Encyclopedia Womannica

Leaders: Elizabeth I

Episode Summary

Elizabeth I (1533-1603) was the Queen of England and remains a symbol of enlightened Tudor England.

Episode Notes

Every weekday, listeners explore the trials, tragedies, and triumphs of groundbreaking women throughout history who have dramatically shaped the world around us. In each 5 minute episode, we’ll dive into the story behind one woman listeners may or may not know -- but definitely should. These diverse women from across space and time are grouped into easily accessible and engaging monthly themes like Pioneers, Dreamers, Villainesses, STEMinists, Warriors & Social Justice Warriors, and many more. Encyclopedia Womannica is hosted by WMN co-founder and award-winning journalist Jenny Kaplan. The bite-sized episodes pack painstakingly researched content into fun, entertaining, and addictive daily adventures.

Encyclopedia Womannica was created by Liz Kaplan and Jenny Kaplan, executive produced by Jenny Kaplan, and produced by Liz Smith, Cinthia Pimentel, and Grace Lynch. Special thanks to Shira Atkins and Edie Allard.

This week of Encyclopedia Womannica is brought to you by HelloFresh. Go to hellofresh.com/encyclopedia10, and use code encyclopedia10 during HelloFresh’s New Year’s sale for 10 free meals including free shipping.

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Episode Transcription

Hello! From Wonder Media Network, I’m Jenny Kaplan and this is Encyclopedia Womannica. 

Today we’re heading back to Elizabethan England to talk about the lady in charge. That’s right, our leader of the day is Queen Bess herself, the one and only Elizabeth I. 

Elizabeth Tudor’s life was notable from its very beginning. She was born on September 7, 1533 at Greenwich Palace. She was the daughter of King Henry VIII and his second wife, Anne Boleyn. 

Elizabeth wasn’t exactly what the pair had been hoping for. Even at birth, her gender was seen as problematic. Henry had disobeyed the pope and left the Catholic church in order to divorce his first wife and marry Anne Boleyn. The two desperately wanted a male heir.  

The King’s disappointment grew into something worse and by Elizabeth’s third birthday, he had accused Anne Boleyn of adultery and treason and had her beheaded. Through an Act of Parliament, Henry declared the marriage posthumously invalidated from its beginning, thereby making Elizabeth illegitimate. 

Elizabeth was raised outside of the royal court at a separate house in Hatfield, though she was included in ceremonial occasions. She was a remarkable and serious child of great intelligence. She was schooled by a series of tutors and received a level of education that was generally reserved for men at that time. She learned Greek, Latin, French and Italian and also studied history, rhetoric, philosophy, and theology. Like her mother, she was a devoted Protestant.

When Henry finally did have a son with his third wife, Jane Seymour, Elizabeth was named third in line to the throne after her baby half-brother , Edward, and her older half-sister, Mary. 

Elizabeth was close with Edward and developed an affectionate relationship with King Henry’s sixth and final wife, Catherine Parr. Upon Henry’s death in 1547, Edward took the throne. He was a frail boy of just 10 years old. Due to King Edward’s youth, a man named Edward Seymour was named protector of the realm. Edward Seymour’s younger brother, Thomas Seymour, also entwined himself in the royal family. He married the king’s widow, Catherine Parr, and after her death set out to woo Elizabeth and get even closer to power. 

In January 1549, Thomas was arrested for treason and beheaded. He was charged with having flirted and attempted to marry Elizabeth even before his wife died. Elizabeth was calm, cool, and collected during the whole interrogation of Thomas Seymour’s actions. That determined, level fierceness would define Elizabeth’s life and reign. 

The drama of Edward’s reign was nothing compared to what came after. Edward, who was a Protestant like Elizabeth, died in 1553, and their half-sister Mary ascended to the throne. Mary was a devout Catholic and was determined to return England to the Roman Catholic Church. 

Mary and Elizabeth’s religious differences endangered Elizabeth’s life. She became the figurehead of Protestant plots, even if she wasn’t actively involved in attempts to overthrow her sister. Elizabeth was arrested, nearly beheaded, released and closely watched. When Mary died childless in 1558, Elizabeth took the throne. 

From the very beginning of her reign, Elizabeth masterfully crafted a mythic perception of herself and the crown. She artfully balanced the appearance of flexibility and generosity with steel-like strength. 

The first weeks of her rule were quite busy both symbolically and politically. She entered London with a jubilant coronation procession, reduced the size of the Privy Council and restructured the royal household.  

Elizabeth’s abilities to cultivate her image and to maneuver politically were particularly remarkable and necessary due to her gender. In that era, it was widely accepted that women were incapable of leadership. It was believed that men were naturally bestowed with the gifts of authority, whereas women were unfit to rule. 

But Elizabeth used her gender to her advantage. She was determinedly single and refused to marry before and during her reign. Instead she often spoke of herself as the spouse or mother of the kingdom. She dressed in lavish clothing and kept a tight grip on how her likeness was portrayed to the public. She was featured in many poems, plays, and other works of art and was often compared to famed ancient virginal figures including Diana, the goddess of the Moon and Astraea, the goddess of justice. 


As is nearly always the case with monarchies, the question of establishing an heir was seen as paramount by many during Elizabeth’s rule. While the development of the Virgin Queen persona was helpful in inspiring a kind of mythic aura, it instilled fear in Elizabeth’s protestant followers. If she did not have children, she would be the end of the Tudor line. The next in line to the throne was Mary, Queen of Scots, who was a Catholic and was thereby supported by the Catholic countries on the Continent, and English citizens still loyal to the Catholic Church 

Elizabeth’s unwillingness to marry was likely caused by her desire to fully retain her power. She wasn’t a fan of unsolicited advice from anyone, let alone a potential husband, and seemed surprisingly unconcerned about the line of succession.

This same sentiment regarding power put a strain on her relationship with Parliament, which she had to rely upon for revenue. Elizabeth tried to smooth the discord using a complex combination of soft and hard tactics. 

Though not extremely religious herself, religious conflict plagued Elizabeth’s whole life. In 1580, Pope Gregory XIII said it wouldn’t be a sin to kill the Protestant leader and fear of an assassination grew. In response, Elizabeth’s Privy Council created the Bond of Association. The signatories agreed that if an attempt was made on the Queen’s life, they would kill the assassins as well as the person in whose interest the attempt had been made. This specifically targeted Mary Queen of Scots, who had been implicated in attempts on Elizabeth’s life. 

Because of such plots and unbeknownst to Elizabeth, Mary was beheaded in 1587. The queen responded with grief and wrote to Mary’s son, James, saying that she had not intended for Mary to actually be killed. 

Elizabeth’s protestant faith also put her at odds with powerful foreign leaders including those of France and Spain. She successfully avoided military conflict until the late 1580s, when Elizabeth learned that the Spanish King, Philip II, was scheming to invade and conquer England. The queen was prepared. She had a well-armed fleet of ships. Despite the fact that the Spanish Armada was seen as unbeatable, the English came out of the July 1588  conflict on top. 

Elizabeth inspired her troops in person. She famously said, “I know I have the body of a weak and feeble woman, but I have the heart and stomach of a king, and a King of England too.” 

Elizabeth died on March 24, 1603. She was succeeded by James I, King of Scotland, Mary Queen of Scot’s son. 

Elizabeth’s reign is often remembered as a golden era of art, literature, and music. She solidified the Church of England and won naval and military victories. Though she certainly made her fair share of mistakes, Elizabeth remains the enduring symbol of  enlightened Tudor England and is remembered today as one of the most powerful and formative female leaders in history. 

Tune in tomorrow for the story of another leader.

This week of Encyclopedia Womannica is sponsored by HelloFresh and we have a special offer for Womannica listeners. If you go to hellofresh.com/encyclopedia10 and use the code encyclopedia10 you can get 10 free meals including shipping. I can’t recommend HelloFresh highly enough. My new year’s resolution is to cook more and I probably would have already given up if not for HelloFresh. Whether you’re leading a country, company or household, it can seem impossible to find the time to shop for, prep, and cook meals. HelloFresh saves you time, and makes meals fun and easy. Fresh ingredients are delivered right to your door and recipes take around 30 minutes to make. The food is delicious and you can even add in sides and desserts, if you’re tryna be extra fancy. HelloFresh now starts at just $5.66 per serving. Go to hellofresh.com/encyclopedia10, that’s hellofresh.com/Encyclopedia 1-0 and use code encyclopedia10 during HelloFresh’s New Year’s sale for 10 free meals including free shipping.

Special thanks to Liz Kaplan, my favorite sister and co-creator.

Talk to you tomorrow!