Today is the anniversary of the accession of Elizabeth I to the throne of England in 1558. For Elizabethans, November 17th became an opportunity for bonfires and fireworks. Towards the end of her reign, they thanked God for their monarch. Things were not quite so promising in 1558.
Elizabeth I was a woman confronted by presumptuous male aristocrats happy to relieve her of her power. She was a teenager confronted by commoners deeply skeptical of her ability to rule. She did not have a standing army, and she was still plagued by the "over mighty subject" and the "masterless man." That English taste for disobedience was flourishing. Sir Thomas Elyot warned, "men’s hartes [hearts] be free and they will love whom they liste [like]."
Elizabeth was the beneficiary of her grandfather (Henry VII) and his brutal strategies for clearing the kingdom of people with a competitive claim to the throne. But she was also heir to the religious complications created by her father (Henry VIII). England was now the Protestant upstart, and a beacon for those people in every continental country who wished to break with Rome. The Pope declared that the man who killed Elizabeth would commit no sin. Spain believed that a destruction of the English court would be God’s work. Thanks, Dad!
There a lots of historical reasons to revive the celebration. Elizabeth represents the triumph of cunning over stupidity, intelligence over mere cunning, genius over mere intelligence. She was the triumph of will over skepticism, a Renaissance education over the domestic arts, and theatre of power over realpolitik.
But there are also lots of contemporary reasons to celebrate Elizabeth and to remember her. As I will argue tomorrow, there are some interesting similarities between her time and our own.