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Elizabeth's Accession and Her Legitimacy (GCSE Example Answer)


Last updated 2 May 2020

Here is an example answer to the following 16-mark question on the problem posed to Elizabeth I upon her accession arising from the question of legitimacy.

‘The biggest problem facing Elizabeth upon her accession was the question of legitimacy’. How far do you agree?

Marks: 16 marks + 4 marks SPAG

Stimulus = Anne Boleyn / The threat from France

[Examiner commentary following each paragraph and at the end is provided in italics]


Elizabeth faced many problems upon her accession to her throne in 1558 and, whilst the question of legitimacy was important, the immediate concerns of debt, as well as the threat from France and Scotland were of far greater significance as they instantly impacted upon her ability to rule. As such, I disagree with the statement.

[Relative comparison made to inform the judgement here shows instantly criteria are being established, helping to signpost the rest of the answer.]

The Protestant Elizabeth certainly faced difficulties upon becoming Queen with regard to legitimacy, especially from English Catholics and the wider Catholic world. This was due to the actions of her father, Henry VIII, in 1533. Many people refused to recognize Elizabeth as a legitimate heir because her mother was Anne Boleyn, who was Henry VIII’s second wife. The fact that the Pope never approved Henry VIII’s divorce from Catherine of Aragon in 1533 (and England had to ‘break from Rome’ in order to achieve this) combined with the fact that Catherine was still alive when Elizabeth was born. Moreover, when Henry executed Anne Boleyn in 1536, Henry VIII himself declared Elizabeth illegitimate (although this situation was later reversed). As such, the Catholic community cited both religious and legal reasons why Elizabeth had no right to be Queen, which made her accession extremely problematic.

[Clear link back to the question at the end of the paragraph here.]

Another extremely important problem Elizabeth faced were the threats from the Auld Alliance of France and Scotland, two Catholic countries that England was sandwiched between. What made the Auld Alliance stronger at this time was the fact that Mary, Queen of Scots was married to the French Prince Francis II. The strength of this relationship was shown by the fact that French troops were stationed on the English and Scottish border. Importantly too, Elizabeth’s fear of the Auld Alliance was heightened by the fact that the Catholic Mary, Queen of Scots, had declared herself the legitimate Queen of England (owing to the fact that she was Elizabeth’s second cousin and the granddaughter of Henry VIII’s sister Margaret) and she had the support of many English Catholics. The relative strength of France and weakness of England was further compounded by the fact that Elizabeth had to recognize the loss of Calais to France under the Treaty of Cateau-Cambresis in 1559, following a disastrous English military campaign under the reign of Elizabeth’s predecessor, Mary I. Calais had been in English hands since 1347. There was also a fear that France and Scotland, alongside Spain, could launch an invasion of England as part of a greater Catholic crusade against the rogue English Protestant nation. Here then, military alliances, English weaknesses, questions of legitimacy and the influence of religion all meant Elizabeth was very vulnerable upon her accession.

[A range of examples and wide-ranging knowledge really help explore the extent of this problem facing Elizabeth.]

However, there were other challenges facing Elizabeth. One was debt. After inheriting the throne from her sister Mary I, Elizabeth was £300,000 in debt. This was a huge sum of money, especially when you consider the annual income of the Crown was approximately £286,000. The lack of money was problematic because it meant England was potentially vulnerable to attack (and Elizabeth had no means by which to defend the country militarily). Moreover, to raise money Elizabeth would have to make the immediately-unpopular decision of raising taxes, the permission for which would need to be granted by parliament (which, in turn, could then make further demands on Elizabeth). Insolvency therefore limited the choices of the new Queen and instantly undermined her power.

[This summary of factors helps re- establish conceptual focus]

One last thing to consider was the fact that Elizabeth was unmarried and childless. Marriage to a foreign prince would ensure a foreign alliance and would have strengthened England against threats from abroad. Moreover, a child would create more stability domestically and nullify challenges to the throne (like that from Mary Queen of Scots) as a political vacuum would have been filled. However, Elizabeth was fearful that a foreign husband would have not put the needs of England first. More significantly, she was worried she would have to adopt a secondary role in the running of her country, as the period was very patriarchal.

Overall then, despite the question of legitimacy being extremely important due to the fact that Elizabeth could not count on the support of many English Catholics and the fact that it allowed a rival in Scotland to have claims to the throne, the immediate concerns of Elizabeth were of a more practical nature. Elizabeth was in debt, she was unmarried and therefore had no alliances to help her counter the Auld Alliance (which would have been a concern even if Mary Queen of Scots and Prince Francis were not married and even if Mary had no claim to the throne). This meant her ability to govern from the outset was immediately hampered.

[The conclusion establishes relative importance and explains why one factor was more important than another.]

Overall Examiner Comments:

Level 4, 13-16 (+3-4 marks SPAG)

A very detailed response which demonstrates excellent subject knowledge and reaches a clear judgement based on justifiable criteria. The answer does touch upon the issue of religion but this could be extended further to acknowledge the extensive divisions within society given the preceding tumultuous changes (a brief mention of the role of the puritans for example could help). Nevertheless, the answer has sustained conceptual focus and is wide-ranging in its analysis.

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