The extraordinary uniqueness of Elizabeth Tudor's reign began even before she was crowned queen in 1558. She was very well-educated, a student of the great Renaissance scholar Roger Ascham; a consummate diplomat at the age of 25; and one of the most level-headed monarchs England had seen in many years. In contrast to her predecessor and sister Mary I ( 'Bloody Mary') – whose mismanagement of the nation caused Elizabeth to inherit a national debt and a greatly diminished kingdom – she firmly believed in the separation of state and church. This was a rather expedient way of sidestepping the great social debate of the time: the battle between Protestants and Roman Catholics over the national religion of England.
In addition, her conservative protestant stance gave her leverage against Mary of Scotland, a Roman Catholic and her only competitor for the throne. Although this may have aided Elizabeth in executing Mary's imprisonment and eventual beheading, it also aroused anger in firmly catholic Spain, led by the colossal continental power Phillip II.
Phillip was already angered by England's blatant disregard for Spain's international naval claims, which were in fact far less omnipresent than they appeared on paper. England had been enjoying a maritime renaissance since 1497, when Henry VII sent John Cabot in search of a northern passage to the Orient. Under Elizabeth, exploration flourished with the voyages of John Hawkins, Humphrey Gilbert, the infamous Sir Walter Raleigh and a circumnavigation of the world conducted by Francis Drake.
This last voyage particularly infuriated the Spanish, who saw it as a direct attack on their naval supremacy. For England, it was only a sign of the times. The medieval era had long since given way to a society dominated by an increasingly educated and literate Merchant class – and, slowly but surely, the yeomen and gentry as well. Even the completely illiterat…