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Elizabeth, Queen Of England
If the question respecting the equality of the sexes was to be determined by an appeal to the characters of sovereign princes, the comparison is, in proportion, manifestly in favor of woman, and that without having recourse to the trite and flippant observation, proved to have been ill-founded, of male and female influence. Elizabeth of England affords a glorious example in truth of this position.
Elizabeth defied by Mary Stuart.
In July, 1553, Mary, after the death of Edward, succeeded to the throne; and having received from her sister many favors and testimonies of esteem, she treated her at first with a form of regard; but Elizabeth was afterward imprisoned and harshly treated, even to the hazard of her life. Her sufferings were, however, mitigated by the interposition of Philip, the husband of Mary, for which she was ever grateful.
The reign, the bigotry, and the butchery of Mary, who, to do God service, amused herself by burning and torturing her people, lasted five years and four months. She died, fortunately for the nation, November 17, 1558. A parliament had been assembled a few days previous to her death, to which the chancellor notified the event. "God save Queen Elizabeth," resounded in joyful acclamations through both houses, while by the people a transport still more general and fervent was expressed.
The commencement of her reign was not less auspicious than its duration was prosperous to the country and glorious to herself. It is observed by Bayle that to say only that no woman reigned with more glory would be saying little. "It must be added that there have been but few great kings whose reigns are comparable to hers, it being the most beautiful period of English history."
Elizabeth when informed of the death of her sister, was at Hatfield, whence, after a few days, she proceeded to London, through crowds of people, who contended with each other in testimonies of joy and attachment. On entering the Tower she was affected with the comparison of her past and present situation; once a captive, exposed to the bigotry and malignity of her enemies, now a sovereign, triumphant over her adversaries, and the hope and joy of the nation. Falling on her knees she expressed her gratitude to heaven for the deliverance she had experienced from her persecutors, a deliverance, she declared, not less miraculous than that of Daniel from the den of lions. With a magnanimity that did her honor, and a prudence that evinced her judgment, she threw a veil over every offence that had been committed against her, and received graciously and with affability the most virulent of her enemies.
On the death of her sister, Elizabeth had, by her ambassador, signified her accession to the Pope, whose precipitate temper, insolent reflections, and extravagant demands, determined her to persevere in the plan she had already secretly embraced. While, to conciliate the Catholics she retained in her cabinet eleven of her sister's counsellors, she took care to balance their power by adding to their number eight partisans of the Protestant faith; among whom were Sir Nicholas Bacon, whom she created lord keeper, and Sir William Cecil, made Secretary of State.
Cecil assured her that the greater part of the nation, since the reign of her father, inclined to the reformation, though constrained to conceal their principles by the cruelties practised under the late reign. These arguments, to which other considerations and reasonings were added, founded on policy and on a knowledge of mankind, had their just weight with Elizabeth, and determined her to adopt the party which education and political wisdom equally inclined to her favor. Yet she wisely resolved to proceed gradually by safe and progressive steps. As symptoms of her future intentions, and with a view of encouraging the Protestants, whom persecution had discouraged and depressed, she recalled all the exiles, and gave liberty to those who had, on account of their religion, been confined in prison. She also altered the religious service, and gave orders that the Lord's prayer, the litany, the creed, and the gospels, should be read in the churches in the vulgar tongue; and she forbade the elevation of the host in her presence.
The bishops, foreseeing in these measures the impending change, refused to officiate at her coronation; and it was not without difficulty that the Bishop of Carlisle was at length prevailed upon to perform the ceremony. Amid the joyful acclamations of her subjects, as she was conducted through London, a boy, personating Truth, let down from a triumphal arch, presented to her a copy of the Bible. She received the present graciously, placed it near her heart, and declared that of all the costly testimonies of attachment given to her that day by the city, this was the most precious and acceptable. Elizabeth insinuated herself into the affections of the people by the most laudable art; frank in her address, and on all public occasions affable, conciliating, and easy of access, she appeared delighted with the concourse that crowded around her; entered, without forgetting her dignity, into the pleasures and amusements of her subjects, and acquired a popularity unknown to her predecessors. Her youth, her graces, her prudence, her fortitude, and her talents, attracted the admiration of one sex and afforded to the other a subject of pride and triumph. Individuals were captivated by her complacency, the public won by her services, while her authority, chastened by religion and law, appeared to be derived from its legitimate source, the choice and affections of the people.
The Commons entreated her, with all humility, that she would make choice of a husband to share with her the weight of government, a request which they hoped, from her sex and age, would not be displeasing or offensive. To this Elizabeth replied, that as their application was expressed in general terms, merely recommending marriage, without pretending to direct her choice, she could not be offended or regard their wishes otherwise than as a new instance of their attachment toward her; but that any farther interposition respecting this subject, on their part, it would ill become them as subjects to make, or her, as an independent princess, to endure. England was the husband which she had betrothed to her; Englishmen were her children; while employed in rearing and governing such a family, she could not deem herself sterile or her life useless. She desired, for her own part, no higher character, nor fairer remembrance of her to be transmitted to posterity, than to have this inscription, when she should pay the debt of nature, engraven on her tomb: "Here lies Queen Elizabeth, who lived and died a maiden queen."
Misfortune threw the Queen of Scots into the power of Elizabeth, and she was denied those services to which the unfortunate are entitled. Driven beyond endurance, she openly and bitterly defied her more fortunate rival, who viewed her with jealousy as heir to the crown, and was fearful that her beauty and influence might supplant her own popularity. Mary was kept in prison eighteen years and then executed on the scaffold. This transaction will ever remain a foul blot on the character of Elizabeth.
Neither the cares of government nor the infirmities of approaching age weaned her from the love of letters, which at every interval of leisure were her great delight. When nearly sixty years of age, in 1592, she made a second visit to Oxford, where, having been entertained with orations, disputations, etc., she pronounced on her departure, a Latin oration to the vice-chancellors and doctors, when she took her last farewell of the university. In the ensuing year she translated from Latin into English, Boethius's "De Consolatione Philosophae." In 1598, when the disturbances in Ireland occupied a considerable share of her attention, she translated Sallust's "De bello Jugurthino," also the greater part of Horace's "De Arte Poetica," and Plutarch's book, "De Curiositate," all of which were written in her own hand.
But Elizabeth no longer took an interest in public concerns; her sun was setting, overshadowed by a dark cloud. Prosperity and glory palled upon her sense; an incurable melancholy had fixed itself on her heart. The anxiety of her mind made swift ravages upon her feeble frame; the period of her life visibly approached. The Archbishop of Canterbury advised her to fix her thoughts on God. She did so, she replied, nor did her mind in the least wander from Him. Her voice and her senses soon after failing, she fell into a lethargic slumber, which having continued some hours, she expired gently, without a struggle, March 24, 1603, in the seventieth year of her age and the forty-fifth of her reign.
The character of Elizabeth appears to have been exalted by her friends and depreciated by her enemies, in nearly equal proportions. As a monarch, her activity and force of mind, her magnanimity, sagacity, prudence, vigilance, and address, have scarcely been surpassed in royal annals, and are worthy of the highest admiration. Pope Sixtus V. spoke of her on all occasions as "a woman with a strong head," and gave her a place among the three persons who only, in his opinion, deserved to reign; the remaining two were himself and Henry IV. of France. "Your queen," said he once to an Englishman, "is born fortunate; she governs her kingdom with great happiness; she wants only to be married to me to give the world a second Alexander."
Her temper and her talents equally fitted her for government. Capable of self-command, and of controlling her own passions, she acquired an unlimited ascendency over those of her people. She possessed courage without temerity; spirit, resource, and activity in war, with the love of peace and tranquillity. Her frugality was exempt from avarice, it was the result rather of her love of independence than a passion for accumulation. She never amassed any treasures. Her friendships were uniform and steady, yet she was never governed by her favorites--a criterion of a strong mind. Her choice in her ministers gave proof of her sagacity, as her constancy in supporting them did of her firmness. If a conduct less rigorous, less imperious, and more indulgent would have thrown greater lustre over her character, let it be remembered that some good qualities appear to be incompatible with others; nor let the seductive and corrupting nature of power be left out in the account. Her insincerity was perhaps the greatest blot in her character and the fruitful source of all the vexatious incidents of her reign. Though unacquainted with philosophical toleration, the only method of disarming the turbulence of religious factions, she yet preserved her people, by her prudence and good sense, from those theological disputes which desolated the neighboring nations.
Beset with enemies, both at home and abroad, among the most powerful princes in Europe, the most enterprising and the least scrupulous, the vigor of her administration enabled her to defeat all their purposes, to annoy and plunder them in their own dominions, and to preserve her own dignity untouched and unimpaired. Few monarchs have succeeded to a throne in more difficult circumstances, nor have any ever reigned with more uniform success and prosperity.
If, as a woman, cut off by the peculiarities of her situation from the sympathies of nature and the charm of equal affections, Elizabeth, at times suffered under these privations, which even gave to her sensibility additional force and acuteness, the strength of her reason still triumphed over her passions, and the struggle which her victories cost her served but to display the firmness of her resolution and the loftiness of her mind.
The praises which have by some been bestowed upon Elizabeth for her regard for the constitution and tender concern for the liberties of the people, are wholly without foundation. Few princes have exerted with more arbitrary power the regal prerogatives which had been transmitted to her by her immediate predecessors; yet no censure belongs to her for this conduct, in the principles of which she had been trained and of the justice of which she was persuaded. What potentate, what man, has voluntarily resigned the power in which those beneath him quietly acquiesced? Compared with the reigns of her father and sister, that of Elizabeth might be termed a golden age.
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