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Was Elizabeth I a good monarch? - Jool History Summaries

Updated: Nov 11, 2023

Elizabeth I: A Balanced Examination of Her Reign


Queen Elizabeth I's reign (1558-1603), often glorified as the Elizabethan Era, was marked by profound accomplishments and notable challenges. This essay aims to critically analyse both the successes and failures of her reign, drawing upon academic sources and historical examples.

The Successes of Elizabeth I

1. Political Stability and the Elizabethan Religious Settlement

Elizabeth inherited a kingdom riven by religious conflict. Her establishment of the Elizabethan Religious Settlement in 1559 was a masterstroke in compromise, blending elements of Catholicism and Protestantism. This moderation not only quelled religious strife but also stabilised her reign. Historian John Guy (1988) notes that this settlement was crucial in avoiding the extremes of her predecessors, Mary I and Edward VI.

2. Flourishing of Arts and Culture

The Elizabethan era is renowned for its cultural renaissance. Elizabeth's patronage of the arts led to the flourishing of literature, with figures like William Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe. Her reign is often considered the 'Golden Age' of English drama. Greenblatt (2004) argues that the cultural boom was partly due to Elizabeth's own love of theatre and poetry.

3. Foreign Policy: Navigating a Hostile Europe

In foreign affairs, Elizabeth demonstrated remarkable tact. Her approach to the Spanish Armada in 1588, as chronicled by historian Susan Doran (2003), showcases her strategic acumen. Despite Spain's naval superiority, her support for the innovative tactics of her sea commanders led to a defining English victory.

The Failures of Elizabeth I

1. Economic and Social Issues

Despite the cultural prosperity, Elizabeth's reign saw significant economic and social challenges. The Poor Laws of 1597 and 1601, as discussed by Slack (1988), were responses to widespread poverty and social unrest. These laws, though innovative, were also indicative of the widespread economic hardships faced by her subjects.

2. Management of Succession

Elizabeth's refusal to marry or name an heir led to political uncertainty and succession crises. Historian Alison Weir (1998) suggests that this failure cast a long shadow over her final years and troubled the transition after her death.

3. Ireland and the Policy of Plantations

Elizabeth's policies in Ireland, particularly the Plantations and military campaigns, are widely considered a failure. As pointed out by historian Nicholas Canny (2001), these policies were not only brutal but also laid the groundwork for centuries of conflict.


Elizabeth I's reign was a complex tapestry of both triumphs and tribulations. Her successes in stabilising the English monarchy, fostering cultural growth, and managing foreign threats are counterbalanced by her failures in addressing socio-economic issues, succession planning, and her handling of Irish affairs. Understanding these dual aspects of her reign provides a more nuanced perspective of one of England's most iconic rulers.

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