In 1558 the British Empire was powerful, but England itself was a complete mess.
It had been ruled by a woman for the first time since the monarchy was established. That woman, Mary I, has come to be nicknamed “Bloody Mary”, unfortunately not because she just lovedd Vodka in her tomato juice, but for the death and bloodshed which took place during her reign.
As a Catholic her hope was to convert England to a Catholic state, which she did by removing (read: killing) protestants.
The religious battles of that time bare no reflection on the faiths themselves, but it’s important context for the country Elizabeth was to inherit. One which was essentially at Civil war and if anyone needed proof that women weren’t capable of ruling a country, Mary provided it.
As the daughter of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, the wife he beheaded on charges of adultery and incest, Elizabeth also came from scandal. Her father definitely wouldn’t have chosen her to rule, I mean, she was a woman! Made of emotions and candy floss. Nevertheless, as the only protestant with a blood claim strong enough to the throne, Elizabeth took over from her cousin in 1558 for a reign which would last 44 years.
Her first public presentation was her Coronation, and it was an event that would set the tone for the rest of her time on the throne.
Whatever the thousands of English people expected when they lined the streets to see their new Queen, they were overjoyed by what they encountered. What they saw was a powerful combination of grandeur and compassion. Decadent presentation, softened by humanity.
The grandeur was to be expected. Covered in fur, jewels and pearls, she certainly looked like a leader.
The compassion though, now this was new. Whereas previous rulers had borne these appearances with a level of removal, detachment, almost distaste for their public, Elizabeth embraced them. She looked into the eyes of her people and opened herself out.
According to one account she was handed a withered branch from an elderly woman in the crowd which she opted to clutch close to her and keep for the rest of the day.
She showed she cared about the people she would be leading, and they felt it.
Not all great leaders operate in this way but understanding the innate human need to feel seen was fundamental to Elizabeth’s ability to gain trust and followship from her country.
Whereas Mary got ‘Bloody Mary’, Elizabeth’s nickname was ‘The Virgin Queen’ because despite much pressure and expectation, Elizabeth I never married.
When she took the throne, whilst her blood claim was strong, general opinion was that the only way for her to remain in that role was by marrying. Advisors and courtiers felt strongly that a woman couldn’t be expected to maintain control of England without the guidance of a husband. Elizabeth knew otherwise.
She knew any marriage could bring about two things. 1) Distraction from her management duty 2) A relenting of her actual power to her husband.
Because of this, she found ways to avoid marriage continually. She was known to entertain suggestions of smart political matches and certain power plays, but would find a way to duck out of the partnerships before they were settled.
It is widely believed that Elizabeth was in love with Robert Dudley; a childhood friend who she remained close to for the duration of both their lives. Letters and rumours suggest that she considered marrying him often, the only one she truly considered, however some of her close advisors opposed the match. Perhaps one of the Queen’s greatest emotional battles was in choosing the leadership of her country over her heart.
Elizabeth knew her own mind and she knew what was at stake. As a leader she prioritised and her duty to her country came first. Whilst most of us can thankfully keep our personal decisions separate from our choices in management, we can all learn from how seriously Elizabeth took her responsibilities. Her focus wasn’t simply on parties, power or prestige, but on being a good leader. Being a leader that cared.
As a woman, I also find lessons in the way she brought ‘feminine’ characteristics, such as consideration and warmth to her reign, balancing the courage and strength that was seen as mandatory. In 1559 at 25 she knew a lot about great leadership.