Room 2: Elizabethan England
© The National Portrait Gallery, London
Elizabeth I ascended to the throne of England in 1558 following the death of her half-sister Mary I and was to rule England for over forty years. The daughter of Henry VIII and his second wife, Anne Boleyn, Elizabeth was acutely aware of her role as a female monarch and followed a cautious and prudent line in matters of policy. She had maintained her Protestant beliefs during Mary’s reign and saw her accession to the crown as a sign of God’s divine intervention. Her key tasks were to reconcile the English people, from Roman Catholic to ardent Protestant on the question of religion, and to ensure the stability of the country in a period of foreign hostility.
In the first decade of her reign Elizabeth re-established the Church of England and engineered the re-coinage of the currency in order to put the economy on a stronger footing. The Queen's strength of character and the ability of her ministers, notably Lord Burghley and Francis Walsingham, ensured that the Elizabethan age was on the whole one of peace and prosperity. Elizabeth never married. Instead, she presided over individual favourites and courtiers who learnt to make use of her virginity as a political tool. The relative political stability of Elizabeth’s reign provided a context in which the arts flourished, particularly poetry and drama. The might of her sea captains, especially Francis Drake and Walter Ralegh and the development of exploration and trade enabled England under Elizabeth to become a world power.