When King Henry VIII ordered the arrest of Anne Boleyn in May 1536, he set in motion a chain of events that led their daughter Elizabeth to the throne. During her 45-year reign, Elizabeth restored peace and prosperity and placed Britain at the head of European powers.
King Henry VIII was a temperamental womanizer.
In the Spring of 1536, he wanted to end his marriage to Anne Boleyn and marry Jane Seymour.
Henry’s solution was to sever the Church of England’s ties with Rome and sever Anne Boleyn’s head.
Elizabeth—England’s future queen—was the sole offspring of Henry and Anne, but with the decisions made by her father and Anne’s May 19 death, Elizabeth was a princess one day and a bastard the next.
Her illegitimate position, suspected Protestant faith, and status as a woman made success improbable.
Yet Elizabeth’s lifelong learning, her shrewd decision-making and her steadfast faith—in herself, in her few trusted advisors, and in her country—offer lessons for today’s leaders.
“I may not be a lion,” she said, “but I am a lion’s cub and I have a lion’s heart.”
Elizabeth’s hunger to learn, her formidable intellect, commonsense judgment, and willful mindset presented her with advantages amid her difficulties. She became fluent in Greek, French, Latin, Italian, Spanish, and Welsh. She was adept at needlepoint, played the lute, composed poetry, and was as talented on the dance floor as she was on the back of a horse or hunting in the woods.
“I thank God I am endued with such qualities that if I were turned out of the Realm in my petticoat, I were able to live in any place in Christendom.”
During Elizabeth’s banishment, two rulers—Edward VI, who was incompetent, and Elizabeth’s half-sister Mary, who was ruthless—failed their country as leaders. When Mary died childless on November 17, 1558, Elizabeth was proclaimed Queen of England.
Elizabeth had prepared herself for this unlikely moment. She was twenty-five years old.
“If thy heart fails thee, climb not at all.”
On the eve of the coronation ceremony, Elizabeth’s procession wound through the city amidst great pageantry, fanfare and the wholehearted support of Londoners. She made this pledge to her expectant public:
“I will be as good unto ye as ever a Queen was unto her people. No will in me can lack, neither do I trust shall there lack any power. And persuade yourselves that for the safety and quietness of you all I will not spare if need be to spend my blood.”
Elizabeth ascended to power against a backdrop of religious turmoil, staggering government debt, and threats of invasion from France and Spain.
England was isolated and vulnerable.
Elizabeth was determined to deliver peace and a stable government.
She had survived two brushes with death, experienced the executions of her mother and two of Henry’s other wives, and seen others close to her sent to the gallows and the block. Elizabeth brought a clearheaded sense of reality to the throne. Caution was her watchword, moderation her approach, and subtlety her ally.
“Video et taceo,” Elizabeth would say in Latin: “I see but say nothing.”
Though she kept her own counsel (and kept everyone guessing), Elizabeth relied on a small group of trusted advisers: William Cecil, Thomas Radclyffe, Robert Dudley, and Francis Walsingham. Elizabeth played her cards expertly. She was the queen, and these four men her aces.
“Do not tell secrets to those whose faith and silence you have not already tested.”
Elizabeth’s unwillingness to marry continuously captured the imaginations of other nations’ leaders and thoroughly frustrated her counselors.
Many believed her lack of succession planning placed the Empire at risk. Elizabeth was prepared to accept the distractions the succession question prompted in return for the advantages it brought England with princes and kings competing for her hand in marriage.
“I am already bound unto an husband, which is the kingdom of England.”
She knew what she was doing. Accused by some as indecisive, Elizabeth followed a deliberate strategy of playing for time to ensure peace and stability. When it came to marriage, obfuscation, procrastination, and prevarication were her tools. When it came to encouraging her people, her power of language helped shape Britain’s history.
“I know I have the body of a weak and feeble woman, but I have the heart and stomach of a king, and of a king of England too.”
Elizabeth’s cousin Mary Queen of Scots instigated plots to assassinate Elizabeth. When another assassination attempt on Elizabeth pointed to Mary, Parliament was unanimous in condemning Mary to death. It was an anguishing decision for Elizabeth. It was a decision she could not ignore. Signing Parliament’s warrant would set a precedent for executing a monarch. Failing to act meant Mary posed a continued threat to national security.
On February 3, 1587, Elizabeth signed the warrant. The next day Mary was beheaded.
“To be a king and wear a crown is a thing more glorious to them that see it than it is pleasant to them that bear it.”
When Elizabeth died at age sixty-nine, she had ruled for forty-five years and delivered peace and stability. During the Elizabethan era, England had taken its place at the head of European powers.
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Business schools teach case studies. Hollywood blockbusters are inspired by true events.
Exceptional leaders are students of history. Decision-making comes with the territory.