An A-Z of the World – E. H. Gombrich on: Queen Elizabeth I

As an aid to students, teachers and parents dealing with the challenges of home learning, we have constructed an A–Z of the World taken from E. H. Gombrich’s, A Little History of the World. Day by day, we will be sharing a bite size introduction to a historical figure, event or period – using Gombrich’s magical words – along with links to free resources, so that readers of all ages can discover more. Today, Gombrich covers Queen Elizabeth I.


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Queen Elizabeth I

E. H. GombrichIn England, Queen Elizabeth I, the daughter of King Henry VIII, was on the throne. Elizabeth was very clever, strong-willed and determined, but she was also vain and cruel. She was determined to defend England against the many Catholics still present in the country whom she persecuted relentlessly.

‘Elizabeth was very clever, strong-willed and determined, but she was also vain and cruel.’

Her cousin, Mary Stuart, the Catholic queen of Scotland, was a woman of great beauty and charm, and she, too, believed she had a right to the English throne. Elizabeth had her imprisoned and executed. Elizabeth also helped the Protestant burghers of the Low Countries in their war against Philip of Spain. Philip was furious. He resolved to conquer England for Catholicism or destroy it.

At immense cost he raised a huge fleet of 130 great sailing ships with around two thousand cannon, and more than twenty thousand men. It takes no time to read, but just try to imagine 130 sailing ships at sea. This was the Invincible Armada. When it set sail from Spain in 1588, loaded with heavy cannon and weaponry and food and supplies for six months, it seemed inconceivable that England’s small island might ever succeed in resisting such a mighty force. However, the heavily laden warships were cumbersome and hard to manoeuvre. The English avoided confrontation and darted in and out in their nimbler vessels, attacking the Spanish ships. One night they launched fireships into the midst of the Spanish fleet, creating panic and confusion and sending them in all directions. Many ships drifted along the English coast and went down in severe gales. Barely half the Armada reached home and not one ship succeeded in landing on an English shore. Philip betrayed no sign of his disappointment. It is said that he greeted the commander of the fleet warmly and thanked him, saying: ‘After all, I sent you to fight men, not the wind and waves.’

Discover more A-Z blogposts here.

Free Resources to Learn More about Queen Elizabeth I

BBC Bitesize (KS1)

Who was Queen Elizabeth I?

BBC Bitesize (KS3)

Elizabeth I

BBC Bitesize (GCSE)

Elizabeth I

Elizabeth I class clips (videos)

BBC In Our Time

The Death of Elizabeth I

BBC Great Lives

Elizabeth I – Esther Rantzen

This page provides access to a list of free online resources. It is not intended to endorse any particular resource.


A Little History of the World

All the descriptions in this A-Z are taken from E. H. Gombrich’s A Little History of the World.

Philip Pullman described the book as, “A brilliant piece of narrative, splendidly organised, told with an energy and confidence that are enormously attractive, and suffused with all the humanity and generosity of spirit that Gombrich’s thousands of admirers came to cherish during his long and richly productive life. It’s a wonderful surprise: irresistible, in fact.”

Discover More

Following in the footsteps of E. H. Gombrich’s worldwide bestseller A Little History of the World, the books in our Little Histories series explore the history of the world’s most remarkable people, events and ideas. With engaging personal insights, our authors will take you on a whistle-stop journey from ancient times to the present – exploring all of life’s big subjects from archaeology to science. Other Little Histories available include, Philosophy, Economics, Science, Literature, Language, Religion and Poetry. More details about the whole series can be found on the Little Histories website.

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