Lessons from history: coronation of Queen Elizabeth I (1559)

On a cold day in January the 25-year-old Princess Elizabeth Tudor was crowned in Westminster Abbey. On the one hand much was familiar to the watching congregation: Mass was said in Latin, copious amounts of incense drifted from the Altar, and a Tudor was on the throne for the fifth time in 75 years. However, this image of stability disguised a world and a period riven with strife, both social and religious, which had much in common with the modern world. Britain debated bitterly its role in Europe, while the advancing Ottoman Empire created terrible fear across the continent of a great clash between Islam and Christianity. Finally Elizabeth’s coronation proved the ability of women to effectively maintain prominent positions in politics. All of these issues are topical in Britain today, facing as it does potential constitutional, religious and social upheaval in the second half of the decade, and Elizabeth’s reign provides an excellent model of how to approach them.

England in 1559 was just as split about its place in Europe as it is today. The contrast between the Catholic led mainland and the Protestant England could not decide on their position within the political hierarchy, either as the head of the free Protestant states, as Elizabeth’s father had imagined himself, or as a subordinate to the burgeoning power of Spain, as Mary’s marriage to King Philip II had seemed to imply. The coronation of Elizabeth would settle this question, at least to some degree, for another 200 years, with the trauma of the wars in the Netherlands and the Spanish Armada forcing the kingdom to look abroad, trading throughout the world and founding her first informal colony in the Americas, Newfoundland. Elizabeth’s coronation brought the kingdom to a settled view on the continent, turning it from a second rate European power into a kingdom which looked abroad for trade and exploration. With the increasing likelihood of the European referendum occurring later this year, Elizabeth’s reign stands as an example to a sharply divided nation of how Britain can stand as a self-confident power, either influencing European affairs, or moving beyond them entirely.

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The coronation also marked a turning point in relations between the English-speaking world and Islam. Before her reign England maintained a view of Islam in line with the rest of Europe, as a heathen threat to Christianity, particularly Islam personified in the form of the Ottoman Empire, a great and expansionist power, which a century before had finally toppled the last outpost of the Roman Empire, Constantinople, once the most powerful city in Christendom. Elizabeth’s reign saw England start to reach out to the great Islamic powers in the west, forging trade deals with the Barbary States and the Ottomans themselves, with the establishment of the Levant Company, and the dispatching of William Harborne, the first English Ambassador to the Sultan. Elizabeth led a country that encouraged peace and trade with the Islamic world, and was so successful that Sultan Murad III reflected that Islam and Protestantism had ‘much more in common’ than either did with Spanish led Catholicism. When we look at relations today between Muslims in Europe, increasingly unfairly discriminated against on account of the brutal behaviour of the so called Caliphate, and the growing intolerance of men like Donald Trump or the Pegida movement, Elizabeth’s policy offers an entirely different – and ultimately more successful – method of managing relations between the mainstream forms of the great monotheistic religions.

The final thing that Elizabeth’s reign had in common with the modern world was her advancement of the perception of powerful women within society. Prominent women in England had, with rare exceptions, been ill-represented when in positions in power. Matilda the Empress was refused her rightful crown in 1135 on account of her Sex, Elizabeth Woodville was attacked as a witch, Guinevere, the imaginary, archetypal Queen of England, was known ultimately for committing adultery and by doing so bringing the Kingdom to ruin. Even Mary Tudor was trapped by this hostile view, forced to marry a Spanish King, and loathed for it. Elizabeth turned this attitude on its head, remaining unmarried, she ruled as well as any man, and better than many, bringing a measure of religious tolerance and external stability to England. It is not for nothing that her reign is remembered as a golden age. As we move into 2016 we will see elections in Scotland where each of the three major parties is led by a woman, but it stands to Elizabeth’s credit that this should not be an unusual state of affairs, she provided an example to stand alongside Joan of Arc and Livia Drusilla of the way in which women could be prominent in public life just as well as men could.