth I. Color illustrations include a painting of the defeat of the Spanish Armada.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Guy, John, ed. The Reign of Elizabeth I: Court and Culture in the Last Decade. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995. A collection of papers presented at a workshop in 1991. Topics cover royal patronage, ecclesiastical policy, social conditions, the cult of Elizabeth, and literature.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Levin, Carole.“The Heart and Stomach of a King”: Elizabeth I and the Politics of Sex and Power. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1994. A prize-winning study of Elizabeth I, which looks at the issues of women in power. Some illustrations.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Loades, David. Elizabeth I. New York: Hambledon and London, 2003. An interpretive biography of Elizabeth and her reign.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Walker, Julia M. The Elizabeth Icon, 1603-2003. New York: Palgrave Macmillian, 2004. A good analysis of the impact of Elizabeth on public opinion, literature, art, and history in general.

Beginning 1485: The Tudors Rule England

16th century: Worldwide Inflation

Jan. 25-Feb. 7, 1554: Wyatt’s Rebellion

May, 1559-Aug., 1561: Scottish Reformation

Apr. or May, 1560: Publication of the Geneva Bible

Jan., 1563: Thirty-nine Articles of the Church of England

Jan. 20, 1564: Peace of Troyes

Nov. 9, 1569: Rebellion of the Northern Earls

Feb. 25, 1570: Pius V Excommunicates Elizabeth I

1576: James Burbage Builds The Theatre

July 26, 1581: The United Provinces Declare Independence from Spain

Apr., 1587-c. 1600: Anglo-Spanish War

Apr., 1587-c. 1600: Anglo-Spanish War

July 31-Aug. 8, 1588: Defeat of the Spanish Armada

c. 1589-1613: Shakespeare Writes His Dramas

Dec., 1598-May, 1599: The Globe Theatre Is Built

Dec. 31, 1600: Elizabeth I Charters the East India Company

Categories: History