Frequently Asked Questions
18. Questions on alternatives to history i.e
Please can you tell what would have happened if....
...Elizabeth had never become Queen
...had borne children
...had lost the Armada
...had died early in her reign
I receive many questions of this nature, so thought I would address them under a broad term "alternatives to history". As history is the study of the past, an attempt to understand the actions and experiences of our ancestors as they happened, I usually don't think too much about what could have happened if Elizabeth had died in her youth, or had married, or had lost the Armada. No one could have predicted the course history has taken, and so trying to predict what might have happend had one of the variables been different, is perhaps impossible. Questions like this are sometimes deceptive, and are not directly asking you what would have happened if Elizabeth had died etc. Sometimes they are asking you to think about the reasons for some of the decisions she may have made, or the circumstance in which she found herself, or England found herself. For example:
1. "What would have happened had Elizabeth married?"
This could be another way of asking "Why did the Queen choose to remain single?". By thinking of the possible consequences i.e civil war, involvement of England in foreign wars, loss of power and influence for the Queen, death of the Queen in childbirth etc it becomes easier to undertsand why the Queen stayed single. In some cases, it is possible to understand what went wrong in the past by thinking what the consequences of a different course of action could have been i.e had John Dudley not tried to usurp the throne for Mary, the course of Elizabeth's reign may have been very different. Robert Dudley and Elizabeth would possibly have been able to marry. But again, one of the problems with "alternative" theories is that history does not always depend only on one variable. Because Robert was the brother in law of Lady Jane Grey, Elizabeth may not have been so close to him, perceiving him as a threat. Even if this was not the case, the problem of Amy Dudley would still exist. Once you start getting into alternative theories, the possibilities are endless.
2. "What would have happened had the Queen lost the Armada?"
This could be another way of asking "Why was it so important to the Queen that the Armada was defeated?". This allows you then to think of the consequences; the Spanish invading England, the wars that would follow, the death of the Queen and a completely different government put in place.
3. What would have happened had the Queen died early in her reign?
This could be another way of asking: "Why did many people consider settling the succession to be so important?". The problems of an uncertain succession can then be discussed.
Therefore, my advice to those wanting help with this type of question, is to think hard about what the question is really asking you. Does your history teacher/tutor want you to invent your own version of history or for you to understand better events that have taken place? In creative writing, alternatives to history can be stimulating, but in the study of history, questions containing "what if" usually ask for your understanding of events that have occurred such as the problems faced by individuals/society, the reasons for certain courses of action, the problems with certain courses of action, and historical conflict.