For­mer Con­ser­va­tive party leader Michael Howard chooses

BBC History Magazine - - Contents - Michael Howard was leader of the Con­ser­va­tive party from 2003– 05 and home sec­re­tary from 1993–97. He now sits in the House of Lords and is chair of the char­ity Hospice UK

Michael Howard chooses El­iz­a­beth I

“More than any other per­son, El­iz­a­beth is re­spon­si­ble for the Eng­land we know to­day. She was a very strong, de­ter­mined leader”


E liz­a­beth I was queen of Eng­land from 1558 un­til her death. The daugh­ter of Henry VIII and Anne Bo­leyn, the child­less Vir­gin Queen was the last of the Tu­dors. One of her first acts as queen was the es­tab­lish­ment of an English Protes­tant church. She also had Mary, Queen of Scots im­pris­oned and ex­e­cuted. In 1570 the pope ex­com­mu­ni­cated her, a re­flec­tion of the re­li­gious ten­sions of the era.

When did you first hear about El­iz­a­beth I?

At my Welsh gram­mar school, where I stud­ied the El­iz­a­bethan era. She re­ally stood out for me as an individual, some­one who helped shape the course of his­tory. How could any school­child, then or now, fail to be ex­cited by the dra­matic events of her reign, cul­mi­nat­ing in the de­feat of the Span­ish Ar­mada? I think it’s as im­por­tant to­day as it was in my youth to study this pe­riod of his­tory at school. But to my in­tense cha­grin, I only got Bs in my his­tory ‘O’ and ‘A’ lev­els!

What kind of per­son was she?

A truly re­mark­able woman, given the fact that she was liv­ing in a man’s world – and I think more than any other per­son, El­iz­a­beth is re­spon­si­ble for the Eng­land we know to­day. She was a very strong, de­ter­mined leader. In­deed, I think peo­ple would have prob­a­bly said she was “a bloody dif­fi­cult woman”! Let’s not for­get that she was also a very in­tel­li­gent per­son, not to men­tion a gifted lin­guist. But she must have been scarred by the fate of her mother, Anne, who was ex­e­cuted when she was aged two.

What made El­iz­a­beth a hero?

She came to the throne at a time of great un­cer­tainty, hav­ing sur­vived a dif­fi­cult child­hood when she her­self came close to be­ing ex­e­cuted. The coun­try had gone through a pe­riod of huge up­heaval: it had been through the enor­mous re­li­gious up­heavals of her fa­ther’s re­nun­ci­a­tion of Rome, her brother’s ex­treme form of Protes­tantism and her sis­ter’s Catholi­cism. So her achieve­ment in find­ing a mid­dle way, bring­ing the coun­try to­gether, and see­ing off France and Spain, which were much more pow­er­ful coun­tries than Eng­land at the time, was ab­so­lutely out­stand­ing. How­ever, she was un­doubt­edly lucky in her ad­vis­ers and in hav­ing naval com­man­ders of Fran­cis Drake’s stature.

What was her finest hour?

The de­feat of the Ar­mada, when El­iz­a­beth went down to Tilbury and gave what is prob­a­bly her most fa­mous speech. She stir­ringly told the mil­i­tary force pre­par­ing to re­pel the ex­pected Span­ish in­va­sion: “I know I have the body of a weak and fee­ble woman, but I have the heart and stom­ach of a king, and a king of Eng­land too.” Won­der­ful stuff. And thank­fully for us, the Span­ish were de­feated.

It’s im­por­tant to re­mem­ber that the course of his­tory would have been very dif­fer­ent if we had been de­feated. It’s an out­come I pre­fer not to even think about.

Is there any­thing you don’t par­tic­u­larly ad­mire about her?

It’s dif­fi­cult to de­fend the ex­e­cu­tion of Mary, Queen of Scots, although we’re told that El­iz­a­beth tried to re­voke her con­sent for it. That said, one has to re­mem­ber that it was a very tough time to be a monarch and her po­si­tion was very in­se­cure. She had to con­stantly worry about threats to her po­si­tion and per­sonal safety.

If you could meet El­iz­a­beth, what would you ask her?

I’d like to ask her whether she re­gret­ted hav­ing never got mar­ried, although I would have to pluck up the courage to do so, as she would prob­a­bly re­gard the ques­tion as a great im­per­ti­nence.

Fi­nally, could Theresa May learn any­thing from El­iz­a­beth?

I never give the prime min­is­ter ad­vice! Michael Howard was talk­ing to York Mem­bery

El­iz­a­beth I, shown in a por­trait com­mem­o­rat­ing vic­tory over the Ar­mada

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