Portrait of Elizabeth I, Jesus College, Oxford.

Elizabeth I (1533-1603) was born to Henry VIII (1491-1547) and his second wife, Anne Boleyn (1500-1536). Her mother was executed for treason in 1536, and, by the terms of the Second Succession Act (1536), Elizabeth was declared illegitimate, removing her from the line of succession. The Act was repealed in 1543 by the Third Succession Act, which returned Elizabeth to the line of succession after her protestant half-brother Edward (1537-1553) and her Catholic older half-sister Mary (1516-1558). The legislation was controversial. Technically Elizabeth remained a bastard, albeit one who could legally succeed to the crown.

Elizabeth survived the political intrigues and religious persecution of the 1550s to claim the throne upon Mary’s death in 1558. She immediately re-established the protestant Church of England after Mary’s Catholic programme, and, with a new Act of Uniformity in 1559, imposed a Book of Common Prayer.

As the future of the Tudor dynasty had been a major concern of Henry VIII’s reign, so too the succession dominated Elizabethan politics from the very beginning. Upon her accession, it was universally assumed that Elizabeth would marry to secure a peaceful succession to the throne. In 1559 the privy council presented the queen with a formal request that she should marry. Her response was to filibuster, asserting her marriage to the nation: ‘reproach me so no more […] that I have no children: for every one of you, and as many as are English, are my children and kinsfolks’. Elizabeth had many suitors, including Philip II of Spain (1527-1598), Erik VIX of Sweden (1533-1577), and, closer to home, Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester (1532-1588). Yet she never took a husband, despite mounting political pressure to produce an heir.

While Elizabeth’s rejection of marriage and motherhood made for her powerful ‘virgin queen’ iconography, it was not a prudent political move. Elizabeth was pig-headed about the succession. The identity of the heir presumptive was obscured by a confused legal situation. Henry VIII’s will implied that the next in line to the throne after Elizabeth should be Katherine Grey (1540?-1568). But Elizabeth’s Catholic cousin Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots (1542-1587), possessed the stronger hereditary claim, and, after her execution in 1587, the next in line was her protestant son, James (1566-1625). Elizabeth refused to support either claimant, and, in 1571, introduced a statute that outlawed any public discussion of the succession. Nonetheless, in the 1590s Elizabeth’s ailing health forced the public to address the succession in a series of pamphlets and longer polemics. A new claimant was the Spanish Infanta Isabella (1566-1633), daughter of Philip II, who naturally became the favoured candidate of Catholics such as Robert Person, who, in his A Conference About the Next Succession (1594), devised some clever arguments against hereditary succession. The preferred candidate of the protestant majority, though, was James Stuart, whose allies in the Elizabethan court ensured a smooth transfer of power. In the event of Elizabeth’s death on 24 March 1603, Sir Robert Carey (1560-1639) was dispatched as a messenger to Edinburgh. The succession question that had remained unanswered for 45 years was now resolved with surprisingly little difficulty. The House of Tudor had been replaced by the House of Stuart.

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