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Early Modern Britain

Elizabeth I - Pivotal Moments

by Peter Kessler, 22 May 2007

Elizabeth Tudor proved to be one of the most popular monarchs in English or British history. She helped steady the nation even after inheriting an enormous national debt from her elder sister Mary and, under her, England managed to avoid a crippling Spanish invasion.

Born on 7 September 1533, upon Mary's death she claimed the titles of 'Queen of England', 'Queen of France' (which by now existed in name only as far as English claims were concerned), and 'Queen of Ireland' from 17 November 1558 until her death on 24 March 1603.


She was popularly known as the Virgin Queen (an image she sought to exploit in her later years) or Good Queen Bess. The years which formed the high point of her reign were termed Gloriana.

Playwrights such as William Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe flourished in Elizabethan England, while English power and influence increased worldwide. She granted a Royal Charter to the British East India Company in 1600, thereby allowing that company to begin accumulating its vast business, and later territorial, concerns in the east.

The Commonwealth of Virginia in the kingdom's new American colonies was also named after her, and Elizabeth passed the Act of Uniformity in 1559, requiring the use of the Protestant Book of Common Prayer in church services.

In her private life, Elizabeth reputedly wanted to marry Robert Dudley, first earl of Leicester. However, until 1560, Dudley was married to Amy Robsart, a fact which he is widely supposed to have tried to keep from Elizabeth. Amy died in suspicious circumstances. Afterwards, Elizabeth's council refused to consider allowing a marriage between the two because of Dudley's status as a commoner and his family's past history, which was chequered to say the least.

Politically, the most dangerous times for Elizabeth were in the first thirteen years of her reign, when few expected her to last and when the Catholics were at their strongest in England.

Plots and more plots

Under the powerful leadership of Thomas Howard, fourth duke of Norfolk, plots were continually being hatched to marry her off to a Catholic king, preferably King Philip II of Spain, or simply just to kill her. In 1569 Elizabeth faced a major uprising, known as the Northern Rebellion, which was instigated by the duke of Norfolk, along with Charles Neville, sixth earl of Westmorland and Thomas Percy, seventh earl of Northumberland.

Pope Pius V aided the Catholic rebellion by excommunicating Elizabeth and declaring her deposed in a papal bull. In effect, it allowed any loyal Catholic the opportunity of killing a queen without fear of retribution. Fortunately it only arrived after the rebellion had been put down.

After the Bull of Deposition was issued, however, Elizabeth chose not to continue her policy of religious tolerance. Instead she began the persecution of her religious enemies, giving impetus to various conspiracies to remove her from the throne.

Thanks to that, her problems were not over. Elizabeth found a new enemy in her former brother-in-law, Philip II, following various encounters at sea between English privateers and the Spanish navy. Philip had grown increasingly bitter in his relations with England while Elizabeth had been on the throne, frustrated by the failure of his plan to add the country to his powerful dominions.

In the first of a series of plots hatched by Philip two years after the failed Northern Rebellion, the duke of Norfolk was involved in the Ridolfi Plot (much to Elizabeth's shock). This was a Roman Catholic plot organised in 1570 to assassinate Elizabeth and replace her with Queen Mary of Scotland. When the plot was foiled, the duke of Norfolk was beheaded for being a traitor, breaking the Catholic powerbase in England.

Despite earlier problems with France when they had placed a large garrison in Scotland and looked as though they might invade, Elizabeth made an alliance with the French in 1572.

The new alliance

The St Bartholomew's Day Massacre, in which thousands of French Protestants (Huguenots) were killed, strained the alliance but did not break it. Elizabeth began tentative marriage negotiations with Henry, duke of Anjou (who would later become King Henry III of France and of Poland), and afterwards with his younger brother François, duke of Anjou and Alençon. During François' visit, it was said that Elizabeth 'drew off a ring from her finger and put it upon the duke of Anjou's upon certain conditions betwixt them two'. The Spanish ambassador reported that she actually declared that the duke of Anjou would be her husband.

However, Anjou was reported to be scarred and hunch-backed. He was also reported to have been made to feel entirely unwelcome by the English court, but whatever the truth he returned to France where he died in 1584 before any marriage could be enacted.

In 1579 the Second Desmond Rebellion in Ireland began with the arrival of an invading force funded by Pope Gregory XIII. By 1583 it had been put down during a brutal campaign which killed a third of Munster's population.

Just two years later, the Anglo-Spanish War erupted as relations with Philip of Spain worsened. During its course, another plot against Elizabeth was foiled, but this time Elizabeth's cousin, the imprisoned Mary, Queen of Scots was implicated (rightly or wrongly) and, after much hesitation, her execution was ordered in 1587.

In his response the following year, Philip launched a great fleet of one hundred and thirty ships, known as the Spanish Armada. They were filled with troops and were sent to invade England to put an end to the matter once and for all. A combination of bad weather in the English Channel and hit-and-run tactics by the much smaller ships of the English navy destroyed a large number of Philip's ships.


  Elizabeth drew off a ring from her finger and put it upon the duke of Anjou's upon certain conditions betwixt them two  

The war reached a stalemate with Philip's death in 1598, although it was only officially ended by the Treaty of London in 1604. However, the queen was now sixty-five years of age. The question of the succession had been on everyone's lips since Mary Stuart had arrived in Scotland in the 1560s, and towards the end of her reign the question remained. Who would be next?

While the queen's health had remained fine up until now, in the autumn of 1602 a series of losses among her remaining friends appeared to throw her into a mood of melancholy. In her depression, she was lethargic and silent, and quite unlike her usual brisk manner with which she had governed so authoritatively for so many years.

Apparently suffering from infected tonsils, her behaviour became eccentric. When her secretary, Robert Cecil (first earl of Salisbury, statesman, spymaster, and chief advisor), told her that 'to content the people she must go to bed', some of her old spirit returned. She smiled at him with regal pride: 'Little man, little man! The word must is not to be used to princes!'.

But she knew she was dying. By the time her advisors had finally persuaded her to go to her bed, she could no longer speak. From that bed, Cecil later alleged that she wordlessly signed to him that James VI of Scotland, son of Mary, Queen of Scots, would be her heir. She had never acknowledged the fact in public, but she knew he was the rightful heir.

Elizabeth Tudor died in the early hours of the morning of 24 March 1603, with the archbishop of Canterbury praying along with her ladies-in-waiting, on his knees by her bed. By that time the messenger was already racing north, to Scotland, carrying the royal ring.



Text copyright © P L Kessler. An original feature for the History Files.