On March 24, 1603, Elizabeth I died. She was, at that time, England’s longest reigning monarch. She died at the ripe old age of 69 – well, it was ripe and old in 1603, particularly for women, many of whom died in childbirth. Elizabeth I sat on the English throne for 45 years. She remains the third longest continuously reigning monarch, beaten only by two other queens – Victoria and the recently deceased Elizabeth II.
Like her namesake 400 years later, Elizabeth I brought stability to a realm that had been racked by unrest. The Tudors were usurpers and obsessed with male heirs. That’s one reason why the Trump-like Henry VIII (Elizabeth’s father) got rid of so many wives (divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived). His death was followed by two short reigns, Elizabeth’s half-brother Edward and half-sister Mary. Three reigns, in fact, if you count Jane Grey, whose reign was so short she was dubbed the Nine Days’ Queen.
Simply by living a long time, Elizabeth I brought certainty and stability to a turbulent period of change – of religion, technology and the balance of power (ring any bells?). That she also turned out to be a highly effective monarch was an added bonus.
Elizabeth I probably lived such a long time because she refused to marry and have children. She also avoided having a male heir who could be used against her, as happened to her cousin Mary Queen of Scots, who was forced off her throne in favour of her infant son. Testosterone rules, particularly back then. Queen Victoria, of course, had nine children. She reigned for more than 63 years, so was clearly made of high-tensile steel. The second Elizabeth was on the throne for more than 70 years and had four children. While she may also have been made of tough stuff, modern obstetrics probably deserves some credit.
But why this history lesson? When the second Elizabeth inherited the throne – at the same age as the first – 25, people heralded a new “Elizabethan age”, noting her namesake who had presided over the beginning of the British Empire and a great artistic flourishing. Despite “Cool Britannia” in the 1960s, the reign of Elizabeth II was not so blessed. Given her first prime minister was Winston Churchill, the only way was down.
Nevertheless, there is a remarkable historical parallel that may bookend both Elizabethan ages. All her life, Elizabeth I had refused to name an heir, perhaps aware of what had happened to her cousin. However, after six days on her death cushion (she refused to go to bed, perhaps realising that once there she would never leave) she finally acknowledged Mary Queen of Scots’ son, James VI of Scotland, as her successor. When, shortly afterwards, she drew her last breath, he became James I of Scotland and England, creating the newly minted United Kingdom.
Fast-forward to 2014 when the Scots voted in a referendum on whether to leave the Union. To the second Elizabeth’s relief, the referendum failed and the UK remained intact. However, since 2014 Britain has left the EU and while England voted to leave, Scotland voted to stay. Unsurprisingly, another Scottish referendum is now planned for October 2023. Particularly after the death of the second Elizabeth, it stands a good chance of being successful this time around.
If it is, this will create a remarkable synchronicity. While the first Elizabeth’s death literally created the United Kingdom, the second Elizabeth’s death may herald the end of it.