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Elizabeth I of England
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Elizabeth I of England

Elizabeth I, Elizabeth Tudor (September 7, 1533 - March 24, 1603) was Queen of England (reigned November 17, 1558 - March 24, 1603) and the last of the Tudor dynasty. Elizabeth, sometimes called The Virgin Queen or Good Queen Bess, ruled a religiously divided England at the end of the 16th century. In spite of financial hardships and military and policy setbacks during the reign's later years, in general she governed ably during an important and formative period in English history, presiding over the cultural efflorescence of the English Renaissance and the economic expansion of her country with the growth of the wool trade. The period of her reign is now known as the Elizabethan era of British history.

Table of contents
1 Childhood
2 Coronation
3 Politics
4 Succession
5 End of religious toleration
6 War with Spain
7 Death
8 English culture
9 Popularity
10 Elizabethan mythos
11 Attempts at North American colonisation
12 Modern Elizabethan historiography and assessments


Born in the royal Palace of Placentia in Greenwich, London, Elizabeth was the daughter and only surviving child of Henry VIII and his second wife, Anne Boleyn, who was a Protestant. Due to the circumstances of her parents' marriage, Elizabeth was considered by Roman Catholics to be illegitimate. At the time of her birth, she was recognised as the heir to the throne, in preference to her older half-sister, Mary Tudor, who was made to serve in Elizabeth's household. Mary was stripped of her Title, and Elizabeth was created Princess of Wales, in her own right. However, fortunes quickly changed. When Elizabeth was less than three years old, her mother was executed for treason. Just over a year later, a male heir, Edward, was born to Henry VIII and Jane Seymour, the King's third wife, and Elizabeth found herself in much the same position as her sister did upon Elizabeth's birth.

King Henry's later wives all showed kindness to the two princesses. Henry himself always saw to it that she was well looked after, well-educated, and had suitable friends and companions of her own age. Elizabeth was deeply devoted to her father her whole life. Her father's actions had a deep impact on her. She reportedly said when she was a child "I will never marry". She kept this vow her entire life.

Following Henry's death in 1547, Elizabeth was cared for by Henry's last queen, Catherine Parr, and her new husband, Thomas Seymour (brother of Jane Seymour and uncle to the new king, Edward VI of England). Seymour was attracted to the teenage Elizabeth, who may have responded in kind, and he wanted to marry her after Catherine's untimely death. However, Thomas Seymour and later his brother Edward Seymour were executed in a series of power struggles.

Elizabeth received a fine education under the tutelage of various scholars, including the English Renaissance humanist scholar, Roger Ascham, renowned as author of The Schoolmaster. She was taught the classics, history, mathematics, poetry, and languages. Elizabeth could speak and/or write capably in six languages during her reign: her native English, French, Italian, Spanish, Latin, and Greek. She was also taught calligraphy. It was also under the aegis of Queen Catherine Parr, Ascham, and their associates that Elizabeth was raised as a Protestant.

As long as her brother lived, Elizabeth's position was secure. Edward died all too soon, however, in 1553, of either tuberculosis or arsenic poisoning (or congenital syphilis as mentioned elsewhere on this site). After the brief, doomed reign of her cousuin, Lady Jane Grey, Elizabeth's half-sister Mary came to the throne as Mary I. A staunch Catholic, Mary was keen to convert Elizabeth, who for her part was willing to go along with the outward appearance of Catholic worship, though she remained a Protestant at heart. She would attend Catholic mass, but leave, complaining of an ailment. Mary was not deceived, and Elizabeth was briefly confined to the Tower of London. Some believe that here she first encountered the love of her life, Robert Dudley, 1st Earl of Leicester, but most likely she had been his friend since their childhoods.

Elizabeth's life was spared, but Mary's marriage to Philip II of Spain raised the possibility of an heir and perpetuation of Mary's forcible return of England to the Catholic faith which was not shared by the majority of Britons or the aristocracy. When Mary died childless in 1558, however, Elizabeth was the natural successor. She had also been designated as such explicitly by the will of Henry VIII, which the English Parliament faithfully carried out.


Elizabeth I was crowned Queen of England on January 15, 1559 in Westminster Abbey. Her tenure was insecure right from the beginning. The coronation, the date of which was chosen by John Dee as a particularly auspicious one in preventing future misfortune, had to be performed by the Bishop of Carlisle, who was the most senior prelate willing to recognise her as the legitimate heir. Elizabeth was 25 years old when she became Queen of England. The same year she was one of the parties to the Peace of Cateau Cambrésis that ended the Italian Wars.


Elizabeth's forty-five-year reign would be marked by religious tension. England's Anglican Church had been founded upon Henry VIII's break with Rome in the 1530s and its doctrinal foundations codified during Edward VI's brief reign, with publication of the Book of Common Prayer. Elizabeth restored the Church's status following Mary's Catholic interlude. She also reiterated and redefined the monarch's status as Supreme Governor of the Church of England with the Acts of Supremacy and Uniformity, building on earlier acts of the same names, in the first two years of her reign.

Although the queen herself attempted to steer a middle way between extremist beliefs, she was herself unquestionably Protestant, and the persecution of Catholics and others regarded as heretics continued, particularly in Ireland. For much of her reign, she relied on the counsel of the experienced courtier, William Cecil, whom she created Lord Burghley. On his death in 1598, his son, Robert Cecil, became her leading advisor, though inept. Another man who played a major role in the success of her administration was Sir Francis Walsingham, who ran a network of intelligence officers throughout Europe, ensuring that no move against the queen went undetected. It was Walsingham's agents who discovered the Babington plot.


One of the major criticisms of Elizabeth was her failure to provide for the succession. It was taken for granted that she would marry and attempt to produce an heir, and there were many contenders for her hand, including her sister's former husband, Philip of Spain, as well as her favourite, Leicester, who was popularly believed to be her lover. Elizabeth wisely avoided both extremes, and, after a few years, as her hold on the throne was strengthened, it began to seem less likely that she would ever marry or have children. She instead claimed she was "married to England"

She explained her failure to marry, in response to those who asked, by pointing out the position in which she had been placed during the reign of her elder sister. Besides being a target for Mary's jealousy, she had also been made use of by rebels such as Thomas Wyatt the younger. She therefore had concern, with good reason, that the naming of a successor would weaken her rule and offer an incentive to those who wished her dead. Nevertheless, the lack of a legitimate successor also risked civil war if Elizabeth died prematurely, as she nearly did from smallpox in 1562. Elizabeth did on several occasions express a sincere desire to marry and have an heir, yet a Catholic husband was a doubtful prospect for obvious reasons, and potential Protestant consorts - like Leicester - were opposed by so many in the faction-laden Court that open conflict was a hazard no matter whom Elizabeth selected. No matter what her personal proclivities, her political circumstances all but precluded a dynastic marriage.

There were several possible successors, and Elizabeth did not particularly care for any of them. Her cousin, Mary I of Scotland, was a Catholic, but remained the most likely candidate to succeed her until, and even for a while after, Mary was forced to flee her own kingdom of Scotland. When Mary was driven out of Scotland, she was received by Elizabeth but was kept a prisoner, initially at Fotheringhay, to ensure that she would not be a threat to the English throne. Mary's son, James, was a child and would have to prove himself before he could even be considered. The alternatives looked no better. Lady Catherine Grey, younger sister of Lady Jane Grey and one of the queen's ladies, displeased Elizabeth by marrying against her wishes, and the youngest sister, Mary Grey, was a hunchbacked dwarf. While Elizabeth believed she might be able to influence Mary Stuart into changing her faith and marrying someone suitable, she held out the prospect of the succession to her, and continued to temporize on the matter while Mary was a prisoner in England.

It still looked possible that Elizabeth would marry and have children. She toyed with the idea of a French husband, one of the several royal princes available. The first one proposed, the Duc d'Anjou, a younger brother of King Charles IX of France, was twenty years younger than Elizabeth. When this idea was rejected, it was suggested that she should marry an even younger brother, the Duc d'Alençon. She was still considering it seriously when the young prince died suddenly. This marked the end of marriage negotiations.

When, in 1568, Lady Catherine Grey died, there was no other obvious successor of English birth, and Elizabeth was once again forced to consider Mary Stuart. Mary had turned down Elizabeth's suggestion of Dudley as a potential husband before marrying Lord Darnley, but by now Mary had a son who was being brought up as a Protestant. In 1570, Elizabeth was persuaded by the French to help put Mary back on the Scottish throne. She set impossible pre-conditions, one being to bring Prince James to be brought up in England. Nevertheless, Cecil continued negotiations with Mary on the Queen's behalf. It was the Scots who stood in the way of a settlement. On 28th November 1570 she was taken to the 6th. Earl of Shrewsbury's Castle at Sheffield, where, apart from a few breaks at Chatsworth and Buxton, and more regular visits to the Sheffield Manor House, she remained imprisoned for 14 years.

End of religious toleration

At this stage, the new pope, Pius V intervened and excommunicated Elizabeth on February 25, 1570, something his predecessor had been reluctant to do. This made it impossible for Elizabeth to continue her policy of religious toleration. Nevertheless, the discovery of the Ridolfi Plot came as a great shock to her.

After twenty years of confinement, Mary Stuart allowed herself to become implicated in yet another plot by Catholic sympathisers, led by Sir Antony Babington, to rescue her and place her on the throne in Elizabeth's place. This was a good excuse for Elizabeth to remove her from the equation, and Elizabeth executed her archrival, though with considerable reluctance, in 1587.

War with Spain

Elizabeth had provided troops and money to assist the French Protestant Henri of Navarre to capture the throne of France. She had also sent troops to support the United Provinces in the Eighty Years' War, a Dutch Protestant revolt under William I of Orange against the rule of the provinces' overlords in Spain. Furthermore, English privateers had continually harassed the Spanish treasure fleet since the San Juan de Ulua incident in 1568, when a slaving expedition under Sir Francis Drake and Sir John Hawkins was ambushed with heavy casualties by Spanish viceroyal forces. Mary's execution was the needed excuse for Philip II of Spain to make a determined invasion attempt to compel cessation of English intervention in what Philip saw as Spain's Continental affairs and overseas shipping.

Thanks in part to Elizabeth's naval leaders, notably Drake and Lord Howard of Effingham, and especially a damaging Atlantic storm in September of 1588, the Spanish Armada was defeated and scattered. Nevertheless, the Spaniards regrouped and delivered a crushing defeat to an even larger, retaliatory English Armada sent against Spain in 1589. The Anglo-Spanish War dragged on until 1604 in a relative stalemate, with little success on land or at sea for the English, who were also drawn into an agonising guerrilla war against rebels in Ireland in 1594.

In the last few years of her reign, Elizabeth's favourite was Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex, who happened to be Leicester's stepson. Elizabeth forgave him a succession of misdemeanours, but his attempt at armed rebellion in 1601 gave her no alternative but to have him executed for treason.


Elizabeth never married and her death ended the Tudor dynasty. In later years, when pressed to decide on the succession, she showed an inclination towards her nephew, ironically the son of Mary, Queen of Scots, whom she had executed; but she never officially named him. Elizabeth died on March 24, 1603, at Richmond Palace in Surrey and is buried at Westminster Abbey. She was succeeded by James I of England, who was already James VI of Scotland. Yet within fifty years of her death, England was to endure the English Civil War and become a republic.

English culture

The Elizabethan era was an important one for the development of English culture. Literature, particularly poetry and drama, enjoyed a golden age as the Renaissance spread northward from Italy, a development substantially aided by the dissemination of literacy since the invention of the printing press by Johannes Gutenberg. Furthermore, exploration of other continents, including the Americas, continued in earnest for the first time since the fledgling voyages of John Cabot in 1496-97, in the service of Elizabeth's grandfather, King Henry VII. Indeed, like her father, the queen herself became noted as a poet and classical translator, personally writing the first English translation of Horace's Art of Poetry. Several of Elizabeth's speeches from throughout her reign, as well as her 1548 translation of Marguerite d'Angouleme's A Godly Meditation of the Christian Soul, are available from the Women Writers Project. (See also the Speech to the Troops at Tilbury.)


Elizabeth is included in the top ten of the 100 Greatest Britons poll sponsored by the BBC and voted for by the public. Bette Davis played the Queen opposite Errol Flynn's Devereux in the highly fictional 1939 opus The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex, then again in 1955's The Virgin Queen. Glenda Jackson portrayed her in BBC's blockbuster serial, Elizabeth R, and in the film Mary, Queen of Scots. 1998 saw portrayals of the young queen by Cate Blanchett in the movie Elizabeth, and of the aging monarch by Dame Judi Dench in the movie Shakespeare in Love. The second series of historical fiction comedy Blackadder features a surreal version of her played by Miranda Richardson. Gay pioneer Quentin Crisp played the queen in the film Orlando. Benjamin Britten portrayed her relationship with Devereux in the opera Gloriana, written for the coronation of Elizabeth II.

Elizabethan mythos

Elizabeth's reign became important to later generations of Britons particularly as a consequence of the symbolism it evoked and the people with whom it was associated. Names like Sir Walter Raleigh, Sir Francis Drake, and Sir Martin Frobisher would become archetypes for future explorers, as William Shakespeare, Christopher Marlowe, and Sir Francis Bacon would be for future authors. Elizabeth could rule with a strong hand, particularly on religious matters, yet she also allowed her commanders and advisors to exercise far more autonomy in decision-making than her contemporary counterparts on the European Continent.

Although she did work to procure funding and occasionally plan strategy for military expeditions (as for the 1589 English expedition to Spain and Portugal, for example), she did not directly act as a military leader in the style of Henry V, Oliver Cromwell, or Sir Winston Churchill. Many military and exploratory sea voyages were freelance acts by sea captains given royal sanction only after their undertakings (particularly when they involved privateering), and the literary exertions of the period's renowned playwrights took place without direct royal patronage. It was thus the collective strivings of many individuals that produced the events and cultural achievements associated with the Elizabethan Age, and the mythos evoked by this period became a crucially important symbol for the British people in later centuries, particularly during the Age of Empire.

Attempts at North American colonisation

The British Empire itself was not begun during the Elizabethan period, despite endeavours to establish settlements in present-day Canada and the U.S.A Attempts to build on John Cabot's original fishing settlement in Newfoundland and his claim to North America gave rise to Humphrey Gilbert's colonising expedition in 1587, also to Newfoundland, as well as several attempts in the 1580s - under Sir Walter Raleigh, John White, Sir Richard Grenville, Ralph Lane, and others - to establish a colony at Roanoke Island, present-day North Carolina. Gilbert had also been seeking a Northwest Passage to the riches of East Asia, to circumvent the existing routes then controlled by Spain and Portugal, and his first oceanic crossings were undertaken in search of such a novel sea lane for trade. However, Gilbert's expedition to Newfoundland in 1583 suffered a series of debacles in unusually harsh weather. The would-be settlers suffered shipwrecks on the treacherous coasts of the region, as well as epidemic diseases, desertions, and piracy which led them to quit the settlement in early 1584. Gilbert himself was killed on the return trip to England when his own small ship, the Squirrel, foundered in a ferocious storm off the Azores.

The Roanoke Colony featured the birth of an English child, Virginia Dare, yet it was plagued by mishaps from the outset in 1584. Its settlers never became agriculturally self-sufficient and relied on supplies brought from England, or on the generosity of the local native American tribes, whom the settlers unwisely baited and attacked, provoking tensions and warfare. The Roanoke Colony was endangered when war erupted with Spain, halting the delivery of essential supplies and foodstuffs, and when John White returned to the colony in 1590, he found that it had disappeared. (see Croatoan) The colony's fate is a mystery even today, though many scholars attribute its loss to an extraordinarily severe drought that likely struck the mid-Atlantic coastline at a time coincident with the colony. The continuing war with Spain during the 1590s precluded further attempts at colonisation for the balance of Elizabeth's reign.

Jamestown and other permanent North American settlements were founded later during the period of the early Stuarts in the 1600s, and the global British Empire of renown, with its outposts in India, Malaysia, Oceania, and Africa, was a phenomenon of the late 1700s and 1800s. Nevertheless, the later participants in the founding and expansion of the British Empire drew inspiration in the cultural, economic, and maritime accomplishments of the Tudor period and the Elizabethan Age in particular.

Modern Elizabethan historiography and assessments

Modern historians and biographers in post-imperial Europe have tended to take a far more literal-minded and dispassionate view of the Tudor period, in line with the increasingly analytical nature of the historical field in general. (see e.g. John Guy, Anne Somerset, Richard Berleth, Jasper Ridley, Christopher Haigh) Elizabethan England was not particularly successful in a military sense, certainly far less so than the country was under Henry V, Oliver Cromwell, or William Pitt and King George II (during the pivotal French and Indian War). Although the Spanish Armada confrontation of 1588 is often invoked, this clash was in fact merely an early battle in a nearly two-decade Anglo-Spanish War that stretched from 1585-1604. The performance of English soldiers on land (chiefly in the Netherlands and northern France) was sporadic, yet the English were also defeated in most of their naval battles with Spain after 1588.

There were two especially disastrous English naval expeditions against Spain and united Portugal in 1589 and Spanish America in 1595-96, as well as setbacks in privateering engagements near the Azores in 1590-91 and 1597. A Spanish raiding party landed on and set fire to much of Cornwall in 1595, a rare instance of a foreign invader successfully attacking targets on English soil. Moreover, in the later years of Mary I's reign and the first five of Elizabeth, the English were permanently expelled from French territory at Le Havre and Calais by forces loyal to Catherine de Medici, a particularly devastating blow to English national pride that thwarted long-held Continental aspirations pressed since the Hundred Years' War.

There were times when Elizabeth's tendency to temporise and postpone decisions were especially costly in military endeavours, as in the 1589 expedition to Spain and Portugal when siege trains and artillery were withheld from the English invading forces, but her caution was also well-informed and in many ways an asset overall: She was reluctant to embroil England in expensive and questionable foreign adventures without a solid strategic underpinning. She thus refrained from squandering precious resources in campaigns against (usually) superior armies and navies, as her father had done in an especially costly war with France during his reign.

Elizabethan England evinced a mixed economic record. The country benefited enormously from the steady growth of the wool trade with the Low Countries and the Hanseatic League in northern Germany. Queen Elizabeth's reign commenced with a debt of £3,000,000 inherited from Queen Mary I, causing Elizabeth, Cecil, and other members of the Privy Council to undertake stringent measures bordering on parsimony to cut expenditures. Some of these practices engendered resentment, since many soldiers (including the Armada defenders) went unpaid for months, yet the Court's thriftiness succeeded in returning the country to solvency by the onset of Anglo-Spanish War, a state of affairs not seen since the reign of Henry VII.

The conflict with Spain itself, however, posed a fiscal challenge that could not be effectively met. As the war dragged on into the 1590s, England once again sank into debt. The Anglo-Irish guerrilla war proved to be particularly damaging to English finances, "the sink of the treasure of England". The hostilities with Spain and Ireland necessitated ad hoc fundraising practices - like the sale of Crown lands and chartered offices - which would later deprive the Stuart monarchs of collateral. Parliament's hand was also strengthened, since it controlled the purse strings to much-needed funds. By 1603, the English Crown had once again slipped into a debt of £3,000,000, comparable to that left by Queen Mary I. Nevertheless, the profligate James I accrued a substantially larger debt in a much shorter timespan during a time of prevailing peace, and the Elizabethan debtload, while burdensome to the Stuarts, was hardly unmanageable.

Recent criticisms of the Elizabethan reign have focused attention especially on the rise of African slavery in England and the missteps of Tudor Irish policy, which were severely detrimental to both England and Ireland alike. English participation in the trans-Atlantic African slave trade commenced in 1562 when the mariner and eventual sea dog, Sir John Hawkins, undertook lucrative slave-smuggling operations. He obtained his human cargo in Guinea and other West African ports, then ferried his prisoners to the Spanish slave markets in the West Indies. Queen Elizabeth initially rebuked Hawkins for partaking in such a disreputable trade, but her opinion changed when Hawkins revealed the enormous profitability of his expeditions. The Queen and Privy Council thereafter not only condoned Hawkins's commerce, but directly profited from it - they invested in and underwrote Hawkins's slave-trading expeditions, providing ships and supplies to him and his crew. (English entry into the slave trade was, in fact, a proximate cause of the San Juan de Ulua incident in 1568 and the antagonistic turn in Anglo-Spanish relations thereafter.)

Queen Elizabeth's direct sponsorship of Hawkins's slave-trading provided an apparent royal sanction for the commerce, helping to legitimise and accelerate English merchants' participation in it. For this reason, Elizabeth has been criticised in a manner similar to Thomas Jefferson in the United States: reaping economic benefits from slavery even as she herself felt moral qualms about its justifiability.

Ireland, meanwhile, had possessed a political link with England since the reign of the Anglo-Norman King Henry II, yet English control over the Gaelic land remained limited until the Tudors, who sought to impose a more direct rule over the Irish lords. The Irish dilemma was exacerbated upon Henry VIII's break with Rome, since Ireland remained Catholic, and security concerns were added to the mix when Spain became an adversary after 1568. English officials in Ireland were notoriously corrupt and contemptuous of the local population, alienating the Irish and fostering mutual antagonism. Small-scale Irish rebellions were brutally suppressed and anti-Catholic persecution was aggravated following Elizabeth's excommunication in 1570, causing further deterioration in Anglo-Irish relations. Open warfare finally erupted in the 1590s when the Gaelic Ulster lords, in spite of chronic fractiousness, managed to present a united front, culminating in the Nine Years' War in 1594.

The Anglo-Irish War was a savage conflict reminiscent of the American involvement in Vietnam nearly four centuries later. The Irish rebels, led by the cunning and crafty Hugh O'Neill, used guerrilla tactics to harass and frustrate better-armed and trained English soldiers sent to quell the revolt. The Irish war proved to be extremely expensive, a sort of mirror image of King Philip II's preoccupations in the Netherlands. The English suffered several demoralising defeats at the Ford of the Biscuits, Yellow Ford, Sligo, and Clontibret, taking severe casualties, before finally besting O'Neill at Kinsale in 1601. Even then the wily Irish earl eluded capture, continuing a guerrilla campaign that had mushroomed to assume the dimensions of a populist, nationalistic uprising. It was thus only with scorched-earth tactics that the English soldier Charles Blount, Lord Mountjoy, was able to make headway against the rebels. He and his troops executed family members of suspected Irish rebels en masse, set fire to tilled fields, and razed the farms of the locals, provoking an artificial famine of extreme severity.

The Nine Years' War drew to a close in 1603 only when James I, in one of his first official acts, issued a pardon and generous terms to O'Neill and his comrades-in-arms in return for a cessation of hostilities. However, the extraordinary brutality of the Anglo-Irish War sowed a legacy of pronounced bitterness, hostility, and mistrust among the Irish people for the English. When O'Neill and other nobles quit Ireland for the Continent in the 1607 Flight of the Earls, Gaelic rule in Ireland was effectively undercut, and James was free to plant the Catholic island with Protestant (often Scottish) settlers, precipitating further conflict.

While the slave trade and Irish policy may fairly be raised as indictments of some aspects of Elizabethan rule, they must be considered in context. Elizabeth had inherited a particularly precarious financial situation from Mary I in 1558, and she was wary of the onus posed by the £3,000,000 obligation she confronted at her coronation. Whatever her moral objections to Hawkins's undertakings, she probably saw his immensely profitable slave-trading activities as an offer too good to refuse during a period of such exigent financial woes. In any case, English participation in the slave trade during Elizabeth's reign and that of the early Stuarts remained far below that of the Spaniards and Portuguese, and even of the Dutch in the 17th century.

Even Elizabeth's actions in Ireland, the most severe blemish on her policies, had a basis in specific strategic concerns that stemmed directly from the hazard of a Catholic "back door" potentially exploitable by Philip II's navies. The Irish problem posed an impossible dilemma upon the failure of the Protestant Reformation in the country, and there could be no tidy solution. The misunderstandings and haughty contempt displayed by English officials (and at times by the Queen herself) needlessly exacerbated the problem, but English endeavours in Ireland most often ensued directly from reasonable strategic anxieties, however loathsome the execution of the policies there.

Elizabeth had inherited a difficult and uncertain state of affairs upon her accession, particularly in the realms of economics and religious strife. Her chief contribution was to stay engaged with her people and confront her reign's challenges while appointing able advisors. Despite the reign's policy failures that have understandably drawn criticism, in general her steady rule helped the English to avoid the damaging economic crises and devastating civil wars of religion that were plaguing nations on the Continent - and would strike England as well in the mid-17th century with the commencement of the English Civil War between the loyalist forces of King Charles I and the Protestant Roundheads led by Oliver Cromwell.

Preceded by:
Mary I
Queen of England Succeeded by:
James I
Queen of Ireland