ASSESSING ELIZABETH I ON HER 450TH BIRTHDAY

 

ST AUSTELL, ENGLAND Next Wednesday will mark the 450th anniversary of the birth of Elizabeth I, greatest of English rulers, certainly the one who has imposed herself longest upon that living memory of peoples that is history. She was born at Greenwich September 3, 1533, the daughter of Henry III and his Queen, Anne Boleyn, who were both disappointed at the birth of a girl instead of the male heir that they so badly wanted.

But they had done better than they knew. In the circumstances of the time, it was an advantage to have a woman on the throne, directing affairs from several points of view. A King would have been more aggressive, wasting the little country's resources on foreign adventures, as Elizabeth's father, Henry VIII, had done with his unnecessary, extravagant wars in France.

A woman could always say no to that sort of thing, and she was not extravagant. She put off open war with Spain--inevitable as it was to maintain the independence of the Netherlands and to win a footing in the New World--until she had built up the Navy, to a point where she could confront the Spanish Empire with success.

What were her successes? What did she achieve?

The Europe of her day was driven by an ideological struggle between Reformation, and Counter-Reformation. France and the Netherlands were paralyzed by it, and the civil wars it unleashed, as Germany was in to the next age.

Elizabeth's overriding idea was to maintain the unity of her country and to achieve what we would call today "consensus" under her rule. The Scottish Calvinist John Knox said that she was neither a true Protestant nor a good Papist. Exactly. She did not want divisions of opinion to come out into the open, or lines of dispute over doctrine to be drawn to clearly--people would be at each other's throats over them. She said, "I desire to open a window into no man's soul" --this was very different from the idea of the fanatical Philip of Spain, or, for that matter, of the Puritans.

She insisted upon external conformity for the sake of maintaining order in a diversified country, but within that there was, for those times, a good deal of tolerance. Thus, a visible legacy of her rule is the Anglican Church, which bears her stamp, both Protestant and Catholic. If the laymen, her ministers, had had their way, the church would have been more Presbyterian, and that would have sharpened the divisions that in the next century led to civil war.

In foreign affairs, circumstances forced her to come to the help of Protestants abroad--though she made it clear that she was not fighting for an ideological cause (as her foreign secretary, Sir Francis Walsingham, wished). She would fight for the interests of her own country--the independence of the Netherlands, just opposite the Thames and London, was foremost among these. Though she hated war and waste, she readily came to the rescue of the Netherlands. That country might never have come into existence but for her military and financial help; the aid, and the intervention, went on for 20 years and succeeded in the end--an achievement that lives on today.

A similar result was achieved by her refusal to accept the Spanish claim to monopoly of the New World and the Pacific. Spain forced the French out of Florida and Brazil, and the French monarchs, distracted by civil war, had to accept the exclusion.

Elizabeth I never would. She fought for the principal of the open door, for the English to have a share in the opening up of America. Diplomatically, she contested the issue with Spain. Finally, she supported her seamen exploring the coasts and making inroads into Spanish power. Secretly, she was the prime investor in Sir Francis Drake's wonderful voyage around the world, which achieved so much. She invested in Hawkins voyage into the Caribbean and Frobisher's expedition to Labrador. She was interested in everything about the amazing New World, geographically and intellectually--natural for a clever Renaissance woman, exceptionally well educated.

When it came to settlement of English stock in Virginia--the name that she permitted for the English zone of North America--where did Sir Walter Raleigh get the money? He started with none. All his resources came from his favor with the Queen. In return for her favor, she expected service to the state--and saw to it that she got it. Richard Hakluyt, the great geographer and propagandist for settlement overseas, she supported with promotions in the church, since he was a clergyman.

An alert, vivacious, dominating personality, a brilliant brain, essentially a politician--since it was her job to rule--she was in touch with every facet of the nation's life. Education and the universities--a better classical scholar and linguist than most academics--literature, music, dancing and entertainment all claimed her interest.

Above all, as a worldly woman, she was a great patron of the theater. The London authorities, especially Puritans, were always trying to suppress the stage. The Queen would not have that and regularly supported the theater. So we owe Elizabethan drama in part to her.--a living achievement in itself--with Shakespeare her favorite dramatist. The inspiration she was to her people is written wide over the literature of her time, and beyond. Here too, the fact that she was a woman was important: They could idealize her, and the adulation she received was genuine.

When the era's leading poet, Edmund Spencer, wrote his grand allegory-epic of the time, "The Faerie Queene," he dedicated it to Elizabeth not only as Queen but as Empress of Virginia--in other words, of North America. And when Shakespeare, in "Henry VIII" summed up the age that we rightly call by her name, he paid retrospective tribute to her achievement:

"She shall be loved and feared: her own shall bless her; her foes shake like a field of beaten corn, and hang their heads with sorrow. Good grows with her; in her days every man shall eat in safety under his own vine what he plants."

 

(The New York Times, Saturday, September 3, 1983)