There was never a woman born, for all respects, as Queen Elizabeth, for she spake and understood all languages; knew all estates and dispositions of princes. And particularly was so expert in the knowledge of her own realm and estate as no councillor she had could tell her what she knew not before.
William Cecil, Lord Burghley (1520–98)
Queen Elizabeth I (1533–1603) is still very much alive in the popular consciousness 400 years after her death. She has been portrayed in numerous films, been the subject of countless books, and in 2002 was voted one of Britain's top ten 'Great Britons' by BBC TV viewers. The National Maritime Museum at Greenwich, England, hosted a major international exhibition to commemorate the 400th anniversary of her death and to celebrate her life. In the words of historian Dr David Starkey, guest curator of the Elizabeth exhibition:
Elizabeth is extraordinary. She looks extraordinary. She behaves in an extraordinary way. And, as a woman moving so effortlessly in a man's world, she is doubly extraordinary.
Elizabeth I came to the throne on the death of her half-sister, Mary I, on 17 November 1558. She had to work hard to survive until the time of her accession, learning many important lessons along the way about politics, economics and diplomacy. The England that Elizabeth inherited was on the verge of bankruptcy, was at war with itself and others, and had little international standing. When she died in 1603, England was a comparatively stable country, with an expanding economy, power on the international stage and on the verge of acquiring an empire.
Elizabeth's immediate challenges were to reassure her subjects and re-establish the credibility of the Tudor monarchy at home and abroad. She needed to build a strong, loyal base through domestic security and prosperity; to reinstate the Reformation and build a Church of England that was neither Catholic nor extreme Protestant, and to reinvigorate the economy. That she succeeded is attested to by the achievements listed on her tomb – religious settlement, maintenance of peace and re-coinage – and by the Elizabethan era being referred to as a 'Golden Age'.
Elizabeth reigned for 44 years, navigating her way through the murky waters of a nation divided by religious strife, surviving numerous threats to her power from within and to the nation's independence from without. She did not just survive but thrived and, in a man's world, became one of the most celebrated and respected female rulers of all time.
The National Maritime Museum's exhibition (2 May to 14 September 2003) brought together over 350 objects to explore the life and reign of this extraordinary woman. The accompanying catalogue and the Web content follow the sections of the exhibition, looking at aspects of Elizabeth I's life and times from her birth at Greenwich Palace in 1533 to her death at Richmond Palace in 1603.
Text by Dr Amy Dempsey
© NMM 2003
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