History of Elizabeth

Queen Elizabeth I
'The Rainbow Portrait' of Elizabeth I, c1600

Visit Elizabethan Images to view portraits of the queen and her courtiers, with commentary.
Read poems, letters, and speeches by the queen at Primary Sources.
Read ES Beesly’s 1892 biography of Queen Elizabeth I at Secondary Sources.
Visit the Anne Boleyn website to learn more about Elizabeth’s mother.
Visit the Mary, queen of Scots website to learn more about Elizabeth’s cousin.

Test your knowledge of Elizabeth’s life and times at Tudor Quizzes.

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Elizabeth Tudor is considered by many to be the greatest monarch in English history. When she became queen in 1558, she was twenty-five years old, a survivor of scandal and danger, and considered illegitimate by most Europeans. She inherited a bankrupt nation, torn by religious discord, a weakened pawn between the great powers of France and Spain. She was only the third queen to rule England in her own right; the other two examples, her cousin Lady Jane Grey and half-sister Mary I, were disastrous. Even her supporters believed her position dangerous and uncertain. Her only hope, they counseled, was to marry quickly and lean upon her husband for support. But Elizabeth had other ideas.
She ruled alone for nearly half a century, lending her name to a glorious epoch in world history. She dazzled even her greatest enemies. Her sense of duty was admirable, though it came at great personal cost. She was committed above all else to preserving English peace and stability; her genuine love for her subjects was legendary. Only a few years after her death in 1603, they lamented her passing. In her greatest speech to Parliament, she told them, ‘I count the glory of my crown that I have reigned with your love.’ And five centuries later, the worldwide love affair with Elizabeth Tudor continues.


‘Proud and haughty, as although she knows she was born of such a mother, she nevertheless does not consider herself of inferior degree to the Queen, whom she equals in self-esteem; nor does she believe herself less legitimate than her Majesty, alleging in her own favour that her mother would never cohabit with the King unless by way of marriage, with the authority of the Church….
She prides herself on her father and glories in him; everybody saying that she also resembles him more than the Queen does and he therefore always liked her and had her brought up in the same way as the Queen.’
the Venetian ambassador Giovanni Michiel describes Elizabeth; spring 1557


Elizabeth Tudor was born on 7 September 1533 at Greenwich Palace. She was the daughter of King Henry VIII and his second wife, Anne Boleyn. Henry had defied the papacy and the Holy Roman Emperor to marry Anne, spurred on by love and the need for a legitimate male heir. And so Elizabeth’s birth was one of the most exciting political events in 16th century European history; rarely had so much turmoil occurred on behalf of a mere infant. But the confident predictions of astrologers and physicians were wrong and the longed-for prince turned out to be a princess.

Eustace Chapuys, the Imperial ambassador and enemy of Anne Boleyn, described the birth to his master as ‘a portrait of Elizabeth's mother, Anne Boleyn great disappointment and sorrow to the King, the Lady herself and to others of her party.’ But for the next two years, Henry VIII was willing to hope for a son to join this healthy daughter. Immediately after Elizabeth’s birth, he wrote to his 17 year old daughter, Princess Mary, and demanded she relinquish her title Princess of Wales and acknowledge both the annulment of his marriage to her mother, Katharine of Aragon, and the validity of his new marriage. Mary refused; she already blamed Anne Boleyn (and, by extension, Elizabeth) for the sad alteration of her own fortunes. In December, she was moved into her infant half-sister’s household. When told to pay her respects to the baby Princess, she replied that she knew of no Princess of England but herself, and burst into tears.

Henry already ignored Mary and Katharine’s constant pleas to meet; now he began a more aggressive campaign to secure Anne and Elizabeth’s position. For one mother and daughter to be secure, the other pair must necessarily suffer. Most Europeans, and indeed Englishmen, still believed Katharine to be the king’s valid wife. Now old and sickly, imprisoned in one moldy castle after another, she remained a very popular figure. Anne Boleyn was dismissed in polite circles as the king’s ‘concubine’ and their marriage was recognized only by those of the new Protestant faith. Henry attempted to legislate popular acceptance of his new queen and heiress. But the various acts and oaths only cost the lives of several prominent Catholics, among them Sir Thomas More and Bishop John Fisher. The English people never accepted ‘Nan Bullen’ as their queen.

But while she had the king’s personal favor, Elizabeth’s mother was secure. And she held that favor far longer than any had expected. It was only after she miscarried twice that Henry began to consider this second marriage as cursed as the first. The last miscarriage occurred in January 1536; Katharine died that same month. With her death, the king’s Catholic critics considered him a widower, free to marry again. And this next marriage would not be tainted by the specter of bigamy. It was only necessary to get rid of Anne, and find a new wife – one who could hopefully deliver a son. The king already had a candidate in mind; her name was Jane Seymour, a lady-in-waiting to both Katharine and Anne.

In the end, Henry VIII was not merely content to annul his marriage to Anne. She was arrested, charged with a variety of crimes which even her enemies discounted, and executed on 19 May 1536. Her little daughter was now in the same position as her half-sister, Princess Mary. However, all of Europe and most Englishmen considered Mary to be Henry’s legitimate heir, despite legislation to the contrary. No one believed Elizabeth to be more than the illegitimate daughter of the king. Also, there were already disparaging rumors of her mother’s infidelities; perhaps the solemn, red-headed child was not the king’s after all? It was to Henry’s (small) credit that he always acknowledged Elizabeth as his own, and took pride in her intellectual accomplishments. As she grew older, even Catholic courtiers noted Elizabeth resembled her father more than Mary did.

Henry married Jane just twelve days after Anne’s execution and his long-awaited son, Prince Edward, was born in October 1537. Elizabeth participated in the christening, carried by Thomas Seymour, the handsome young brother of the queen. Jane died shortly after the birth of childbed fever. Henry VIII married Anne of Cleves on Twelfth Night (6 January) 1540. The marriage was a disaster, and Henry quickly divorced Anne and married Catherine Howard. Catherine was a cousin of Anne Boleyn; they were both related to Thomas Howard, 3rd duke of Norfolk and perhaps Henry’s most nervous peer. The king enjoyed a brief few months of happiness with his fifth wife. But Catherine was thirty years younger than Henry and soon enough resumed an affair with a former lover. She was executed in February 1542 and buried beside Anne Boleyn in the Tower of London.

For Elizabeth, these changes in her father’s marital fortunes did not pass unnoticed. She was part of her half-brother Edward’s household; her days were spent mostly at lessons, with the occasional visit from her father. As a child, no one expected her to comment upon her various stepmothers. It was only when she reached adulthood and became queen that its psychological effects were revealed. Elizabeth had a dim view of romantic love and, given her father’s example, who can blame her?

It was Henry’s sixth and final wife, Katharine Parr, who had the greatest impact upon Elizabeth’s life. A kind woman who believed passionately inPrincess Elizabeth, c1546, attributed to William Scrots education and religious reform, Katharine was a devoted stepmother. Understandably, she had far more of an impact with the young Edward and Elizabeth than with Mary, who was just four years her junior. Katharine arranged for 10 year old Elizabeth to have the most distinguished tutors in England, foremost among them Roger Ascham. As a result, Elizabeth was educated as well as any legitimate prince, and she displayed a genuine love and aptitude for her studies. ‘Her mind has no womanly weakness,’ Ascham would write approvingly, ‘her perseverance is equal to that of a man.’ And later, ‘She readeth more Greek every day, than some Prebendaries of this Church do in a whole week.’ And so she did; Elizabeth’s love of scholarship never faltered and, in an age when women were considered inferior to men, she was a glorious exception.

Along with such classical subjects as rhetoric, languages, philosophy, and history, Elizabeth also studied theology. Ascham and her other tutors were famous Cambridge humanists who supported the Protestant cause. Likewise, Katharine Parr was devoted to the reformed faith. Unlike their half-sister Mary, both Edward and Elizabeth were raised Protestant during its most formative years. Yet while Edward was known for his piety and didacticism, Elizabeth already displayed the pragmatic character which would make her reign successful. She studied theology and supported the Protestant cause; she had been raised to do so and knew only Protestants recognized her parents’ marriage. But she was never openly passionate about religion, recognizing its divisive role in English politics.

Most people viewed the adolescent Elizabeth as a serious young woman who always carried a book with her, preternaturally composed. She encouraged this perception, which was as accurate as any, by dressing with a degree of severity virtually absent at the Tudor royal court. But she was not so serious that she avoided all the material trappings of her position. Her household accounts, which came under the management of William Cecil (who later became her secretary of state), show evidence of a cultivated and lively mind, as well as a love of entertainment: fees for musicians, musical instruments, and a variety of books. As she grew older and her position more prominent, her household also expanded. During her brother Edward’s reign, she lived the life of a wealthy and privileged lady – and apparently enjoyed it immensely.

Elizabeth was thirteen years old when her father died. They were never particularly close though he treated her with affection on her few visits to his court. He even occasionally discussed the possibility of her marriage for, in the 16th century, royal bastards were common and often used to great advantage in diplomacy. Under the 1536 ‘Second Act of Succession’, which declared both her and the 19 year old Mary illegitimate, Parliament gave Henry the ability to determine his children’s status, as well as the actual succession. Typically for Henry, he simply let both his daughters live as princesses and gave them precedence over everyone at court except his current wife. But they had no real claim to the title of ‘princess’ and were known as ‘the lady Elizabeth’ and ‘the lady Mary’. This was often followed by the explanatory ‘the king’s daughter.’ It was an awkward situation which the king saw no reason to resolve. His will did recognize his daughters’ crucial place in the succession. If Edward died without heirs, Mary would inherit the throne; if Mary died without heirs, Elizabeth would become queen. He also left them the substantial income of 3000 pds a year, the same amount for each daughter.

Did Elizabeth mourn her father? Undoubtedly so, for at least under Henry VIII she was three steps from the throne and protected by his rough paternal affection. After his death, she had good cause to wish him alive again. Ten year old Edward was king in name only. The rule of England was actually in the hands of his uncle, the Lord Protector Edward Seymour, soon titled duke of Somerset. Elizabeth was now separated from her brother’s household, moving to Katharine Parr’s home in Chelsea. This was perhaps the happiest time of her adolescence.

But Katharine married again quickly, to the man she had loved before Henry VIII had claimed her. Her new husband was Thomas Seymour, the younger brother of Lord Protector Somerset and uncle to the new King Edward. He was handsome, charming, and very ambitious. He also had terrible political instincts. Seymour was not content to be husband of the Dowager Queen of England. He was jealous of his brother’s position and desperate to upstage him. And so he inadvertently played into the hands of the equally ambitious John Dudley, earl of Warwick. Dudley wished to destroy the Seymour protectorship and seize power for himself. He allowed the feuding brothers to destroy each other.

For Elizabeth, the main problem with Seymour was his inappropriate and very flirtatious behavior. As a teenaged girl with little experience of men, she was flattered by his attention and also a bit frightened. Certainly it placed great strain on Katharine Parr, who had become pregnant soon after her marriage. The queen originally participated in Seymour’s early morning raids into Elizabeth’s room, where he would tickle and wrestle with the girl in her nightdress. But while Katharine considered this simple fun, her husband was more serious. He soon had keys made for every room in their house and started visiting Elizabeth while she was still asleep and he was clad in just his nightshirt. She soon developed the habit of rising early; when he appeared, her nose was safely in a book. Edward’s council heard rumors of these romps and investigated. Elizabeth proved herself circumspect and clever; she managed to admit nothing which would offend

She left the Seymour home for Hatfield House in May 1548, ostensibly because the queen was ‘undoubtful of health’. Elizabeth and Katharine exchanged affectionate letters, but they would not meet again. The queen died on 4 September 1548 of childbed fever.

After her death, Seymour’s position became more dangerous. It was rumored that he wished to marry Elizabeth and thus secure the throne of England in case Edward died young. He had already bought the wardship of Lady Jane Grey, a Tudor cousin and heir in Henry VIII’s will. He planned to marry Jane and Edward, thus securing primary influence with his nephew. Eventually, his grandiose plans unraveled and he was arrested. Perhaps the most damning charge was his planned marriage to Elizabeth. Immediately, the council sent Sir Robert Tyrwhit to Hatfield with the mission to take control of Elizabeth’s household and gain her confession. He immediately arrested Elizabeth’s beloved governess Kat Ashley and her cofferer, Thomas Parry; they were sent to the Tower. Now, Tyrwhit told the princess, confess all; he wanted confirmation of the charge that Seymour and Elizabeth planned to wed. If she confessed, Tyrwhit said, she would be forgiven for she was young and foolish – her servants should have protected her.

Elizabeth's signature as Princess of England Elizabeth did not hesitate to demonstrate her own wit and learning. Indeed, she drove Tyrwhit to exasperation; ‘in no way will she confess any practice by Mistress Ashley or the cofferer concerning my lord Admiral; and yet I do see it in her face that she is guilty and do perceive as yet she will abide more storms ere she accuse Mistress Ashley,’ he wrote to Somerset, ‘I do assure your Grace she hath a very good wit and nothing is gotten of her but by great policy.’ Elizabeth refused to scapegoat her loyal servants and defiantly asserted her complete innocence. She told Tyrwhit she cared nothing for the Admiral and when he had mentioned some vague possibility of marriage, she had referred him to the council. She also secured permission to write to Somerset and, upon doing so, demanded a public apology be made regarding her innocence. She also demanded the return of her loyal servants for if they did not return, she said, her guilt would be assumed. She read Ashley and Parry’s ‘confessions’ in which they described Seymour’s romps with her at Katharine Parr’s home. The details were undoubtedly embarrassing but she recognized their harmlessness. In short, she demonstrated every aspect of her formidable intelligence and determination. Poor Tyrwhit left for London with no damaging confession.

But the council didn’t need Elizabeth’s confession to execute Seymour. He was charged with thirty-three other crimes, and he answered only three of the charges. He was not given a trial; a messy execution was always best passed by a Bill of Attainder. He was executed on 20 March 1549, dying ‘very dangerously, irksomely, horribly… a wicked man and the realm is well rid of him.’ Contrary to some biographies, Elizabeth did not say, ‘This day died a man with much wit, and very little judgment.’ The 17th century Italian novelist Leti invented this, as well as several forged letters long supposed to be hers.

Soon enough, Seymour’s brother followed him to the scaffold. Somerset was a kind man in private life and genuinely dedicated to economic and religious reform in England but, as a politician, he failed miserably. He lacked charisma and confidence; he preferred to bully and bluster his way through council meetings. He simply did not understand how to manage the divisive personalities of Edward VI’s privy council. Meanwhile, John Dudley had been quietly manipulating other councilors and the young king to gain ascendancy. Upon Somerset’s execution, Dudley became Lord Protector; he was also titled duke of Northumberland. He was the first non-royal Englishman given that title.

For Elizabeth, these events were merely background noise at first. Dudley took pains to cultivate a friendship with her, which she wisely avoided. He sent her and Mary amiable letters. Since Mary was a Catholic, and Dudley a Protestant who had benefited materially from the Reformation, he was necessarily more friendly to Elizabeth. For example, Edward VI had given Dudley Hatfield House, which was currently Elizabeth’s residence. Dudley graciously returned it to her in exchange for lesser lands in her possession. He also passed the patents to her lands, which allowed her more income. This, of course, should have been done at Henry VIII’s death. So Elizabeth at first benefited from Dudley’s rise to power. She was now a well-respected and popular princess, a landed lady in her own right with a large income and keen mind. She was also an heir to the English throne, though still officially recognized as a bastard. But she was shown every respect, and a degree of affection from Edward VI completely lacking in his relations with their sister Mary.

Their mutual faith was an important connection with the increasingly devout Edward. Elizabeth visited Court occasionally, corresponded with her brother, and continued her studies mainly at Hatfield. She had always been excessively cautious and very intelligent, qualities she displayed to great effect during the Seymour crisis. The only time in her life when she demonstrated any recklessness had been during the Seymour debacle; she had learned its lesson well.

She also cultivated the image of a sober Protestant young lady. When queen, she became known for her love of beautiful gowns and jewels. But before 1558, she took care to dress soberly, the image of chastity and modesty. This was perhaps a conscious attempt to distance herself from Mary, a typical Catholic princess who dressed in all the glittering and garish finery she could afford. It is an ironic note on Mary’s character that she has become known as a dour, plain woman; she was as fond of clothes and jewelry as her sister would become. It was Elizabeth who dressed plainly, most often in severely cut black or white gowns. She wore each color to great effect. She had matured into a tall, slender and striking girl, with a fair, unblemished complexion and the famous Tudor red hair. She wore her hair loose and did not use cosmetics. When she traveled about the countryside, crowds gathered to see her, a Protestant princess renowned for her virtue and learning, her appearance modest and pleasing. In this respect, she was emulated by her cousin Jane Grey. When Jane was invited to a reception for Mary of Guise, the regent of Scotland, Mary Tudor sent her ‘some goodly apparel of tinsel cloth of gold and velvet laid on with parchment lace of gold.’ Jane, a devout Protestant, was offended; such apparel reflected the material trappings of Catholicism. When her parents insisted she wear it, Jane replied, ‘Nay, that were a shame to follow my Lady Mary against God’s word, and leave my Lady Elizabeth, which followeth God’s word.’

Elizabeth was honorably and extravagantly received at her brother’s court. For example, on 17 March 1552, she arrived at St James’s Palace with ‘a great company of lords, knights and gentlemen’ along with over 200 ladies and a company of yeomen. Two days later she left St James for Whitehall Palace, her procession accompanied by a grand collection of nobles. The visit was a marked success for Edward was open in his affection. She was his ‘sweet sister Temperance,’ unlike Mary who continued to defy his religious policy. The Primary Sources section of this site contains an excerpt from Edward VI’s journal in which he records a religious argument with Mary. In that matter, Elizabeth remained distant, preferring to let her siblings argue without her.

Edward’s ministers, especially after the Seymour affair, were careful with her. Dudley recognized Elizabeth’s formidable intelligence. When Edward VI became ill in 1553 and it was clear he would not survive, Dudley had a desperate plan to save himself from Mary I’s Catholic rule – place Henry VIII’s niece, Lady Jane Grey on the throne. (This is discussed in great length at the Lady Jane Grey site.) Simply put, Dudley believed he would be supported because Jane was Protestant and the English would not want the Catholic Mary on the throne. Of course, the question arises – Elizabeth was Protestant, so why not put her on the throne instead of Jane? The main reason is that Dudley was well aware that Elizabeth Tudor would not be his puppet, unlike Jane Grey whom he had married to his son Guildford. As for Edward VI, he went along with the plan because of two main reasons: Elizabeth was illegitimate so there might be resistance to her rule and, as a princess, she might be persuaded to marry a foreign prince and England would fall under foreign control. Jane was already safely wed to an Englishman.

a profile portrait of Elizabeth's half-brother, King Edward VI Edward VI’s decision should not indicate any great dislike of Elizabeth. He was primarily determined to preserve the Protestant regime in England. He believed this was necessary for his personal and political salvation. He was also practical. He disinherited Mary because of her Catholicism; however, it was officially sanctioned because of her illegitimacy. Like Elizabeth, Mary had her illegitimacy established by an act of Parliament during Henry VIII’s reign. Since he had ostensibly disinherited Mary because of this act, he couldn’t let Elizabeth inherit – it simply wasn’t logical. So the throne would pass to the legitimate – and Protestant – Lady Jane Grey. As most know, she ruled for just nine days before Mary became queen of England. It should be noted that Edward originally told Dudley that, though he didn’t want Mary to succeed him, he saw no logical reason for Elizabeth to be disowned. It was Dudley who pointed out the logical inconsistency – that Mary ‘could not be put by unless the Lady Elizabeth were put by also.’

Dudley attempted to place Mary and Elizabeth in his power while Edward was dying. He knew that if he imprisoned the two princesses, they would be unable to rouse popular support against his plan. But if that failed, he was determined to prevent them from seeing Edward, especially Elizabeth. Dudley feared that Edward’s affection for his sister, and Elizabeth’s cleverness, might persuade Edward to rewrite his will in her favor. Like her sister, Elizabeth would undoubtedly destroy Dudley, making him the scapegoat for Edward’s ineffectual regime. In fact, Elizabeth had suspected her brother was ill and set out from Hatfield to visit him just a few weeks before Edward died, but Dudley’s men intercepted her and sent her home. She then wrote her brother a number of letters, inquiring about his health and asking permission to come to Court. These were intercepted as well.

But as Edward’s health continued to deteriorate and death was imminent, Dudley sent a message to Hatfield, ordering Elizabeth to Greenwich Palace. She may have been warned of his intentions – more likely she guessed them. She refused the summons, taking to her bed with a sudden illness. As a further precaution, her doctor sent a letter to the council certifying she was too ill for travel. As for Mary, Dudley had told her that Edward desired her presence; it would be a comfort to him during his illness. She was torn – though Dudley hid the true extent of the king’s illness, the Imperial ambassador had kept Mary informed. He was the agent of her cousin, the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V; Mary’s mother had been his aunt. Conscious of her sisterly duty, Mary set out for Greenwich from Hunsdon the day before Edward died.

Dudley was enraged by Elizabeth’s refusal but he could do nothing. Soon enough, events moved too quickly for the princess to be his primary concern. It was being whispered that Dudley had poisoned the king to place his daughter-in-law on the throne. Of course, this was untrue since Dudley needed Edward to live as long as possible for his plan to work. To this end, he had engaged a female ‘witch’ to help prolong the king’s life. She concocted a mix of arsenic and other drugs; they worked, at least for Dudley’s purpose. The young king lived for a few more weeks though he suffered terribly. Finally, on 6 July 1553, Edward VI died. Immediately, Dudley had Jane Grey proclaimed queen, an honor she had not sought and did not want. It was only Dudley’s appeal to her religious convictions which convinced her to accept the throne.

Meanwhile, Jane’s cousin, Mary Tudor, was still on her way to Greenwich to see her brother, until a sympathizer (sent by Nicholas Throckmorton or William Cecil) rode out to meet her; the summons was a trap, he told her, and Dudley intended to imprison her. Mary rode to East Anglia, the conservative section of England where her support would be strongest. Eventually she would realize the true extent of her support. Protestants and Catholics alike rallied to her cause since she was Henry VIII’s daughter and the true heir under his will. As she left for East Anglia, she didn’t know her brother was already dead but she sent a note to the Imperial ambassador Simon Renard; once she knew of Edward’s death, she said, she would declare herself queen. She sent another note to Dudley, telling him she was too ill to travel.

The failure of Dudley’s ambitions is discussed at the Lady Jane Grey site. Suffice to say, he was overthrown and executed and Mary Tudor, at the age of thirty-seven, was declared queen of England in her own right. During the nine days of Jane’s reign, Elizabeth had continued her pretense of illness. It was rumored that Dudley had sent councilors to her, offering a large bribe if she would just renounce her claim to the throne. Elizabeth refused, remarking, ‘You must first make this agreement with my elder sister, during whose lifetime I have no claim or title to resign.’ So she remained at her beloved Hatfield, deliberately avoiding a commitment one way or another. When word reached her that Mary was finally queen, she sent a letter of congratulation to her sister and set off for London. On 29 July, she entered the capital with 2000 mounted men wearing the green and white Tudor colors. There she awaited Mary’s official arrival into the city. On 31 July, Elizabeth rode with her attendant nobles along the Strand and through the City to Colchester, the same path her sister would take. It was here she would receive her sister as queen. They had not seen each other for about five years.

Mary had always disliked her half-sister for many reasons, not least because she sensed an innate shiftiness in Elizabeth’s character. Elizabeth, Mary believed, was never to be trusted. Originally, this dislike was because of Elizabeth’s mother, Anne Boleyn. Mary had long blamed Anne for her own mother’s tragic end as well as the alienation of her father’s affections. After Anne died and Elizabeth, too, was declared illegitimate, Mary found other reasons to hate Elizabeth, chief among them religion. Like her mother, Mary was a devout Catholic; she recognized Elizabeth’s lack of religious zeal. portrait of Elizabeth's half-sister, Queen Mary I; she ruled England from 1553 to 1558 But at her accession, the moment of her great triumph, she was prepared to be conciliatory.

Mary ordered that Elizabeth share her triumphal march through London. Their processions met at Wanstead on 2 August. There, Elizabeth dismounted and knelt in the road before her sister. Mary dismounted and raised her sister, embracing and kissing her with affection. She even held her hand as they spoke. Their two parties entered London together, the sisters riding side by side. The contrast between their physical appearances could not have been more striking. Mary, at thirty-seven, was old beyond her years. An adulthood passed in anxiety and tribulation had marred her health and appearance. She was small like her mother and thin, with Katharine’s deep, almost gruff voice. Elizabeth was nineteen years old, taller than her sister and slender. While Mary was richly attired in velvets covered in jewels and gold, Elizabeth was dressed in her usual strikingly severe style. Neither sister was conventionally beautiful but onlookers commented upon Mary’s open compassion and kindness and Elizabeth’s innate majesty. And since Mary was thirty-seven, quite old to have a child, Elizabeth was viewed as her probable heir. As such, she was cheered as much as the new queen.

On 1 October, Elizabeth rode to Mary’s coronation with Henry VIII’s discarded fourth wife, Anne of Cleves. She was once again accorded a place of honor amongst the English ladies, though not the highest position as was her due. The Imperial ambassador Renard reported that she spoke often with the French ambassador de Noailles. For his part, de Noailles reported that Elizabeth complained her coronet was too heavy and made her head ache. He replied to her that, God willing, she would soon wear a heavier crown.

This was dangerous talk, as Elizabeth soon discovered. Mary’s mood was fickle regarding her clever half-sister. For every kind word or gesture, there were public statements dismissing Henry VIII as Elizabeth’s father, or allowing distant cousins precedent at court. It was simply impossible for Mary to forget the past, etched so acutely upon her spirit. She could not like Elizabeth, nor trust her. Elizabeth responded to this emotional hostility by retreating to Hatfield. There she continued her studies and attempted to remain safe in the morass of English politics.

But however much she might wish for peace, she was not to have it. She was destined to be the focal point for all discontent over Mary’s reign. And there was soon much reason for discontent. Edward VI’s council had left the economy in shambles; currency was debased and near worthless. There was a series of bad harvests. Prices rose and discontent spread. And worst of all, Mary soon decided to marry King Philip II of Spain, son and heir of Charles V. This was yet another example of her inability to forget the past. Philip represented the homeland of her beloved mother, and a chance to bring all the weight of the Holy Roman Empire to bear upon the heretics of England. Mary was determined to turn back the clock on twenty years of religious reform and make England a Catholic nation again.

Understandably, her subjects were less than thrilled. Even English Catholics did not want their country to become a powerless appendage of the Hapsburg empire. Certainly a queen had to marry, but not the emperor’s son! In this climate of rebellion and repression, Elizabeth’s life was in great danger. It could not be otherwise; she was the only alternative to Mary’s rule.

Elizabeth conformed outwardly to the Catholic faith. But she could not distance herself too much from her Protestant supporters. When Sir Thomas Wyatt, the son of her mother’s great poetic admirer, led a rebellion in January 1554, matters came to an unpleasant impasse. Wyatt had written to Elizabeth that he intended to overthrow Mary but his letter was intercepted, as was a letter from de Noailles to the king of France. His letter implied that Elizabeth knew of the revolt in advance, and repeated rumors that she was off gathering armed supporters. The government was able to suppress the rebellion before it spread very far and Wyatt was arrested. Mary’s council could find no real proof that de Noailles’s suppositions were true but they decided to summon Elizabeth back to London for questioning. She was understandably frightened and ill; she sent word that she could not travel. Two of Mary’s personal physicians were sent to evaluate her condition. They diagnosed ‘watery humors’ and perhaps an inflammation of the kidneys. She was ill, they reported, but not too ill to travel the 30 miles to London in the queen’s own litter. Three of the queen’s councilors – Howard, Hastings, and Cornwallis, all of whom were friendly with Elizabeth – escorted her back to London. They traveled quite slowly, covering just six miles a day.

Elizabeth kept the curtains of the litter pulled back as she entered the city, and the citizens were able to see her pale, frightened face. She had good cause for her fear; the heads and corpses of Wyatt and his supporters were thrust upon spikes and gibbets throughout the city. The queen waited for her at Whitehall but they did not meet immediately. First, Elizabeth’s household was dismissed and she was told that she must undergo close interrogation about her activities. She was questioned by the unfriendly bishop of Winchester, Stephen Gardiner, but she was not intimidated. She denied any involvement in the rebellion and repeatedly asked to see the queen. But she was told that Mary was leaving for Oxford where she would hold a Parliament. Elizabeth would be leaving Whitehall as well, though at first the council could not decide where to send her. No councilor wanted the responsibility of keeping her in close confinement at their homes; it was too unpleasant and potentially dangerous. And so Gardiner and Renard had their way and she went to the Tower of London. The earl of Sussex and the marquess of Winchester were sent to escort her from Whitehall.

Elizabeth was terrified. The mere mention of the Tower was enough to shatter her already fragile nerves. She begged to be allowed to write to her sister, and the men agreed. The letter was long, rambling, and repetitious – proof of her fear and trepidation:

I have heard in my time of many cast away for want of coming to the presence of their Prince…. Therefore once again kneeling with humbleness of my heart, because I am not suffered to bow the knees of my body, I humbly crave to speak with your Highness, which I would not be so bold to desire if I knew not myself most clear as I know myself most true. And as for the traitor Wyatt, he might peradventure write me a letter but on my faith I never received any from him; and as for the copy of my letter sent to the French king, I pray God confound me eternally if ever I sent him word, message, token or letter by any means, and to this truth I will stand it to my death.
….Let conscience move your Highness to take some better way with me than to make me be condemned in all men’s sight afore my desert know.

After finishing, she carefully drew lines throughout the rest of the blank sheet so no forgeries could be added, and she signed it ‘I humbly crave but one word of answer from yourself. Your Highness’s most faithful subject that hath been from the beginning and will be to my end, Elizabeth’.

The letter had taken too long to write; they had missed the tide. They could wait a few hours and take her to the Tower in the darkest part of night, but the council disagreed. There could be an attempt to rescue her under cover of darkness. They decided to wait until the next morning, Palm Sunday, when the streets would be nearly deserted since everyone would be in church. Meanwhile, her letter was sent to Mary who received it angrily and refused to read it through. She had not given permission for it to be written or sent, and she rebuked her councilors fiercely.

The next morning, 17 March 1554, arrived cold and grey; there was a steady rain. At 9 o’clock in the morning, Elizabeth was taken from her rooms and through the garden to where the barge waited. She was accompanied by six of her ladies and two gentleman-attendants. She waited under a canopy until the barge began to slow; she then saw that they would enter beneath Traitor’s Gate, beneath St Thomas’s Tower. This was the traditional entrance for prisoners returned to their cells after trial at Westminster. The sight terrified her and she begged to be allowed entry by any other gate. Her request was refused. She was offered a cloak to protect her from the rain but she pushed it aside angrily. Upon stepping onto the landing, she declared, ‘Here landeth as true a subject, being prisoner, as ever landed at these stairs. Before Thee, O God, do I speak it, having no other friend but Thee alone.’ She then noticed the yeoman warders gathered to receive her beyond the gate. ‘Oh Lord,’ she said loudly, ‘I never thought to have come in here as a prisoner, and I pray you all bear me witness that I come in as no traitor but as true a woman to the Queen’s Majesty as any as is now living.’ Several of the warders stepped forward and bowed before her, and one called out, ‘God preserve your Grace.’

She still refused to enter the Tower. After the warder’s declaration, she sat upon a stone and would not move. The Lieutenant of the Tower, Sir John Brydges, said to her, ‘You had best come in, Madame, for here you sit unwholesomely.’ Elizabeth replied with feeling, ‘Better sit here, than in a worse place, for God knoweth where you will bring me.’ And so she sat until one of her attendants burst into tears. She was taken to the Bell Tower, a small corner tower beside Brydges’s own lodgings. Her room was on the first floor, and had a large fireplace with three small windows. Down the passageway from the door were three latrines which hung over the moat. It was not as destitute or uncomfortable as she had feared, but it was still the Tower of London and she was a prisoner.

This was the beginning of one of the most trying times of her life.

Elizabeth spent just two months in the Tower of London, but she had no idea that her stay would be so brief – and it did not feel particularly brief. She truly believed some harm would come to her and she dwelt most upon the possibility of poison. She knew Mary hated her and that many of her councilors constantly spoke ill of her, encouraging either her imprisonment or execution.

However, Elizabeth had enough popular support that she would not face death at her sister’s orders. But Lady Jane Grey, the unfortunate Nine Days’ Queen, and her husband were neither so popular or lucky. They, too, had lived in the Tower under threat of execution; both had been convicted of treason. But Mary had always been fond of Jane and was close friends with her mother Frances; she allowed her cousin to live very comfortably in the Tower while her fate remained undecided. Mary probably intended to release Jane as soon as the country settled under her own rule. But Renard wanted both Jane and her husband executed. He warned Mary that the emperor would not allow Philip to enter England as long as Jane lived. She was a traitor, and it was only a matter of time before the Protestants tried to place either Jane or Elizabeth upon the throne. Mary was not persuaded by Renard’s arguments, but his threat carried greater force – she wanted to marry Philip and he would not come to England until it was safe. The small rebellion led by Jane’s father clearly did not help matters. And so Jane and the equally unfortunate Guildford Dudley were executed. Elizabeth herself arrived at the Tower just six weeks later, and her cousin’s fate must have weighed heavily on her mind. After all, she and Jane had lived and studied together briefly under Katharine Parr’s tutelage, and Jane’s admiration of Elizabeth had been open and obvious.

It was abundantly clear to Elizabeth that her position was precarious and dangerous. During the first weeks of her imprisonment, she was allowed to take exercise along the Tower walls but when a small child began to give her flowers and other gifts, Brydges was told to keep her indoors. Elizabeth had always been active, both physically and mentally. She chafed at her confinement and its boring routine. She was occasionally interrogated by members of Mary’s council, but she held firm to her innocence. She had faced such interrogations during Thomas Seymour’s fall from grace, and could not be easily intimidated. Still, the stress – which she handled with outward aplomb – took its toll on her physical health. She lost weight, and became prone to headaches and stomach problems.

Ironically enough, it was the impending arrival of Philip of Spain which led to her freedom. Renard had urged Mary to execute Jane and imprison Elizabeth so that Philip would be safe in England. Philip, however, was far more sensitive to the political implications of such an act. He knew the English were acutely sensitive to any shift in Mary’s policies simply because she had chosen to marry a foreigner. If she made an unpopular decision, it would be blamed upon his influence. He knew, too, that the Protestant faith was still popular in the country, and that Elizabeth embodied its greatest hope. If she were harmed in any way, his arrival in England would be even more unpopular and dangerous. And the Wyatt rebellion had merely reinforced Philip’s natural inclination to tread lightly. His intention was to wed Mary, be crowned king of England, and find a suitable husband for Elizabeth, preferably one of his Hapsburg relations. Then, if Mary died without bearing a child, England would remain within the Hapsburg sphere of influence, a willing and useful adjunct of the empire.

Accordingly, Philip wrote to Mary and advised that Elizabeth be set at liberty. This conciliatory gesture was not appreciated by Mary, always inclined to believe the worst in her half-sister, but – once again – her eagerness for Philip’s arrival made her desperate to please him. She dispensed with Renard’s advice and on Saturday 19 May at one o’clock in the afternoon, Elizabeth was finally released from the Tower; incidentally, her mother had been executed on the same day eighteen years earlier. She spent one night at Richmond Palace, but it was clear that her release had not lifted Elizabeth’s spirits. That night she summoned her few servants and asked them to pray for her, ‘For this night,’ Elizabeth said, ‘I think to die.’

She did not die, of course, but she was still frightened and lonely. She had been released into the care of Sir Henry Bedingfield, a Catholic supporter of Queen Mary whose father had guarded Katharine of Aragon during her last years at Kimbolton Castle. He had come to the Tower on 5 May as the new Constable, replacing Sir John Gage, and his arrival had caused Elizabeth no end of terror. She believed he was sent to secretly murder her for, not long before, a credible rumor had reached her; it was said that the Catholic elements of Mary’s council had sent a warrant for her execution to the Tower but that Sir John Brydges, the strict but honest Lieutenant, had not acted upon it because it lacked the queen’s signature. With Bedingfield’s arrival, Elizabeth lost her almost preternatural self-control and she asked her guards ‘whether the Lady Jane’s scaffold was taken away or no?’ When told it was gone, she asked about Bedingfield, and if ‘her murdering were secretly committed to his charge, he would see the execution thereof?’

From Richmond, Bedingfield took his cowed charge to Woodstock, a hunting-lodge miles from London and once favored by her Plantagenet grandfather, Edward IV. She was neither officially under arrest nor free, a nebulous position which confused nearly everyone. She could not be received at court, but she could not be set at liberty in the countryside. And so Bedingfield was essentially her jailer, but not referred to as such; and Woodstock was her prison, but also not called such. The journey to Woodstock certainly raised her spirit. She was greeted by throngs of people shouting ‘God save your grace!’ and other messages of support. Flowers, sweets, cakes and other small gifts were given to her. At times, the reception was so enthusiastic that Elizabeth was openly overwhelmed. It was now clear to her that the English people loved her, perhaps as much as they did Queen Mary.

But the love of the people was small comfort when faced with the dilapidation of Woodstock. The main house was in such disrepair that Elizabeth was lodged in the gatehouse. The queen had ordered that her sister be treated honorably and given limited freedom; Elizabeth was allowed to walk in the orchard and gardens. She also requested numerous books. After a few weeks, her initial fear of Bedingfield had settled into a bemused appraisal of her jailer. She now recognized him for what he was – a conscientious, unimaginative civil servant with a difficult assignment. They got on tolerably well, and Bedingfield even forwarded her numerous letters to the Council and the queen. Elizabeth was concerned that her imprisonment in the countryside would remove her too much from the public eye and her ceaseless letter-writing was an attempt to reassert her position as princess of England. Mary did not read the letters and angrily order Bedingfield to stop sending them along.

At the end of June, Elizabeth fell ill and asked that the queen’s physician Dr Owen be sent to her. But Dr Owen was busy tending to Queen Mary and told Bedingfield that his charge must be patient. He recommended the services of Drs Barnes and Walbeck. Elizabeth refused to allow their examination; she preferred to commit her body to God rather than to the eyes of strangers, she told Bedingfield. Finally, on 7 July, Mary finally sent permission to Woodstock for Elizabeth to write to her and the Council about her various concerns. Elizabeth was petulant and took her time with the composition of this most important letter. When it was finally sent, written in Bedingfield’s hand from her dictation, it was a typically shrewd and pointed document. Elizabeth wanted the Council to consider ‘her long imprisonment and restraint of liberty, either to charge her with special matter to be answered unto and tried, or to grant her liberty to come unto her highness’s presence, which she sayeth she would not desire were it not that she knoweth herself to be clear even before God, for her allegiance.’ Elizabeth specifically requested that the members of the queen’s council who were executors of ‘the Will of the King’s majesty her father’ read the letter and be allowed to visit with her. It was a pointed reminder that despite her deprived circumstances, she was still next in line to the English throne. The Council heard the document uneasily.

Mary, however, had other matters on her mind. Finally, on 20 July, even as Elizabeth mulled over her letter, Philip II of Spain finally landed at Southampton. The handsome, fair-haired 27 year old King was already a widow with a male heir; his first wife Maria of Portugal had died in childbirth in 1545 after two years ofanother portrait of Elizabeth's half-sister, Queen Mary I marriage. He was a conscientious and pious man who impressed all who met him with his discipline and work ethic. But he also had a tendency toward religious asceticism which worsened as he grew older. As a child, he had accompanied his father to the inquisition in Spain, watching impassively as heretics were burned alive. But his marriage to Mary was one of political necessity and Philip had no intention of threatening its success with unpopular religious policies. He was willing to move England slowly back into the Catholic fold; faced with Mary’s impatience, it was Philip who advised moderation. He wed his cousin at Winchester Cathedral on 25 July in a splendid ceremony. On 18 August they finally entered London in triumph, its citizens plied with enough free drinks and entertainment to greet Philip enthusiastically. But there were already signs of trouble; the anonymous pamphlets condemning foreigners and the queen’s marriage circulated, and Philip’s Spanish entourage were unhappy over a number of petty slights and insults from their English hosts.

Elizabeth had hoped the marriage would result in some change in her circumstances. But she was sadly mistaken. Instead she passed the months needling Bedingfield for more books, scribbling more letters, and listening to the occasional rumor from her servants. The rumors were hardly comforting. The queen was reportedly pregnant and she and Philip would open Parliament together on 12 November. From then on, the reunion between England and the papacy could begin in force. Mary was the happiest she had been since childhood, but the problem of Elizabeth remained. Gardiner wanted her executed; he argued that Protestantism could not be completely eradicated until its great hope, Elizabeth herself, was gone. But Philip and most other councilors were more pragmatic. Parliament had already agreed that if Mary died in childbirth, Philip would be regent of England during their child’s minority. However, if both mother and child died, then Elizabeth once again assumed prominence. Philip, always prudent, preferred to know his sister-in-law before making an enemy of her. With his encouragement, and flush with happiness at her marriage and pregnancy, Mary finally invited Elizabeth to court.

In the third week of April 1555, almost a year since she was sent to Woodstock, Elizabeth was brought to Hampton Court Palace. Mary had gone there to prepare for her lying-in. They did not meet immediately. Elizabeth was brought into the palace through a side entrance, still closely guarded. According to the French ambassador, Philip visited her three days later but Mary never came. Two weeks later, the most powerful members of the council appeared to chide her for not submitting to the queen’s authority; she was told to admit her past wrongdoing and seek the queen’s forgiveness. Elizabeth replied that she had done nothing wrong in the past and wanted no mercy from her sister ‘but rather desired the law’. She told Gardiner she would rather remain in prison forever than admit to crimes she had never committed. He went off immediately to tell Mary of her sister’s continued stubbornness. The queen was not pleased. The next day, Gardiner told Elizabeth that the queen marveled that ‘she would so stoutly use herself, not confessing that she had offended’. Did Elizabeth really believe she was wrongfully imprisoned? Gardiner asked. Elizabeth refused the bait. She did not criticize her sister explicitly, telling him only that the queen must do with her as her conscience dictated. Gardiner replied that if she wanted her liberty and former position, she must tell a different story; only by admitting her past faults, confessing all sins, could she hope for forgiveness. It was a stalemate. Elizabeth again told him she would rather be unjustly imprisoned than gain freedom with lies.

The next week passed with no word from anyone. And then, around 10 o’clock one evening, a message arrived that the queen would see her. Elizabeth had begged for an interview for more than a year but now that the moment had at last arrived, she was understandably nervous. She was accompanied into Mary’s apartments by one of her own ladies-in-waiting and Mary’s close friend and Mistress of the Robes Susan Clarencieux. The queen’s bedroom was lit with flickering candlelight; the queen herself was half-hidden in shadow. Without asking permission, Elizabeth immediately prostrated herself and declared her innocence. And though she and Mary sparred for a short while, the queen was willing to be generous at her own moment of triumph. It was rumored that Philip watched the sisters from behind a curtain; whether or not he was there, Mary was content to make peace of sorts. She sent Elizabeth away amicably enough and a week later poor Bedingfield was relieved of his duties. Elizabeth would remain at Hampton Court, still under light guard but with her own household and permission to receive certain guests. It was the end of over a year of tiresome captivity and she was delighted.

While she enjoyed her newfound liberty, the burning of Protestant heretics began in earnest. These killings have earned Mary the nickname ‘Bloody Mary’ and blighted her reputation. In truth, the roughly 300 people killed (about 60 women) was not considered excessive by Mary’s European contemporaries; and in the government’s mind, Protestantism had become dangerously linked with treason, sedition, and other secular crimes. For Mary, who was perhaps the most personally kind and gentle of the Tudor rulers, the killings were necessary to save the heretics’ souls as well. It is a telling feature of her character that she could often forgive treason against herself, but would not countenance treason against God.

The burnings, coupled with the Spanish marriage, caused enough resentment; but, unfortunately for Mary, famine and poverty added to her list of woes. But the greatest tragedy of all for the queen was the humiliating and heartbreaking realization that her pregnancy was not real. Mary had truly believed she was pregnant; her stomach had become swollen and she had felt the child quicken. But she had always suffered from digestive and menstrual troubles. It is probable that she developed a tumor in her stomach which, combined with the lack of a cycle and her own fervent prayers, made her believe she was pregnant. All of April was spent in a state of readiness. Dozens of nurses and midwives crowded into Hampton Court, joined by a throng of noble ladies who would assist in the delivery. On 30 April a rumor reached London that a male child had been born and celebrations ensued. But it was a false alarm; the next three months were spent in a state of suspended disbelief. Finally, on 3 August, the queen’s household departed to Oatlands and the pregnancy was not mentioned again.

Mary’s heartache was soon worsened by the impending departure of Philip. He had spent over a year in a country he disliked, married to a woman he pitied but did not love. He used the excuse of pressing business in the Low Countries to leave England. Mary protested passionately, begging him to stay; it was clear to everyone that she truly loved her husband. But Philip was equally determined to go. It was perhaps clear to him that Mary was seriously ill and would never have children. If that was the case, he had no reason to remain in England. He left explicit instructions that she treat her sister well.

Elizabeth was sent to a small manor house a few miles from Oatlands where she played another waiting game, only this time with some measure of freedom and hope. But it was to be another three years before she would become queen of England.

Queen Elizabeth I
The 'Coronation Portrait' of Elizabeth I; late 16th copy of a lost original

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‘Some have fallen from being Princes of this land to be prisoners in this place; I am raised from being prisoner in this place to be Prince of this land. That dejection was a work of God’s justice; this advancement is a work of His mercy.’ Elizabeth I at the Tower of London, during her coronation ceremonies, 1559


There is an apocryphal story about Elizabeth’s accession. In it, she was out in the meadows surrounding Hatfield when the courtiers approached. They bowed before her, and presented Mary’s signet ring. Elizabeth supposedly fell upon her knees and exclaimed, most aptly, ‘A Domino factum est illud et est mirabile in oculis nostris.’ (‘This is the Lord’s doing, and it is marvelous in Our eyes.’) The citizens of London undoubtedly felt the same; upon receiving word of Mary’s death, bonfires were lit and tables were set in the streets for a grand celebratory feast.

A glorious accession, then, and much celebrated. A contemporary observer, however, commented wryly upon the state of affairs in England in 1558: ‘The Queen poor; the realm exhausted; the nobility poor and decayed; want of good captains and soldiers; the people out of order; justice not executed; justices of peace unmeet for office; all things dear; excess of meat and drink, and apparel; division among ourselves; war with France and Scotland; the French King, having one foot in Calais and the other in Scotland; steadfast enmity, but no steadfast friendship abroad.’

Elizabeth was well aware of the dire situation she faced. She herself had been the victim of the religious and political confusion of Mary’s reign. And'The Ditchley Portrait' of Elizabeth I even the weather had been uncooperative for Queen Mary; the droughts which had plagued farmers led to high prices and much poverty. Most of the poor flocked to London where they crowded into ever-expanding slums. Mary’s attempts to reform the debased currency of Henry VIII and Edward VI’s reign had been somewhat successful, but England was still considered a poor credit risk on the Continent.

And so the new queen, though popular and much-admired, did not inherit a stable and prosperous country – and the quest for stability and prosperity became the guiding force of her reign. To that end, she came to eschew foreign entanglements and religious extremism. Practical and pragmatic, Elizabeth chose as her motto ‘Semper Eadem’ (‘Always the Same’), and it was highly appropriate.

Her succession was assured and untroubled. But Elizabeth knew that when the celebrations ended, the real work would begin. Almost immediately, she would be forced to consider a rival claim to the throne by her cousin, Mary Stuart. Queen of Scotland since infancy, and now the wife of the French dauphin (and crowned queen of France in 1559), Mary was denied a place in the Tudor succession by Henry VIII’s will. But she was a Catholic and had the French monarchy behind her. For her part, she was content to stay in France. But she did – with spirit and not much sense, as was her wont – choose to quarter the royal arms of England, Wales and Ireland upon her heraldry, thus openly laying claim to the throne of England. Even this symbolic act was fraught with political danger for the queenly cousins. From her accession on, Elizabeth knew her Scottish ‘sister’ was a serious concern; and while Mary was safely in France, it was all for the better. Scotland was already turning Protestant and England could continue to support its religious dissension and political upheaval. If their northern neighbor was kept busy with its own troubles, it was less likely to clash with England.

As for her English subjects, even the Catholics were largely against Mary Stuart’s claims. In this case, nationalism trumped religion. There were other English claimants, of course; the younger sisters of the unfortunate Lady Jane Grey. But of the two, Catherine was flighty and foolish and Mary was barely four feet tall. Neither was a popular choice to be queen.

Her smooth accession was further assured by the Lord Chancellor, Nicholas Heath. Parliament had been in session while Mary lay dying and, on 17 November, Heath announced her death to the assembled lords and commons. He then said, ‘Which hap as it is most heavy and grievous unto us, so have we no less cause another way to rejoice with praise to Almighty God for that He hath left unto us a true, lawful and right inheritrice to the crown of this realm, which is the Lady Elizabeth, of whose lawful right and title we need not to doubt. Wherefore the lords of this house have determined with your assents and consents, to pass from hence into the palace, and there to proclaim the said Lady Elizabeth Queen of this realm without further tract of time.’

There was no dissension at Heath’s words. Traditionally, Parliament dissolved upon the death of the reigning monarch – but Heath’s prompt actions ensured Elizabeth’s lawful recognition as queen before the lords and commons dispersed. And, as a leading Catholic, Heath also secured the loyalty of his religious party for the new queen.

Elizabeth held court at Hatfield for about a week, assembling statesmen and studying English affairs more acutely. Nicholas Throckmorton wrote to her immediately; he advised her to be wary and careful, so that neither ‘the old or the new should wholly understand what you mean.’ She did not need such advice; it was already central to her character. How else had she survived the reigns of Edward and Mary?

Elizabeth I's greatest advisor, Sir William Cecil On 20 November, she held her first council meeting and appointed the loyal William Cecil as her Principal Secretary of State. They had been friends for a long while, since his appointment as her accountant many years ago. And, for the next forty years, they were to rule England as a virtually inseparable team. Elizabeth’s words to Cecil have become justly famous: ‘I give you this charge, that you shall be of my Privy Council and content to take pains for me and my realm. This judgment I have of you that you will not be corrupted by any manner of gift and that you will be faithful to the state; and that without respect of my private will you will give me that counsel which you think best and if you shall know anything necessary to be declared to me of secrecy, you shall show it to myself only. And assure yourself I will not fail to keep taciturnity therein and therefore herewith I charge you.’

All monarchs use such appointments to reward loyalty and friendship; Cecil’s was also a reward for ability. On a more personal note, Elizabeth rewarded the faithful servants who had been her companions since childhood, among them Thomas Parry and Kat Ashley. The handsome Robert Dudley was appointed Master of the Horse; he was the son of the late Lord Protector and had been imprisoned in the Tower with Elizabeth during Mary’s reign. Not coincidentally, this position required close contact with the queen. Thus from the very beginning, a source of rivalry was established amongst Elizabeth’s closest councilors. Cecil and Dudley disliked one another, each man viewing the other as his main rival for the queen’s attention. But even this potentially untenable situation benefited the young queen; it meant that she alone dominated her government while two rival factions developed, each centered around Cecil and Dudley.


‘Everything depends upon the husband this woman takes.’
the Spanish ambassador De Feria, 1560


‘If I were a milkmaid with a pail on my arm, whereby my private person might be little set by, I would not forsake that poor and single state to match with the greatest monarch.’ Elizabeth I to Parliament, regarding marriage


Elizabeth well understood the importance of public relations and knew her entry into London must be a lavish spectacle; the coronation which would follow must be even more impressive. Dudley was placed in charge of the coronation plans. He was well-suited to the task. Elizabeth’s favorite astronomer, Dr John Dee, was consulted and Sunday, 15 January 1559 was selected as the perfect date.

On 23 November, Elizabeth left Hatfield for London; she stayed at the Charterhouse, and for the next five days she made regular appearances before adoring crowds. On Monday 28 November, she left the Charterhouse to ride through London and to the Tower. She wore a purple velvet gown and had a scarf tied loosely around her neck. Dudley rode closely behind her. When they neared the Tower, both the queen and her Master of the Horse appreciated the irony of the moment. Elizabeth said simply, and wittily: ‘Some have fallen from being Princes of this land to be prisoners in this place; I am raised from being prisoner in this place to be Prince of this land. That dejection was a work of God’s justice; this advancement is a work of His mercy.’

She spent the next ten days at the Tower, holding council meetings and slowly but steadily learning how to rule. She had been welcomed to the throne with great celebration, but few monarchs have inherited such a dire predicament. Religious turmoil was inevitable; though the Protestants regarded Elizabeth as their savior, many Marian exiles believed she would maintain her sister’s religious changes. She had to tread carefully – and fortunately for both Elizabeth and her nation, she was uniquely suited to do so. She made it clear to her councilors that she wanted no windows into men’s souls. Also, she would not be dominated by one religious party at the expense of another. For Elizabeth, her citizens were Englishmen first; their religious loyalties – whether Catholic or Protestant – were to remain subservient to their loyalty to her as queen of England. This explains her later disregard for Puritanism. She characteristically remarked that she preferred loyal Catholics to Puritans; this may have confused some of her subjects since she was a Protestant queen, and the Puritans were simply Protestant extremists. However, Elizabeth recognized that, by the end of her reign, most of her Catholic subjects were loyal to her instead of the pope (despite her excommunication) and accepted royal prerogative. Her Puritan subjects, however, did not recognize the sanctity of the crown, and their presence in Parliament ensured a steady erosion of royal power. The end result of this conflict occurred during the reign of Charles I, when a powerful Puritan populace revolted against their Catholic king and beheaded him.

Luckily, most of Elizabeth’s councilors were of the same mind as the queen. Their first priority was the stability of the realm, and they wanted to negotiate a truce of sorts between the two factions. Of course, the more extreme members of both parties could not be satisfied. Also, Philip II of Spain and Henri II of France had recently ended their near-constant warfare, and now England remained outside Continental affairs; perhaps it would become the prey of both powers. When Elizabeth’s court moved to Whitehall for Christmas, the Spanish ambassador De Feria tried to secure a possible marriage between Elizabeth and one of Philip’s innumerable relatives. Already her expected marriage dominated European politics. No one expected her to rule alone.

The Christmas festivities at Whitehall were quite extravagant. The English court had not had cause for much celebration in years; Mary’s reign had been increasingly insular and solemn. But Elizabeth, young and beautiful, was determined to celebrate her near-miraculous triumph. And yet Christmas would pale in comparison to her coronation festivities.

On the 12th of January, she set out once again to the Tower, traveling by river from Whitehall. Two days later, at two o’clock in the afternoon, she rode in an open litter for her recognition procession throughout London. She wore a gown of crimson velvet and cloth of gold with an ermine cape for warmth, and was surrounded by richly-dressed lords and ladies. Crowds of Londoners thronged the streets, to the queen’s open delight. It was a cold and wet Saturday with snow flurries settling upon the brocade canopy of the queen’s litter, but the weather could not distract from the spectacle.

The entire route through the city was marked by pageants, plays, and orations; even Anne Boleyn appeared in a tableau beside Henry VIII. Elizabeth’s replies to each presentation were memorable and kind; to the Recorder of London, she memorably said, ‘Whereas your request is that I should continue your good lady and Queen, be ye assured that I will be as good unto you as ever Queen was to her people. No will in me can lack, neither do I trust shall there lack any power. And persuade yourselves, that for the safety and quietness of you all, I will not spare if need be to spare my blood.’ These words were not merely facile endearments. Long ago, during the dark days of Mary’s reign, she had realized the importance of public relations and popular support.

The next day she was crowned queen of England. She entered Westminster on foot, walking upon a long blue carpet which the crowd promptly cut up for souvenirs. The great Abbey was crowded full of both rural and urban dignitaries, and their ladies. They watched as the queen marched slowly forward, the long red velvet train of her gown carried by the duchess of Norfolk. Hundreds of candles and lamps burned, and the boys’ choir sang beautifully while a medley of pipes, drums, and the church organ played.) She was crowned by Owen Oglethorpe, the bishop of Carlisle. Theportrait of Elizabeth I on wood; c1565 archbishop of Canterbury, Reginald Pole, had died the same day as Queen Mary; the archbishop of York asked to be excused on grounds of conscience; the bishop of Durham said he was too old to perform the ceremony. And so it fell to Dr Oglethorpe, who was as good as anyone else in Elizabeth’s eyes. The ceremony itself was a mish-mash of Catholic and Protestant rituals – the Mass was said in Latin but the celebrant did not elevate the Host; the epistle and gospel were read in Latin and English; and the coronation oath itself was read from an English Bible. In other words, it was a ceremony which accurately reflected the religious confusion of mid-16th century England.

Oglethorpe placed the heavy Crown of St Edward on her head, but it was quickly removed after the oath was administered. Then, wearing a lighter crown, the new queen was presented to the congregation. There was an explosion of noise (the Venetian ambassador said it sounded like the end of the world) as bells were rung, trumpets were blown, and every other musical instrument played with such force that spectators winced. The coronation banquet was held at Westminster Hall at three o’clock and lasted until one o’clock Monday morning. The new queen, who now wore a becoming gown of purple velvet, sat beneath the great window on a raised dais. There were eight hundred guests, and the queen was served by the Lord Chamberlain and the Chief Steward. She spoke little during the banquet, and was so tired when it ended that a tournament planned for Monday afternoon was canceled. She had also caught a cold; the opening of Parliament was thus delayed from the 23rd of January to the 25th. Her arrival at Parliament, however, was another moment of triumph for Elizabeth. She wore a crimson gown and a cap decorated with pearls and was quite lovely and energetic despite her recent cold. When the crowd called out, ‘God save and maintain thee!’, she responded with enthusiasm, ‘God a’ mercy, good people!’

All things considered, these first two months on the throne had gone very smoothly. But most European powers were convinced she wouldn’t last a year as queen. If she did, it would only be due to a quick marriage. And so, over the next several years, the dominant issue of her reign would be one which she personally detested – who would the queen marry, and when? For Elizabeth, treading carefully and conscious of the novelty of her position, the issue was a personal and political threat – and one which she handled with exquisite care.


‘She [Elizabeth] is incomparably more feared than her sister, and gives her orders and has her way as absolutely as her father did.’ the Spanish ambassador De Feria, 1559


Elizabeth’s seeming obliviousness to marriage, her refusal to discuss it, or her occasional witty but vague comments – all these infuriated her councilors. They seemed incapable of appreciating the impact marriage would have upon her life, while its impact was distressingly clear to Elizabeth. The councilors wanted a king, and an heir, a natural enough desire since her throne could not be completely secure without them. But Elizabeth knew herself to be intellectually superior to most men and she relished her independence. And, of course, her father’s marital history – as well as her sister’s – made her question both the personal and political cost of marriage. The new queen always had a low opinion of marital happiness, and saw little reason to change her mind.

Even in her own lifetime, rumors abounded that Elizabeth was physically deformed, incapable of pleasing a husband or bearing a child. It was also whispered that she was a sexual deviant whose appetites could not be satisfied by marriage. However, it is clear enough that Elizabeth’s character – pragmatic, rational, and calculating – was not overly romantic; she was openly fond of many courtiers, particularly Robert Dudley. But she never wed Dudley, and a healthy flirtation does not indicate sexual deviancy. Rather, it shows Elizabeth to be a normal young woman who enjoyed the company of a handsome man. If she had not flirted with Dudley, or her other courtiers, then speculation about her character would be understandable. In truth, she was no less flirtatious than her father, but the simple, unavoidable fact of her gender made her flirtations far more politically charged.

Furthermore, any sexual activity would have been immediately reported. ‘I do not live in a corner,’ the queen once commented. ‘A thousand eyes see all I do, and calumny will not fasten on me for ever.’ A foreign ambassador was caught paying one of her laundresses for proof of the queen’s regular menstrual cycle; everyone at court gossiped about her relationships with the handsome courtiers who soon flocked to London. The queen herself preferred to rise above such discussion. If she fulfilled her royal duties with care and diligence, and if she brought prosperity and peace to her country, then she was successful. And since she had great faith in her own talents, she saw no reason to share her throne with a husband.

And so, out of love of independence and power, and a native distrust of marriage, Elizabeth was determined to remain single. Her councilors, for their part, pretended to believe otherwise for quite a long time. Despite her repeated vows to ‘live and die a virgin’, they embarked upon countless rounds of diplomatic negotiations searching for a husband. They visited her in private, they openly begged her; they eventually forced a parliamentary showdown upon her. William Cecil prayed that ‘God would send our mistress a husband, and by time a son, that we may hope our posterity shall have a masculine succession.’ Despite their close friendship, and mutual respect, even Cecil succumbed to the sexism of their age – he rebuked a messenger for talking to the queen of something that ‘was too much for woman’s knowledge.’

But over the years, her councilor’s discomfort lessened. Mary Stuart bore a son, James, in 1566 and was imprisoned in England shortly afterwards. James was raised as a Protestant and was soon the only Tudor relative with a viable claim. His religion allowed most Englishmen to look favorably upon him as Elizabeth’s eventual heir. The queen wisely dangled its possibility before him and thus ensured Scottish political cooperation throughout the later years of her reign. Also, as the years passed, so did the possibility that Elizabeth would bear a child. And why marry, if not for an heir?

It is also worth noting the endless difficulties in selecting a suitable husband. A foreign match would have dragged England into the morass of European politics, with possibly the same disastrous results of Mary’s marriage. But marriage to an Englishman would have given too much power to one political faction or the other. And so Elizabeth’s personal dislike of marriage turned out to be a shrewd political decision, though it confounded everyone for several years.

From the earliest days of her reign, one of Elizabeth’s greatest political attributes was her endless prevarication. Many historians have described it less as an attribute, and more as her greatest failing. They mention her inability to decide upon marriage, or – most famously – her refusal to execute Mary queen of Scots. They argue that these incidents prove she was hesitant and indecisive. But it actually reveals a formidable political talent, and one which greatly benefited her nation. The new queen was not one to whole-heartedly plunge into any scheme, personal or political; thus, she refused to become involved in foreign entanglements which would have bankrupted her country and produced strife and discontent. She sent money and a few troops to continental Protestants, but no more. In terms of religion, she sought to strike a balance between two extremes through careful thought and debate. In doing so, she negotiated a truce of sorts which lasted through most of her reign – in contrast to the religious turmoil which marked the reigns before and after her own. One could label her indecisive since she did not strike a definitive stance on either issue. But she preserved the peace and prosperity of her nation; she put England, and the welfare of its citizens, first. Thus, the ability to prevaricate was an essential tool of her political success, however much it frustrated those who wanted her to take sides. In Elizabeth’s case, one could argue that she took only the English side.


‘She is a very vain and clever woman. She must have been thoroughly schooled in the manner in which her father conducted his affairs. She is determined to be governed by no one.’ the Spanish ambassador De Feria, 1559


Elizabeth I's greatest love, Sir Robert Dudley This understandably caused strife within her council. It was clear from the beginning that Robert Dudley was the queen’s favorite courtier. They were openly affectionate and Dudley enjoyed flaunting the queen’s favor. Cecil was often terrified that Elizabeth would wed Dudley, but that fear at least was soon put to rest. At the start of Elizabeth’s reign, Dudley was still married to an heiress called Amy Robsart; she was safely tucked away in the country while her husband flirted at court. Elizabeth knew of the match; she had attended the wedding. But the marriage, which had begun happily, was soon torn apart by Dudley’s ambition. But whatever he planned for the future, it was soon impossible for him to dream of becoming king. Amy was living in secluded and deprived circumstances at Cumnor Place, the Oxfordshire manor of Anthony Forster, an MP and close friend of Dudley’s. She had been ill for some time. On Sunday the 8th of September 1560, roughly nine months after Elizabeth’s coronation, she gave her few servants permission to visit a fair. When they returned, they found her lying dead at the bottom of the staircase with a broken neck. There had been other ladies in the home; they reported playing backgammon with Amy until, suddenly and without explanation, she left the room and fell to her death. Dudley was informed of the news while at Windsor Castle with the queen. He immediately ordered a thorough investigation. Why? His close relationship with the queen was already a minor scandal; Amy’s suspicious death could make it explosive.

Amy had been ill for some months, with a ‘canker in her breast’, as the doctors said. They had assured Dudley that his wife would not live much longer. So the immediate supposition after her death – that Dudley had murdered Amy so he could marry the queen – does not make sense. There were only three other conclusions to draw – first, that Amy, knowing her own condition, was depressed and angry at her husband; she therefore took her own life in an attempt to end her suffering and Dudley’s hopes to be king. Second, that one of Dudley’s enemies had murdered Amy in an attempt to discredit him and make marriage with the queen impossible. Or third, that nothing so nefarious occurred and her death was completely accidental; she simply fell while walking down the stairs.

But everyone enjoyed gossip and scandal too much to let it pass. And Amy’s maid told a jury that her mistress had often ‘prayed to God to deliver her from desperation’, and many courtiers remembered Dudley’s public speculation about divorcing his wife. Elizabeth was forced to send Dudley from court until the funeral, but he did not attend the service. The queen sent Lady Norton as her representative, and it was known that other ladies had been asked but refused to go because of the scandal. But Elizabeth’s affection for Dudley was at its greatest during these early years and could not be denied. Soon enough he was back at court and in as much favor as always. Once, during a boating party on the Thames, he asked the ambassador de Quadra, who was also Bishop of Avila, to marry he and Elizabeth immediately. The ambassador remarked that he would do so as soon as the queen dismissed her Protestant councilors from service.

In light of Amy Robsart’s death, it is worth considering Elizabeth’s own feelings on the matter. Her closest advisors thought she had good cause to dread the woman’s death, though not because of any scandal. The queen, they realized, enjoyed flirting with Dudley and occasionally encouraged his fantasies, but she did not want to be given the opportunity to marry him. When Amy Robsart died, Elizabeth had no ready excuse for denying Dudley’s proposals.

But the queen had other, far more appropriate suitors. Cecil’s natural inclination was to make peace with England’s traditional enemy, France. He urged a match with one of Queen Catherine d’Medici and King Henry II’s sons. These Francophile maneuvers began seriously after Mary Stuart’s French husband died in 1560 and she returned to Scotland. To thwart Cecil, other councilors pressed a Spanish marriage, perhaps even to her former brother-in-law Philip. The queen expertly considered all options but never committed to any. This routine would continue until advancing age made childbirth impossible. Only then was Elizabeth truly free of parliamentary meddling in her private affairs, a situation which had inspired several famously bitter outbursts in 1566. After insisting that the succession was too weighty an issue for such “a knot of harebrains” as the House of Commons, she later invoked her own arrest during Wyatt’s rebellion as the reason for her refusal to name a successor (if she would not marry): “I did differ from her [Mary I] in religion and I was sought for divers ways. And so shall never be my successor.” And, she warned them, “as your Prince and head”, it was up to her to judge such weighty political issues without parliamentary interference, “For it is monstrous that the feet should direct the head.”

In other words, they could discuss and debate and suggest – but only Elizabeth could rule.

Queen Elizabeth I
'The Sieve Portrait' of Elizabeth I by Quentin Metsys

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‘And to me it shall be a full satisfaction, both for the memorial of my Name, and for my Glory also, if when I shall let my last breath, it be ingraven upon my Marble Tomb, Here lieth Elizabeth, which Reigned a Virgin, and died a Virgin.’ Elizabeth I to Parliament, 1559


Elizabeth was content to ignore potential suitors; she considered religion to be the most pressing and divisive issue in England. Having lived through years of spiritual upheaval, she well understood her subjects’ need for peace. But it would not be easy to find.

Both Protestants and Catholics had suffered throughout the reigns of Henry VIII, Edward VI, and Mary I. Henry’s religious policies had been muddled and disarming; no one, even the king, knew the definition of heresy. Or rather, they knew heresy was whatever the king commanded, and that changed from year to year. Edward had been a devout Protestant, as had his councilors. The six years of his rule witnessed its political and social triumph, primarily through southern England. The independent north remained conservative and Catholic. Mary had been an equally devout Catholic, imbued with genuine religious fervor. She brought papal privilege back to England after a twenty-year absence. And now Elizabeth came to the throne, having been Protestant and Catholic, for she had tacked to the treacherous winds of her siblings’ courts.

Each faith harbored grievances against the other. Her Protestant councilors increasingly felt that Catholics were political traitors, as if their very faith implied a lack of patriotism. They warned Elizabeth that the pope commanded her Catholic subjects, not she; only a swift and strong blow could ensure their fear and forced loyalty. But for the queen, her Catholic subjects were also, quite simply, subjects. If they recognized her rule, she had no qualms about their private worship. Let them go publicly to Protestant services and then do as they wished at home. So long as they did not rebel, she was content not to pry.

This generosity, echoed in Mary Stuart’s behavior in Scotland, was considered a weakness by many. And many Catholics did not trust the queen’s promises.

Elizabeth’s first parliament met from January to April 1559. The new queen did not bother to revoke her illegitimacy, as Mary had. This was indicative of Elizabeth’s self-confidence and her ability to let the past go. She even welcomed her former jailer Bedingfield to court, though with a caustic wit.

Religious turmoil was soon the subject of impassioned debate. The royal supremacy – the royal title of Supreme Head of the Church of England – was reinstated, though altered to ‘Supreme Governor’. In the House of Lords, many bishops resisted the changes but they were quickly replaced by others, led by Matthew Parker as archbishop of Canterbury. Elizabeth pressed for a restoration of the 1549 Prayer Book, which she felt would be acceptable to Protestants and most complacent Catholics. But the new bishops preferred the 1552 Prayer Book; it was rather vague about most controversial maters and thus less offensive to Catholics. Elizabeth assented and the Act of Uniformity was passed. She was particularly successful in making religious dissension a political matter, rather than a troublesome question of doctrine. In the Oath of Supremacy, in which her authority as Supreme Governor was recognized, the queen’s powers were explicitly outlined. It was a simple matter to remove Marian stalwarts from positions of authority, and about 300 clergy were dismissed. In total, one third of parish clergy were replaced.

Most Englishmen were content with this settlement, though extremists on both sides felt it inadequate. Elizabeth effectively placed the church under control of the crown, thus merging religious and political power in her person.


‘From the very beginning of her reign she has treated all religious questions with so much caution and incredible prudence that she seems both to protect the Catholic religion and at the same time not entirely to condemn or outwardly reject the new Reformation….
In my opinion, a very prudent action, intended to keep the adherents of both creeds in subjection, for the less she ruffles them at the beginning of her reign the more easily she will enthrall them later on.’
the Imperial envoy Count con Helffstein, March 1559


This balance was maintained successfully through most of her reign. However, in later years, two great problems emerged. The first was the growing popularity of the Puritan movement. This extreme form of Protestantism was a direct attack upon the royal supremacy. In England, the Puritans were directly influenced by continental Presbyterians. They believed passionately in one rule only, that of Holy Scripture. They also believed in a fellowship of ministers; parishes would elect their own religious leaders, under the supervision of a group of elders. In other words, the parishes would usurp the power of the queen.

For the Puritans, it became distressingly clear that the Church of England was more dedicated to England and its ruler than to God.

Elizabeth’s government was able to keep the Puritan movement underground. John Whitgift, who became Archbishop of Canterbury in 1583, attempted to neutralize their cause by adopting some needed reforms. But he did not wish to create Puritan martyrs, as Mary I had created Protestant ones. He was also more interested in establishing a uniform clergy rather than debating doctrine. A few Puritans were executed and many others banished under Whitgift; his use of the church courts robbed the new doctrine of its momentum. It remained troublesome to the queen, but never a real threat. Elizabeth’s rule was preferable to any other; she had become, however unwillingly, the champion of the Protestant cause. Puritan attempts to check the royal prerogative would only succeed in the next generation.

The Catholics, however, became a genuine threat to the queen’s very life. While the Puritans used words against the queen, the Catholic extremists were eventually prepared to kill her.

The first decade of Elizabeth’s reign found the Catholics relatively quiet and content. They were settled mainly in the north and west of England, and accepted the 1559 religious settlement. They believed Elizabeth to be illegitimate and thus ineligible to be queen, but neither Pope Paul IV or his successor, Pius IV, seriously challenged her title. She was not even excommunicated until 1570. The two greatest European powers, Spain (the Hapsburg Empire) and France, were cautious but friendly. England had long been a balance between their competing interests. And as mentioned earlier, Philip II of Spain had even sought to marry Elizabeth. For her part, the queen took care not to disturb calm waters.

But calm can be deceptive and misleading. In 1568, ten years into her reign, Elizabeth was forced to abandon her studied disinterest and choose sides.

Europe was caught in bloody religious turmoil. There was a Protestant rebellion in the Netherlands and Philip Elizabeth I's troublesome cousin, Mary queen of Scots, c1565 II sent the duke of Alva to crush it. There was now a massive military power directly across the Channel from England. Elizabeth’s council could only wonder – once Alva’s force completed its bloody business there, would he then look to England? And that same year, Mary Stuart fled her disastrous reign in Scotland to seek Elizabeth’s help. She needed an army to recover her throne from Protestant rebels who had forced her abdication and imprisoned her. Elizabeth and her councilors were aghast. Mary was the true queen of England in the eyes of Catholic Europe, as well as some Catholic Englishmen. And she was now in England, on her way to becoming the greatest quandary of Elizabeth’s reign. Just as Elizabeth had been the inevitable focus of conspiracies and plots against Mary I’s rule, Mary queen of Scots would be the focus of discontent against Elizabeth. And if Elizabeth should die, naturally or otherwise, Mary had the strongest claim to the English throne. All of the Protestant councilors were terrified; what should they do with Mary Stuart?

Also, a Catholic missionary college was founded at Douai in Flanders by the Englishman William Allen. He planned to take a proactive role in reasserting his faith in England, and he attracted many dedicated followers. Douai was soon a flourishing center for anti-Elizabethan plots and propaganda.

For the queen, her cherished and precarious balance, successfully maintained for a decade, was falling to pieces. She took the precaution of imprisoning Mary queen of Scots in a variety of secure castles. At first, this ‘imprisonment’ was little more than an inconvenience since Mary wished to return home. She sincerely believed Elizabeth would help her, as a fellow queen and cousin. She never recognized the political danger she brought to bear upon her ‘sweet sister’. Elizabeth was told by the Protestant lords in Scotland that Mary was unwelcome; she faced certain death if she returned. Her infant son (whose birth caused Elizabeth to exclaim, ‘Alack, the Queen of Scots is lighter of a bonny son, and I am but of barren stock!’) was now king. The Scots also plied Elizabeth’s council with evidence of Mary’s complicity in her second husband’s murder. Would the queen of England lend her support to such a woman? It was indeed a vexing problem. Elizabeth settled upon appointing a commission to investigate the charges against Mary.

And soon enough, she had even more pressing concerns.


‘The common people are ignorant, superstitious, and altogether blinded with the old popish doctrine.’
Sir Ralph Sadler to Sir William Cecil, 1569


The conservative north had never been friendly to the Tudor dynasty. The last Plantagenet king, Richard III, had been their lord; they led rebellions against his killer and successor, Henry VII. The first Tudor king succeeded in establishing nominal authority over the fractious northern earls. His son, Henry VIII, was equally troubled. His Reformation led to the great northern rebellion known as the Pilgrimage of Grace in 1536. Henry dealt brutally with the rebels and made only one northern progress afterwards, taking his fifth queen, Catherine Howard, to York soon after their marriage. Edward VI’s Protestant council was also troubled by the north while the Catholic Mary I gained her greatest support there. She rode north after Dudley seized control of London and had Lady Jane Grey crowned queen. Elizabeth had long recognized its intransigence. She was never particularly close to the great northern lords of her reign, the earls of Northumberland and Westmorland, and the only duke in England, her Howard cousin Thomas, 4th duke of Norfolk. She showed Norfolk some degree of personal affection, as she did all of her maternal relatives. But she recognized his ambition and their religious differences. As a duke, he was one of the wealthiest men in England and thus had great influence. Yet he was never a close advisor to the queen.

The arrival of Mary Stuart was the great topic at Elizabeth’s court in 1569. What would the queen do? Some of her councilors, including Dudley and Throckmorton, thought Mary should wed the premier peer in England. This was, of course, the queen’s cousin Norfolk. Cecil was vehemently opposed; he disliked Norfolk and his opposition only strengthened Dudley’s support. Two problems could possibly be solved by the marriage – Mary Stuart would be safely settled in England and the succession would be assured. Elizabeth recognized this short-sighted solution for the mirage it was, for how long would she live after the marriage? Her realm would be bitterly divided and torn, with rival factions centered upon herself and Norfolk. As future king of England, he might dare to rebel against her. And what support would she gain, a ‘Virgin Queen’ with only her subjects’ love to sustain her? And despite her pragmatism, Elizabeth was Protestant and the Norfolk marriage would be a Catholic triumph.

The queen soon let both Dudley and Norfolk know of her displeasure. Dudley was roundly chastised and Norfolk left court for his country estate Kenninghall. He refused a summons to appear before Elizabeth at Windsor Castle. Her anger was further roused. There were whispers of a rebellion, that Norfolk and his supporters would free Mary and march on London. The northern earls were less keen on the marriage; as Northumberland put it, he did not plan ‘to hazard myself for the marriage.’ He and Westmorland and Lord Dacre had local grievances against the queen, mainly religious but also including the erosion of their local authority. As hereditary nobles, they felt pushed aside at court and not given the proper respect. This had been a common aristocratic complaint during her father’s reign as well.

But they had also heard stories of Mary Stuart’s behavior in Scotland and distrusted her character. It is also not certain they wished for Norfolk to be king. Their primary purpose was to undo the 1559 Act of Uniformity and crush the ‘new found religion and heresy.’ As their proclamation asserted:

Thomas, Earl of Northumberland, and Charles, Earl of Westmorland, the queen’s most true and lawful subjects and to all her highness’s people sendeth greeting: Whereas divers new set up nobles about the Queen’s Majesty have and do daily, not only go about to overthrow and put down the ancient nobility of this realm but have also misused the Queen’s own person and have also by the space of twelve years now past set up and maintained a new found religion and heresy contrary to God’s word. For the amending and redressing thereof divers foreign powers do purpose shortly to invade this realm which will be to our utter destruction if we do not speedily forfend the same …..we will and require each and every of you as your duty to God for the setting forth of his true and Catholic religion ….come and resort unto us with all speed with all the armour and furniture as you or any of you have.

And throughout the north, they found ready adherents for their cause. The rebellion made clear to Elizabeth that a quiet decade had not eased religious change upon all her subjects. The Catholic appeal was so strong that the earl of Sussex, sent to crush the rebellion, did not fully trust his own forces.

It began in 1569, but the queen was fortunate in her enemies. Norfolk was indecisive; should he risk his grand title and privileges for the possibility ofportrait of Elizabeth I becoming king? While he hesitated, the earl of Sussex led his troops on a steady course north. The rebels themselves were often conflicted in their duties to the queen and their church. When faced with the queen’s army, they returned home. The noble leaders escaped abroad or bought their freedom by giving their property to the crown.

The Northern Rebellion was a frightening experience, but it ended satisfactorily enough. It was clear, however, that northern England must be more carefully watched and controlled. And as a result of the rebellion, Regnans in excelsis was issued by the papacy in March 1570. This was the official excommunication of Queen Elizabeth I; she was formally deposed and her Catholic subjects absolved of all loyalty and obedience to her office. The Catholic powers of Europe were also ordered to act against the unlawful queen. She was a heretic and enemy of the true faith. This moment had been long expected in England. And it brought fresh impetus to the Protestant councilors to protect Elizabeth’s life.

A papal bull could be a powerful document. It could be used by any Catholic prince, though Elizabeth’s mind turned immediately to her former brother-in-law Philip II, to justify an invasion. In 1571, parliament took action. It was now treason to declare Elizabeth a heretic or impugn her claim to the throne. The fines for recusants, those who did not attend Protestant church services, were increased dramatically, from a shilling a week to 20 pds a month. Many noble Catholic families would not compromise their faith and paid the fines; they were driven into poverty. In later years, it would become treason to convert to Catholicism and all Catholic priests were ordered to leave England. This happened only after Catholic plots against Elizabeth’s life had been discovered. Many of these plots were led by agents from Douai, dozens of whom had secretly returned to England.

Elizabeth had reason to hope these measures would be successful. Mary Stuart’s son was growing up safely Protestant in Scotland and Elizabeth was friendly with his ministers. English Catholics were deprived of priests, unable to attend universities, and support from European allies was slowly being cut off. This support was particularly troubling; the first Catholic martyr of her reign, Cuthbert Mayne, was executed in 1577, but only because he had committed political treason. There was no need to make martyrs, the council thought, and it should be remembered that the Catholic problem coincided with the rise in Puritanism. Elizabeth often wondered aloud at her subjects’ ingratitude. She had kept them safe and secure at home, thought only of their welfare, and yet it seemed plots against her abounded.

Perhaps the most confused subjects were those Catholics loyal to the queen but now deemed traitors because of their faith. They were condemned to political limbo because of extremist actions.

The insularity of Elizabeth’s reign was thus broken in 1568, and she was forced into continental affairs. This was not of her choosing. But the papal bull could not be ignored, nor the brutal actions of Alva in the Netherlands. Perhaps she didn’t seek the role, or relish it, but Elizabeth was regarded as the champion of Protestantism in Europe.

At first, Spanish hostility was tempered by Philip’s conflict with France. He wanted Elizabeth’s support and she encouraged him by considering a possible marriage. Of course, she had no intention of accepting his proposal but it was a useful diplomatic tool. But then Alva’s 50,000 troops arrived in the Netherlands, and began to systematically attack its Protestant population. They in turn sought Elizabeth’s aid. Also, the Huguenots (French Protestants) were under attack, most famously in the gruesome St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre of 1572.

Cecil urged support; after all, where would Alva’s army go once it finished with the Netherlands? They would have a secure base for either destroying English trade or invasion. Dudley and Norfolk (tentatively pardoned by the queen after he promised to never contact Mary Stuart) urged caution. The queen must abandon the Dutch and the Huguenots, or she faced wars with France and Spain. She would save her precious treasury as well; Elizabeth had inherited an empty treasury and hence loathed to part with money.

She prevaricated as much as possible. She allowed English ships under Drake and Hawkins to harass and seize Spanish ships returning from the New World; she did not officially approve of their actions but she gladly accepted stolen Spanish bullion. She sent small contingents of troops to the Netherlands, though the situation deteriorated steadily over the

Queen Elizabeth I
Zuccaro's sketch of Queen Elizabeth I; c1570s; the most authentic likeness of the queen

Visit Elizabethan Images to view portraits of the queen and her courtiers, with commentary.
Read poems, letters, and speeches by the queen at Primary Sources.
Read ES Beesly’s 1892 biography of Queen Elizabeth I at Secondary Sources.

Visit the Anne Boleyn website to learn more about Elizabeth’s mother.
Visit the Mary, queen of Scots website to learn more about Elizabeth’s cousin.

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‘I cannot but deplore my evil fortune, seeing you have been pleased not only to refuse me your presence, causing me to be declared unworthy of it by your nobles; but also suffered me to be torn in pieces by my rebels…. not allowing me to have copies of their false accusations, or affording me any liberty to accuse them.’ Mary, queen of Scots to Elizabeth I after the Northern Rebellion


There were three main plots concerning Mary, queen of Scots – the duke of Norfolk’s scheme of 1569, the Throckmorton Plot of 1583, and the Babington Plot of 1586. For as long as Mary lived, she was a potential threat to Elizabeth. And since she was now imprisoned on English soil, she was an even greater menace. Domestic enemies of the queen made no secret of their admiration for Mary Stuart. And foreign ambassadors often communicated secretly with her, particularly the French and Spanish ambassadors. As a former queen of France, Mary had many friends in that country. And as a Catholic queen, she was friendly with the increasingly pious Philip II of Spain.

Elizabeth was always of two minds regarding her cousin. She recognized the danger which Mary represented, but she was acutely conscious of Mary’s status as a sovereign queen unlawfully deposed by her subjects. She could not impugn her cousin’s dignity without risking damage to the ideal of royal prerogative. The trick was to deprive Mary of her standing as a sovereign. Mary’s own behavior, in Scotland and England, gave Elizabeth a distinct advantage. Even staunch Catholic allies were troubled by Mary’s reported crimes. Perhaps she was innocent of complicity in her second husband’s murder, but she had married James Hepburn, the earl of Bothwell in a Protestant ceremony. And the evidence of the ‘Casket Letters’ (now believed to be false) supported the theory that Mary and Bothwell had an adulterous affair and then plotted Darnley’s murder. This erosion of Mary’s reputation necessarily alienated her moderate supporters. But for the extremists, such flaws could be overlooked for the greater good of overthrowing the heretic Elizabeth.

At first, Mary was content to avoid plotting against her cousin. But when it became clear that Elizabeth would not help her return to Scotland, she was forced into a corner. She wrote constantly to the English queen, begging for a personal meeting, much as Elizabeth had requested an audience with Mary I. Elizabeth refused. Mary was originally placed in the care of the wealthy earl of Shrewsbury and his formidable wife, Bess of Hardwick. She was kept in comfortable quarters, with a large retinue of servants and accorded respect as a sovereign queen; she even ate beneath a cloth of estate. But she was essentially a prisoner and no material comforts could obscure that essential fact.

portrait of Elizabeth I's cousin, Mary queen of Scots Those early years in England were spent in various hearings and meetings, with Mary proclaiming her innocence of Darnley’s murder and the duplicity of her Scottish nobles. When these ended with her freedom still denied, she became understandably bitter. She had been condemned to prison without a fair hearing, with no end in sight. For a lively young woman who had always lived openly and passionately, with as great a love of the outdoors as Elizabeth, used to being her own mistress and the former queen of two countries, the situation was intolerable. She was only 25 years old when she arrived in England and all of her natural energy and enthusiasm became fixed upon one goal – freedom.

She was essentially powerless. And so she turned to subterfuge, relying upon a small network of Catholic and foreign allies. This was surprisingly successful. She gained important news from the continent and Elizabeth’s court. But Shrewsbury complained incessantly about the expense of Mary’s imprisonment and Elizabeth’s councilors complained about her ceaseless correspondence with Catholics. And so she was eventually removed from Shrewsbury’s care into less comfortable quarters. This had the paradoxical effect of encouraging more plotting on Mary’s part.

After the plot to marry Norfolk and the Northern Rebellion failed in 1569, Mary increasingly turned to her foreign supporters. They were able to provide crucial encouragement as well as the names of trusted English sympathizers. In 1583, the second serious plan to free Mary and kill Elizabeth was discovered. It is known as the ‘Throckmorton Plot’, after its leader Sir Francis Throckmorton. A well-born Catholic Englishman, Throckmorton was given money and guidance by the French prince, the duc de Guise. De Guise wished to invade Scotland and England simultaneously, murder Elizabeth with the assistance of English Catholics, and then place Mary on the throne. Elizabeth’s great spymaster Sir Francis Walsingham was notoriously suspicious, a trait which most (including Elizabeth) often condemned. But in this case, his prudence, and an agent named Fagot, foiled the plot. The 30 year old Throckmorton was arrested and tortured on the rack before confessing everything. He was executed at Tyburn on 10 July 1584. Based upon his confession, the complicity of the Spanish ambassador Bernadino de Mendoza was discovered; he was expelled from England in January 1584.

In June 1584, even as Throckmorton awaited execution, the Protestant leader William of Orange was assassinated at Delft by a Catholic. Elizabeth’s councilors became even more terrified for her safety. It did not help matters that France was in the midst of terrible religious turmoil. Catherine de Medici had sought to placate both parties by tolerating Protestant services; she also married her daughter Marguerite to the Protestant prince Henri of Navarre in 1572. The St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre was the result. Henri had saved his own life by renouncing Protestantism, but in 1576 he was able to escape imprisonment and publicly embraced his faith again. In 1584, King Henri III of France named Henri of Navarre his heir presumptive. None of Catherine de Medici’s sons had produced a male heir and so the throne would pass to a Protestant king.

This decision led to ‘The War of the Three Henrys’ and, indirectly, Henri III’s assassination in 1589 by a Catholic fanatic, Jacques Clement. Henri of Navarre was then crowned king of France, but was forced to fight against the Catholic League. He could not enter Paris until 1594, after once again renouncing his faith with the famous remark, ‘Paris is well worth a Mass.’ But he continued at war with Spain for several more years and embarked upon a policy of religious toleration which culminated in the Edict of Nantes in 1598.

Elizabeth and her council carefully considered the events in France. There were three great Protestant leaders in Europe – Elizabeth I (however unwilling she was to accept the role), William of Orange, and Henri of Navarre. Of the three, William was assassinated in 1584 and Navarre was once again forced to convert. Elizabeth survived unscathed, but the Throckmorton plot was a very troubling development. It meant that foreign powers were determined to destroy her; there would be no more marriage proposals, only a shadowy network of plots.

In October, Cecil and Walsingham were concerned enough to draft the ‘Bond of Association’, a document which pledged protection of the queen and destruction of her enemies. Walsingham was now secretary of state, having assumed the more onerous duties of that office from Cecil in 1568; his focus was primarily on diplomacy and espionage. In January 1585, he arranged for Mary, queen of Scots to be moved to Tutbury Castle. Her personal papers were minutely examined during the process, without her knowledge. Walsingham wished to know all, but without rousing Mary’s suspicions.

Elizabeth approved of these plans. She was personally courageous and refused to alter her many public appearances for fear of an assassin. This caused her councilors many sleepless nights. But they could not help but admire her bravery. She also took to keeping a small sword beneath her pillow in case of an attack. It was her only sign of distress and perfectly in keeping with her pragmatic approach to life. The assassins might come, but she would be armed and ready to fight

In February 1585, Parliament banished Catholic priests and ordered the return of all Englishmen studying at seminaries abroad. The ‘Bond ofElizabeth I, painted by John Bettes the Younger, c1580s Association’ was also given legal force, which meant that noncompliance with its terms would be a treasonable offense. It would be officially ratified by Parliament in July 1586. And in May, relations with Spain deteriorated further when Philip II ordered the seizure of English ships in Atlantic ports. Three months later, England signed the Anglo-Dutch Treaty of Alliance at Nonsuch Palace, in which Elizabeth pledged military assistance to the Protestant Dutch rebellion against Spain. Almost 7000 English soldiers under the command of Robert Dudley immediately left for the Netherlands.

It was clear to everyone that conflict between England and Spain was fast becoming inevitable. As much as she preferred to prevaricate and remain neutral, Elizabeth was being forced to choose sides. The problem of Mary, queen of Scots only encouraged Elizabeth’s support for the Protestant cause.

In December 1585, Mary was moved to Chartley Manor. Walsingham knew she was plotting again, this time with increasing desperation. Throckmorton’s failure had shaken her badly, though she professed innocence. Her exact role in that conspiracy remains unclear; it is possible she only knew of it, but did not actively encourage it. But she did enthusiastically support the treason of another English Catholic, a young man named Sir Anthony Babington.

Another well-born Englishman, Babington had served as a page in Shrewsbury’s household during the early years of Mary’s imprisonment. His romanticized memories of the queen, as well as his passionate Catholicism, made him susceptible to the plans of Thomas Morgan, one of Mary’s trusted agents. In 1580, the 19 year old Babington was traveling in France when he met Morgan. After he returned to England, he became increasingly associated with Mary’s admirers, eventually smuggling letters from the French embassy to the imprisoned queen. Babington was only a half-hearted conspirator, but Walsingham was content to use him to lure Mary into a final trap. When Babington learned the Catholic priest Ballard planned to murder Elizabeth, he tried to escape abroad but Walsingham refused him a passport. Babington was frantic and turned to a friend for advice, confessing everything. His friend then ran to Walsingham with the information. But the queen’s secretary of state did not act at once. He sensed this was his best opportunity to catch Mary in the act, so to speak, and with enough evidence to finally convince Elizabeth of her cousin’s complicity. The queen’s refusal to condemn Mary was no longer a benevolent quirk; for her councilors, it was a matter of life and death.

Walsingham had soon collected a number of letters between Morgan, Mary, and Babington. And in one of those, Mary explicitly approved the murder of Elizabeth. It was this letter that Walsingham needed. When confronted with it, Elizabeth was at first disbelieving and then angry. She approved of moving Mary to Fotheringhay Castle and sending a commission of statesmen there to investigate the Babington Plot. She also sent along a letter to be delivered to her captive cousin. It read:

You have in various ways and manners attempted to take my life and to bring my kingdom to destruction by bloodshed. I have never proceeded so harshly against you, but have, on the contrary, protected and maintained you like myself. These treasons will be proved to you and all made manifest. Yet it is my will, that you answer the nobles and peers of the kingdom as if I were myself present. I therefore require, charge, and command that you make answer for I have been well informed of your arrogance.
Act plainly without reserve, and you will sooner be able to obtain favour of me.
Elizabeth.

Mary defended herself at the resulting trial; her most potent argument was that she was a sovereign queen and thus not liable to the laws of England. She also denied ever plotting the death of Elizabeth. But it was too late. She was condemned to death. Elizabeth at first refused to sign the warrant for execution, much as she had earlier with Norfolk. It was an agonizing decision. There is a possibility she was tricked into signing it. Mary was finally beheaded on 8 February 1587. On the 14th, Elizabeth sent the following letter to Mary’s son, King James VI of Scotland:

My dear Brother, I would you knew (though not felt) the extreme dolor that overwhelms my mind, for that miserable accident which (far contrary to my meaning) hath befallen. I have now sent this kinsman of mine, whom ere now it hath pleased you to favour, to instruct you truly of that which is too irksome for my pen to tell you. I beseech you that as God and many more know, how innocent I am in this case : so you will believe me, that if I had bid aught I would have bid by it. I am not so base minded that fear of any living creature or Prince should make me so afraid to do that were just; or done, to deny the same. I am not of so base a lineage, nor carry so vile a mind. But, as not to disguise, fits not a King, so will I never dissemble my actions, but cause them show even as I meant them. Thus assuring yourself of me, that as I know this was deserved, yet if I had meant it I would never lay it on others’ shoulders; no more will I not damnify myself that thought it not.
The circumstance it may please you to have of this bearer. And for your part, think you have not in the world a more loving kinswoman, nor a more dear friend than myself; nor any that will watch more carefully to preserve you and your estate. And who shall otherwise persuade you, judge them more partial to others than you. And thus in haste I leave to trouble you: beseeching God to send you a long reign.
Your most assured loving sister and cousin,
Elizabeth R.

Elizabeth had been queen for almost thirty years, surviving numerous obstacles and conspiracies. Her councilors now believed the greatest threat to her reign was over. But they were wrong, as the momentous events of 1588 would soon prove.

Queen Elizabeth I
crop from the famous 'Armada Portrait' of Elizabeth I

Visit Elizabethan Images to view portraits of the queen and her courtiers, with commentary.
Read poems, letters, and speeches by the queen at Primary Sources.
Read ES Beesly’s 1892 biography of Queen Elizabeth I at Secondary Sources.

Visit the Anne Boleyn website to learn more about Elizabeth’s mother.
Visit the Mary, queen of Scots website to learn more about Elizabeth’s cousin.

Test your knowledge of Elizabeth’s life and times at Tudor Quizzes.

Meet other Elizabethan enthusiasts at The Virgin Queen fanlisting.

‘She is certainly a great Queen and were she only a Catholic she would be our dearly beloved. Just look how well she governs! She is only a woman, only mistress of half an island, and yet she makes herself feared by Spain, by France, by the Empire, by all…. Our children would have ruled the whole world.’ Pope Sixtus V describes Elizabeth, c1588


When news of the execution of Mary, queen of Scots reached Europe, it gave Philip II of Spain yet another reason to look askance at his former sister-in-law. English harassment of Spanish shipping and their support of rebellions against his rule had long angered him. He had tried diplomacy; it had been successful enough until Elizabeth’s Protestant councilors grew suspicious of his motives and angry over his treatment of continental Protestants. After diplomacy came a gradual cooling between the countries; Philip even tried his hand at encouraging Irish rebellions against Elizabeth. And Philip grew increasingly pious as the years passed, and thus more inclined to take the excommunication of 1570 more seriously.

Serious consequences were avoided for the first thirty years of Elizabeth’s rule due to her own prevarication and Philip’s more pressing problems. But as the 1580s began, it was clear that something must give. Philip could no longer afford the blatant piracy of the English, publicly disavowed but privately approved by Elizabeth (who always received the largest share of profits.) She had even gone so far as to knight her greatest pirate, Sir Francis Drake, in 1581. Four years later, the English openly supported the Netherlands when it revolted against Philip, a dangerous but popular policy for Elizabeth. Furthermore, Philip had long claimed the throne of Portugal but had only recently seized it by force of arms. If he wished to maintain control, he needed to defend the rich and wide-ranging Portuguese colonies.

Philip also needed to end the Protestant menace to Europe. He supported plans to free Mary, queen of Scots and place her on the English throne. His ambassador Mendoza had been peripherally involved in the Babington Plot and was expelled from England as a result. Many of Elizabeth’s councilors, most importantly the influential Robert Dudley, had advocated a tougher approach to Spanish meddling. But always the queen, mindful of her treasury and always desiring peace, had held back. She would send a few troops and some money, but little else. Philip, however, had less love of peace and a more pressing piety. England would be brought back into the Catholic fold, as the pope had commanded in 1570. The execution of Mary, queen of Scots in early 1587 gave him added impetus to act. The English had sought to publicize Mary’s various crimes, but most Europeans, even the Scots who had applauded her overthrow years ago, preferred the more tragic image of an innocent queen trapped by Elizabeth’s wily councilors.

Philip spent much of 1587 finally preparing his long-rumored ‘Armada’ against England. While Elizabeth’s council had long warned her of this possibility, Philip’s own advisors believed he could ill afford this new battle. The Spanish fleet and army had fought too long and hard over the years. They comprised the largest and best-prepared army and navy in the world; they had been successful against the Turks, had watched their traditional enemy, France, succumb to internal religious turmoil, had seized Portugal, and fought throughout the Low Countries. But victories could be as tiresome and expensive as defeats. Morale was low and leadership was lacking.

Philip’s advisors consistently stressed the expense of the proposed battle. But for the king, expenses were driving him to fight. He needed to stop the English from seizing Spanish ships filled with precious coin and goods. Each loss was a further blow to a nearly empty treasury. There was no better time to fight than now, he declared, for the murder of Mary Stuart had at last united European opinion against Elizabeth. In July 1587, he received official approval from the pope for the invasion, provided England returned to Catholicism. The pope even agreed to allow Philip to choose the next English ruler. It would in all likelihood be the Spanish king himself for he claimed descent from the famous Edward III.

As further impetus to Philip, even as he negotiated approval of the invasion with the pope, Drake led an expedition into Spain itself, seizing and destroying many vessels. Elizabeth protested that Drake had acted without her knowledge; this may have been true. Certainly the queen had no desire for war. But her protestations did not matter. It was an audacious act which could not go unpunished.

Elizabeth, of course, knew of the Spanish army lodged in the Low Countries, so close to English shores and able to intercept English shipping. When word came that these forces were being steadily increased and an armada of Spanish ships was being prepared for battle, she could no longer debate and hesitate. The impending threat was too obvious to ignore.

Yet what could England do against the great Spanish fleet? All of Europe, and many Englishmen, believed England could not withstand the overwhelming Spanish force.


‘Let tyrants fear, I have always so behaved myself that, under God, I have placed my chiefest strength and safeguard in the loyal hearts and good-will of my subjects… I know I have the body but of a weak and feeble woman; but I have the heart and stomach of a king, and of a king of England too, and think foul scorn that Parma or Spain, or any prince of Europe, should dare to invade the borders of my realm…’ from Elizabeth I’s speech to the troops at Tilbury, 1588


The Armada which sailed against England is sometimes called ‘The Invincible Armada’, but its correct name is La Armada Grande. Its supreme commander was the duke of Medina Sidonia, a nobleman who had done all he could to avoid this appointment. He spent hours urging Philip, in the most polite and obsequious way possible, to find someone else, pointing out his own lack of experience in naval matters. But the king would not listen. Spain’s greatest naval commander Don Alvaro de Bazan the elder, the marquess of Santa Cruz, had died and there had been a long, fruitless search for a suitable replacement. The conscientious Medina Sidonia was Philip’s choice, much to the duke’s everlasting regret.

The Armada sailed from Lisbon on 20 May 1588, a grand procession of 130 ships and over 30,000 men. However, half of the vessels were transport ships and the majority of men were soldiers, not sailors. Medina Sidonia was to sail to Flanders, where he would join the prince of Parma who waited with more soldiers and transports. But the Armada stopped first in Corunna for some repair work and Medina Sidonia wrote to Philip, asking for the invasion to be postponed indefinitely. The king was adamant, however, and the fleet sailed to Flanders.

Their arrival was expected and observed by the English. Under the command of Lord Howard, they set out from Plymouth, under cover of night. They managed to destroy some of the chief Spanish ships so that, with reinforcements, their numbers roughly equaled the Spanish. More importantly, in terms of command and gunnery, the English had a far superior advantage. By the time of the great battle off Gravelines, each fleet had roughly sixty warships. The Spaniards fought heroically, but Howard was relentless. The English ships were more agile and their commanders more inventive. They did not allow the Spanish time to regroup and refit. Only one Spanish ship was captured but several sank or ran ashore. Medina Sidonia decided to lead the remaining fleet home, sailing along the north of Scotland and Ireland. They met constant storms and rough seas, and not one pilot remained in the whole fleet. Each passing storm destroyed more ships until, when the Armada finally limped home in the mid-September, half the fleet and most of its men were gone.

The defeat of the Armada was justly celebrated in Elizabeth’s time. It continues to be one of the most famous naval victories in history. There is an engaging aspect to the whole story – the English fleet taking on the greatest naval power in the world and, against all odds, winning a stunning victory. The psychological effect upon both nations was enormous.

Yet, upon closer inspection, the victory was neither as unexpected or immediately successful as is often believed. The English navy had always been superior in tactics and gunnery than the Spanish, but had suffered from Elizabeth’s penny-pinching support. They simply never had enough money to build the ships and pay the sailors needed to become a world-class naval power. The Spanish took so long to rebuild their navy that England finally had their opportunity, and they seized it with enthusiasm. England would become the undisputed master of the seas.

But Spain was not nearly finished as a world power. Barely two years after the Armada, they were virtually omnipotent in European affairs. The religious turmoil in France had weakened their traditional enemy to such an extent that Spain stood unchallenged until 1598, when Henri of Navarre converted to Catholicism. The balance of power in Europe was thus restored. But Spain’s army continued to grow until their dominance of land warfare equaled England’s naval power.

For Elizabeth, of course, the most important development was the most immediate – a brilliant victory over her greatest enemy, whose threats to invade had haunted most years of her reign. She could breathe a much-deserved sigh of relief. And she deserved no small credit for the success. Her speech to the troops at Tilbury, rallying them to fight, remains justly famous; it is among her most stirring:

My loving people, We have been persuaded by some that are careful of our safety, to take heed how we commit our selves to armed multitudes, for fear of treachery; but I assure you I do not desire to live to distrust my faithful and loving people. Let tyrants fear, I have always so behaved myself that, under God, I have placed my chiefest strength and safeguard in the loyal hearts and good-will of my subjects; and therefore I am come amongst you, as you see, at this time, not for my recreation and disport, but being resolved, in the midst and heat of the battle, to live and die amongst you all; to lay down for my God, and for my kingdom, and my people, my honour and my blood, even in the dust. I know I have the body but of a weak and feeble woman; but I have the heart and stomach of a king, and of a king of England too, and think foul scorn that Parma or Spain, or any prince of Europe, should dare to invade the borders of my realm; to which rather than any dishonour shall grow by me, I myself will take up arms, I myself will be your general, judge, and rewarder of every one of your virtues in the field. I know already, for your forwardness you have deserved rewards and crowns; and We do assure you in the word of a prince, they shall be duly paid you. In the mean time, my lieutenant general shall be in my stead, than whom never prince commanded a more noble or worthy subject; not doubting but by your obedience to my general, by your concord in the camp, and your valour in the field, we shall shortly have a famous victory over those enemies of my God, of my kingdom, and of my people.

She enjoyed a renaissance of sorts among her people after the Armada. She had already ruled for thirty years. Those years of peace and general prosperity had led to an inevitable resentment amongst her subjects, particularly the young noblemen who now dominated her court. They wanted adventure, glory, grand military exploits; they were fervent nationalists who wanted England to finally challenge the great powers of Europe; they believed themselves capable of anything. And Elizabeth, nearing sixty, would regard them with either amusement or anger. They did not know the price of war, she would complain; they did not understand how difficult it had been to bring peace and security to England. They had not lived through the tumultuous reigns of her father and siblings. They did not remember the bitter religious divide, which even now she only bridged with her inestimable charm and intellect. England was at peace and her young courtiers chafed at peace. But for the queen, peace was her greatest gift to her ‘loving people.’ She knew its importance, the dear price it had cost her. ‘To be a King and wear a crown is a thing more pleasant to them that see it, than it is pleasant to them that bear it,’ she remarked in her Golden Speech of 1601.

But she also knew those young courtiers disagreed, however much they fawned over her, pretending she was still the young queen of thirty. Elizabeth was content to play the game for her vanity would not allow otherwise. To grow old was a curse to her, she remarked; ‘I am not sick, I feel no pain, yet I pine away.’ To have a young mind in an old body was another common lament. She felt the loss of her youth keenly and did what she could to create a timeless role for herself. She wore wigs and heavy make-up and still dressed in the opulent gowns of a maid, a fetching style when she was younger but now merely a reminder of her lack of marriage and family. Her older subjects understood her melancholy; of the younger ones, Sir Walter Raleigh and Sir Francis Bacon were clever enough to guess its cause. But most did not.

And the queen no longer had the comfort of loyal Cecil and her beloved Dudley. Though Dudley had commanded the troops at Tilbury, he had died barely a month afterwards. Cecil was now very old and had ceded much of his influence to his ambitious son Robert and Sir Francis Walsingham, who died in 1590. The queen thus turned to another favorite, a young man who was a last link to Dudley. His name was Robert Devereux, earl of Essex; he was Dudley’s stepson and his mother was Elizabeth’s cousin, Lettice Knollys.

Essex remains one of the more interesting courtiers of Elizabeth’s later years. He was the mortal enemy of Raleigh (who found him arrogant and overbearing) and close friends with Bacon. He became the great favorite of Elizabeth’s later years because, for a while, he was the ablest flirt and wit at court. But his ambitions went far beyond being the queen’s ‘wild-horse’. In this, he was encouraged by his flighty mother and sycophantic admirers.

Essex believed in the primacy of the nobility at Elizabeth’s court and disliked the influence of Cecil and his son, Robert, and other ‘upstarts’ such as Raleigh. He was too proud, which the queen – depending upon her mood – found endearing or infuriating. And he dreamed of military glory, badgering the queen to send him to Ireland to quell rebellions or with the navy to harass Spanish ships. Elizabeth often refused; she genuinely enjoyed his company and would not risk his life. And when she did succumb, Essex performed disastrously. Though a daring and brave soldier, he was a terrible commander and his exploits cost the frugal queen dearly.

His worst offense, however, was a slip of the tongue. Elizabeth would respond to Essex’s tantrums by banishing him to the country until he begged forgiveness. Once, he decided to pretend illness instead. When news of his condition reached Elizabeth, she sent a letter asking after his health – but nothing more. Someone mentioned the queen’s conditions for letting him return. Infuriated, Essex cried out, ‘Her conditions! Her conditions are as crooked as her carcase.’ Those words reached the queen and she never forgot them.

Essex did return to court. But his subsequent behavior was outlandish and insulting; he even dared to turn his back on Elizabeth during a council meeting. The final blow came when he led a rebellion against the queen. With his friend, the earl of Southampton, he planned to gather a small army and seize the queen and throne. When captured, as inevitably he was, for his supporters were few and even those deserted him, Essex declared he only meant to save the queen from evil counsel. But Elizabeth, who had so often vacillated over executions, only hesitated once with Essex. He was executed on 25 February 1601.

Despite scurrilous gossip, Elizabeth’s affection for Essex was more maternal than romantic. She had no choice but to sign his death-warrant but it broke her heart. When her godson, Sir John Harington, visited in the winter of 1602, he found her taste for old pleasures gone. Harington read some of his rhymes and Elizabeth, with a little smile, remarked, ‘When thou dost feel creeping time at thy gate, these fooleries will please thee less; I am past my relish for such matters.’ To the earl of Nottingham, mourning the loss of his wife, she said, ‘ I am tied with a chain of iron about my neck. I am tied, I am tied, and the case is altered with me.’

She mentioned Essex at times, but this was merely a symptom of her awareness that all of the work and struggle of her reign had ended in solitude. She had often remarked on the essential loneliness of the crown but she felt it most deeply now.

Her council, led by Robert Cecil, whose father had died in 1601, watched her slow decline while preparingportrait of Elizabeth I in old age for the future. Elizabeth still had not named a successor. She had always understood its dangerous implications. Yet there was no real doubt that she meant for James VI of Scotland, son of Mary queen of Scots, to succeed her. He had married a Protestant princess and was already a father. And he had long since made his peace with Elizabeth, exchanging frequent letters and accepting her political advice.

Elizabeth retired to Richmond Palace, her ‘warm, snug box’ in March 1603. Her death was preceded by physical weakness and mental depression, but there were no overt causes. She was almost seventy years old, ancient for her time. She rested in a low chair by the fire, refusing to let doctors examine her. As the days passed, her condition slowly worsened. She stood for hours on end until, finally, she was persuaded to lay upon cushions on the floor. She rested there for two days, not speaking. A doctor ventured close and asked how she could bear the endless silence. She replied simply, ‘I meditate.’ For the third and fourth day, she continued to rest in silence, with a finger often in her mouth. Her attendants were terrified; they must move her but she refused. The younger Cecil visited and said, ‘Your Majesty, to content the people, you must go to bed.’ Elizabeth replied, with some of her old spirit, ‘Little man, little man, the word must is not used to princes.’

Finally, she grew so weak that they could carry her to bed. She asked for music and, for a time, it brought some comfort. Her councilors assembled; did she have any instructions regarding the succession? She made a sign when Cecil mentioned the king of Scotland. It was enough. He returned to his office to begin the paperwork for a new ruler.

Meanwhile, Archbishop Whitgift, whom she once called her ‘little black husband’, arrived to pray. He was old and his knees ached terribly, but he knelt at the royal bedside until she finally slept. She slept on into the early hours of 24 March until, at last, as the courtiers watched and waited, the steady breathing stopped. ‘Her Majesty departed this life, mildly like a lamb, easily like a ripe apple from the tree,’ John Manningham was told.

That same morning, the chief councilors rode to Whitehall where Cecil drafted the proclamation of the queen’s death and James’s succession. He read it aloud first at Whitehall and then at St Paul’s and finally Cheapside cross. The councilors then formally demanded entrance to the Tower of London in the name of King James I of England. Elizabeth’s maids and ladies were still waiting in the Coffer Room at Richmond Palace. When news of the peaceful transition of power came, they began to prepare for Elizabeth’s funeral.

The new king received the news of his accession on 27 March, for the ambitious Robert Carey had ridden at top speed to Edinburgh; his journey was so quick that its speed would not be matched until 1832. But while James was initially welcomed peacefully and happily, his reign would quickly turn sour. It was not long before even Robert Cecil, who became the most powerful statesman of James’s reign, wrote to Harington:

You know all my former steps: good knight, rest content, and give heed to one that hath sorrowed in the bright lustre of a court, and gone heavily even on the best-seeming fair ground. Tis a great task to prove one’s honesty, and yet not spoil one’s fortune. You have tasted a little hereof in our blessed Queen’s time, who was more than a man and, in troth, sometimes less than a woman. I wish I waited now in her Presence Chamber, with ease at my foot, and rest in my bed. I am pushed from the shore of comfort, and know not where the winds and waves of a court may bear me.

And the common people realized their loss as well, as Godfrey Goodman, bishop of Gloucester wrote:

After a few years, when we had experience of a Scottish government, the Queen did seem to revive; then was her memory much magnified: such ringing of bells, such public joy and sermons in commemoration of her, the picture of her tomb painted in many churches, and in effect more solemnity and joy in memory of her coronation than was for the coming-in of King James.

Elizabeth’s funeral procession, composed of more than a thousand mourners, began on 28 April. It was a stirring tribute to the queen, never forgotten by those who witnessed its passing. But her tomb, paid for by the new king, was less impressive than that provided to his disgraced mother, and cost far less. It can still be visited in Westminster Abbey, where Elizabeth rests alongside her half-sister Queen Mary I.


‘My good mistress is gone, I shall not hastily put forth for a new master.’
Sir John Harington, Nugae Antiquae


next several years. Philip retaliated by supporting insurrection in Ireland.

This conflict with Spain and the problem of Mary queen of Scots continued to vex Elizabeth for many years.

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