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Following the Footsteps of Queen Elizabeth I in London

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By Sharon Whitley Larsen

Talk about a dysfunctional family! Imagine having your father order your mother's head chopped off when you are not quite 3 years old and you being orphaned at 13 upon his death. Not to mention being tossed in prison by your older half-sister when you're just 21.

Welcome to the world of Queen Elizabeth I, a brilliant, fascinating woman who reigned over the British Empire for 45 years, setting the course for modern Britain. Her colorful 16th- century life has been the focus of several books and films, including "Elizabeth: The Golden Age" (2007) and "Elizabeth" (1998). Today you can walk in her footsteps at historic properties where the popular, charming, Protestant queen lived and worked.

Born at Greenwich Palace in 1533, Elizabeth was named for both her grandmothers. She greatly disappointed her parents, King Henry VIII and his second wife, Anne Boleyn, who had hoped for a boy — an heir to the throne.

When Elizabeth was not yet 3, her mother (already in poor graces for not producing a male heir) was accused of adultery, incest and treason, and sent to the Tower of London. Fearing being burned at the stake, Anne was relieved, if that's possible, to learn that she would be beheaded instead.

"I heard say the executioner was very good, and I have a little neck," she commented bravely.

After her mother's beheading, young Elizabeth was then declared illegitimate and her father, the king, chasing more skirts, paid her very little attention — until later years.

She was a precocious child and was educated — unusual for girls in those days — in theology, history and science. She excelled in music, dancing, oratory, calligraphy, needlework and horseback-riding. Elizabeth was also tutored with her younger half-brother, Edward, who died at 15. Their stepmother, Henry's sixth and last wife, Catherine Parr, guided their educations. Elizabeth spoke six languages, including Latin and Greek, and enjoyed theater.

"(Elizabeth is) sharp ... a very vain and clever woman. She is determined to be governed by no one," later wrote Spanish Ambassador Count de Feria after meeting her.

She was infuriatingly indecisive at times, as displayed during the execution ordeal of her religious and royal rival — and cousin — Scotland's Roman Catholic queen, Mary Stuart, whom she never met.

Although olive-skinned, Elizabeth was noted for her white complexion (courtesy of a lotion comprised of egg whites, powdered eggshell, poppy seeds, borax and alum), curly red hair, high forehead, black eyes and hooked nose. She had a tall, slender figure and long, thin fingers. Under her reign Francis Drake and Walter Raleigh explored the world and William Shakespeare expressed pop culture via his popular plays.

Although the flirtatious queen had numerous royal suitors from Sweden to Spain — and was in love for a time with a married man, Robert Dudley, whose wife mysteriously died in a fall — she never wed.

"I will never marry," she had told Dudley, a childhood friend, at age 8. Later she proclaimed to Parliament: "I have already joined myself in marriage to a husband, namely the kingdom of England."

When Elizabeth was informed, at 25, on Nov. 17, 1558, that her unpopular Roman Catholic half-sister Mary —"Bloody Mary"— had died and she was going to be the next queen, she was sitting under an oak tree in the park at Hatfield House, her childhood home, reportedly reading the Bible, which she did almost daily.

"It is the Lord's doing and it is marvelous in our eyes," she said.

That oak tree is long gone, replaced by another planted by Queen Elizabeth II in 1985.

And although I didn't see the replanted one, with its plaque marking the historic site, I did tour Hatfield House and the remaining one-fourth of the Old Palace.

Elizabeth I "spent large chunks of her childhood here," noted my guide. "Overall it was a free and easy and nice time for her."

A former bishop's palace, it was taken over by Elizabeth's father, Henry VIII, around 1533, the year of her birth. Its construction had begun circa 1485, and it was here, in the Great Hall, where the new queen held her first state council.

"Elizabeth was very enlightened for her time," noted my guide, "and the fact that she lived to be a very old lady in those days was amazing."

Elizabeth died at age 70. She probably will always be remembered for her brilliant speech at Tilbury in 1588, celebrating the defeat of the Spanish Armada: "I know I have the body of a weak and feeble woman. But I have the heart and stomach of a king."

WHEN YOU GO

Hatfield House: Elizabeth I's childhood home was in the Old Palace, presented to her when she was 3 months old. Near London, the new house was completed in 1611. In the Marble Hall, the "Rainbow" portrait of Elizabeth, circa 1600, attributed to Isaac Oliver, is displayed. In the library are copies of two handwritten letters by Elizabeth: at age 15, in 1548, in response to accusations that she had had an affair with Thomas Seymour, and at age 65, written in 1598 to her statesman Robert Cecil: www.hatfield-house.co.uk.

The Tower of London: Site of the beheading of Elizabeth I's mother, Anne Boleyn. At age 21 Elizabeth was imprisoned here for more than two months by her Roman Catholic half-sister, Queen Mary I, who suspected Elizabeth of being involved in a plot against her. Each day Elizabeth fearfully expected to be executed. Later she stayed here on the eve of her coronation — and then never returned. Elizabeth hated the Tower: www.hrp.org.uk/toweroflondon.

Westminster Abbey: Elizabeth I was crowned here on Jan. 15, 1559, at age 25. Her funeral was held here on April 28, 1603, more than a month after her March 24 death, and she is buried next to her half-sister, Mary I, in an elaborate marble tomb: www.westminster-abbey.org.

Hampton Court: Elizabeth I was here often, and she added a bay window in 1568, as well as a private kitchen to feed the royal table. She enjoyed lamb stew for breakfast: www.hrp.org.uk/hamptoncourtpalace.

Banqueting Hall (Whitehall Palace): The Banqueting Hall is all that remains of what once was an extensive palace of more than 2,000 rooms on 23 acres. Elizabeth spent nearly a quarter of her reign here, using it for diplomatic receptions. After her death, this is where her coffin lay in state: www.hrp.org.uk/banquetinghouse.

The London Pass is good to tour more than 60 sites, including Hampton Court, Westminster Abbey, Tower of London, Banqueting Hall and Hatfield House. To purchase London transport Oyster cards, other discounted travel and sightseeing passes and for information on BritRail: www.visitbritainshop.com/usa.

For general information, visit www.visitbritain.com and www.visitengland.com.

Sharon Whitley Larsen is a freelance writer. To read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.

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