Queen Elizabeth I — the First English Monarch of the American Colonies

September 7, 1533–March 24, 1603

Queen Elizabeth I was one of the most famous monarchs of England. She played an important role in the development of Colonial America by supporting Sir Walter Raleigh’s expeditions, which led to the founding of the Roanoke Island Colony, the first English settlement in North America.

Queen Elizabeth I, Portrait, Gower

This portrait of Queen Elizabeth I is attributed to George Gower. Image Source: Wikimedia.

Queen Elizabeth I and Her Connections to Colonial America

Queen Elizabeth I of England was the first English monarch to have a significant influence on the development of Colonial America.

  1. Sir Walter Raleigh named the territory along the East Coast of North America “Virginia” in honor of Elizabeth.
  2. The first English colony, Roanoke Island, was established during her reign.
  3. Virginia Dare, the first English baby born in America, was born on Roanoke Island.
  4. The defeat of the Spanish Armada during her reign led England to look to expand its mercantile policies and look at adding colonies to its empire.

A Protestant Empire

Queen Elizabeth I transformed England into a Protestant nation in 1559. Because of this, any colonies that were founded also had to enforce the rules of the Church of England.

Mercantile System Policies

In 1563,  Elizabeth I instituted the Statute of Artificers, which limited the number of apprentices a mill could have, regardless of where the mill was located. Although the law was not strongly enforced, it was a stepping-stone toward the establishment of Mercantilism in England and its empire, including all colonies.

Beginning of the Transatlantic Slave Trade and Triangular Trade

In 1562, an English sea captain, John Hawkins, captured and traded for captive Africans along the coast of Africa, and sailed to the Caribbean, where he traded them for pearls, animal hides, and sugar (see Transatlantic Slave Trade). The expedition was so lucrative that a coat of arms was designed for him, which included a crude drawing of an enslaved African. The first trip is considered by some to be the first implement and profit from the Triangular Trade Route.

Newfoundland

Newfoundland was first explored by John Cabot in 1497. In 1583, Sir Humphrey Gilbert claimed it for England in the name of Queen Elizabeth I.

Letters Patent for Sir Walter Raleigh

On March 25, 1584, Queen Elizabeth I granted “Letters Patent” — written permission — to Sir Walter Raleigh to establish a colony in the New World. Raleigh was permitted to establish a settlement on any land that was “not actually possessed of any Christian Prince or inhabited by Christian People.”

Sir Walter Raleigh, Portrait, 1590
Sir Walter Raleigh. Image Source: Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.

England’s First Colony in America

Raleigh organized several expeditions that attempted to establish a colony on Roanoke Island, off the coast of what became the Province of North Carolina. Colonists, led by John White, sailed to Roanoke Island in 1586 and established the first English settlement in North America. Virginia Dare was the first English child born in America. White returned to England in 1587 for supplies and his return was delayed by England’s war with Spain. 

Defeat of the Spanish Armada

in 1588, King Philip II of Spain sent the Spanish Armada to invade England and overthrow Queen Elizabeth I. The Armada was defeated by the English navy in a series of battles, most notably the Battle of Gravelines. The victory of the English navy marked a turning point in European naval warfare and solidified England’s position as a major naval power while weakening Spain’s dominance. In the wake of the Armada’s defeat, England became determined to establish colonies in the New World as part of its Mercantile System.

The Lost Colony of Roanoke Island

The presence of the Spanish Armada delayed White’s return to Roanoke Island. By the time he arrived in 1590, the settlement was abandoned and the colonists had disappeared.

Namesake of Virginia

During Raleigh’s expeditions, he mapped the East Coast of North America and called the region “Virginia.” It was named for Elizabeth, who was known as the “Virgin Queen” because she never married.

The Early Life of Queen Elizabeth I

Daughter of King Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn

  • Queen Elizabeth I was born on September 7, 1533.
  • She was the only child of King Henry VIII of England and Anne Boleyn.
  • Anne Boleyn’s pregnancy led to Henry VIII’s break with the Catholic Church.
  • Elizabeth’s birth as a second daughter disappointed Henry VIII.
  • Her early life was marked by turmoil due to her mother’s execution for adultery.
  • Henry VIII disinherited Elizabeth as a bastard but later restored her to the succession.

Protestant Education

  • Queen Elizabeth I received an education from Renaissance scholars and was raised as a Protestant.
  • Elizabeth faced precarious situations under the reigns of her siblings and was considered a political marriage prize.

Thomas Seymour

  • Thomas Seymour, who sought to marry her, was executed for treason.

Wyatt’s Rebellion

  • Wyatt’s Rebellion was an unsuccessful uprising in England in 1554 led by four men, one of whom was Sir Thomas Wyatt.
  • It was given its name by the attorney at Wyatt’s trial, who stated for the record that “this shall be ever called Wyat’s Rebellion.”
  •  The rebellion was caused by concerns over Queen Mary I’s determination to marry a foreigner, Philip II, Prince of Spain, and to return England to the Church of Rome and papal authority.
  • Princess Elizabeth was accused of being involved and was imprisoned in the Tower of London until May 1554. After being released, she was kept under house arrest for another year.

The Early Reign of Queen Elizabeth I

Elizabeth Becomes Queen in November 1558

  • Elizabeth I became Queen on November 17, 1558.
  • Queen Mary I died on November 17, 1558.
  • Elizabeth inherited religious and financial troubles in England.

Early Support from King Philip II of Spain

  • Queen Elizabeth I was not recognized by many European monarchs did not recognize as the legitimate heir to the English throne.
  • Philip II of Spain supported Elizabeth and helped prevent Mary Stuart of Scotland, Elizabeth’s cousin, from replacing her. The French preferred Mary Stuart.
  • Over time, the relationship between Philip and Elizabeth deteriorated, and Philip sought to change England back to a Catholic nation.

Foreign Policy

  • Queen Elizabeth I utilized herself as a diplomatic asset by entertaining marriage proposals from European rulers.
  • Elizabeth balanced England’s position between France and the Hapsburgs of Spain and Austria.
  • Elizabeth wanted a stable, peaceful England with a strong government that was free from the influence of foreign powers in matters of both church and state.

Domestic Policy

  • Skilled advisors like Sir William Cecil and Sir Francis Walsingham played a crucial role in her government.
  • The British intelligence service was established under her rule.
  • Elizabeth creatively financed her court through medieval and royal prerogatives.

Religion Was a Critical Choice for Queen Elizabeth I

  • Under Queen Mary I, England was a Catholic nation.
  • Having been educated as a Protestant, Elizabeth looked to create a religious agreement that minimized confrontation between Catholics and Protestants — both in England and on the Continent.
  • If Elizabeth kept England as a Catholic nation, she would surrender some of her political power to Rome and ally England with other Catholic states, such as France and Spain.
  • If Elizabeth transitioned England to a Protestant nation, she would align with the Dutch, England’s most important trade partner. However, it would put England at odds with Spain, the world’s most powerful nation. Further, English Catholics would be subject to violence and persecution.

The Elizabethan Settlement

  • In May 1559, Parliament enhanced the Act of Supremacy and the Act of Uniformity, which were approved by Queen Elizabeth. 
  • Together they are known as the “Elizabethan Settlement,” which established her vision of Protestantism for the Church of England.

Act of Supremacy (1559)

  • Queen Elizabeth I was defined as the Supreme Governor of the Church of England, instead of the Supreme Head, as Henry VIII had been.
  • The change was made because some members of Parliament did not feel a woman should be recognized as head of the church, but the title of governor was acceptable.
  • Papal authority over England was abolished.

Act of Uniformity (1559)

  • The Act of Uniformity was the foundation of the Elizabethan church
  • It restored the 1552 version of the Book of Common Prayer and allowed for two versions of communion — one Catholic and one Protestant.

The Royal Injunctions

  • Elizabeth issued the Royal Injunctions to enforce the Elizabethan Settlement.
  • The injunctions were a set of instructions to the clergy. 
  • They included instructions on how people should worship God and how religious services were to be conducted. 
  • The clergy was instructed to follow the Book of Common Prayer.
  • The Book of Common Prayer was used by churches during Anglican Communion. It was first authorized for use in the Church of England in 1549 and was revised several times, including in 1552.

Queen Elizabeth I and the Exploration of Colonial America

  • Queen Elizabeth I encouraged privately funded voyages of exploration and discovery.
  • She supported voyages by famous figures like Sir Francis Drake and Sir Walter Raleigh under the pseudonym “Bess Tudor.”
  • Dr. John Dee, her astrologer and occultist, constructed a justification for English claims in the New World based on various historical narratives and legends, including those of King Arthur.
  • Sir William Gilbert and Sir Walter Raleigh’s attempts at colonization were part of these exploration efforts.
  • Martin Frobisher ventured into the northern Atlantic searching for an Arctic passage to Asia — the legendary Northwest Passage.
  • Private companies trading with Muscovy and the Levant brought wealth to English businessmen.
  • Privately funded armed merchantmen acted as a de facto navy, operating under letters of marque against Spain and France as privateers. They were known as the “Sea Dogs,” and included Sir Walter Raleigh, Sir Francis Drake, and John Hawkins.
Sir Francis Drake, Portrait, Gheeraerts
Sir Francis Drake. Image Source: Wikipedia.

Tension with King Philip II and Pope Pius V

  • Foreign affairs, including the Dutch revolt against Spanish rule in 1572, Scottish Presbyterians taking power (Scottish Reformation), and religious conflicts in France, forced England into costly and long-term campaigns to compete with the Catholic powers on the continent.
  • In February 1570, Elizabeth I was declared to be a heretic by Pope Pius V when he issued a Papal Bull, excommunicating her from the church.
  • The order released Catholics from loyalty to Elizabeth and called upon them to remove her from the throne, leading to assassination plots against the queen, which were encouraged by King Philip II of Spain.
  • English support for the rebels fighting the Spanish in the Low Countries created tension with King Philip II of Spain.

Tension with Puritans

  • Queen Elizabeth I showed tolerance for religion, however, it still led to disputes with both Catholics and Protestants.
  • Threats to Elizabeth I’s throne posed a danger to her policy of religious tolerance.
  • Protestant religious dissenters — early Puritans and Separatists — demanded recognition from Elizabeth’s government, putting pressure on her religious policies.

Tension with Ireland

  • Queen Elizabeth I was committed to the colonization of Northern Ireland by English settlers.
  • This led to the Anglicization of Ireland as a colony, sparking centuries of conflict between the Church of England colonists and Catholic landowners, starting in the 1580s.

Execution of Mary, Queen of Scots

  • Mary Stuart of Scotland was a devout Roman Catholic who wanted to restore Catholicism as the national religion in England.
  • After a failed assassination plot, Mary was implicated and executed for her involvement.
  • Mary’s son became James I of England and VI of Scotland.

Defeat of the Spanish Armada

  • After the execution of Mary Stuart, King Philip II looked to avenge her death.
  • He launched the Spanish Armada against England.
  • Despite having almost no standing army, England prepared for invasion and ultimately prevailed due to a combination of luck, including a devastating storm that scattered the Armada, and the skill of the queen’s privateer captains, who defeated the remaining vessels.
Defeat of the Spanish Armada, Painting, Loutherbourg
This painting by Philip James de Loutherbourg depicts the defeat of the Spanish Armada. Image Source: Wikipedia.

Queen Elizabeth I — Her Reputation in England

  • Queen Elizabeth I was held in high regard in England and viewed as the rightful ruler of the Atlantic.
  • Elizabeth was often referred to as “Gloriana.”
  • Artists and writers such as Sir Philip Sidney and William Shakespeare contributed to this image.

Queen Elizabeth I — Legacy and Succession

  • As Elizabeth I aged with no heir and economic challenges emerged at the turn of the century, ambitious courtiers plotted for the succession.
  • Elizabeth I passed away at Richmond Palace on March 23, 1603.
  • Her reign had established England as a confident, Protestant, and seafaring nation.
  • She was succeeded by Mary Stuart’s son, James VI of Scotland, who was crowned James I of England.

Queen Elizabeth I APUSH Review

Use the following links and videos to study Queen Elizabeth I, the Roanoke Island Colony, and the Colonial Era for the AP US History Exam. Also, be sure to look at our Guide to the AP US History Exam.

Queen Elizabeth I APUSH Definition

Queen Elizabeth I, also known as the Virgin Queen, ruled England from 1558 until she died in 1603. Her reign is often referred to as the Elizabethan Era, a period marked by the English Renaissance, North American exploration, and relative stability. Elizabeth I navigated religious conflicts, including the Protestant Reformation, and escaped threats to her throne, such as the Spanish Armada. She approved and sponsored Sir Walter Raleigh’s expeditions that led to the founding of the Roanoke Island Colony, the first English colony in America.

Queen Elizabeth I APUSH Video

This video from Captivating History discusses the life and reign of Queen Elizabeth I and touches on her Privateers attacking Spanish ships in the seas of the coast of America.

NOTE: This is not a comprehensive biography of the life and reign of Queen Elizabeth I of England. It is intended to provide an overview of her association with the 13 Original Colonies in America and to provide a glimpse at other key moments in her life.

Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations.

  • Article Title Queen Elizabeth I — the First English Monarch of the American Colonies
  • Date September 7, 1533–March 24, 1603
  • Author
  • Keywords Queen Elizabeth I, King Henry VIII, Anne Boleyn, Elizabethan Settlement, Sir Walter Raleigh, Roanoke Island
  • Website Name American History Central
  • Access Date February 27, 2024
  • Publisher R.Squared Communications, LLC
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update February 8, 2024

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