The Reign of Queen Elizabeth I of England Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

The Reign of Queen Elizabeth I of England

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Queen Elizabeth I, sitting proud on the battlefield.

Elizabeth Tudor was born in September 1533, the second daughter of King Henry VIII of England, and the only child to survive from his marriage to his second wife, Anne Boleyn. When she was only two years old, Elizabeth's father had her mother beheaded; the young princess was brought up by governesses and tutors at Hatfield House in Hertfordshire.

Elizabeth inherited the throne upon the death of her older half-sister, Mary I, in November 1558. England was at war, epidemics raged, trade was at a standstill and the country was heavily in debt. The enthusiasm that greeted 25-year-old Elizabeth's accession to the throne was more the result of a legitimate and peaceful succession than of any knowledge of her intentions. Mary I, like both her parents, was a Catholic, and she had spent much of her reign undoing the Protestant reforms of her half-brother Edward VI. Elizabeth was a Protestant, although not as fervent as Edward had been.

Elizabeth inherited a Catholic nation (the Church had been reconciled with Rome) and had to start all over again to restore the Protestant national church. She began by passing the Act of Supremacy in 1559, which made her the Supreme Governor of the Church of England and caused another break with Rome. The Act of Uniformity was brought in at the same time, making it law once again to use the Protestant service and enforcing the use of the third English Book of Common Prayer, which is still in use today. The Catholics among her subjects (and indeed the Catholic monarchies of Europe) regarded Elizabeth as illegitimate and therefore not the rightful queen, so she was particularly vulnerable to plots to overthrow her.

The Elizabethan Court and Government

The Elizabethan era is recorded in history as a time of great poets and writers such as Edmund Spenser, William Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe; great adventurers like Sir Francis Drake and Sir Walter Raleigh; and also as an era of great statesmen. One of Elizabeth's strengths as a leader was her willingness to take advice, and she surrounded herself with some of the most capable statesmen of the time. William Cecil (later Lord Burghley) was her chief advisor for most of her reign, and Sir Nicholas Bacon and Sir Francis Walsingham also played high-profile roles. Walsingham's ability to root out plotters was invaluable and the fact that the Queen lived into old age is proof of his skill in protecting her. However, Elizabeth was no puppet. She was a well-educated woman of great intellect and used her notoriously sharp tongue to settle any argument, usually in her favour. Her indecisiveness often infuriated her ministers; when faced with a difficult decision, she would busy herself with other matters for months on end. It could be argued that her legendary indecision helped to delay the inevitable and expensive war with Spain for very many years but, whether or not this was the case, history regards her as having been a wise ruler.

The Privy Council governed the country. At the start of Elizabeth's reign they met only three times per week, but by the end of it, they were meeting daily. Elizabeth was not overly fond of parliament, which was becoming more powerful during the 16th Century, and only called one when it was absolutely necessary, usually to raise taxes. Actual records of parliament and the enacted legislation show that the Queen and parliament mostly agreed. Much of parliament's work was concerned with local matters; Elizabeth would not allow matters of state to be discussed without her permission. It was the Queen and the Privy Council who put forward most of the legislation and Elizabeth's ministers managed parliament by having agents or men of business within the House of Commons to steer laws through. Most of Elizabeth's ministers were long serving, which gave the advantage of continuity of government.

Royal Favour

Everything depended upon the Queen's favour. Members of her Privy Council earned only a nominal salary, so they used their position to earn money. The Queen could grant courtiers monopolies, which were very lucrative. For example, the Earl of Essex was granted the monopoly on sweet wines and therefore earned money from the sale of sweet wines throughout the realm. When he fell out of favour, he lost his monopoly. Those at the top looked for the Queen's patronage. Anyone favoured by the Queen was then besieged by people who in turn wanted the patronage of these favoured few.

The court of Queen Elizabeth consisted of those people she favoured and members of her household. Obviously, if one was not at court, one could not win the Queen's favour. Staying at court was expensive - courtiers were expected to buy gifts for Elizabeth (she had also to give gifts to them) and a certain standard of dress was required.

Coin of the Realm

Tudor financial resources were very limited. Localities were more or less self-governing; excessive tax caused problems for the knights and squires who acted as justices of the peace, and whose support Elizabeth needed. However, other means of raising royal revenue generally turned out to be inadequate. One of the means used by Elizabeth to save money was her annual summer progress around Southern and Eastern England. The people she visited then had the expense of entertaining the entire court, which obviously saved money for Elizabeth, and her hosts were in no position to object to her visits if they wanted her favour.

Although she spent a good deal of money on clothes, Elizabeth was not particularly extravagant. Her two Lord Treasurers (initially William Paulett and then later William Cecil) were also very cautious. Royal income did actually increase under Elizabeth, mainly as a result of increases in import and export tax and an increase in income from the Church. The Church took a tenth of everyone's income and then paid a tenth of its own income to the crown, together with the first year's income of any newly-appointed clerics. Under Mary I, this money was given back to the Church, but Elizabeth retained it. She also took some land from the Church by an act of exchange; sometimes, when a bishop died, Elizabeth did not appoint a replacement so that she could keep the income from the vacant bishopric. Some additional income was gained from the profits of merchant adventurers and from the privatisation of exploration and wars. However, privateering was always a risky business because it could ultimately damage trade. Elizabeth did not introduce any new ways of raising income during her reign.

During times of war and emergency, parliament would be called so that taxes could be raised. The machinery for collecting taxes (via the local gentry) was inadequate and there was no way of checking people's income, so they could, and did, declare less than they actually earned. Six parliaments over 16 years granted the Queen the unprecedented sum of £2 million in direct taxation and extraordinary revenue of other kinds. Members of parliament grumbled, as did the taxpayers they represented, but there was no serious opposition.

While England was at peace, raising subsidy was not really a problem. From 1572 through to 1580, the careful management of the Lord Treasurer ensured that there was usually a surplus of royal income. However, once England was at war, more money was required. In 1585, England intervened in the Netherlands with quite a small force but this war escalated and so did the cost; the war was still ongoing when Elizabeth died. The English intervened in France in 1560, siding with the Protestants against the Catholic league; English involvement continued for ten years. A further expense later in the reign was the money paid to James VI of Scotland by the Elizabethan government to prevent attack and to secure the succession.

The Marriage Question

Elizabeth I is often referred to as 'The Virgin Queen' because she never married. However, she was known to be fond of male company, thriving on the adoration of her ministers and often using flirtation to get her own way. Rumours suggest that she had some illegitimate children, whom she allegedly gave birth to whilst out of London on her summer progresses; however, there is little hard evidence to support this. In 1559, parliament petitioned the Queen to marry a Protestant as soon as possible, but there was a shortage of suitable candidates. The man that Elizabeth is popularly believed to have loved the most was Robert Dudley, the Earl of Leicester. Despite the fact that he was already married, Dudley and the Queen were seen together almost constantly and she often referred to him as 'Darling Robin.' The suspicious circumstances of the death of Dudley's first wife, together with his unpopularity at court, meant that no marriage ever took place.

In 1562, Elizabeth nearly died of smallpox; when she recovered, the Privy Council was even more keen for her to marry. Although she knew that she could not marry the Earl of Leicester, they remained close throughout her reign and, despite the distrust of William Cecil and others at court, Leicester held many key posts within the Privy Council. When he died, the Queen shut herself away for days.

Much later in her reign, she considered marriage to Henry, Duke of Anjou, who was the brother of Charles IX of France. She gave all sorts of gifts and promises to the Duke and the negotiations went on for two years. In 1579, at the age of 46, the Anjou proposal was probably her last chance of marriage. Anjou, whom Elizabeth called her frog, was 20 years younger than the Queen and was disfigured by smallpox, but this did not stop her from kissing him in public. The second marriage of her beloved Robert Dudley may have had something to do with her enthusiasm for Anjou, but the Queen was uncertain, torn between the diplomatic and personal advantages of the marriage and the clear public hostility towards it. It is likely that the Queen simply did not wish to be married, and is quoted as having said, 'I have taken to myself an husband who is the Kingdom of England.'

The Trouble with Mary, Queen of Scots

As a descendent of Henry VII of England, Mary, Queen of Scots was Elizabeth's main rival for the throne. The daughter of Elizabeth's cousin, James V of Scotland (who had died when she was a baby), Mary was brought up in Catholic France while her French mother, Mary of Guise, ruled Protestant Scotland as regent. The young Mary was briefly married to Francis II of France but was widowed at the age of only 18 and returned to Scotland in 1561. Four years later, she married Henry Stewart, Lord Darnley, who, like Mary, was a grandchild of Margaret Tudor1 and so had a claim to both the English and Scottish thrones. He turned out to be a drunk and a bully who wanted to be king himself and did not want to rule as Mary's consort. The marriage survived long enough for Darnley to father the future James VI of Scotland2. Darnley was implicated in the brutal murder of Mary's Italian secretary in March 1566, and was himself murdered the following year.

It is unclear whether Mary was involved in the plot to kill her husband but it is known that she had grown close to James Hepburn, Earl of Bothwell, who was determined to marry Mary himself. After their marriage, civil war broke out in Scotland. Bothwell and Mary's forces were defeated by the Earl of Moray3. Bothwell escaped by sea to Denmark and Mary was forced to abdicate the throne. Her baby son was crowned James VI at Stirling Castle on 29 July, 1567, and was raised as a Protestant by the Earl of Moray, who acted as regent throughout the young king's minority.

Queen Without a Country

Eventually, Mary was forced to flee to England. She believed that if she could meet Elizabeth, the English Queen would rally to her cause. But Elizabeth had other ideas and, as far as we know, they never met. Catholics in England regarded Mary, Queen of Scots as the legitimate Queen of England because they did not recognise the Protestant marriage of Elizabeth's parents. Mary wrote repeatedly to Elizabeth with regard to her claim to the throne, asking her to recognise that, should Elizabeth die without issue, Mary was next in line. Once Mary arrived on English soil, she became a magnet for conspirators and was linked with the Northern Uprising of Catholic noblemen in 1569 and the Ridolfi Plot two years later, which centred on rescuing Mary.

Mary was kept under house arrest for 19 years, staying at a number of different castles in England and being regularly moved for reasons of security. The problem of what to do with Mary was evaded rather than solved; for years, Elizabeth could not bring herself to even consider executing an anointed Queen. The question of the succession also remained unsolved and was a source of concern for Elizabeth's government. During 1584 - 85, Elizabeth negotiated for Mary's return to Scotland to share the throne with her son under certain safeguards. However, the issue of Mary versus her son evaporated as James VI approached the age when he would become the unquestioned ruler of Scotland. In July 1585, James accepted a payment and annual pension from England to support a defensive alliance, which implicitly kept Mary in captivity.

Sir Francis Walsingham kept Mary under close scrutiny and intercepted and decoded her letters. In 1586, he discovered a letter from Mary endorsing the young Catholic Anthony Babington's scheme to assassinate Elizabeth. The Babington conspirators were tried and hanged. Mary was also tried and found guilty of treason. Although Elizabeth reluctantly allowed the commissioners to sentence Mary on 25 October, 1586, she refused to proceed further.

Lord Burghley prepared a death warrant in late December, but Elizabeth still could not bring herself to sign it. Following rumours that Spanish troops had landed in Wales and that Mary had escaped from prison, Elizabeth signed the death warrant on 1 February, 1587 but then ordered it not to be sealed. However, the Privy Council had the warrant sealed and despatched without telling the Queen and Mary, Queen of Scots was beheaded on 8 February. Elizabeth was furious. The sacrilege of executing an anointed queen broke her nerve, leaving her distraught and grief-stricken. She refused to see Burghley for a month and normal relations with the Privy Council were not restored for four months.

Conflicts with France and Spain

England in the 16th Century had a population only half that of France and a third that of Spain. Most of the great foreign powers were Catholic, and England feared domination by these Catholic states. England had limited resources and could not afford to fight expensive wars that interrupted trade and thus damaged the English economy.

From the 1560s onwards, there were terrible religious wars in France, which lessened the French threat to England. France was the traditional enemy and the Tudor monarchs still claimed to be rulers there. Elizabeth was persuaded by her royal favourite, Robert Dudley, to send English troops to fight on the side of the Protestant Huguenots in France; she was interested in reclaiming Calais, which had once been under English rule. However, the English army was very small and withdrew in 1562 after the Huguenots were granted some religious tolerance. Two years later, the Treaty of Troyes was signed, part of its terms being that the English give up their claim to Calais.

The English were worried by the power of France and therefore tried to maintain friendly relations with Spain. Relations with Spain had been good throughout the reigns of the previous Tudor monarchs and also during the first ten years of Elizabeth's reign. However, over a long period the English attitude to Spain began to change. Between them, Spain and Portugal monopolised merchant adventuring; the English objected to being shut out of trade with the New World. From the 1560s onwards, there was a series of voyages by English privateers who took slaves from Africa and traded them on the Spanish Main (South America). The Spanish authorities objected to these English privateers and, in 1567, launched an attack on the English, destroying a number of ships. The Spanish also controlled the Netherlands and were becoming less tolerant of the Protestant reformation taking place there. There were fears in England that if the Spanish army were successful in controlling religion in the Netherlands, then England might be next; there were also fears that trade would be cut if England intervened in the conflict.

In 1568, the English helped themselves to Spanish bullion from some pay ships that were forced to take refuge at Portsmouth during a storm. The Spanish gave some support to the plots to overthrow Elizabeth and replace her with a Catholic monarch, Mary, Queen of Scots. A war was inevitable, but, recognising that England did not have the resources to fight Spain, Elizabeth signed the Treaty of Nijmegen in 1572 and the Treaty of Bristol in 1574, among the terms of which were the return of the Spanish bullion seized at Portsmouth and that Elizabeth would refuse to grant any further licences to English privateers.

However, these treaties merely postponed the eventual conflict and did not deter Elizabeth from intervening in the war with the Netherlands in 1585. The Dutch rebels had for a while been helped by Elizabeth's former fiancé, the Duke of Anjou, but he died in 1584. Because England's protective shields - the Dutch and the French Protestants - seemed about to buckle, English troops were sent to the Netherlands. At this same time, Sir Francis Drake took to the waves, attacking Spanish ships and the Spanish-held ports of the Caribbean. Philip II of Spain knew he could never finish the war in the Netherlands as long as the English sent support and eventually he decided to launch a seaborne invasion.

The Spanish Armada

In 1587, while the Spanish commanders tried to decide the best strategy for attacking England, Sir Francis Drake sailed into Cadiz and wrecked nearly 40 vessels, including the Spanish flagship. On the way home, Drake's fleet attacked fortresses along the Portuguese coast, destroying supplies. These attacks postponed the sailing of the Spanish Armada for a year.

The Armada eventually sailed out of Lisbon in 1588, only to be almost destroyed by storms. After a refit at Corunna, the fleet sailed north again, carrying 7000 troops and 13,000 sailors. The Spanish fleet was sighted off Cornwall in July 1588 and beacons were lit across England to signal their arrival. England had a corps of shock troops ready to deal with any possible invasion and a fleet ready to sail. Had she been a man, Elizabeth would have set out to fight alongside her troops, but as a woman she was unable to do so. She famously addressed her assembled troops at Tilbury in 1588 with a rousing speech, opening with the immortal line: 'I may have the body of a weak and feeble woman, but I have the heart and stomach of a king, and of a king of England too!'

The English fleet chased the Spaniards4 all through the English Channel, but their attacks did little damage and they failed to break the crescent formation that the Spaniards were using in order to protect their transport ships. However, further Spanish troops were expected to join the Armada via the Netherlands and so, on 27 July, the Armada anchored of Calais to wait for them. Meanwhile, the English fleet positioned itself so as to trap the Armada in Calais. On the evening of 28 July, the English sent fire ships against the Armada, which the Spanish mistook for deadly bomb ships. An order was given for the Spanish ships to move, cutting cables if necessary and this led to the loss of 120 anchors, which would cause problems for the Spanish later. With the Spanish fleet now spread over a wide area, the English were able to use their artillery to advantage, as they outgunned the Spanish, and inflicted heavy damage. High wind blew the Spanish vessels onto sandbanks along the Flanders coast, although it changed direction before many ships were lost. The Armada then regrouped and sailed right the way around the coast of Britain in order to get home, rather than sail back through The Channel.

The English chased them northwards but, although the English ships were smaller and faster, by the time they reached Newcastle their ammunition and stores were exhausted. Once the Armada had passed the Firth of Forth, it was shadowed by a couple of English ships only. After it rounded the Orkneys on 10 August, Atlantic gales and loss of anchors wreaked havoc. Only half the battered ships trailed back to Spain, past the west coast of Ireland, and many thousands of Spanish sailors perished. Spanish seamen landing in Scotland after their ships were wrecked survived because James VI's Scotland was neutral in this particular dispute. However, many of those who were wrecked off Ireland were hunted down and killed by English forces.

Few English sailors were killed in the fighting (although a large number died during outbreaks of dysentery and typhus) and there was little significant damage to English vessels, but Elizabeth ran out of money and could not pay the crews of the English fleet. More English sailors died as a result of neglect by their own government than were killed in action, and it was Drake and the other naval commanders who set up a fund to provide for distressed sailors.

Further Events of the Anglo-Spanish War

The defeat of the Armada marked only the beginning of a war that was to last until 1604. The Armada of 1588 was the first of five different attempts by the Spanish to conquer England. In 1589, Elizabeth sent the largest fleet of her time on an expedition to Portugal with a view to destroying the Spanish fleet being refitted there, as well as removing Philip II from that country and re-instating the Portuguese monarch, Dom Antonio. However, although the English fleet burned and plundered Corunna, it did not sail to Santander, where the Spanish fleet was. Among the English troops was the Earl of Essex, Elizabeth's favourite at that time, who she had expressly forbidden to take part in the expedition. It was Essex who led a supposed attack on Lisbon without any siege equipment. He had inadequate supplies and eventually his army had to be rescued and the fleet returned to England, with little to show for its exploits. Elizabeth was angry about both the cost and the failure of this exercise and was again unable to pay the crews and soldiers and instead let them keep their weapons in lieu of payment.

Over the next ten years there were further skirmishes with the Spanish, mostly involving English attacks on the Spanish treasure fleets returning from South America. In October 1597, another Armada sailed, which got as far as the English Channel but was wrecked by storms. An alliance by England with France and the Netherlands meant that Spain had to fight in two places at once and failed in both. Philip II of Spain died in September 1598 and was succeeded by his son, Philip III, who launched a final Armada in 1599 to attempt an invasion in Ireland, but it was diverted to the Azores to deal with trouble there.

Unrest in Ireland and the Earl of Essex

As with most English monarchs, Elizabeth had problems ruling Ireland. The most serious resistance came towards the end of her reign in the shape of Hugh O'Neil, the Earl of Tyrone, who colluded in Philip of Spain's plans to send Spanish fleets to Ireland. The fleet never arrived but this did not prevent Tyrone's routing of British forces at Yellow Ford in August 1598. The commanding officer of the British troops was killed along with 830 of his men (a further 400 were wounded). Another blow was that 300 Irish deserted the English to fight with Tyrone's men.

In 1599, Elizabeth sent her young favourite Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex (of whom she was tiring) to Dublin to take up office as Queen's Lieutenant. Some might have seen this post as a great honour, but Essex did not want to be away from court, particularly as he wanted the secretary's job left vacant by the death of Francis Walsingham. Lord Burghley wanted the job for his son, Robert Cecil, but the Queen, whilst not wanting to give the job to Essex, was cautious about giving too much power to one family. Hence, she left the post vacant for five years (during which time Robert Cecil did most of the work).

However, it was Essex himself who ruined his chances of obtaining more power at court. While in Ireland he did everything except what he had been sent to do. He marched his troops around Leinster and Munster, garrisoned unimportant forts and towns and left himself too small a field army to be effective against Tyrone. His failure to attack Tyrone destroyed what remained of his political credit at court and, finally, after he had squandered £300,000 in just five months, the Queen turned against him. Essex then adopted a desperate and treasonable course, by agreeing a truce with Tyrone and withdrawing his army to Dublin. Despite explicit orders to stay in Ireland, Essex then returned to court to try and rebuild his political position. Elizabeth had him placed in close confinement and, in June 1600, he was charged with misconduct, desertion of his post and failure to carry out instructions. He was deprived of most of his offices and confined to Essex House in the Strand.

The Essex Rebellion

Many of the younger gentry had attached themselves to Essex, seeing him as a man of the future as Elizabeth's reign drew towards its end. Essex House became the headquarters of a faction of those who felt deprived of office, favour and employment by the ascendancy of Cecil and his allies. In 1601, the Earl of Essex led a vague attempt to overthrow the government but was eventually forced to return to Essex House with fewer supporters than he had started with; he and his principal supporters were sent to the Tower of London. Elizabeth was reluctant to sign a death warrant for her former favourite, but eventually she did sign it and he was executed on 25 February, 1601.

Back in Ireland, Essex was replaced by Lord Mountjoy, who was a much more reliable soldier, although he did briefly entertain the idea of taking the army to England and replacing Elizabeth with James VI of Scotland. However, a Spanish landing at Kinsale forced Mountjoy to concentrate on the job in hand. He managed to push the Spanish forces back to the coast and also deal with an Irish army that was trying to attack. Tyrone eventually surrendered in March 1603 in exchange for a generous pardon, unaware that the Queen had died and James I reigned.

An Ageing Queen

The later years of Elizabeth's reign were unsettled. Quite apart from all the wars that England was involved in, there had been a run of poor harvests during the 1590s. There was also some religious unrest – the long wars with Catholic Spain had affected the position of Catholics within England and, in 1591, a law was introduced giving the authorities the power to investigate the beliefs of householders. Another law prevented known recusants5 from travelling more than five miles from their home.

Towards the end of her reign, Elizabeth had become politically dependent on the Cecils and their allies, whereas previously she had tried to maintain a balance of council and keep policy options open. By 1597, half of Elizabeth's Privy Council was made up of the sons or stepsons of previous councillors. It was this narrowing of her political base that led to feelings of dissatisfaction among many of her courtiers and was at the root of the revolt by the Earl of Essex and his supporters in 1601. The failure of the Essex Rebellion led to a further increase in the power and influence of Robert Cecil. He managed Elizabeth's court entertainments as well as her policies; it is rumoured that he even tried to tell her when to go to bed! The ills of the times were ascribed to the rule of a woman, and many believed that all would be well when the old lady died.

Elizabeth died in February 1603, without publicly naming a successor. The crown of England then passed to the Scottish King James VI, who became James I of England and the first monarch to occupy the thrones of both England and Scotland. Elizabeth left behind a nation at war and subject to religious persecutions, a difficult economic climate and heavy taxes. In the early years of her reign she had been popular, but as events overtook her in her later years, she seemed unable to adapt to suit the changing times6. Indeed, she even had her image frozen at the age of 35: the portraits that she had painted in later life did not show her true age. Sir Walter Raleigh once remarked of the ageing Queen that she was 'a lady whom time has surprised.'

Further Reading

  • The History of the Monarchy pages undoubtedly have the royal seal of approval - they are part of 'the official website of the British Monarchy'
1Margaret Tudor was the eldest daughter of Henry VII of England. She was married to James IV of Scotland and was mother to James V. After the death of James IV, Margaret married the 6th Earl of Douglas and it is from this second marriage that Lord Darnley was descended.2He later also took the title of James I of England.3The Earl of Moray was the illegitimate son of James V and therefore was Mary's half-brother.4A separate Guide Entry has details of the Battle of the Isle of Wight, on the night of 24 July, 1588.5Recusants were persons who refused to attend Church of England services.6It could be argued that Elizabeth did not attempt to solve problems, but simply avoided them and then survived long enough for some of them to go away.

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