Elizabeth I of England (1533-1603) is arguably the greatest head-of-state, man or woman, in human history. Many legendary things happened during her reign, including the first circumnavigation of the globe by an Englishman and the composition of some of Shakespeare’s finest plays. But indisputably the event that altered the course of history more than any other, was the decisive preservation of the Protestant Reformation.
In 1533, the year Elizabeth was born, Henry VIII married her mother, Anne Boleyn. In order to do so, because he was still married to Catherine of Aragon, Henry proclaimed the establishment of the Church of England, breaking off from the Roman Catholic Church. At that time, Catholic forces in continental Europe were killing as many Protestants as they could, and it was possible that had not the rich, populous nation-state of England joined the Reformation, for whatever reason, the movement begun by Martin Luther may have been destroyed.
Henry VIII’s declaring that all of his subjects were instantly Protestants and no longer Catholics did not mean that all English people suddenly threw away their long-established faith. Indeed, when Elizabeth’s older and Catholic half-sister Mary I (1516-1558), ruled England for five years, she tried to restore the Roman church to its primacy, along the way burning over 280 Protestants at the stake, earning the sobriquet “Bloody Mary.”
When Elizabeth was crowned queen upon Mary’s death, although she had been raised Protestant and established the Protestant Church of England, she recognized that many of her subjects (about half) were Roman Catholic, and she allowed them to practice their religion without fear. The fact of so many Catholics in England, however, provided a great temptation to conquer the country by prominent European Catholic leaders.
Spain and King Philip II
During the 16th century, the richest most powerful of the emerging nation-states was Spain. In 1554 the king of Spain, Philip II (1527-1598), actually married Bloody Mary and was king of England for a short time. But this did not go over very well with the English people, who were very happy when Elizabeth ascended to the throne. For his part, although he joined in alliances with Elizabeth several times, Philip hated the English because of their Protestantism and waited for his best chance to restore Catholicism there.
One of the reasons why Spain was so rich was because its various “conquistadores” had mined or stolen so much gold from the New World and shipped it back to the mother country. Elizabeth was aware of this, of course, and secretly encouraged English sea captains, most prominently Sir Francis Drake, to seize Spanish gold-carrying ships. This was obviously an affront to Philip.
Meanwhile, in England, Mary, so-called Queen of Scots (1542-1587), was involved in a number of conspiracies with Philip to oust Elizabeth and to restore England to Catholicism. Elizabeth put Mary under house arrest in 1568 but resisted many pleas to have her executed, until Mary conspired to assassinate the English queen.
In this same year, English warships under the command of Drake launched a preemptive strike, destroying most of the Spanish fleet at Cadiz. These two events convinced Philip that he was ordained by God to end the Reformation in England. In 1588, the largest naval force ever, known to history as the Spanish Armada, set sail from Spain to invade England.
Elizabeth, wearing an armor breastplate, stood with the English army at the projected point of the invasion. With superior tactics and a miraculous storm, the Spanish Armada was destroyed. From that point on, the Reformation proved irreversible. If it had not been for Elizabeth, who knows whether the Reformation would have survived?