Reign of Queen Elizabeth I, 1558-1601
by Claudia Willetts
We are told by Carolly Erickson in The First Elizabeth, that from the start, Queen Elizabeth I overawed those nearest to her by boldly seizing the reins of power. She made all decisions great and small, though she expected her privy councilors to advise her exhaustively beforehand. Her method of receiving advice was to meet with one councilor at a time in private, allowing her to examine diverse points of view in depth, and to take each one’s measure. Her strategy was to take advantage of their strengths and weaknesses, plus inevitable rivalries, to divide her councillors into factions, not allowing them ever to unite against her. David Starkey comments in Elizabeth: the Struggle for the Throne, that her first promise to her people was to rule by counsel, not that she would be ruled by her councillors. She also had recourse to Parliament, the peerage, and, as they gained confidence, the bishops of the new Anglican Church as sources of counsel.
Starkey goes on to tell us that her second promise was never to lose the love of her people. She jealously guarded her hold on popular affection because she regarded it as the key to sovereignty. Erickson comments on her coronation procession, that she seemed to hear every word called out by every well-wisher, and that she replied not so much to the crowd, as to each individual within it. She possessed the notable gift of making everyone within the sound of her voice, believe she was speaking to him or her alone.
Wallace MacCaffrey in Elizabeth I, puts it another way. Her success in evoking an immense surge of popular adoration realised the most difficult goal she set herself at her accession. In spite of her disabling gender, she was able to win a ringing endorsement of her royal status. She was as fully a monarch as any of her male predecessors and, not only feared but loved. Her projection of herself as protectress of her people, proved a public achievement of consequence to her kingdom, at a time of civil division and external threat.
Her talent for attracting loyalty to her person and office comes across powerfully and directly in excerpts from her speeches in A Portrait of Elizabeth I in the Words of the Queen and Her Contemporaries, edited by Roger Pringle. Elizabeth’s Armada speech, delivered in 1588 to rally her troops to fight the Spaniards, is a model of rhetoric: “My loving people, I have always so behaved myself that, under God, I have placed my chiefest strength in the loyal hearts and good will of my subjects; and therefore I am come amongst you… not for my recreation and disport, but being resolved, in the midst and heat of the battle, to live or die amongst you all, and to lay down for my God, for my kingdom, and for my people, my honour and my blood, even in the dust. I know I have the body of a weak and feeble woman, but I have the heart and stomach of a king, and of a king of England too, and think foul scorn that…any prince of Europe, should dare to invade the borders of my realm.” And the last great speech of her reign, her “Golden speech” which she addressed to a packed House of Commons: “I do assure you there is no prince that loves his subjects better…There is no jewel…which I set before this jewel: I mean your love, for I do esteem it more than any treasure or riches, and, though God hath raised me high, yet this I count the glory of my crown, that I have reigned with your loves.”
Agnes Strickland recounts in Lives of the Queens of England, that in a conversation with the wife of a peer on keeping her husband’s good-will and love, the Queen is said to have replied: “After such a sort do I keep the good-will of all my husbands, my good people, for if they did not rest assured of some special love towards them, they would not yield me such good obedience.”