Oswald Letter

The heart of a king—but the incredible leadership of a queen

by Dan Oswald

When Queen Elizabeth I ascended to the throne in 1558, England was, in a word, a mess. The country was struggling financially with runaway inflation and a debased currency. It was a cultural wasteland that was far behind other countries when comparing achievements in literature and the arts. And it was a military weakling without any real army or navy. What’s more, the country was on the brink of a civil war caused by religious dissension. In business terms, England was in dire need of a turnaround—a big job for a 25-year-old.

But Elizabeth was up to the task. She surrounded herself with very able advisers, studied relevant information to make informed decisions, and purportedly had an uncanny ability to read people. During her reign, she navigated the turbulent economic waters and returned England to growth and prosperity. She successfully led the country into battle on the high seas against the powerful Spanish Armada and built a foundation for the English culture of literature, art, and learning. Her reign was so successful that many consider her the greatest ruler England has ever had.

So what are some of the traits that allowed Queen Elizabeth I to lead England back to greatness? Here they are in her own words.

“When your need shall be the most, you shall find my friendship greatest. Let others promise, and I will do, in words not more in deeds as much.” Queen Elizabeth wrote these words to her cousin, Lady Catherine Knollys, when Knollys decided to leave the royal court. Elizabeth wanted her cousin to know that she could count on her not only to support her with words but also to act in her time of need. Strong leaders are loyal and are willing to act on behalf of those who deserve their loyalty.

“Darnley is only a pawn but he may checkmate me if he is promoted.” Elizabeth understood that politics is like a game of chess—a successful player is always thinking a couple of moves ahead. Looking beyond the way things were at the moment and anticipating what might occur in the future allowed her to survive decades on the throne and was a large contributor to her success.

“Have a care over my people. . . . They are my people. . . . See unto them, see unto them, for they are my charge.” Elizabeth cared about the people she led. She looked out for their well-being. During her reign, she governed with the best interests of the people at heart, not herself, and the results were astonishing. The country flourished economically and made great strides in cultural enlightenment because she cared about the people.

“Being resolved, in the midst and heat of the battle, to live and die amongst you all; to lay down for my God, and for my kingdom, and my people, my honour and my blood, even in the dust.” Queen Elizabeth may have been a small and frail person, but she uttered these inspirational words to her troops while wearing body armor. She created a bond with the soldiers and inspired them. Elizabeth didn’t hide in the safety of her castle. She went out to the frontlines and shared in the danger.

“I know I have the body of a weak, feeble woman; but I have the heart and stomach of a king. . . . I myself will take up arms, I myself will be your general, judge, and rewarder of every one of your virtues in the field.” Queen Elizabeth didn’t pretend to be something she wasn’t. She knew her size and strength didn’t compare to those of the soldiers she was addressing, but her heart and love of country did. She was able to identify with them and in turn was able to get them to identify with her. They shared something—a love of country and the willingness to give their lives for it. Common ground with your followers is an important thing, and Elizabeth was able to establish it at a most critical time.

Queen Elizabeth I ruled England for more than 40 years. So much was accomplished during her reign because of the qualities she possessed as a leader. Elizabeth was loyal to those who deserved her loyalty. She was a shrewd leader who was always thinking ahead. And she genuinely cared about the people she led and was willing to do whatever was necessary to see her country achieve what she knew it was capable of achieving. Her leadership skills are remembered hundreds of years later because they helped her shape a country, and her achievements are still evident today.