Faction in the reign of Elizabeth I

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Faction in the reign of Elizabeth I

Will Saunders

History Today, March 2004

Will Saunders examines the diverse and changing interpretations of the Queen's relations with her Councillors.

In his television series on the reign of Elizabeth I, David Starkey described the Queen as 'a bright star who dazzled both the nation and the world'. He then went on to claim that, whereas most stars fade in time, Elizabeth's luminescence 'has lasted for nearly four centuries'. It is easy to see why such a claim can be made. In the autumn of 2002 Elizabeth I was voted one of the ten greatest Britons of all time; the only monarch to feature in that list. She is still popularly perceived as a strong leader whose church settlement brought religious divisions to an end and whose foreign policy defeated the Spanish Armada, whilst allowing Francis Drake and the other maritime adventurers to sow the seeds of the British Empire.

However, whilst Elizabeth's reputation seems secure in the minds of the public, many academics have been rather more critical of the self-styled 'Gloriana'. In fact, some have argued that Elizabeth only had a tenuous grip on power through her reign and highlight the role of her Councillors in shaping the policies she is remembered for. The concept of faction has been particularly debated by successive generations of historians with regard to Elizabeth, and opinions have ranged from dismissing the whole validity of the term to arguing that Elizabeth was overwhelmed by faction-fighting at key points in her reign, with dangerous repercussions for the stability of the kingdom.

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