Princess Elizabeth Tudor was born the only surviving child of King Henry VIII and his second wife, Anne Boleyn, on September 7, 1533. Considering how much trouble the king had gone through to annul his previous marriage to Catherine of Aragon (separating England from the papacy in the process), all so that he may produce a son to assure the royal succession, one must conclude that Elizabeth’s birth brought a certain amount of disappointment with it and undoubtedly must have brought delight to those who had opposed the annulment in the first place. Nevertheless, King Henry doted on his new daughter and she was baptized with great solemnity. The Succession Act of 1534 gave Elizabeth and any other children Henry might produce preference over Princess Mary (his only child with Catherine of Aragon, who from this point on would be considering illegitimate) in the royal succession. A lavish household was set up for Elizabeth of which Mary was a part of, involuntarily, and, from a very young age, the king tested his younger daughter’s value on the international marriage market, though none of the proposed unions came to fruition (obviously).
Elizabeth lived in this comfortable fashion for the first two and half years of her life. In the spring of 1536, her mother was executed after being found guilty on trumped up charges of fornication with her own brother and four other men. Less than two weeks later, the king married his third wife, Jane Seymour, and a new Succession Act was passed giving preference in the royal succession to any children that Henry and Jane would produce. Just like her sister Mary, Elizabeth was now considered to be a bastard and her value on the marriage market plummeted. It would be naïve for one to think that the execution of her mother had no effect on Elizabeth’s views towards men and marriage and it would be very easy to conclude that, it many ways, it left a void in her life that would never be properly filled.
For the remainder of her father’s reign, Elizabeth seems to have maintained a relatively low profile and did not spend any extended amount of time at court. She participated in the christening of her brother Edward in 1537 and most likely saw her father on holidays, but nothing much more than that. Though she by no means received the amount of attention that her brother, the new heir to the throne, did, Elizabeth lived comfortably on her various lands and was given an unusually solid education for a girl, even the daughter of a king. By the time she reached her teens, Elizabeth had a solid grasp on several different languages (French, Latin and Italian, among others) and was highly familiar with many of the standard pieces of literature and philosophy of the time. The princess was taught by men such as Richard Cox and John Cheke, both of whom were followers of the reformed faith, making it more than evident as to why Elizabeth would herself become a staunch Protestant. In 1544, both Elizabeth and her sister Mary were restored to the royal succession (though neither were officially legitimized) and were to succeed their brother Edward should he die childless, which no one at the time expected him to do. Though still a relative long shot, the king’s sudden change of heart on the matter of the succession was a huge victory for both of the princesses.
Elizabeth does not seem to have cultivated a steady relationship with any of her father’s subsequent wives, with the exception of his sixth and final wife, Catherine Parr. It was at this point, in the closing years of the reign of Henry VIII, that Elizabeth finally began to spend more time at court and she most certainly shared a religious and intellectual bond with her stepmother. This is made evident by the fact that, after the king’s death in January 1547, the two remained close. It is not know as to what Elizabeth’s reaction was to her father’s death and it must be assumed that she felt a certain amount of sadness to have both of her parents deceased by the time she was thirteen. But one must also wonder if the princess garnered a certain amount of resentment towards her father for his brutal treatment of her mother. Given the fact that Elizabeth would never marry, it is safe to say that her father’s careless discarding of his wives did indeed have some sort of psychological effect on her, and a permanent once for that matter.
After her father’s death and the accession of her brother, Edward VI, to the throne, Elizabeth went to live with Catherine Parr at her house in Chelsea. Just months after the old king’s death, Catherine had married Thomas Seymour, Lord Admiral of the Fleet and a maternal uncle to Edward VI. The marriage was widely despised, particularly by the Admiral’s elder brother Edward, Duke of Somerset, who served as Protector to his young nephew. It was widely believed at the time that the Admiral had originally planned to marry either Elizabeth or her elder sister Mary and had only chosen to wed Catherine as a second choice (though the two were nearly married before Henry VIII chose Catherine to be his final wife). Some accounts will even go so far as to say that the late king had planned for Seymour and Elizabeth to marry, though this must be taken with a grain of salt as it is unlikely that Henry would have agreed to give up such a valuable tool on the marriage market in favor of a buffoon such as the Admiral.
Whatever the case may be, Seymour seems to have wanted to keep his options open with Elizabeth, despite his marriage and supposed love for Catherine. This was made clear by the blatantly flirtatious behavior the two engaged in while living together at Chelsea. It is believed that Seymour would frequently visit the princess in her bedchamber while she was still only half-dressed, touch her inappropriately and engage in sexually explicit conversation with her. Though Elizabeth did what she could to deflect the solicitations of the Admiral, it cannot be said that she was completely against them. When Catherine found out about this behavior, she was, at first, not alarmed and even jokingly participated on occasion. However, it became clear that Seymour was taking the situation too far and his wife, who was now pregnant, began to grow angry with him. It comes as no surprise that, soon after, Elizabeth left Chelsea to live in the household of Sir Anthony Denny. Both Elizabeth and Catherine felt it would be best that the princess was kept away from the temptations that the Admiral put before her and, though relations between the two women remained semi-cordial, they were clearly not the friends they had once been.
When Catherine died during childbirth in September 1548, Seymour renewed his efforts to make Elizabeth his wife. In addition, the admiral seems to have been, at the very least, humoring thoughts to seize power from his brother. Seymour knew very well that, without the approval of the royal council, his marriage to Elizabeth would never happen. He therefore did what he could to badmouth Somerset in the presence of young king himself in order to win his favor. When the Protector discovered his brother’s devious behavior, he had him arrested and imprisoned in January 1549. Elizabeth’s cofferer, Thomas Parry, and her governess, Kat Ashley, were also arrested and even Elizabeth herself was vigorously interrogated in order to discover any involvement she may have had in the schemes of her suitor. The interrogators were able to discover that Elizabeth and Seymour had indeed acted inappropriately, but no evidence was found to implicate the princess or any of her household in the coup that the Admiral was supposedly plotting and Somerset had no choice but to release them. Elizabeth was undoubtedly embarrassed by the whole situation, and her honor was temporarily tarnished, but she escaped relatively unscathed. The same could not be said for Admiral Seymour, who was attainted and beheaded two months following his arrest. Elizabeth must have felt a certain amount of sorrow for his death, but she must also have known that his own provocations sealed his fate and her pity therefore had to be limited.
For the remaining years of the reign of Edward VI, Elizabeth lived a quiet existence and played no role at all in the politics of the regime. She lived comfortably on her estates and visited court only sporadically. It is worthy of mention that it was around this time that she chose Sir William Cecil to be her surveyor, beginning a relationship that would last nearly fifty years. In the spring of 1553, the king’s health was rapidly deteriorating and, by the summer, the royal council was preparing for his death. Henry VIII’s final will stated that the Orthodox Catholic Mary was to succeed Edward should he die childless. The king, who was himself a zealous Protestant, would have nothing of this and worked with the Duke of Northumberland (who had usurped power from Protector Somerset in the fall of 1549) to draw up a will that disinherited both Mary and Elizabeth in favor of their first cousin once removed, Lady Jane Grey, a Protestant. It is not known what Elizabeth’s initial reaction was to this development, but she does not seem to have made any significant objections, though it can be assumed she felt a bit discarded considering the fact that she and her brother were both followers of the reformed faith. The drama that followed Edward’s death in July 1553 is more appropriately told in detail in Mary’s biography, but when Mary emerged victorious and became the new Queen of England, it must be assumed that Elizabeth, considering her knowledge of her sister’s religious beliefs, was a bit uneasy with the regime change.
Elizabeth welcomed Mary into London, where she was to be officially proclaimed and crowned queen, and the two sisters seem to have greeted each other warmly. But, it must be assumed that this was for outward show only considering the fact that it was obvious that Mary viewed her younger sister as a bastard and a heretic, whose mother was no less than the whore of Babylon herself. Anyone familiar with the situation knew that Elizabeth’s religious beliefs would be an issue for the new queen and Elizabeth was forced to at least humor her sister and participate in the traditional Catholic mass. Mary had claimed that no one would be persecuted for their religious beliefs, but seems to have been under the impression that all of the English people would embrace the Orthodox Catholic faith and a reconciliation with Rome. The queen was wrong in her assumptions and, despite the fact that Elizabeth outwardly appeared to be a loyal Catholic, Mary (correctly) would never fully believe in her sister’s sudden transformation.
With trust a major issue between the two sisters, it came as no surprise that Mary and her council believed that Elizabeth was involved in the rebellion of Sir Thomas Wyatt in early 1554. Though she most likely had no direct involvement in the specifics of the rising, the rebels’ plan seems to have been to replace Mary with Elizabeth to prevent the highly unpopular marriage between the former and Philip of Spain (which Mary seemed dead set on by this point) from occurring. Elizabeth was forcefully taken from her estate, despite her ill health, and put in the tower to be questioned. As much as the queen’s ministers tried to break her, Elizabeth would not admit to any knowledge of the rebellion and no sufficient evidence could be found to incriminate her. The princess received a further reprieve when Wyatt himself, just before his execution, admitted that she was not directly involved and that the rebels had acted on their own freewill. Though Mary was never fully convinced of her sister’s innocence, she knew that it would be unjust to keep her in the tower any longer, but still chose to keep her under house arrest at Woodstock in the custody of her loyal henchman, Sir Henry Bedingfield. Elizabeth vehemently protested against her continued confinement and wrote a number of letters to the queen and the council expressing her anger, but her complaints were largely ignored by Mary, who was concentrating all her attentions on her new husband, Philip, and to the reconciliation of England and Rome. Over time, Elizabeth was gradually granted more liberties but was always under some sort of close watch by her sister the queen.
Meanwhile, Mary’s popularity amongst her subjects was on the decline, while Elizabeth’s was on the rise. The Spanish marriage had never been popular or advisable and the fact that Mary was by this point ordering the burnings of Protestants by the dozen did not exactly endear her in the hearts of her people. Elizabeth, on the other hand, was looked at as a sort of underdog who was being repressed and persecuted by a despotic, iron-fisted dictator for unjust reasons. Mary’s position became even weaker when she suffered a phantom pregnancy by the summer of 1555. Shortly after this event, her beloved husband departed England to deal with continental affairs (he was soon to become King of Spain). Before he left the realm, Philip apparently urged his wife to treat Elizabeth with more respect and even to officially name her as her heir. This was clearly a strategic move on Philip’s part. He knew that there was a very good chance that Mary, who was nearing forty, would die childless, and that Elizabeth would be her most logical successor, and it would be in his best interest to stay on good relations with the future queen, should he need her assistance against the French, of whom he was on the verge of war. The alternate English heir, Mary, Queen of Scots, though Catholic, would undoubtedly have treated England as no more than an extension of France (where she was being brought up), an unacceptable scenario to Philip.
After Philip’s departure, Mary still refused to officially acknowledge Elizabeth as her heir, but she was definitely treated better and was allowed to retire to her own lands. At least two other smaller risings erupted in the coming months in which Elizabeth was suspected of being involved in, but, again, no evidence against her could be mustered. As time progressed, in became increasingly clear that Mary would have no children and that Elizabeth would become queen. Therefore, Philip, wanting to stay on friendly terms with the future monarch but, not wanting a Protestant to ascend the throne, he proposed for her to marry his ally, the Duke of Savoy, a Catholic. Elizabeth outright refused the match and even Mary was not happy with the prospect, considering it would never win the approval of parliament. Philip returned to England for his final visit in the spring of 1557, but could still not convince Mary or Elizabeth to accept the marriage and was forced to leave again, but this time with a sizeable English army for the newly commenced war against France. Mary received two more major blows in early 1558: First, the French conquered the English-controlled town of Calais; and, secondly, it appears that the queen was the victim of yet another phantom pregnancy several months later. Soon after, Mary’s health slowly began to deteriorate and, by the fall of that year, it became blatantly obvious that she would die childless. Having no other choice, Mary was forced to acknowledge Elizabeth as her rightful heir, despite the fact that she knew very well that her sister would bring the realm right back into the depths of Protestantism, just as it had been in during the reign of Edward VI. On November 17, 1558, Mary died after a reign of just five (grueling) years. That same day, Elizabeth was proclaimed Queen of England.
Even before she became queen, Elizabeth had been making preparations for her accession, putting together a council and choosing men to fill the major posts in her government. Her primary councilor was to be her old surveyor, William Cecil, who would serve as Secretary of State. When Elizabeth ascended the throne, many of her sister’s old councilors were dismissed (though several members of the upper nobility remained) and were replaced by men of Elizabeth’s choice. Wanting her accession to be widely accepted (since she was technically still a bastard in the eyes of many contemporaries), Elizabeth was officially anointed and crowned queen in a lavish ceremony in January 1559. With this accomplished, the queen and parliament turned their attentions to the pressing matter of religion. Though Elizabeth had remained fairly ambiguous so far on the topic of religion, it was clear that she possessed Protestant leanings, even if they were not nearly as extreme as those of her brother Edward. With the church of England still technically under Roman jurisdiction (thanks to Mary), clearly reform was in the agenda.
In the first parliament of the reign, a new Act of Supremacy was passed which eliminated the heresy laws that had been in effect during Mary’s reign (which caused all of the burnings) and stated that Elizabeth was to be the Supreme Governor of the Church of England, therefore reestablishing the country as a separate entity from the papacy. Elizabeth’s title of Supreme “Governor” was modified from Supreme “Head” (the title her father and brother had gone by) so as to indicate that God (and not any human) was the supreme head of the church and to appease those who were uncomfortable with the prospect of a woman as the leader of the church. As was the case with Henry VIII’s Supremacy Act of 1534, the 1559 Act required anyone holding public or church office to sign an Oath of Supremacy, which acknowledged that they accepted the law. Any churchman who refused to take the oath was stripped of his temporalities and any layman who refused was deprived of his lands. Only after refusing to take the oath three times was it considered to be a treasonable offense, punishable by death. This was different from the 1534 oath, which made it automatic treason to refuse to conform. Several Catholic bishops refused to sign and were duly dismissed from office and, in some cases, imprisoned. In addition, a new Act of Uniformity was passed which made the 1552 Book of Common Prayer (composed by Thomas Cranmer) the standard doctrine of religious worship of the realm, though with a few modifications so as to please Catholics, such as the usage of clerical vestments and certain relics.
Elizabeth herself found the prospect of clerical marriage (a standard cornerstone of Protestantism) to be fairly abhorrent, which must have pleased the realm’s Catholic populace, but she did not outlaw the practice, even though there was no mention of its legality in the Act of Uniformity. The traditional Catholic mass was officially banned, and church attendance for the reformed mass was fairly mandatory, but Elizabeth made little effort to enforce these laws, as long as her Catholic subjects were willing to outwardly conform to the new established religious laws of the realm, which they usually did. Therefore, with the Religious Settlement of 1559, Elizabeth had achieved her goal of appealing to as many of her subjects as possible (while still keeping a Protestant state), a concept her siblings had been far too unfamiliar with. The queen would later find though, that not all of her subjects were as happy as she believed them to be.
With the matter of religion now settled, new business was free to be pursued. At home, the most pressing matter, to everyone except the queen herself, was for a royal marriage. Elizabeth was widely expected to marry so that she may produce an heir and prevent civil war from breaking out should she die childless. There were numerous problems involved in the situation. For one thing, Elizabeth, remembering the way her father had treated his wives (divorcing two and executing another two), did not possess a high opinion of marriage. The bad experience she herself had suffered with Thomas Seymour did little to suppress this opinion. In addition, it was believed that, if Elizabeth married a foreigner, which was a common practice so as to gain a dependable ally, the union would be just as unpopular as that of Queen Mary and Philip of Spain and England would be forced to become involved in the affairs of whatever country the queen should marry into. On top of this, should Elizabeth marry say, a Frenchman or a Spaniard, religion would become an issue and it is unlikely that the queen would want the realm to return to papal control. Both Archduke Charles (younger son of Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand I) and even Philip of Spain, Elizabeth’s former brother-in-law, among others, proposed to the queen, but were brusquely turned away.
Other political ramifications came into play when the idea of Elizabeth marrying one of her own subjects came into consideration. The Englishman who was considered to have the best chance for winning the queen’s hand in marriage was Robert Dudley, a son of the Duke of Northumberland, who had served as the top man in the second half of the reign of Edward VI, and a long-time friend of Elizabeth’s. Though the two deeply loved and admired one another, Dudley had already gained the enmity of many of the royal councilors for being the queen’s personal favorite and it can only be assumed that events would have worsened had he become king. For all these reasons and more, the topic of marriage was dropped for the time being, but would continue to be an issue as long as the queen was capable of having children.
More pressing matters awaited Elizabeth on the foreign front. In April 1559, the Treaty of Cateau-Cambresis had been signed with Henry II of France, finally ending England’s involvement in the continental war that Philip of Spain had dragged the realm into. The French, however, still considered Elizabeth to be a heretic and a bastard and preferred to have their own candidate, the young Mary, Queen of Scots, on the English throne to do their bidding. Queen Mary had become Queen of Scotland as a week-old infant following the death of her father, James V, in 1542 and had been removed to France at the age of five, where she was betrothed to Francis, the French dauphin, to escape from the War of the Rough Wooing, in which the English attempted to gain possession of her and marry her to Edward VI and unite the kingdoms of England and Scotland, and had lived there ever since. As a granddaughter of Margaret Tudor, the elder sister of Henry VIII who had married James IV of Scotland, Mary was the most logical heir to Elizabeth, but she was a Catholic and a girl of both French and Scottish decent, facts that made Elizabeth and her council cringe. To make matters worse, Mary’s mother, Mary of Guise, was serving (with French assistance) as regent of Scotland, assuring that England would be surrounded by hostile Catholic enemies on both the north and south.
Luckily though, the English received a reprieve from their precarious position when the Protestant Reformation, led by John Knox, a radical Calvinist preacher who had recently returned from exile on the continent, swept into Scotland. Though Knox was most certainly the heart and soul of the Scottish Reformation, Protestantism had actually been building up in Scotland for some time and many of the most powerful and influential noblemen in the realm considered themselves to be of the reformed faith. These noblemen, who came to be known as the Lords of the Congregation, were unhappy with the way that Mary of Guise was running the country and felt that Scotland was turning into nothing but a satellite of France. Mary, who was vehemently anti-Protestant, made matters worse by continuing to bring French troops into the realm and the Lords were anxious to rid themselves of her. They therefore reached out to England for aid. Many of Elizabeth’s councilors, particularly Cecil, saw this as a grand opportunity, but Elizabeth herself refused to give aid to unruly subjects who wished to overthrow their rightful sovereign. Elizabeth also hated John Knox, who was a blatant anti-feminist, in addition to being a radical reformer.
When Henry II died suddenly in a jousting accident in July 1559, Mary’s husband, Francis II, succeeded him, making Mary queen of both France and Scotland. Queen Mary’s Guise relatives in France now urged her to attempt to take the English crown also, and she actually began to occasionally style herself Queen of England. This, Elizabeth would not stand for and agreed to send monetary aid to the Scottish Lords. The queen was further convinced to send troops to the border town of Berwick and a fleet to defend the Scottish coast against French reinforcements, but was still hesitant about sending an army into Scotland. It was only when Cecil threatened to resign his post that Elizabeth agreed to the Treaty of Berwick with the Scots. The treaty officially dissolved the Auld Alliance between France and Scotland (which had been in effect since 1295) and formed a new Anglo-Scottish alliance in which England would provide troops to protect Scotland against French hostilities. After still more dithering on Elizabeth’s part, an English army under the leadership of the Duke of Norfolk invaded Scotland and aided the Scots in the siege of Leith Castle. At first, the mission was unsuccessful, but the Anglo-Scottish army kept up the pressure and, when Mary of Guise died in June 1560, the French agreed to come to terms with their enemies. The result was the Treaty of Edinburgh, which stated that the French would withdraw their troops from Scotland and Queen Mary would renounce her claim to the English throne.
Believing the truce with Scotland to be a done deal, attentions at the English court began, once again, to focus around Elizabeth’s possible marriage to Robert Dudley. All of the queen’s councilors were still opposed to the match, but it seemed that the Elizabeth cared not for what they thought. However, events took a scandalous turn when Dudley’s wife Amy died under mysterious circumstances in September 1560, immediately giving rise to rumors that both Dudley and even the queen herself were involved. Though no evidence was found to incriminate either of them and Dudley’s suit continued for some months after his wife’s death, Elizabeth knew now that it would be far too controversial to marry her childhood friend and talk of the union was indeed dismissed.
By this point though, difficulties on the foreign front began, once again, to take center stage because of the fact that Queen Mary, not wanting to give up her claim to the English throne, had yet to ratify the Treaty of Edinburgh. To complicate matters further, Mary’s husband, Francis II, died in December 1560 and Mary made the decision to return home to Scotland to rule in person. This made for a precarious situation being that Mary was a Catholic and Scotland was now a Protestant nation, free from papal interference, ruled by the Congregation Lords. The English feared that Mary would return Scotland to the Catholic fold and that French troops would be brought back. Mary, however, claimed she had no intention of changing religious policy in her native land and merely asked to be able to hear mass privately. When she arrived back in Scotland in August 1561, Mary gave every indication of keeping her word and even showed great interest in maintaining good relations with England. She still, however, refused to ratify the Treaty of Edinburgh and sent any envoy, William Maitland, to England in an attempt to convince Elizabeth to formally designate Mary as her heir, with little success.
With progress coming to a halt, it was agreed that the two queens would meet in person, somewhere in northern England, so that they could hammer out their differences. This, unfortunately, would never happen because Elizabeth was now forced to focus her attentions on events in France, where Queen Mary’s uncle, the Duke of Guise, had gained virtual control over the young king, Charles IX, and his mother, Catherine de Medici (who served as regent), and waged war against the French Protestants, known as the Huguenots. The Huguenots offered Elizabeth the French town of Newhaven (to replace Calais, lost in 1558) in exchange for her aid against the royal Catholic faction. Not wanting the Guise family to gain complete control in France, Elizabeth agreed, in September 1562, to send an army to France under the command of Robert Dudley’s brother Ambrose, Earl of Warwick. Shortly after, Elizabeth fell seriously ill with small pox and all in England feared for her life and the succession of the crown.
Luckily, Elizabeth was able to recover completely, but it proved that she could not stall much longer when it came to marriage, or at least naming an heir. On the other hand, the situation in France did not go as well as the queen’s recovery. Warwick stationed the English army at Newhaven and garrisoned the town, but did little else. The Huguenots had been hoping that the English would aid them by lifting the sieges on several Protestant-held towns in Normandy, but this never happened and the towns were recaptured by the royal French army, forcing the Huguenots to come to terms with their fellow countrymen and agree to aid them in pushing the English out of Newhaven. Even though Elizabeth remained optimistic of victory against the French after the Huguenots’ defection, it became clear that Warwick would not be able to hold on to Newhaven for much longer, being that the enterprise was extremely expensive and the French were putting pressure on them, in addition to the fact that plague was now ravaging the English army. Therefore, Warwick was ordered to make peace with the French and returned to England in August 1563. All in all, the French expedition had accomplished nothing except to bring the plague into England, where it killed thousands. This was indeed Elizabeth’s worst military failure to date.
With the futile French campaign now, thankfully, in the past, English affairs once again returned to the two political mainstays of the first half of Elizabeth’s reign: Scottish politics and the English succession. In Scotland, Queen Mary was anxious to remarry and assure the Scottish succession. Elizabeth, knowing that Mary would want to make her as happy as possible if she ever hoped to inherit the English throne, saw this as an opportunity to recommend a husband for the Queen of Scots who would be assured to be a loyal servant of the English crown and the Protestant cause (and also to prevent Mary from marrying an enemy of England’s). Therefore, Elizabeth put forward none other than Robert Dudley as a potential candidate for Mary’s hand. To sweeten the deal, Dudley was raised to the peerage as Earl of Leicester and Elizabeth agreed to name Mary as her heir if she went through with the marriage, as long as she did not attempt to seize the crown during her own lifetime. Both Leicester and Mary were hesitant about the marriage at first, and the latter was also considering a union with Don Carlos, son and heir to Philip of Spain, but after some consideration, Mary seemed to be more open to the match. As Elizabeth began to waver on the issue of the succession, however, the marriage talks between Mary and Leicester broke down.
The next move Cecil and the queen made was a mysterious one and will most likely never be fully understood, though hypotheses can be constructed. Elizabeth, on Cecil’s advice, sent Henry Stewart, Lord Darnley (a first cousin of the Queen of Scots), to Scotland to serve as an alternate suitor to Mary. It appears that the strategy here was to play off the fact that Mary was desperate to be named as Elizabeth’s heir and that she would feel she needed to ask the English queen for permission to marry one of her own subjects. Elizabeth would then be in the ultimate bargaining position. The strategy backfired severely. Whereas Mary and Darnley did ultimately fall in love and become engaged, they did not care in the least that Elizabeth disapproved of the union and refused to sanction it. Therefore, the two were married in July 1565, despite the English queen’s objections, much to the anger of Elizabeth and her council. The match between Mary and Darnley was a particularly dangerous one for Elizabeth’s regime. Darnley, like Mary, was a grandchild of Margaret Tudor (through her second marriage to the Earl of Angus) and therefore carried a claim of his own to the English throne. The fact that Darnley was born in England only strengthened his claim. In addition, the new King of Scots was a Stewart in the male line, being descended from an earlier ancestor of King Robert II, the first Stewart monarch of Scotland. While being a descendent from an earlier Stewart did not give Darnley a claim to Scotland’s crown in its own right (since Robert II claimed the throne through his mother Marjorie, the daughter of Robert Bruce), it made him the perfect match for Mary, since now, the Stewart name would remain on the Scottish throne if the two were to have children. On top of all this, Darnley displayed Catholic sympathies (though he was not believed to be particularly devout), making the match a union against Protestantism to an extent.
All in all, the marriage was a huge defeat for the English and for the Congregation Lords who ruled Scotland with the queen and it was even believed at one point that Mary was on the verge of forming a Catholic league with France and Spain against all Protestant nations. Fortunately, the crisis was not as dire as they had believed it to be. Mary was pregnant by the fall of 1565, but this appears to be where happiness ended for the couple. Darnley, who was not quite twenty years of age at the time of his marriage, turned out to be a greedy, ambitious and overreaching young man, who preferred to spend his time living a life of debauchery in the taverns and brothels of Edinburgh then ruling the country in conjunction with his wife. The Scottish king continuously urged his wife to grant him the Crown Matrimonial (which would allow him to inherit the throne should Mary die before him) and his alcohol-fuelled, violent behavior made him many enemies at court, including, most significantly, James Stewart, Earl of Moray (Mary’s illegitimate half-brother), who actually reached out to Elizabeth for assistance against the rebellious young man (though with only minor success).
Darnley’s most atrocious act came in March 1566 when he joined forces with the very Protestant lords who despised him to murder an Italian musician living at the Scottish court named Davide Riccio, whom he was convinced was having an affair with his wife, who showed much favor towards the foreigner. One evening, the queen, Riccio and a few other intimates were having dinner when Darnley and his fellow conspirators stormed in, pulled the Italian away and brutally stabbed him to death in the heavily pregnant Mary’s presence. To make matters worse for himself, Darnley, in a display of cowardice, betrayed the lords to his wife, forcing them to flee the country and take sanctuary in England. The incident was looked at with horror throughout Europe and all involved waited to see what consequences would inevitably result from the bloody event. Fortunately, the birth of Prince James in June of that same year acted as sort of tension cooler in Scottish politics (at least for the time being). Mary asked Queen Elizabeth to stand as godmother to her son, which the English queen agreed to do, through a representative. This, combined with Elizabeth’s proclamation that she would do nothing to outlaw Mary’s succession to the English throne (though she still refused to officially name her as heir apparent), made for much more cordial relations between England and Scotland.
As all of this drama was unfolding in Scotland, Elizabeth was, once again, being pressured by her councilors and by parliament to either marry or name a successor, or both. A number of the old suitors’ names began to float about again (such as Archduke Charles and, of course, the Earl of Leicester) and even the young Charles IX of France was considered, despite only being in his mid-teens. Though none of these matches ever materialized, for reasons religious and otherwise, Elizabeth appeased parliament by informing them that she would most certainly marry when she found a suitable match for herself. She outright refused, however, to name an heir, citing the danger that she herself faced from her sister Mary when she was considered her sister’s most likely successor. In the end, parliament was forced to settle for a half-hearted promise of marriage from their queen and the succession was, once again, temporarily pushed aside as yet more dramatic events in Scotland progressed.
On February 10, 1567, Lord Darnley, King Consort of Scotland died under extremely mysterious circumstances. The Edinburgh house he had been staying at, Kirk O’Field, had exploded and sent his body hurling into a nearby garden. Though there are many different theories on Darnley’s death, it has been commonly concluded that the explosion did not kill him and that he was finished off by one or more of the conspirators by way of suffocation or strangulation. Whatever the case may be, Queen Mary herself almost immediately became implicated in the murder plot and placards were posted throughout Edinburgh accusing her of the crime. Elizabeth urged her fellow monarch to thoroughly investigate her husband’s murder so as to draw any suspicion away from herself. Mary, apparently, did not take the wise words of the English queen to heart and the supposed head plotter in the affair, James Hepburn, Earl of Bothwell, did not receive a serious trial. Shortly after, Mary was supposedly kidnapped and raped by the earl, actions that were taken by contemporaries to be staged. This seems to have been the case, considering the fact that Mary and Bothwell were actually married in May 1567.
The Protestant Lords (led by the Earl of Moray), who most likely acted with Bothwell in Darnley’s murder, had no intention of allowing their peer to attain so much power for long and immediately began making plans to rid the country of both Mary and her new husband for good. Just two months after their marriage, Mary and Bothwell were forced to surrender to Moray and the Lords. Bothwell was ultimately exiled and died in a Norwegian prison and Mary was taken into custody at Lochleven Castle to await her fate. Moray looked to Elizabeth for support and, while Cecil and many other royal councilors were thrilled by the news from Scotland, the queen herself was extremely unhappy that subjects would treat their rightful sovereign in such a way. As much as Elizabeth was disgusted by Mary’s personal behavior, she knew that the Lords’ overthrow of their queen would set a dangerous precedent, that could one day affect her too. She therefore refused to give the Lords any assistance and urged them to reinstate Mary immediately. The Lords, in turn, threatened to renew the Auld Alliance with France, and came close to doing so, if Elizabeth did not cooperate, and then proceeded to force Mary to abdicate the throne. In July, Prince James, who was just over a year old, became King James VI of Scotland. The new king’s uncle, Moray, was designated Regent of the realm during his nephew’s minority. Elizabeth was not happy with this turn of events, and even threatened war at one point, but she was well aware that England was not prepared, financially or militarily, to take part in a war at the time and she grudgingly, and over time, accepted the new political situation in Scotland (even though she still refused to acknowledge James as king or Moray as regent).
In the spring of 1568, Mary managed to escape from her captivity at Lochleven and mustered an army to fight for her cause. Unfortunately, Mary’s forces were no match for her brother’s and, upon realizing this fact, the queen was forced to flee. Knowing of no other place to go at the time, she crossed into England and took sanctuary in the town of Workington. When Elizabeth learned of Mary’s presence within her realm, her first instinct was to show sympathy towards her fallen fellow monarch and offer her assistance to win back her throne. Upon further consideration though, Elizabeth realized that this was not that simple of a decision. Mary had been accused of being a party to her husband’s murder and the English were reluctant to put her back on her throne if she was not definitively cleared of this accusation. It was ultimately agreed that Mary would be put on trial for her alleged involvement in the murder and, if she was found innocent, would be returned to Scotland to continue her reign. Moray and Maitland, who claimed to have fairly solid evidence against their queen, travelled to York to take part in the trial, though neither Mary or Elizabeth were present, except through representation.
The pieces of evidence that Moray referred to against Mary were the so-called Casket Letters, which were supposedly taken from a servant of Bothwell’s after Mary’s capture. Though to this very day the correspondences have not been officially verified, the Casket Letters represented the ultimate proof that Mary and Bothwell had plotted to murder Darnley, as they contained a variety of different documents of an incriminating nature. When presented with this evidence, Elizabeth and her councilors were, of course, appalled. Mary demanded that she be able to appear in person to defend herself but was denied the privilege of doing so. When Mary refused to give her representatives permission to speak on her behalf, Elizabeth declared, in January 1569, that she could not rule on the case and that Mary must now remain in political limbo as a captive of the Earl of Shrewsbury. It seems as if Elizabeth had planned this all along considering the fact that, while she pitied Mary’s situation, she did not care for her personally or for the threat that she posed to her country’s religious and dynastic security. Elizabeth could now say that she had offered Mary a chance to defend herself, which she had blatantly turned down, making it more justifiable to keep her under tight security. In the end, one must conclude that Elizabeth had no intention of ruling either way on her cousin’s case.
Soon enough, it would become clear that Mary’s captivity in England would serve as an igniter of sorts for Catholics within England and abroad to unite behind. It is therefore worthy to mention that, around this time, the English became entangled in a relatively small, but highly significant quarrel with Elizabeth’s former brother-in-law, Philip of Spain. Relations between England and Spain had remained fairly cordial since Elizabeth’s accession to the throne, despite the obvious religious differences between the two kingdoms. Several years earlier, in 1566, Philip had decided to send an army under the Duke of Alva to his territories in the Low Countries in an effort to destroy Protestantism, which was prevalent in the Netherlands, Belgium and parts of Germany. At first, Elizabeth stated that Philip was free to put down rebellious subjects in any way he saw fit. But, when the queen realized that, having eliminated Protestantism on the continent, Philip might then turn his attentions to England, she realized that a more defensive strategy must be considered. Elizabeth and Cecil were also not happy with the fact that trade between England and the Low Countries (a significant chunk of the English economy) would be disrupted, or with the fact that it became clear that Philip was brutally suppressing his subjects, reminiscent of the Protestant burnings during the reign of Bloody Mary.
For these reasons it came as no surprise that, when a group of ships transporting money and supplies for Philip’s army was forced to land in England, all of their assets were seized. In retaliation, the Duke of Alva confiscated all English property in the Low Countries and put a trade embargo into effect (moves that hurt him more than the English). This, however, did not prevent the English from commandeering Spanish ships every time they happened to sail close enough to England. These actions not only antagonized the Spanish, but were also looked at disparagingly by Catholics in England’s conservative north. It was at this point that two powerful northern lords, Thomas Percy, Earl of Northumberland, and Charles Neville, Earl of Westmorland (both Catholics), began to scheme against Elizabeth and her evil advisers (namely Cecil, whom they felt possessed far too much power). The Spanish ambassador to England, de Spes, was hesitant to support the earls’ plot at first but, as opposition to Cecil mounted, he reconsidered. Other influential lords joined the effort to bring down Cecil, including Thomas Howard, Duke of Norfolk, and even the Earl of Leicester, Elizabeth’s erstwhile favorite. Luckily for Cecil, the queen was not prepared to turn her trusted Secretary of State into another Cardinal Wolsey or Thomas Cromwell (both of whom had been destroyed by jealous noblemen for their powerful influence during the reign of Henry VIII) and stuck by him, ultimately causing the lords to back down and make amends.
The failure to take down Cecil did not, however, stop the Duke of Norfolk from continuing to harbor ambitious thoughts and his next scheme was based on a marriage between himself and Mary Queen of Scots. Norfolk was convinced that Elizabeth would be happy with this match because it would provide the Queen of Scots with an English husband who would prevent her from attempting to usurp the English throne. Therefore, the duke began to sell his plan to many of the other noblemen and councilors at court and gained a good amount of support, including from Queen Mary herself. When Elizabeth found out about the proposed match though, she was furious and highly suspicious of Norfolk’s motives. Norfolk was a member of the prominent Howard family of East Anglia who had been leading courtiers since the days of Edward IV, though not without controversy. The duke’s great-great grandfather had been killed fighting for Richard III at Bosworth; his great-grandfather had won the Battle of Flodden for Henry VIII; and his father was executed for treason in the closing days of the reign of Henry VIII (with his grandfather only being saved from the axe by the death of the king).
Knowing that Norfolk was the most powerful magnate in England, and that his family had expressed Catholic sympathies in the past, Elizabeth feared that a marriage between him and Queen Mary would only bring trouble to her throne. Therefore, Elizabeth shunned the duke and refused to show him any royal favor, prompting Norfolk to leave court in disgrace. When the queen summoned him back, Norfolk continuously made excuses for his absence until Elizabeth, fearing that he was plotting a rebellion against her, finally became fed up and had him arrested and imprisoned in the tower. Elizabeth then heard rumors of a possible rebellion in the north and promptly summoned the Earls of Northumberland and Westmorland to court to plead their cases. The earls, believing that they were to be imprisoned just as Norfolk had been, defied the summons and mustered a small army. They proceeded into Durham, where they proclaimed that no more Protestant masses would be heard in the town and set up an Orthodox Catholic mass, before they began to head south, stating (as was commonplace for rebels) that they meant no harm to their sovereign, only the evil councilors that surrounded her. When Elizabeth was informed of the Northern Rebellion, she was blind with rage and was not prepared to show any mercy whatsoever to those who had turned traitor on her.
Against the advice of her councilors, the queen quickly mustered a large army to subdue the rising. It appears though, that the queen may have been overly hasty in her actions because, though the northern earls had gained substantial support for their cause, they did not possess the financial or military means to do battle with the royal forces. Therefore, by December 1569, the rebellion was effectively at an end before it had ever really begun. The rebel army was disbanded and the leaders, devoid of all hope, fled into Scotland. Northumberland was captured by the Scottish authorities and ultimately returned to England to face trial. He was beheaded in August 1572. Westmorland fled to the Low Countries where he died a penniless exile in 1601. With the Northern Rebellion now over, Elizabeth wanted to make an example of those who had risen against her and hundreds of participants were mercilessly executed. This was far worse than the number executed under orders from Henry VIII after the Pilgrimage of Grace or by Bloody Mary after Wyatt’s Rebellion (both rebellions of a similar nature to the Northern Rebellion) and showed that those who disturbed the peace in Elizabeth’s realm would be eliminated with the utmost severity.
But, even after this bloody display of authority, rebellion was not quite at an end. Leonard Dacres, a man who, though involved with the Northern Rebellion, had not yet been implicated, decided to muster an army and cause further trouble. A royal force led by Elizabeth’s cousin, Henry Carey, Lord Hunsdon, was sent to put down the rising and was able to defeat Dacres’ significantly larger force at the Battle of Gelt Bridge. Dacres fled to the continent where he died in exile several years later and rebellion, for the time being, was at an end. The whole experience, however, showed Elizabeth just how powerful a figure Queen Mary was and that, as long as she lived and served as a plausible alternative to sit on the throne, there would be someone who would be willing to rebel in her name.
Events involving England, however, both foreign and domestic would, by no means, remain quiet as the 1570s began. The decade started with the assassination of the Earl of Moray, creating an even more chaotic political situation in Scotland and fresh suggestions from Elizabeth (who was being threatened by France) to put Mary back on the Scottish throne, despite her advisers’ suggestions to the contrary. Luckily for the English, Mary’s restoration never came to fruition as the Scottish queen still adamantly refused to ratify the Treaty of Edinburgh and formally relinquish her claim to the English throne. While all of this drama was occurring, Pope Pius V formally excommunicated Elizabeth from the Catholic church. This was a significant move because, although Elizabeth cared no more for the Pope than her father or brother had, all of the Catholic rulers of Europe who acknowledged papal authority now looked at the queen with renewed hostility as a heretic who must be removed from power. Even a number of Elizabeth’s own Catholic subjects felt emboldened to rebel against her regime after the Pope’s declaration, causing parliament to attempt to pass a number of distinctly anti-Catholic laws, none of which were able to get by the queen’s veto stamp.
This was the atmosphere that existed in England when Mary Queen of Scots, frustrated that the negotiations to restore her to her throne were achieving nothing, began plotting with an Italian-born international banker, living in England at the time, named Roberto Ridolfi. Ridolfi had been semi-involved in the Northern Rebellion, though not implicated, and offered to travel to Rome, Madrid and other European cities in an attempt to gain support from foreign princes to replace Elizabeth on the English throne with Mary. The Italian’s status as a legitimate banker gave him the perfect cover, since he conducted real business throughout Europe, and Mary could not refuse the offer. Also involved in the Ridolfi Plot were Bishop John Lesley of Ross and, to an extent, the Duke of Norfolk. Norfolk had been released from the tower in the summer of 1570 when he managed to convince the queen that he would no longer push for a marriage between himself and Mary. When Ridolfi approached him about the conspiracy, the duke was circumspect to say the least, and refused to sign his name to any documents pertaining to the plot. But, Norfolk’s secretary assured Ridolfi that the duke would do what he could to aid the conspirators and this proved sufficient. Ridolfi then proceeded to request aid from several Catholic powers on the continent, though only Philip of Spain himself showed any genuine interest in the plan and agreed to discretely give his aid.
Desperately in need of allies, Elizabeth agreed to negotiate a marriage alliance with France which would create a union between herself and the Duke of Anjou, a younger of brother of King Charles IX. Because of differences once again relating to age, religion and the queen’s own stubbornness, the marriage never happened. For this reason, the English were twice as lucky to apprehend a man by the name of Charles Bailly, who was carrying a number of incriminating letters pertaining to the Ridolfi plot, in April 1571. Bailly was tortured into confessing that the letters were indeed from Ridolfi, but were addressed only to someone referred to as number “40.” It was assumed that the mysterious number 40 was an English nobleman involved in the plot, though it was not known exactly who. In August, it began to become apparent that 40 was the Duke of Norfolk when a man hired by Norfolk to transport French money to Queen Mary (a pension from her days as Queen of France) was apprehended, for suspicious behavior, and questioned. Though Mary’s French pension was not related to the Ridolfi Plot, it aroused enough suspicion to cause several of Norfolk’s servants to be arrested and interrogated. Under threat of torture, the men revealed that their master still harbored ambitions of marrying Queen Mary, causing the duke’s arrest the following month. The Bishop of Ross was then questioned and admitted that the duke was indeed number 40. Norfolk vigorously defended himself but was nonetheless convicted of high treason and sentenced to death in January 1572. Elizabeth, however, proved reluctant to sign Norfolk’s death warrant and the execution did not take place until six months after the duke was convicted.
All the while, parliament had been attempting to convince Elizabeth that Mary herself was involved in the plot and should be tried for her crimes, but the queen refused to put her fellow monarch on trial and would not even approve a bill that would have officially banned the Queen of Scots from the English succession. All in all, Norfolk was the only significant figure involved in the Ridolfi Plot to lose his life. Ridolfi himself escaped unscathed and went on to become a senator in his native Italy, dying, as an octogenarian, in 1612. The biggest result of the Ridolfi Plot though, was the fact that it now proved that Spain was indeed a hostile nation in the eyes of the English. Therefore, talks were renewed for an alliance between England and France (another enemy of Spain), hopefully to be sealed with a marriage between Elizabeth and one of Charles IX’s younger brothers, the Dukes of Anjou or Alencon (the latter of whom was over twenty years the queen’s junior). Elizabeth lessened her demands for the princes and even stated that she would allow them to hear Catholic mass in private within England, but still the negotiations came to nothing. Nevertheless, England and France agreed to the Treaty of Blois in April 1572, which stated that, if one country were to be invaded, the other would immediately come to its aid.
With the treaty signed, relations between the two traditional enemies became significantly better and Charles IX even began to show a great deal of toleration for the Huguenots in France, going so far as to send aid to the Protestants fighting against Spain in the Low Countries (even though Elizabeth still refused to commit herself to any military aid to the region). The queen mother of France, Catherine de Medici, was not a supporter of her son’s plan, knowing that it would instigate Spain into declaring war on them, and did not believe that England would come to their aid, as they were supposed to under the terms of the treaty, when they needed them to. For this reason, Catherine, in somewhat of a panic, informed her son that the best method to remove themselves from the Low Countries was to kill the Huguenot leader in France, Admiral Coligny, and as many other French Protestants as possible. In August of the same year, on St. Bartholomew’s Day, the king ordered his forces to slay as many Huguenots that they could find on the streets of Paris. In the end, over two thousand Protestant Frenchmen were dead. The St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre deeply disturbed and frightened Elizabeth and her council, making them skeptical as to how dependable an ally France was and, for the time being, pushing England into a state of political isolation.
In the months following the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, relations between England and France remained tense, though technically still peaceful. Charles IX did all he could to reassure Elizabeth that the action that occurred on St. Bartholomew’s Day was an isolated incident and that his intentions were not to completely eliminate Protestantism from France. The English wanted to believe this, but Charles said all this as he sent out armies to besiege Protestant-held cities. Events were furthered complicated when, in May 1574, Charles IX died and was succeeded by his brother, Henry III, a man who had shown himself to be vehemently anti-Protestant in the past. Fortunately, the new French king was more flexible than the English believed that he would be and, though there were lingering problems between French Catholics and Huguenots over the following years, the atmosphere was infinitely less tense than it had been and, by the summer of 1577, a peace was agreed to.
On the Scottish front, Elizabeth finally seemed to be coming to the realization that she would never be able to put Mary back on her throne and that her best bet was to maintain cordial relations with the regime of James VI. For this reason, Elizabeth agreed to send troops and equipment into Scotland to aid the regent, the Earl of Morton, against Mary’s supporters. The Anglo-Scottish army then proceeded to lay siege to Edinburgh Castle, where the Queen’s party had taken refuge to await for the French aid that they believed would be forthcoming, and, within two weeks, the castle surrendered and the King’s party was in much firmer control of Scotland. In the aftermath of this victory, Elizabeth was still hesitant to sign an official treaty with her neighbor to the north, claiming that she did not want to provoke French hostility.
The most significant priority for Elizabeth during this time period was to patch up relations between England and Spain, which had remained high since it had been discovered that King Philip had played a part in the Ridolfi Plot. In March 1573, the Convention of Nymegen was signed which finally put an end to the trade embargo between England and the Low Countries that had been in effect since 1569. The following summer, the Treaty of Bristol was then agreed to, which temporarily ended hostilities between the two kingdoms. With these peace treaties now in effect, it is understandable that Elizabeth now, even more so than before, did not want to risk damaging the delicate relations with Spain.
However, Philip and his commanders were still repressing the Protestants in the Low Countries and one of the primary leaders of the rebels, William of Orange, was pleading to Elizabeth to supply aid to her fellow Protestants, even offering her sovereignty over sections of the region to tempt her. All the queen would do was to attempt to act as a mediator between Philip and his recalcitrant subjects, but even this came to no avail as Philip refused to allow any kind of toleration of the reformed faith. By the fall of 1576 though, the despicable behavior of the Spanish army helped to serve as a unifier of sorts within the Low Countries and even the provinces that were of Catholic sympathy agreed that the troops needed to go. In November of that year, all of the provinces signed the Pacification of Ghent, a mutual agreement to do join together, expel the Spanish from their dominions and to allow religious tolerance within the realm. With the provinces united against him, Philip had no choice but to negotiate and, in February 1577, the Perpetual Edict was signed between the States General of the Low Countries and Don John of Austria, Philip’s half-brother and representative in the region. The Edict stated that Spanish troops were to be removed from the Low Countries under the condition that the region remained outwardly Catholic, which still angered the more Protestant areas in the north, and therefore was not the best of solutions.
Unfortunately, this peace only lasted for about six months and, by the summer time, Philip had again sent his troops back to the Low Countries. This time around, seeing Philip’s treachery, Elizabeth agreed to provide the Dutch rebels with both money and men. Oddly enough though, William of Orange remained aloof to the queen’s generosity and when he finally agreed to except English assistance, Elizabeth had withdrawn the offer. Instead, the queen offered to subsidize an army of German mercenaries to aid William and the Dutch. This way, she could claim that she provided assistance to the Protestant cause without directly involving herself in the struggle against Spain. William, however, did not feel as if this would be sufficient and began requesting aid from the Duke of Alencon, the younger brother of Henry III of France and a former (and future) suitor of Elizabeth. Though England and France were still technically on good terms with each other, the prospect of French gaining any kind of power in the Low Countries was not a desirable one for Elizabeth. The Dutch Protestants did indeed agree to a pact with Alencon in the summer of 1578, but the duke proved himself to be an ineffective leader and the German mercenary army that Elizabeth had funded did little more to help the situation, allowing Philip’s troops to make major gains against the rebels.
This was how the situation stood when events took a somewhat strange turn in the beginning of 1578. It was at this point that Elizabeth and Alencon decided to renew their courtship of one another and a servant of the duke’s, Jean de Simier, arrived in England to push his master’s suit. Elizabeth was entranced by the charming behavior of the charismatic Simier and entranced further still when the duke himself arrived and stayed for two weeks in the summer of that year. It seemed as if the queen was finally ready to marry. However, the royal council was not particularly happy with the proposed match. Not only was Alencon a foreigner, and an undependable and sometimes irresponsible one at that, the council realized that, at the age of forty-six, it was unlikely that the queen would be able to produce an heir and that, even if she were able to conceive, her death in childbirth (a highly likely scenario for a woman her age during the time) would plunge the realm into chaos. It seemed that only Cecil (who was now Lord Burghley) supported, if half-heartedly, the marriage and the biggest opponent was, by far, the Earl of Leicester (for obvious reasons). Elizabeth was both angry and upset about the reluctance of her council to allow her to marry a man that she was so smitten by, but she ultimately realized that the differences in age and religion, and the fact that the union would most likely not produce any children, would make the marriage a long-shot at best. Negotiations for the marriage still continued, but they slowed down significantly and Alencon was more concerned about his activities in the Low Countries, much to Elizabeth’s chagrin. Meanwhile, it is worthy of note that, around this time, the queen and Leicester had a falling out over the latter’s secret marriage to Lettice Knollys, widow of the Earl of Essex, and the earl was removed from royal favor for some years to come.
There was one last attempt to push through the marriage between Elizabeth and Alencon, which came in the spring of 1581 when a group of French marriage commissioners arrived in England to negotiate the terms of the union. But, as usual, Elizabeth led them astray and began to make unreasonable demands, that she could not have expected the French to agree to, in return for her hand. These complications prompted Alencon to return to England that fall. After a bit more dithering, Elizabeth shocked everyone by announcing that she had every intention of going through with the marriage. Yet again though, the queen’s demands proved to be far too high (most likely intentionally)and Alencon left England for the last time in February 1582. The duke continued to serve in the Low Countries, but with no more success than he had previously achieved. When he became anxious that he was not being given enough power in the region, he attempted to set himself up as supreme ruler of the Low Countries, but to no avail. Alencon returned to France in disgrace and died in June 1584, most likely of malaria, at the young age of twenty-nine. There would never again be a serious contender for Elizabeth’s hand in marriage.
The death of the Duke of Alencon was a huge blow to the rebel cause in the Low Countries, but was dwarfed compared to what happened the following month when William of Orange, who many contemporaries believed to be the heart and soul of the rebellion, was assassinated by a fanatical Catholic. With William out of the way, the Spanish, under the command of Philip’s new general in the region, the Duke of Parma, began to make huge strides in permanently subduing the rebellious provinces. The situation in the Low Countries was now a desperate one for the rebels and, with no further aid on the horizon from France, the Dutch Estates General was forced to, once again, request aid from Elizabeth. Elizabeth, as usual, remained cautious to committing herself so wholeheartedly to the Dutch cause, but it seems that the queen finally realized that it was in the best interests of England for the Spain to be the loser of the wars in the Low Countries. Therefore, Elizabeth agree to the Treaty of Nonsuch with the Estates General in August 1585 and a substantial army was sent to the Netherlands very soon after.
The head commander of the expedition was to be none other than the queen’s erstwhile favorite, the Earl of Leicester, who would serve as Lieutenant-General of the English army. Leicester arrived in the Low Countries in December that year and was greeted warmly and lavishly by the Dutch. Unfortunately, the earl would not be the savior that the queen had expected him to be and he proved to be a rather ineffective leader. It is true that there was a great deal of corruption and a distinct lack of funds in his army, but Leicester clearly was no general and he aggravated Elizabeth even further by accepting the title of Governor General of the Netherlands from the Estates General, which the queen had expressly forbidden him to do. Leicester disgraced his good name even further when, in September 1586, the Anglo-Dutch army was defeated by the Spanish at the Battle of Zutphin, where the earl’s nephew, the well-known warrior-poet Sir Philip Sidney, was fatally wounded. Two months later, Leicester was recalled from his post and, though Elizabeth was happy to see her favorite safe and sound back at court, it was clear that he had failed in his mission, and badly at that.
By this point, the biggest story within England revolved around Mary Queen of Scots. During the 1580s, relations between England and Scotland had been turbulent at best. In 1581, the last Scottish regent, the Earl of Morton (a man who was much inclined towards peace with his neighbors to the south) was executed for his supposed involvement in the murder of Lord Darnley, fourteen years earlier. Morton’s death finally opened up the door for the young James VI to begin to take Scottish affairs into his own hands (though not without a good deal of drama). James showed some signs of being angry with the fact that his mother was being continuously held against her will and there was even talk of setting up a deal with Elizabeth that Mary should be released from captivity and returned to Scotland, where she would rule jointly with her son. On the other hand, James was an ambitious youth who was just beginning to get a taste of what real power was and had little interest in sharing said power with a woman who had not laid eyes on him since he was an infant, even if she was his mother. In addition, James did not want to ruin his own chances of eventually succeeding to the English throne as his mother had. For these reasons, James agreed to remain on peaceful terms with Elizabeth in exchange for a yearly pension, and it now became abundantly clear that Mary would die a prisoner.
With no hope of being put back on her throne by way of diplomacy, Mary became increasingly desperate and began to become involved with plots to have Elizabeth murdered. Mary had already been the focus of a rebellion in 1583, the Throckmorton Plot, which resulted in the execution of the conspiracy’s main plotter and namesake, Sir Francis Throckmorton. For this reason, the former Queen of Scots was under even closer watch than normal when she began corresponding with one Anthony Babington, a minor (but wealthy) Catholic nobleman, about a plot to have Elizabeth murdered and Mary put in her place. Fortunately for the queen, Sir Francis Walsingham (who had been serving as Secretary of State since 1572, when Lord Burghley resigned the position to become Treasurer) used his expansive spy network to intercept and decode all of the letters between Mary and Babington without their knowledge. With all of this evidence in hand, Walsingham easily had what he needed to arrest Babington, which he did in August 1586. Babington and his accomplices were all convicted of high treason and executed in exceptionally gory fashion, by way of public hanging and disembowelment.
After the Babington Plot’s brutal suppression, Elizabeth’s ministers now pushed for the punishment of Mary Queen of Scots, who they considered to be the real rebel in the situation, and it appears they may finally have had the queen’s backing on the issue. Elizabeth had always been circumspect about pronouncing any decisive judgment against a fellow monarch (even one that she loathed personally), but with two serious plots against her person, both involving Mary, within three years, it was obvious that something more definitive had to be done. Mary was arrested and, in October 1586, was put on trial for her crimes. Some of the evidence against her was suspect, and a number of letters were indeed modified in some way to incriminate her further, but it was clear to all that Mary was guilty and she was ultimately convicted of conspiring Elizabeth’s death, which was a capital offense. All of her councilors and members of parliament pushed for Mary’s death, but Elizabeth proved hesitant, partly because of the bond she and Mary shared as fellow queens and partly because of pressure from abroad, from both France and Scotland (where James VI seems to have suddenly developed a conscience in favor of his mother), not to go through with the execution. But, the queen’s ministers pushed and pushed until, finally, in February 1587, Elizabeth signed Mary’s death warrant.
However, in a stunning change of heart, Elizabeth suggested to William Davison, whom she had entrusted with the death warrant, that he should help arrange for Mary to be discreetly murdered, so that it could be said she died of natural causes and Elizabeth would not have to face the possible consequences of executing a fellow monarch. Davison, who was a political novice, was deeply disturbed and went to Burghley for advice. After consulting with his fellow councilors, Burghley decided that they should go through with Mary’s execution and take joint responsibility for their actions should the queen become angry with them. Therefore, without Elizabeth’s knowledge, Mary Queen of Scots was beheaded on February 8, 1587. When the queen was informed of the execution, she was blinded by rage at the fact that her orders had been blatantly disobeyed. Davison was imprisoned in the tower, and Elizabeth seriously considered having him executed, and even Burghley, the queen’s faithful servant for over thirty years, was banned from her presence for several months following the beheading. James VI was also upset about his mother’s death, but he was still cautious not to anger Elizabeth and jeopardize his chances of inheriting the English throne and therefore it must be assumed that there was no serious threat of a Scottish invasion. Over the following months the queen slowly but surely calmed down (though her guilt still remained to a certain extent) and one must gather that Elizabeth felt a great deal of relief that her nearest and dearest enemy was now gone forever.
Elizabeth would not be able to dedicate a great deal of time to mourning her fallen fellow monarch because, by this point, an invasion from Spain was imminent. Ever since Elizabeth had agreed to the Treaty of Nonsuch with the Dutch Estates General and sent an army to the Netherlands in 1585, King Philip had vowed to invade England, despite contrary advise from his councilors, who believed that they must subdue the rebellion in the Low Countries before focusing their attentions on any other endeavors. But, Philip was adamant about going through with the invasion and scurrilously went about making the necessary preparations. The execution of Mary Queen of Scots only provoked Philip even further and he proceeded to form an alliance with Pope Sixtus V against the English. Luckily, English spies abroad were able to discover Philip’s plan to invade their country and, when Elizabeth was informed of the impending venture, she gave the order to strike first. In April 1587, an English fleet led by Sir Francis Drake set out to the continent, and though Elizabeth attempted to alter her orders to only attacking Spanish ships already at sea, the orders were too late. Drake arrived at the Spanish coastal town of Cadiz and proceeded to cause mass destruction of Philip’s ships and supplies. When Drake returned home the following month, he had with him over a hundred thousand pounds of booty and had caused a serious delay in the Spanish war preparations.
Philip was undoubtedly discouraged by the fact that he had been so easily caught off guard by his enemies, but he regained a certain amount of confidence when his army in the Low Countries was able to take the coastal town of Sluys from the Protestant rebels, a significant gain indeed. After this defeat, Elizabeth was disheartened and suggested that a peace settlement should be agreed to between the two sides. Philip seemed to be receptive to this suggestion, which pleased Elizabeth, but his methods were devious and he only agreed to peace talks to distract the English while he continued his plans for an invasion of their realm. Elizabeth was not so naïve to think that she could trust the wily and scheming Philip completely and, for that reason, preparations were made within England to sure up the navy and other defenses. At one point, the queen actually contemplated sending Drake out on another expedition to Spain, but thought better of this when she realized that the Spanish fleet could easily slip by Drake’s and leave England utterly defenseless. The Spanish Armada, under the command of the Duke of Medina Sidonia, finally departed for England in July 1588.
When the Armada arrived near Cornwall about a week later, the English navy immediately set out to encounter it and, over the following weeks, a number of small skirmishes took place throughout the English Channel. The major encounter, however, occurred when Medina Sidonia attempted to merge the Armada with the forces of the Duke of Parma (Philip’s lieutenant in the Low Countries) off the Dutch coast. Unfortunately for Medina Sidonia, Parma was unable to leave port because of attacks from the Protestant rebels. The English, who had followed the duke, used incendiary ships to surprise Medina Sidonia and, at the ensuing Battle of Gravelines, they inflicted a crushing defeat upon the Armada, forcing it to frantically scatter. Even after this massive victory, Elizabeth could not be positive that the Spanish would not still attempt to invade England. Therefore, an army was mustered and sent to Tilbury. It was here that Elizabeth herself, clad in full armor, delivered a thunderous patriotic speech to rally her troops. Fortunately enough though, the Armada was far too weakened by their loss at Gravelines and the proposed invasion never happened. The Armada itself struggled back to Spain in shambles. A number of ships were unfortunate enough to be blown onto the Irish shore, where the soldiers were mercilessly slaughtered. For the time being, Spanish morale was decimated and the English had indeed achieved one of the most significant victories in their long history. Elizabeth was most certainly happy with the outcome of the whole ordeal, but this jubilance was sullied by a personal loss as, less than a month after her speech at Tilbury, her beloved friend and favorite, the Earl of Leicester, passed away at the age of fifty-five. Elizabeth was devastated by the earl’s death but, a new favorite was already emerging to take his place in the queen’s affections.
The man who had the pleasure replace Leicester as the queen’s favorite was none other than the earl’s own stepson, Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex. Essex, who was in his early twenties at the time, had become earl at the age of ten when his father, Walter Devereux, had died of dysentery while serving in Ireland. In many ways, Essex was very much like his stepfather and mentor: He was handsome, charismatic and, most importantly, he was able to charm the queen like none other. For these reasons, Elizabeth heaped rewards upon him, creating him Master of the Horse and, in 1590, endowing him with the income from the monopoly of sweet wines, the latter of which would serve as Essex’s primary source of income for the next ten years. Both the position of Master of the Horse and the sweet wines monopoly were once in the possession of Leicester and they were most certainly crucial to Essex’s financial survival, being that his father had accumulated a great deal of debt by the time of his death and his earldom was arguably the poorest one in England. Essex’s high standing in the queen’s esteem and his blatantly arrogant behavior were bound to land him enemies at court and this is exactly what happened. The earl quarreled, sometimes violently, with powerful men such as Sir Walter Raleigh and, most significantly, Lord Burghley and his son, Robert Cecil, whom the treasurer was grooming to replace him once he died. Even Elizabeth herself was not safe from Essex’s verbal assaults and temper tantrums when he did not get his way and, unlike Leicester, he did not know when to quit while he was ahead and always seemed to push the queen to the absolute limit of her patience. It would be this rash and confrontational behavior that would ultimately undue the earl but, for the time being, despite their constant bickering he remained the apple of the queen’s eye.
With Essex’s fiery, if controversial, spirit came a thirst for adventure that could only truly be satisfied by participating in military campaigns. The earl had already gotten a taste of war when he accompanied Leicester to the Low Countries and had fought at Zutphen, and he was certainly hungry for more. Essex considered himself to be the epitome of chivalry and the ultimate defender of the Protestant faith. For these reasons, it comes as no surprise that he would want to prove himself in battle against the Spanish, who he looked at as the suppressors of the true religion. In the aftermath of the English defeat of the Spanish Armada, Elizabeth was anxious to do whatever she could to drive the final nail into the coffin of the weakened King Philip. Therefore, she authorized a voyage under the command of Francis Drake and John Norris to set out and destroy as much as they could of the remainder of the disheveled Armada. Seeing a huge opportunity to further prove himself in battle, Essex joined the voyage, much to the fury of the queen, who considered hanging the man who had aided the earl in his desertion. Essex may as well have stayed home with his mistress, however, because the voyage turned out to be a disaster. Instead of obeying the queen’s orders and destroying the remainder of the Armada (which was docked in various Spanish ports), Drake and Norris decided to mount a land campaign in Portugal, then under Spanish control, where the objective was to rally the Portuguese people against their usurping landlords. The plan garnered little enthusiasm amongst the locals and, by June 1590, the fleet was forced to return home to England in disgrace, with thousands of lives having already been lost needlessly.
Meanwhile, the situation in France was becoming increasingly more volatile. In July 1589, King Henry III, who for quite some time had been in a civil war against the more radical Catholics within his realm (who had continued support from Spain), was assassinated. He was succeeded on the throne by his distant cousin, Henry IV, a Huguenot. This posed a significant problem because any support that Henry III had been receiving from Catholics within France would be cut off with a Protestant ascending the throne and the Spanish would only double their attacks to prevent the spread of heresy. Therefore, Henry IV had no choice to but request aid from his fellow Protestant, Elizabeth. It was never an easy task to get aid from the English queen but, in this situation, she seemed to realize that the situation was dire (and Henry was able to flatter her in just the right way) and she agreed to send money and men to assist the French king. Henry went through both incredibly fast, angering Elizabeth, but she still agreed to provide him with further aid when Spain invaded Brittany, an action that threatened England almost as much as it did France.
Henry then requested further aid from Elizabeth so that he may recapture the Norman capital of Rouen from the Catholic forces. It was at this point that Essex saw yet another chance to win himself glory on the battlefield and the queen reluctantly put him in charge of the expedition. Unfortunately, the earl would win no more glory on this voyage than he had on his previous one. When Essex arrived in France, he lingered for a month, enjoying the pleasures of the French court, and, when his army finally proceeded to lay siege to Rouen, they achieved nothing except getting the earl’s brother Walter killed in a skirmish. The situation became even worse when the Duke of Parma’s army marched into France and it became apparent that Henry and the English needed an alternative plan. Henry did the only thing that he felt would have helped his cause at the time: In July 1593, he formally converted to Catholicism. The king’s subjects defected back to him in droves and, the following year, he was able to safely enter Paris to rule his kingdom. Elizabeth was undoubtedly snubbed by Henry’s conversion but, when it became clear that the king had all intentions of treating all of his subjects, Catholics and Huguenots alike, with equality, she was slightly less upset with him.
After another failed military endeavor, Essex returned to court and began making more trouble, particularly with Burghley and his son. Essex had actually been a ward of Burghley’s, after the death of the former’s father, and had been treated kindly, but the earl refused to let even a man as proven and capable as Burghley to have the upper hand over him and endlessly molested the queen into awarding himself and a number of his supporters with lucrative positions within the government that happened to be open. In the end, Elizabeth reigned supreme over Essex, making the earl look foolish in the process. Essex did his best to make peace with the Cecil family and did gain a reprieve of sorts when he exposed a supposed murder plot against the queen involving her own personal physician, Dr. Roderigo Lopez (which resulted in doctor’s execution in June 1594). It was not completely clear as to whether or not Lopez was guilty, but the earl did not seem to care either way and attempted to use the situation to his political advantage, but to no avail. Since Essex was clearly becoming anxious and stir-crazy at court, he was greatly exited that the queen had named him as joint commander in a new expedition against Spain. After many delays, Essex and his fleet finally departed England in June 1596 and, upon arriving in Spain, they were able to take the coastal town of Cadiz, loot it and burn it to the ground.
The sacking of Cadiz is looked at as Essex’s biggest military triumph and he was indeed greeted excitedly by the commons when he returned home the following month. Unfortunately, Elizabeth and Burghley were not as impressed with the outcome of the voyage because it had failed to gain enough plunder from the Spanish ships that would have greatly aided in paying for the endeavor. If this slight was not enough to sufficiently anger Essex, he was even more frazzled when he discovered that, in his absence, his rival, Robert Cecil, had been awarded the position of Secretary of State, a post that Essex himself had been yearning to gain. Essex was further frustrated when the queen refused to create him Warden of the Cinque Ports and only agreed to keep quiet when he was given the position of Master of the Ordnance. For the time being, the earl was content and acted with a much higher degree of civility towards his rivals at court. Elizabeth then decided to name him as the commander of yet another Spanish expedition that set off in July 1597, but was hampered by storms that delayed the mission. The plan was to attack the Spanish city of Ferrol, but Essex’s fleet instead pursued a tip which stated that they would find the Armada at the Azores Islands. This strategy, however, proved to be the wrong one and the fleet never encountered the Spanish, who were actually on their way to invade England, and would have done so had they not been dispersed by the violent weather.
After the failed “Islands Voyage,” Essex once again returned home to the queen’s anger and to find that Cecil had been advanced even further. After much kicking and screaming, the earl did manage to convince Elizabeth to create him Earl Marshal, but the relationship between the two remained highly tenuous. Meanwhile, France and Spain agreed to the Treaty of Vervines in February 1598, putting England in an isolated position in the war with their only allies consisting of the Estates General in the Netherlands, whose dependability was questionable at best.
The peace between France and Spain was virtually nothing though compared to the drama that was occurring at the English court. At a Privy Council meeting in July 1598, Essex and the queen got into yet another heated argument (this time over who should be the new Lord Deputy of Ireland) and the earl turned his back on her. Elizabeth subsequently gave Essex a box on the ear, prompting him to reach for his sword. It appeared that the earl had finally crossed the line and he withdrew from court in a fury. As angry as Essex was, he could not resist returning to court the following month when Lord Burghley passed away so that he could increase his own influence within the power vacuum that the Treasurer’s death would inevitably create. Essex feigned illness to help get himself back in the queen’s good graces and then suggested that he be entrusted with the post of Lord Lieutenant of Ireland. What has come to be known as the Nine Years’ War with Ireland had been going on, intermittently, since 1595, under the leadership of Hugh O’Neill, Earl of Tyrone. The situation had taken a turn for the worst when Tyrone ambushed and decisively defeated an English force at the Battle of the Yellow Ford, sparking a nationwide outbreak of Irish patriotism. Essex was hoping that, by putting down the risings on the rebellious island that he would gain back some of the influence that he had lost through his rash actions at court. Elizabeth entrusted Essex with the position, but he was already beginning to display doubts about taking on such a difficult task in the land that had destroyed his father twenty-five years earlier.
Essex arrived in Dublin (one of the only areas within Ireland that the English had any real control over) in April 1599. The original plan was for the English army to accost Tyrone’s forces, which were located in Ulster, in northern Ireland, at the time. For some reason though, Essex felt that it would be more appropriate to march south out of Dublin through Leinster and Munster, away from the main rebel army. This proved to be a disastrous strategic move as next to nothing was accomplished. Essex was provided with an abundance of men, money and provisions for his expedition but, by the end of the southern march, thousands had died from plague and starvation with nothing to show. The earl returned to Dublin to face letters from an extremely angry queen. Elizabeth was unhappy that Essex had squandered away so much time and resources that should have been dedicated to subduing Tyrone. She was also none too happy that he had knighted a whole slew of men on the expedition, to the point where the act was beginning to become meaningless. By this point, Essex’s forces were severely decimated, but the queen still insisted that he march into Ulster to encounter Tyrone. This he reluctantly did and found himself on opposite sides of the River Lagan with the considerably larger Irish army. Essex and Tyrone then called for a parley and met privately. By the time their meeting was over, a truce had been made. Only Essex and Tyrone know exactly what was agreed to, but it was later discovered that Essex had agreed to terms that were highly detrimental to the English.
Elizabeth was livid when she discovered that the earl had agreed to terms without her permission and, in September 1599, Essex departed Ireland to explain himself to the queen in person and beg for forgiveness. Essex arrived at Nonsuch Palace, filthy and foul-smelling after a lengthy journey, and marched straight into the queen’s private chambers where Elizabeth was half-naked and lacking the makeup she needed to hide the fact that she was now an old woman. Not knowing how violent a reaction the earl would display, Elizabeth talked to him calmly and reassuringly, but it was clear that she would never forgive him for this final insult against her royal person. This, combined with Essex’s reproachable behavior in Ireland, is what resulted in the earl being placed under house arrest a week later. Essex remained a prisoner for nearly a year as a lengthy investigation took place into his activities in Ireland and as the queen and her council decided what action they would take against him. In the end, it was agreed that he would not face any charges of treason, but he was stripped of a majority of his duties, formally censured and forbidden from attending court. When the earl was finally released from house arrest, in August 1600, he received even worse news when he discovered that the queen did not intend to renew his contract on the monopoly of sweet wines, which constituted a majority of his income. As much as he begged and pleaded, Elizabeth refused to renew the grant on the monopoly and Essex was now in a desperate and financially destitute state. For this reason, Essex finally decided to commit to his last resort: rebellion.
The earl joined forces with a number of other desperate and finically ruined barons and planned to take possession of the queen’s person and force her to dismiss all of her evil councilors (with Cecil at the top of the list) from her presence. Certain contemporary sources will even claim that Essex intended to go so far as to depose the queen and replace her with James VI of Scotland. Essex was indeed in secret contact with the Scottish king, but James knew very well that if he directly involved himself in a failed plot, he would jeopardize his chance to succeed to the English throne, a scenario that was becoming increasingly more likely as time went by. The earl was so imprudent on his planning of the rebellion, allowing a whole variety of drifters and misfits into his home to take part in his schemes, that, as was inevitable, the authorities became involved.
When, in February 1601, a group of officers went to Essex house to summon the earl to court, they were locked in the library and Essex, who now saw that he had to act quickly, departed for court with a band of ragtag followers to attempt their proposed coup. Essex had hoped to gain the support of some of the Londoners, of whom he was popular amongst, but the royal forces were well-prepared and the earl’s forces were chased right back to Essex house, where they were ultimately forced to surrender. Once arrested, Essex and his primary accomplice, the Earl of Southampton, were put on trial for high treason. It was obvious that they were guilty and were found as such and sentenced to death. Considering the fact that the queen had hesitated signing the death warrants of the Duke of Norfolk and Mary Queen of Scots for so long, one would assume that she would wait even longer to sign that of a man she had once been so fond of. But, Elizabeth showed uncharacteristic decisiveness and signed Essex’s death warrant the day after he was convicted. On February 25, 1601, Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex, was beheaded. Several other minor figures who took part in the Essex Rebellion were executed but, for the most part, the queen was merciful, even commuting Southampton’s sentence to imprisonment rather than execution. As can be imagined, the queen was devastated that she was forced to give the go-ahead for her favorite’s execution, but, judging by her lack of hesitation in signing the death warrant, she was well aware that Essex’s demise was essential to her own safety and that of her kingdom.
After Essex’s execution, life at the English court was indeed considerably more tranquil. But, the economy was in a deep recession due to bad harvests, the high costs of war and, perhaps most significantly, the queen’s granting of monopolies. When one was granted a monopoly, it gave the person exclusive rights to manufacture, market and collect income on a particular item. In the case of Leicester and Essex, they collected all of the incomes from the lucrative sweet wine monopoly, which, for many years was the most substantial portion of their respective incomes. Unfortunately, only those who were directly involved with the monopoly were enriched and this inevitably inflated prices and deprived the crown of much needed income. To make up for this loss of funds, the queen and her council had no other alternative but to tax the people, which was, of course, never popular. When directly confronted about the granting of monopolies, Elizabeth agreed that the practice would stop and even delivered an eloquent speech before a group of aristocrats condemning the grants and assuring them that she existed to serve the people of England. This address has come to be known as the queen’s “Golden Speech,” which marked the pinnacle of her life and reign. It did, however, represent a rare occasion in which Elizabeth was forced to tuck her tail between her legs and swallow her own pride in the face of pressure from her subjects.
Despite the economic woes at home, the war with Ireland was going remarkably well, under the leadership of the new Lord Lieutenant, Lord Mountjoy, and, by the end of the reign, the Earl of Tyrone was forced to submit. But, the succession to the throne was, by far, what weighed on the English peoples’ minds more so than anything else. By this point, it was becoming more and more clear that King James VI of Scotland would be the next King of England, though Elizabeth still refused to officially declare him, or anyone else, as her heir, despite the fact that she was now a woman nearing seventy. Robert Cecil, who was now unquestionably the most powerful man in England, had been communicating in secret with James VI for quite some time now. It was crucial that Cecil remain discrete in his activities because they were indeed treasonous. However, Cecil knew that, if he were to continue his influence into the next reign (which he would ultimately do), he would need to cultivate a good relationship with his future master as early as possible. Elizabeth was smart enough to know that something must have been going on, but she had no reason to believe that Cecil was not loyal to her, nor would he do anything treacherous during her lifetime. Even up until the beginning of 1603 Elizabeth was in excellent health and most of her subjects who saw her consistently will swear that she was still a young woman. By the end of February though, the queen sunk into a deep depression and refused to take to her bed. Over the following weeks, her physical health began to rapidly decline until, by the end, she could not even speak. On March 24, 1603, at the age of sixty-nine, Queen Elizabeth died after a reign of forty-four years. She was succeeded by her first-cousin-twice-removed, James VI of Scotland, who took the throne as King James I of England, finally brining the two kingdoms under a single monarch.
Assessment and Analysis
Whatever one’s opinion is pertaining to the character of Queen Elizabeth I, it is difficult to look back at her life and reign and not be inspired in some way. In a time dominated by men, and with the women’s rights movement hundreds of years away, Elizabeth was able to reign as the monarch of a major European power for an astounding period of forty-four years. It is true that there were other women who ruled during the sixteenth century (Mary Stewart reign as Queen of Scotland; Catherine de Medici served as regent of France; and Elizabeth’s own sister, Mary Tudor, reigned for five years before her), but none of them came close to achieving what Elizabeth did. This point being established, the question then becomes: Why was Elizabeth Tudor able to survive and prosper while other women rulers failed miserably in their attempts to rule? The question is not an easy one, and opinion will surely differ, but a number of factors play into Elizabeth’s success.
For one thing, England did not (and still does not) have a Salic Law, which would prevent the royal succession passing to, or through, a female. It is true that the clarity of English succession laws in those days was blurry at best, but the lack of a Salic Law gave Elizabeth a distinct advantage over any woman in France, a country in which the Salic Law reigned supreme. Before the sixteenth century, England had not faced the possibility of having a female ruler since 1135, when King Henry I died without any legitimate male issue and named his daughter Matilda as his heir. Back then, women possessed even fewer rights and Matilda was deprived of her inheritance by her cousin Stephen, a nephew of the late King Henry. The situation involving the daughters of Henry VIII, four hundred years later, is similar. When Edward VI died without a direct heir in 1553, England had to face the fact that she would have a female ruler. The king had no brothers, only two sisters, and no male relative existed who was as close to the royal family as Stephen had been in the twelfth century. Therefore, it was inevitable that a female would reign. Edward VI attempted to put his cousin, Lady Jane Grey, on the throne, but unsuccessfully, and his sister Mary became queen. When Mary failed to produce an heir of her own body, Elizabeth was lucky enough to succeed her.
For these reasons, it can be established that Elizabeth was able to become queen through a combination of sheer luck and a lack of royal male heirs. But, Elizabeth has not become famous over the years for how she became queen. She has retained her notoriety because she was able to remain queen for such a lengthy period of time in a male dominated world. Two of the primary reasons for this revolve around the fact that Elizabeth possessed good councilors and promoted fairly moderate policies. Men such as Francis Walsingham, Robert Cecil and, most importantly, the latter’s father, Lord Burghley, assured that the queen would never be betrayed or led astray. Whereas Henry VIII was fickle with his councilors and allowed such competent men as Cardinal Wolsey and Thomas Cromwell to fall victim to the jealousy and greed of the nobility, Elizabeth never betrayed or lost faith in Lord Burghley and theirs’ was a partnership that would only end upon Burghley’s own death, nearly forty years into the reign.
Elizabeth’s policies always contained a tinge of moderation to them, a stark contrast from the radical, and sometimes violent, changes her father, brother and sister put into effect. When it came to the topic of religion, Elizabeth herself was, unquestionably, of the reformed faith. Unlike her predecessors, Elizabeth was not as forceful when it came to religious policy and possessed a great amount of toleration for her Catholic subjects. While Elizabeth did require anyone who held public or clerical office to sign a supremacy oath, just as Henry VIII had, she did not press the issue to any great extent, and it was only made a treasonable offense after the third refusal. The result of this was that no one was executed for refusing to acknowledge the oath, a much different outcome then in the days of Henry VIII. Elizabeth was also more tolerant towards the Catholics in allowing clerical vestments and certain relics within the English church, something that would have been strictly forbidden during the reign of her brother, Edward VI. Most significantly though, Elizabeth never thought of burning at the stake anyone she considered to be a heretic as her sister Mary had and she was indeed able to boost her own popularity by condemning the brutal punishments her sister had handed out. Though it cannot be said that Elizabeth faced no rebellions based on religion (all of the risings in which the goal was to put Mary Queen of Scots on the throne will prove this), it must be believed that, if Elizabeth would have taken a more repressive approach towards Catholicism, her reign would have been much more turbulent.
The queen’s moderation also extended into foreign policy. Henry VIII jumped at every opportunity to go to war, whether it be with France, Scotland or the Holy Roman Empire. Elizabeth only sent her troops onto the battlefield when she felt it was absolutely necessary to defend the Protestant cause or to defend her kingdom from foreign invasion. For this reason it is ironic that one of the greatest victories in English history, the defeat of the Spanish Armada (also known as the Battle of Gravelines), occurred during Elizabeth’s reign. The success of the queen’s military endeavors were mixed and the fact that she could not personally lead her forces into battle left her at a distinct disadvantage compared to her male counterparts. Elizabeth’s success against the Spanish was limited, despite decisive victories at Gravelines (1588) and Cadiz (1596), and, in the long run, the Low Countries achieved freedom from Spanish rule largely on their own. In Ireland, events were catastrophic under the Earl of Essex’s command, but, in the end, the English were certainly the winners of the Nine Years’ War.
It can be argued though, that the most attributable factors for Elizabeth’s longevity are based upon the facts that she never married and never officially named an heir. Elizabeth’s reluctance to marry undoubtedly stemmed from her father’s harsh treatment of his wives, divorcing two of them and, more significantly, executing another two, including Elizabeth’s own mother, Anne Boleyn. Her mistrust of men only expanded when during the time when she was being aggressively, and inappropriately, pursued by Thomas Seymour. When Elizabeth became queen, she chose not to marry, despite the consequences it would cause and despite the endless pleadings of her councilors, for several reasons. Firstly, if she married foreigner, as her sister Mary had done, the marriage would immediately be unpopular (just as Mary’s was) and, considering the fact that all of the available bachelors on the continent were Catholic, religion would become an issue. It the queen married a subject (say, the Earl of Leicester), the new king would gain the hatred and enmity of all of the influential men at court. Mary Queen of Scots made the mistake of marrying men who were troublesome and controversial (Lord Darnley and the Earl of Bothwell) and it had cost her her kingdom. Secondly, Elizabeth knew that whoever her husband might be would expect to play a major role in political affairs, and she had no intention of being ruled by any man by this point.
Elizabeth chose not to name an heir for the simple fact that, whoever the heir may be, they would always be a symbol of rebellion whenever there was any widespread disgruntlement or dissatisfaction with the regime. During Mary’s reign, Elizabeth was the most obvious heir and there had been a number of rebellions to place her on the throne. Mary Queen of Scots, Elizabeth’s own most sensible heir, caused a great deal of trouble for the latter’s regime, despite the fact that she was never actually acknowledged as heir apparent. Elizabeth was so sensitive about any discussion of the royal succession that Robert Cecil was forced to communicate with James VI of Scotland in secret to ensure the fact that there would be a smooth transition of power.
All of these factors combined to keep Elizabeth on the throne until she died a natural death and made her reign a truly astonishing phenomenon. By no means can it be said that Elizabeth was perfect and that she did not have her flaws. Many contemporaries and historians will draw attention to the queen’s stubbornness and to the fact that, at certain times, she dithered until the last second on a number of important decisions. These decisions ranged from going to war to executing recalcitrant subjects. Elizabeth greatly hesitated sending military aid to the Low Countries to protect her fellow Protestants from Spanish suppression and hesitated even more when it came to signing the death warrants on traitors such as Mary Queen of Scots and the Duke of Norfolk. Ultimately though, Elizabeth always seemed to know when to when to take the advice of her councilors, and when not to, and when to jump into action, and when not to.
Elizabeth faced an uphill battle in life. Her mother was executed when she was not yet three years old; she was declared a bastard and never fully able to shake off the title; she was abused and taken advantage of by Thomas Seymour; and she was nearly executed for her faith during the reign of her sister Mary. It is no wonder, considering all these facts, that Elizabeth was reluctant to give up any sort of power when she finally became queen. Whether it was for her longevity, her leadership qualities or her ability to survive in a world dominated by men, once cannot help but admire the “Virgin Queen.” Over time, Elizabeth’s reign has become a sort of Golden Age and is looked upon as an age of progress where men such as William Shakespeare, Christopher Marlowe and Edmund Spenser thrived and where England took its final step towards becoming a strictly Protestant nation. But, Elizabeth herself was the real story during this time period and her strong reign undoubtedly opened the door for many other women. In the end, it must be concluded that, for all her discrepancies and flaws, she was, like her father, a symbol of progress and woman who genuinely loved her people.
Anne Somerset, Elizabeth I