This Day in World History
November 17, 1558
Elizabeth I becomes England’s Queen
The twenty-five-year-old princess was seated beneath an oak tree on the lawn of her home, Hatfield House. Suddenly, several courtiers hurried across the lawn until they reached her location, stopped, and bowed. The queen has died, they told her. You are now queen of England. Young Elizabeth, it is said, fell to her knees and quoted a line from Psalm 118: “It is the Lord’s doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes.”
Elizabeth I, daughter of King Henry VIII by his second wife, Anne Boleyn, had reached the throne by a more circuitous path than most monarchs. Her father’s first wife, Catherine of Aragon, had born a daughter, Mary, but no son. Frustrated, Henry had broken with the Catholic Church and formed the Church of England so he could divorce Catherine and marry Anne Boleyn. After she bore Elizabeth and a stillborn son, Boleyn was beheaded for adultery—a trumped-up charge—when Elizabeth was but three. Henry then married Jane Seymour, who finally produced a male heir, the prince Edward.
Much of Elizabeth’s childhood and youth were difficult and spent away from court because her father rejected her. When he died and Edward came to the throne, she soon fell under suspicion of complicity in a plot to overthrow him. Her careful response to questions saved her. When Edward died, Mary came to the throne. She tried to restore the Catholic Church, leading to several Protestant rebellions, which led the queen to throw her half-sister into the Tower of London for a few months and eventually send her to Hatfield under house arrest.
Everything changed on that November day, however. Two months later, on January 15—a day chosen in part for its astrological promise—she had her official coronation at Westminster Abbey. Elizabeth I, called Gloriana—and Good Queen Bess—ruled for nearly 45 years and gave her name to an age.