top of page

The Crazy Story of How Tudor Queen Elizabeth I Took the Crown

There are many notable images associated with Tudor Queen Elizabeth I. The ones that habitually pop up when you think of her: her bright red hair and white face; Shakespeare at the Globe; being single. But above all, we associate Elizabeth I with being a Queen. She embodies the image perhaps more than any other woman in history (besides the second Queen Elizabeth, of course). However, much like her fellow "E" named successor, Elizabeth I was never meant to be Queen at all.


Even though Elizabeth I was not technically last in line, she was far from 1st, 2nd, or even 3rd. Since she was a woman, and her father Henry VIII had already borne a male heir, the laws of succession in England gave precedence to her half-brother, Edward VI. And after Edward VI came Lady Jane Grey, Elizabeth's older half-sister 'Bloody Mary' Tudor, and any children either woman might have. The sequence of this particular line made Elizabeth -- at the time of Edward VIs reign -- 3rd in the line of succession. Except, by a Catholic interpretation of the law, she wasn't. Many of Elizabeth's peers deemed her an illicit heir to the English throne after Elizabeth's father, Henry VIII, annulled his marriage with Elizabeth's mother Anne Boleyn, thereby making any children they had together illegitimate. Put another way, Elizabeth could never legally be Queen. At least as long as England was ruled by a Catholic, such as her older half-sister Mary I. Since the Catholic church ran the institute of marriage during the 16th century, they held the final say on annulments. In the case of Henry VIII, they had refused to annul his marriage to Anne Boleyn. However, now that Henry VIIIs marriage was annulled, under the laws of the Catholic church, it was null and void, along with Elizabeth's claim to the English Crown. Unless, of course, the Catholic church was not reauthorized to conduct the institute of marriage in England. If that were ever the case, the line would become a lot shorter for Elizabeth. And the only way for the line to become shorter was for the people in front of Elizabeth to all have terrible bad luck.


As king, Henry failed to produce a male heir, a deficiency he consistently blamed on his wives. He sired many daughters, but only one male heir: the future King Edward VI. He was nine years old when he became king and 15 when he died. His untimely death put the English Crown in quite the pickle. Due to his young age, Edward VI had produced no heirs of his own, leading them to search among Henry's daughters, an option they hoped would never be necessary to exercise. However, in a Downton Abbey-like plot twist, Edward VI's will declared Lady Jane Grey, his 1st cousin, successor to the Crown. Her subsequent reign proved inevitably unpopular and extraordinarily short.

Given that Lady Grey was in direct violation of the Succession of the Crown Act of 1543, many of her peers and constituents felt Mary Tudor -- Henry VIII's child from his marriage to Catherine of Aragon -- should be the rightful ruler of England. For those reasons, Lady Jane Grey was deposed after only nine days as Queen, thus leaving the throne wide open for the oldest daughter of Henry VIII to keep the ever-popular Tudor family in power. Not long after Lady Grey's swift deposition, the so-called "Bloody Mary" rode into London and staked her royal claim alongside her sister Elizabeth. Though they had two different mothers, Mary and Elizabeth were still Tudors, red hair and all, and eager to continue their dynasty.

Mary Tudor was crowned and immediately got to work performing her royal duties, which consisted of producing an heir (the most important duty a monarch will ever have).

For Elizabeth to become Queen, Mary Tudor would need to die or bear no children and die before Elizabeth. Indeed, all the chips fell in the worst possible place for her, and Mary failed to produce an heir, then died from either cancer or ovarian cysts.

Upon Mary Tudor's death, Elizabeth found herself next in line. And, to set a newly ubiquitous tone during her ascension, Elizabeth recited this speech to her councilors and skeptical peers:

"My lords, the law of nature moves me to sorrow for my sister; the burden that is fallen upon me makes me amazed, and yet, considering I am God's creature, ordained to obey His appointment, I will thereto yield, desiring from the bottom of my heart that I may have assistance of His grace to be the minister of His heavenly will in this office now committed to me. And as I am but one body naturally considered, though by His permission a body politic to govern, so shall I desire you all ... to be assistant to me, that I with my ruling and you with your service may make a good account to Almighty God and leave some comfort to our posterity on earth. I mean to direct all my actions by good advice and counsel."

The speech indicated to the court, and its constituents, that Queen Elizabeth I would take care of them, but only if they, in turn, took care of her. The Crown (otherwise known as the institution that operates the English monarchy) supported Elizabeth for the most part. Elizabeth beheaded another Queen who vied for the throne, known today as Mary Queen of Scots. Despite living the vast majority of her life in France, Mary Queen of Scots was the ruling monarch of Scotland. And, because of the strong support from English Catholics, Mary felt that the time was right to claim the English Crown from the Reformation toting Elizabeth I.


The religious war between Catholics and protestants was a hot-button topic in Tudor England. So much so that Mary Queen of Scots found both support and resistance from Englanders. The same polarization was imposed on Elizabeth I due to her advocacy for Protestantism's full implementation in England. In other words, the Catholics wanted their Queen on the throne. In contrast, the Protestants wanted theirs to continue royally facilitating England's transition from the proverbial Cathedral to the Church of England. Elizabeth I was adamant in her efforts of turning England Protestant. Besides her well-known nicknames, such as "The Virgin Queen" and "Gloriana," Elizabeth I was famous for her love of the newly founded Reformation movement. In the 21st century, seeing a Lutheran or Baptist church is relatively common. However, in Elizabeth's day, it was considered highly heretical. But for Elizabeth I, the heresy her father Henry VIII created was the only legal avenue she could traverse to take the throne. She had to support the Church of England or surrender the Crown to a different Royal house. When Elizabeth I imprisoned Mary and eventually had her beheaded, she was showing England what she stood for while simultaneously defeating a dangerous rival and solidifying her unlikely reign in the history books.


Queen Elizabeth II -- the current reigning British monarch -- was never meant to be Queen either. Her Uncle Edward VIII abdicated the throne, thus, temerariously handing the reins over to Elizabeth's father, the future King George V. The whole sequence was told brilliantly on Netflix's The Crown, showing the enormous pressure attached to being an English monarch. Elizabeth I probably had a similar moment when she fully realized her sister Mary I could not bear children; her world, and ours, was about to change.

Despite her reign being statistically improbable from the beginning, Queen Elizabeth I did what she most likely never dreamed of doing, being Queen. She could never have imagined that historians 500 years later would dub her 45-year reign the "Elizabethan Era" due to those 4-and-a-half decades being some of the most prosperous years in England's history.


bottom of page