In the 15th century, England had been wracked by succession disputes: the House of York and the House of Lancaster were battling for the throne, and England suffered under a bloody thirty-year period of civil war called the Wars of the Roses (1455–1485). When the dust finally settled, the Tudor family emerged as the rulers of England. It was partly the memory of the horrors of disputed succession that caused King Henry VIII, a Tudor, to care so obsessively about producing a male heir; famously, he went through six wives and only Jane Seymour (his third) produced a male child. However, the male heir died young, and in 1558 the 25-year-old Elizabeth (later Elizabeth I, or Elizabeth the Great) was the last of his children still alive. The whole nation feared the consequences were she to die, for succession would again be disputed. Both Mary Queen of Scots and the Plantagenet family stood openly ready to seize the throne in Elizabeth's absence; should Elizabeth die or prove a weak ruler, civil war seemed again inevitable.

Much of the political conflict and complexity of the Elizabethan era derived from the religious struggles of the time, which took the form of the Reformation and the Counter-Reformation. Europe was split in a war between Catholic countries and Protestant countries: the Catholic side included Spain and Italy and most of France, while the Protestant opposition included many of the German states of the Holy Roman Empire, as well as the Netherlands, embroiled in a bloody battle for independence with its Spanish Hapsburg overlords. Henry VIII had founded a Church of England during his reign, but England remained divided between Catholics and Protestants. The two sides were nearly even in strength, with the Protestants having a slight advantage. Thus, while all politics are characterized by intrigue and factionalism, the Catholic-Protestant conflict made Elizabethan politics particularly intense. Zealous Catholics considered the battle against Protestants to be a battle against heresy, a holy war; a series of popes encouraged Elizabeth's assassination or overthrow.

When Elizabeth came to the throne in the midst of this strife, it seemed that England was in for some trouble. Not only was she a woman in a time when women were considered inferior; but she was also a mere youth of 25 and lacked siblings who could step in for her were she to fail in her task. Yet contrary to the expectations of many, Elizabeth reigned for half a century, proving one of England's strongest rulers ever. She greatly contributed to the tradition of stability in English government, and served as an icon for later English nationalism. She inspired an age of prosperity economically, providing a materially well-off society that could turn its attention to art and culture; Elizabethan England produced some of the world's greatest literature, including that of Shakespeare.

Elizabeth served England amazingly well in all but one respect. Since Elizabeth (the "Virgin Queen") never married, she left behind no Tudor heir. As a result, James I, a Stuart, gained the throne at her death. However, the Stuarts were Catholic and strong believers in absolutist divine monarchy; in the mid- 17th century they were thus overthrown; Parliament executed Charles I, now king, and established the Commonwealth under Oliver Cromwell.

Elizabeth, a sixteenth-century ruler of immense intelligence, ability, and success, was perhaps one of the most powerful women of all time. While she could be crafty and Machiavellian (she called herself a great "Prince") when it came to foreign affairs and matters of national security, she was also a compassionate Queen who cared first and foremost for the welfare of her people. She also displayed her power in her personal life, playing by her own rules in matters of love: although she never married, and thus never conceded any power to a husband, it seems almost certain that Elizabeth did not merit the title "Virgin Queen." As a sexually liberated, powerful, yet still compassionate woman, Elizabeth the Great was a feminist long before the concept of feminism even existed.

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