Elizabeth I was born on September 7, 1533 at Greenwich Palace near London. Her
father was England’s King Henry VIII; her mother was the king’s second wife,
Anne Boleyn. Elizabeth had an older half-sister, Mary, who was the daughter of the
king’s first wife, Catherine of Aragon.
King Henry had moved heaven and earth to marry Anne Boleyn. He had parted
from the Catholic church, established the Church of England, and annulled his
twenty-four year marriage to Queen Catherine – partly because he loved Anne, and
partly because he wanted the male heir Catherine could not give him. Henry and
Anne were convinced that their first child would be a boy. The new queen even had
a document drawn up ahead of time that announced the birth of a prince.
prince turned out to be a princess, her parents were dismayed.
Over the next few years Anne had three miscarriages, and Henry – who had become
disenchanted with her even before Elizabeth’s birth – decided to be rid of her. In
1536 he had Anne arrested on false charges of adultery. The Archbishop of
Canterbury bowed to the king’s will by declaring that Henry’s marriage to Anne
had never been valid.
Like her half-sister Mary, two-year-old Elizabeth was now
considered illegitimate. Anne was executed, and two weeks later the king married
In 1537 Queen Jane died after giving birth to a son, Edward. Elizabeth and Mary
participated in his christening ceremony.
As Edward grew older, he and Elizabeth
became close; although they lived in separate households, they wrote to each other
When Elizabeth was four, Katherine Champernowne became her governess. The
well-educated Champernowne – known as Kat Ashley after her marriage in 1545 –
began teaching Elizabeth astronomy, geography, history, math, French, Flemish,
Italian, Spanish, and other subjects. Elizabeth was an excellent student.
Roger Ascham later wrote, “She talks French and Italian as well as she does
English. When she writes Greek and Latin, nothing is more beautiful than her
In 1540 Elizabeth’s father married Anne of Cleves. Repelled by what he perceived as
his bride’s ugliness, Henry quickly had the marriage annulled and instead married
Anne Boleyn’s first cousin Katherine Howard.
Katherine was very young – about
fifteen – and something of a featherbrain, but she was kind to Elizabeth, who was
surely appalled when, in a repetition of the past, the queen was arrested and
charged with adultery. This time the charges were true. Queen Katherine was
beheaded in 1542, when Elizabeth was seven years old.
Katherine Howard’s violent death seems to have had a lasting impact on Elizabeth.
At the age of eight she met one of Prince Edward’s classmates, Robert Dudley, and
told him of an important decision she had made. “I will never marry,” she said. It
was a decision that would shape her life.
In 1543 Elizabeth gained yet another stepmother when Henry married his sixth and
final wife, Katherine Parr.
Four years later Henry VIII died, leaving his crown to
Edward. According to Henry’s will, if Edward died without heirs he would be
succeeded by Mary. If Mary died without heirs, Elizabeth would become queen.
Soon after Henry’s death, Elizabeth received a marriage proposal from handsome
Thomas Seymour, who was England’s Lord Admiral and the brother of the late
Knowing that Seymour was simply seeking the power that marriage to
the king’s sister could bring him, Elizabeth turned him down. So Seymour proposed
to the widowed Queen Katherine, who had been in love with him before her
marriage to Henry VIII. Unaware of Seymour’s previous proposal to her
stepdaughter, Katherine happily accepted. They were quickly married, and the
following year Elizabeth went to live with them at the royal Old Manor House in
Thomas Seymour still had designs on pretty red-haired Elizabeth. He took to
visiting her bedroom in the morning before she was dressed. During these visits he
sometimes tickled her or slapped her bottom; once he tried to kiss her. Elizabeth
giggled and seemed to enjoy his attention, but Kat Ashley was disturbed by the
Lord Admiral’s behavior, and the servants began to gossip.
Queen Katherine was
aware of what was going on, but saw it all as innocent romping. Once she even
joined in the “joke,” holding Elizabeth in the garden while her husband cut off
Hoping to further deceive his wife, Seymour told her that he had seen Elizabeth
with her arms around a man’s