Americans tend to have this idea about England, where the country seems to preternaturally have its act together, however, not many Yanks know that at one time, The Great Empire once existed in a state of near chaos.
Queen Elizabeth I of England (1533-1603) was the second daughter of the notorious King Henry the VIII, the chap who had a penchant for food and executing his wives, and the only child of Anne Boleyn, the King’s second wife who had her head lobbed off when Elizabeth was but a toddler.
Tons of intrigue and no small amount of scandal later, Elizabeth ascended to the throne at the age of twenty-five. She inherited a country with a warring feudal system, a slew of relatives who would possibly like to see her dead, a state of enmity with the Catholic Church that definitely wanted to see her dead, poor relations with neighboring countries, and empty coffers (i.e. England was close to being broke if it wasn’t already). The country, quite simply, was a mess.
Enter Elizabeth, young, beautiful, female, single. We all the know the story: the young queen must marry appropriately, secure a male child, which in turn secures the line of ascension, and preferably said marriage should be with either a Spaniard or a Frenchman so at least one of those countries would be off England’s back.
However, Good Queen Bess wasn’t having it. Whether it was the sterling example of her father, the rumored romance with a certain Lord Robert Dudley, the rumors of her being a man, or whatever, Elizabeth married herself to England and blazed forth what would be known as England’s Golden Age.
And the Golden Age really came about because QBI was exceptionally good at threat management and maintaining stability. Forces within France and Spain saw England as weak while forces within her country saw her as weak. Ireland and the Catholic Church quite simply saw the queen as a threat to salvation and agreed she had to go. The task at hand, holding England together, was a lot like juggling and Elizabeth certainly had a lot of balls in the air. She wielded the very idea of marriage like a tool of both domestic and foreign policy. She brought some semblance of organization to the Anglican church by firmly aligning it to the Protestantism. And she certainly kept close tabs on her foes through her excellent appointment of advisers.
Elizabeth’s inner circle helped her manage both domestic threats and threats from abroad. William Cecil, Baron of Burghley ran a tight financial ship and was responsible for bringing Sir Frances Walsingham, the father of modern-day intelligence practices, to the queen’s court.
With Walsingham in place, the queen was able to acquire the necessary domestic and foreign intelligence for decision-making. Walsingham infiltrated the Spanish military, secured the evidence for the execution of Elizabeth’s greatest rival, Mary Queen of Scots, and foiled any number of plots instituted by nasties within the realm.
All the while, Elizabeth and Walsingham had quite a contentious relationship. He was plain-spoken to the point of being blunt, a literal man of action, and while she had her hide to protect, Walsingham on more than one occasion offended her royal sensibilities. But he did his job and did it well. It’s very hard to dislike a man who saves your neck day-in to day-out.
All this risk management allowed the queen to enjoy nearly a half-century on the throne. Quite a feat considering that at the end, Elizabeth died an unmarried woman, England’s future secured and a smooth transition of power to King James VI.
George Washington often stands out as the historical figure who best managed the spy trade, but he certainly never had to deal with the level of difficulty, treachery, nor had as many enemies painting targets on his back as Elizabeth had. Under close scrutiny, Elizabeth’s reign was not a rousing success, but in an era where it was exceptionally easy to die on the throne, managing to keep your enemies at bay for 45 years certainly says something about a dame’s, pardon me, queen’s acumen.