Elizabeth I and English Patriotism

Learning Objective

  • Identify some of the highlights from Queen Elizabeth I’s reign

Key Points

  • Elizabeth I (1533–1603) was Queen of England and Ireland from 1558 until her
    death in 1603. She succeeded her Roman Catholic half-sister, Mary to the throne. Elizabeth never married nor had
    children and thus was the last monarch of the Tudor dynasty.
  • Mary’s marriage to Philip II of Spain contributed to the complex relations between England and Spain that after Mary’s death dominated Elizabeth’s reign in the realm of international relations.
  • Elizabeth’s efforts led to the Religious Settlement, a legal process by which the Protestant Church of England was restored and the queen took the title of Supreme Governor of the Church of England.
  • Elizabeth’s foreign policy was largely defensive. While she managed to establish diplomatic relations with some of the most powerful contemporary empires and supported Protestant struggles across Europe, her greatest foreign policy challenge was Catholic Spain and its Armada, over which England eventually triumphed.
  • Establishing the Roanoke Colony and chartering the East India Company during Elizabeth’s reign was an onset of what would turn into the powerful British Empire.
  • The Elizabethan age inspired national pride through classical ideals, international expansion, and naval triumph over the Spanish.


Spanish Armada

A Spanish fleet of 130 ships that sailed from A Coruña in August 1588 with the purpose of escorting an army from Flanders to invade England. The strategic aim was to overthrow Queen Elizabeth I of England and the Tudor establishment of Protestantism in England.

Religious Settlement

A legal process by which the Protestant Church of England was restored. It was made during the reign of Elizabeth I in response to the religious divisions in England. Described as “The Revolution of 1559,” it was set out in two acts of the Parliament of England. The Act of Supremacy of 1558 re-established the Church of England’s independence from Rome, while the Act of Uniformity of 1559 outlined what form the English Church should take.

French Catholic League

A major participant in the French Wars of Religion, formed by Henry I, Duke of Guise, in 1576. It intended the eradication of Protestants—also known as Calvinists or Huguenots—out of Catholic France during the Protestant Reformation, as well as the replacement of King Henry III. Pope Sixtus V, Philip II of Spain, and the Jesuits were all supporters of this Catholic party.

Anglo-Spanish War

An intermittent conflict (1585–1604) between the kingdoms of Spain and England that was never formally declared. The war was punctuated by widely separated battles, and began with England’s military expedition in 1585 to the Netherlands in support of the resistance of the States General to Spanish Habsburg rule.

Roanoke Colony

A colony established on Roanoke Island, in what is today’s Dare County, North Carolina, United States. It was a late 16th-century attempt by Queen Elizabeth I to establish a permanent English settlement. The colony was founded by Sir Walter Raleigh. The colonists disappeared during the Anglo-Spanish War, three years after the last shipment of supplies from England.

Elizabeth I of England

Elizabeth I (1533–1603) was Queen of England and Ireland from 1558 until her death in 1603. She was the daughter of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, his second wife, who was executed two and a half years after Elizabeth’s birth. Anne’s marriage to Henry VIII was annulled and Elizabeth was declared illegitimate. In 1558, Elizabeth succeeded her Roman Catholic half-sister, Mary. She never married nor had children and thus was the last monarch of the Tudor dynasty.


The “Darnley Portrait” of Elizabeth I of England, National Portrait Gallery (c. 1575). The portrait was named after a previous owner. Probably painted from life, it is the source of the face pattern called “The Mask of Youth,” which would be used for authorized portraits of Elizabeth for decades to come. Recent research has shown the colors have faded. The oranges and browns would have been crimson red in Elizabeth’s time.

Mary I and Philip II of Spain

In 1554, Queen Mary of England married Philip, who only two years later began to rule Spain as Philip II. Under the terms of the Act for the Marriage, Philip was to enjoy Mary I’s titles and honors for as long as their marriage should last, and was to co-reign with his wife. Although Elizabeth initially demonstrated solidarity with her sister, the two were sharply divided along religious lines. Mary, a devout Catholic, was determined to crush the Protestant faith, in which Elizabeth had been educated. After Mary married Philip, who saw the protection of Catholicism in Europe as his life’s mission, Mary’s popularity ebbed away,  and many looked to Elizabeth as a focus for their opposition to Mary’s religious policies. In 1555, Elizabeth was recalled to court to attend the final stages of Mary’s apparent pregnancy. When it became clear that Mary was not pregnant, no one believed any longer that she could have a child. Elizabeth’s succession seemed assured.

King Philip acknowledged the new political reality and cultivated his sister-in-law. She was a better ally than the chief alternative, Mary, Queen of Scots, who had grown up in France and was betrothed to the Dauphin of France. When his wife fell ill in 1558, Philip consulted with Elizabeth. By October 1558, Elizabeth was making plans for her government. On November 6, Mary recognized Elizabeth as her heir. On November 17, Mary died and Elizabeth succeeded to the throne.

Religious Settlement

In terms of religious matters, Elizabeth was pragmatic. She and her advisers recognized the threat of a Catholic crusade against England. Elizabeth therefore sought a Protestant solution that would not offend Catholics too greatly while addressing the desires of English Protestants, but she would not tolerate the more radical Puritans, who were pushing for far-reaching reforms. As a result, the parliament of 1559 started to legislate for a church based on the Protestant settlement of Edward VI, with the monarch as its head, but with many Catholic elements. Eventually, Elizabeth was forced to accept the title of Supreme Governor of the Church of England rather than the more contentious title of Supreme Head, which many thought unacceptable for a woman to bear. The new Act of Supremacy became law in 1559. All public officials were to swear an oath of loyalty to the monarch as the supreme governor or risk disqualification from office. The heresy laws were repealed to avoid a repeat of the persecution of dissenters practiced by Mary. At the same time, a new Act of Uniformity was passed, which made attendance at church and the use of an adapted version of the 1552 Book of Common Prayer compulsory, though penalties for those who failed to conform were not extreme.

Foreign Policy

Elizabeth’s foreign policy was largely defensive. The exception was the English occupation of Le Havre from October 1562 to June 1563, which ended in failure when Elizabeth’s Huguenot (Protestant) allies joined with the Catholics to retake the port. After the occupation and loss of Le Havre, Elizabeth avoided military expeditions on the continent until 1585, when she sent an English army to aid the Protestant Dutch rebels against Philip II. In December 1584, an alliance between Philip II and the French Catholic League undermined the ability of Henry III of France to counter Spanish domination of the Netherlands. It also extended Spanish influence along the channel coast of France, where the Catholic League was strong, and exposed England to invasion. The siege of Antwerp in the summer of 1585 by the Duke of Parma necessitated some reaction on the part of the English and the Dutch. The outcome was the Treaty of Nonsuch of August 1585, in which Elizabeth promised military support to the Dutch. The treaty marked the beginning of the Anglo-Spanish War, which lasted until the Treaty of London in 1604.

After Mary’s death, Philip II of Spain had no wish to sever his ties with England, and sent a proposal of marriage to Elizabeth, but was denied. For many years, Philip maintained peace with England and even defended Elizabeth from the pope’s threat of excommunication. This was a measure taken to preserve a European balance of power. Ultimately, Elizabeth allied England with the Protestant rebels in the Netherlands (which at the time fought for independence from Spain). Further, English ships began a policy of piracy against Spanish trade and threatened to plunder the great Spanish treasure ships coming from the new world. However, the execution of Mary, Queen of Scots, in 1587 ended Philip’s hopes of placing a Catholic on the English throne. He turned instead to more direct plans to invade England, with vague plans to return the country to Catholicism. In 1588 he sent a fleet, the Spanish Armada, across the English Channel. The Spanish were forced into a retreat, and the overwhelming majority of the Armada was destroyed by the harsh weather.

Elizabeth also continued to maintain the diplomatic relations with the Tsardom of Russia originally established by her deceased brother. During her rule, trade and diplomatic relations developed between England and the Barbary states as well. England established a trading relationship with Morocco in opposition to Spain, selling armor, ammunition, timber, and metal in exchange for Moroccan sugar, in spite of a papal ban. Diplomatic relations were also established with the Ottoman Empire with the chartering of the Levant Company and the dispatch of the first English ambassador to the Porte, William Harborne, in 1578.

The Onset of the British Empire

After the travels of Christopher Columbus electrified all of western Europe, England joined in the colonization of the New World. In 1562, Elizabeth sent privateers Hawkins and Drake to seize booty from Spanish and Portuguese ships off the coast of West Africa. Spain was well established in the Americas, while Portugal, in union with Spain from 1580, had an ambitious global empire in Africa, Asia, and South America; France was exploring North America. England was stimulated to create its own colonies, with an emphasis on the West Indies rather than in North America. From 1577 to 1580, Sir Francis Drake circumnavigated the globe. Combined with his daring raids against the Spanish and his great victory over them at Cadiz in 1587, he became a famous hero, but England did not follow up on his claims. In 1583, Humphrey Gilbert sailed to Newfoundland, taking possession of the harbor of St. John’s together with all land within two hundred leagues to the north and south of it. In 1584, the queen granted Sir Walter Raleigh a charter for the colonization of Virginia; it was named in her honor. Raleigh sent others to found the Roanoke Colony (it remains a mystery why the settlers there all disappeared). In 1600, the queen chartered the East India Company. It established trading posts that in later centuries evolved into British India, on the coasts of what is now India and Bangladesh. Larger-scale colonization began shortly after Elizabeth’s death.


Elizabeth established an English church that helped shape a national identity and remains in place today. Though she followed a largely defensive foreign policy, her reign raised England’s status abroad. Under Elizabeth, the nation gained a new self-confidence and sense of sovereignty, as Christendom fragmented. She was the first Tudor to recognize that a monarch ruled by popular consent. She therefore always worked with parliament and advisers she could trust to tell her the truth—a style of government that her Stuart successors failed to follow.

The symbol of Britannia was first used in 1572, and often thereafter, to mark the Elizabethan age as a renaissance that inspired national pride through classical ideals, international expansion, and naval triumph over the Spanish.


Britannia depicted on a half penny of 1936. Britannia was the Greek and Roman term for the geographical region of Great Britain that was inhabited by the Britons and is the name given to the female personification of the island. It was during the reign of Elizabeth I that “Britannia” came to be viewed as a personification of Britain.