The Virgin Queen
A portrait of Lady Elizabeth as a young woman. This painting was completed around 1546 and is attributed to the artist William Sirots. It is now part of the © Royal Collection.
When Henry VIII, after 24 years of marriage, left Catherine of Aragon to marry her lady-in-waiting Anne Boleyn, he wanted one thing…a son. To get what he wanted, he would
- execute his best friends
- alienate his eldest daughter
- break from the church of Rome
- isolate England in the European community leaving it vulnerable to attack, and
- usher in an era of violent and bloody religious reformation in England.
Try to imagine the moment when some unlucky messenger brought him the news that after all this trouble…it’s a girl.
Elizabeth Tudor was born September 7, 1533 at Greenwich Palace. She was the daughter of Henry VIII and his second wife, Anne Boleyn. Elizabeth was the literal daughter of the Reformation. It was for the hope of her—or rather the hope of a male heir––that Henry VIII left his 24-year marriage to Catherine of Aragon for her lady in waiting, Anne Boleyn. To do so, Henry broke with the Church of Rome and established the Church of England, naming himself as Supreme Head of the church. Doing so didn’t win him any friends in the European community. England was isolated and vulnerable, but his single focus was to continue the Tudor dynasty. Daughters wouldn’t help him, sons would.
For his troubles, Anne Boleyn had promised Henry a son. When she didn’t produce one, she met her notorious end…beheading on the Tower Green.
Thus, by the age of 3 Elizabeth was motherless, declared a bastard and officially excluded from the line of succession. But she was not abandoned by her father, who despite his accusations of witchcraft, incest and infidelity against his former wife, never claimed the child wasn’t his.
In his own way, Henry provided for her. She was housed at Hatfield House and given a household worthy of a lady of the realm, including servants, a monthly income and tutors. However, like her half-sister Mary before her, Elizabeth was stripped of her title as Princess and declared illegitimate. She was now given the title Lady.
And like Mary, Elizabeth was shown no love by the stepmother who replaced her own. Jane Seymour, who had not liked Anne Boleyn, had no contact with Elizabeth and did not receive her at court. Henry, likewise, had little contact with his daughter when she was young and instead left her in the care of her household staff, chiefly her governess, Kat Ashworth.
Kat Ashworth was a lifelong friend to Elizabeth, serving her as a child and a queen. She was one of Elizabeth’s few female friends. Kat ably provided Elizabeth’s earliest education. By the age of six, however, Elizabeth had already shown an aptitude for advanced study and her father provided her with highly skilled tutors, including William Grindal and Roger Ascham
Like her siblings, Elizabeth received a humanist education, including study of the Greek and Latin classics, and teachings of the early church fathers. Elizabeth had an aptitude for languages, during her lifetime she learned to speak Latin, French, Spanish, Italian and of course English. She could also read Greek. Her ability with languages often aided her dealings with foreign diplomats and ambassadors, who were undoubtedly impressed by her skills.
Elizabeth was 13 years old when her father died, and her half-brother, Edward, succeeded to the throne. At that time she was given into the care of her stepmother, the Queen Dowager Catherine Parr.
A portrait of Henry VIII and his children. Edward VI is shown sitting with his father and mother, Jane Seymour (painted posthumously), with Lady Mary standing to the left and Elizabeth I standing to the right. The painting was competed during the mid 1540's by an unknown artist. It is now part of the ©Royal Collection.
Life with the Dowager Queen Catherine
After her husband, Henry VIII, died, Catherine Parr remained the first Lady of the land. With Edward in his minority and not likely to wed for another ten years, she could have enjoyed her status as the Dowager Queen of England for many years to come. As such she enjoyed a noble residence, a lifetime annual pension, and per Henry’s will, access to the Crown jewels.
Queen Catherine established her home at Chester House and became a patroness of young noble ladies. Among those entrusted to her care were her stepdaughter Elizabeth and the Lady Jane Grey. Under her charge, these young girls from noble families were able to receive an excellent education in a caring, nurturing environment, not to mention the prestige of being under the protection of England’s Queen Dowager. For Elizabeth and Jane this was an oasis of happiness in otherwise lonely and unhappy childhoods.
The Princess and the Admiral
A portrait of Thomas Seymour, uncle to Kind Edward VI and husband to Catherine Parr. The two had been romantically involved before Henry VIII set his sights on her. When he died, Catherine and Seymour married. But not all was bliss. Seymour had plans for marrying the young Elizabeth in hopes of moving closer to the throne. This painting was done around 1547 by Nicholas Denizot. It is at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, London.
Queen Catherine could have maintained her household for noble young ladies indefinitely. She could have lived out her life enjoying wealth, comfort and status. She could have continued to use her position and prestige to promote education for women and the peaceful reformation of the church. But she didn’t. An old flame came calling and Catherine Parr fell (back) in love.
Before her marriage to Henry VIII, Catherine had a relationship with Thomas Seymour, brother of the late Queen Jane Seymour and uncle to King Edward VI. But when Henry VIII expressed interest in making her his sixth wife, Catherine had to oblige and Seymour had to back off. During their marriage, Catherine had been a good and faithful wife to Henry VIII, but it was Thomas Seymour whom she had loved––whether he deserved it or not.
Less than a year after Henry’s death, Catherine Parr secretly married Thomas Seymour, now Lord Admiral Seymour. She was in love. It was her fourth marriage and the first time married to someone her own age. Always a loving stepmother, and now at age 35, Catherine Parr probably saw this as her last chance to have a baby of her own. While marrying so soon after the late king’s death would have been viewed as improper (thus the secrecy) Catherine was forgiven by her stepson, King Edward VI, and even given his blessing in the matter. It didn’t hurt that Thomas Seymour was his favorite uncle.
Seymour’s motivations are not as clear and most probably not as pure. Left off of King Edward’s governing council (Henry VIII was aware of Seymour’s past flirtations with his wife and probably excluded him on purpose), Seymour spent much of his time trying to get close to the seat of power. With no role at his nephew’s court, Seymour turned his attentions to the young Lady Elizabeth.
The routine at Chester House was never quite the same once Admiral Seymour arrived. While Catherine was lost in the bliss of being in love and soon after pregnant, the Admiral set about disrupting the household. He devoted most of his attentions to Lady Elizabeth. He had keys to her private quarters and often let himself in unannounced, sometimes before Elizabeth had gotten out of bed in the morning. He made a game of tickling her and teasing her to embarrassment.
For a young girl just awakening to her sexuality, the Admiral’s attentions were probably at first both flattering and confusing to Elizabeth. At some point, however, his behavior became threatening. Elizabeth, after all, was very young and a maiden. She was also royal which made the Admiral’s actions an even more serious matter.
The Admiral went beyond appropriate physical behavior with such a young girl. Catherine Parr at first thought Seymour’s attentions to Elizabeth were innocent and fatherly, and even partook in some of his tickling games. But eventually she could no longer ignore the improprieties taken by her husband. There were even rumors that the Admiral was conspiring to wed the young heiress in the event of his wife’s death––a real possibility once Catherine became pregnant.
Due to the alarming nature of the rumors coming from Chester House, an official interrogation was conducted by Edward’s court. Conspiring to wed a member of the royal family was considered treason due to the threat to the line of succession. Only the King could approve a royal match. Many of Elizabeth’s household––including Kat Ashley––were arrested and interrogated. Elizabeth herself was questioned on several occasions but her interrogators could never wring a confession that she had been a part of any conspiracy to marry Admiral Seymour.
When the investigation ended, Elizabeth was sent away from Chester House. While saddened at the state of her marriage, Catherine did not blame Elizabeth for what had happened. She remained a loving stepmother and the two continued to exchange letters. Unfortunately, Catherine Parr died shortly after giving birth to her daughter, Mary. The Admiral was eventually executed for treason, based partly on his attempt to secretly court and marry Elizabeth.
Upon his death, Edward VI excluded both his sisters from the line of succession, despite the fact that Henry VIII had included them in his final will, a document that had been ratified by Parliament and made law.
A pious youth, Edward VI possibly had moral problems with having his sister’s succeed him, as they had both been declared illegitimate. He named his cousin, Jane Grey, as his successor, a convenience for the Lord Protector (her father-in-law) and the dominantly Protestant privy council. Mary was the rightful heir, but she was Catholic and would most definitely return England to the Catholic faith and the Church of Rome.
Mary raised an army on her behalf and reclaimed her throne. Fortunately for Elizabeth, Jane Grey had been the focus of the Protestant conspirators. Jane was imprisoned in the Tower and her father-in-law was executed. Several months later, Jane would be the focus of a second uprising, known as Wyatt’s Rebellion. This time, she would pay with her life, and Elizabeth would not get off so easily either.
After Wyatt’s Rebellion, Elizabeth was arrested with the other conspirators and held in the Tower of London. Her warder in the Tower was the Earl of Sussex who gave orders to not lock her door and to make sure she was well treated, under the warning that she was “the daughter of a king.” Sussex was more politically astute then he was compassionate.
Despite being interrogated several times, including by Bishop Gardiner himself, Elizabeth never revealed any involvement in the plot to unseat her sister. If she had known about the conspiracy, she was smart enough to not commit anything to paper, and tough enough to not break under interrogation. Wyatt himself exonerated her at the event of his own execution, saying she had nothing to do with the conspiracy.
Despite their efforts, Mary’s interrogators could find no evidence against Elizabeth and they were pressured to release her from her captivity in the Tower. But they did not trust her. And with Jane Gray now dead, Elizabeth would be the natural focus for any future Protestant conspiracies or uprisings. They were determined to keep a close watch on her.
Elizabeth was released from the Tower and put under house arrest. She was taken to Woodstock under the care of Sir Henry Bedingford.
Owing much to the influence of Queen Mary’s husband, Prince Philip of Spain, Elizabeth was eventually released from house arrest and briefly returned to court. But as Mary never liked her and suspected her religious motivations, tensions remained high between the two sisters. Elizabeth soon returned to her old household at Hatfield. It was there, on November 17, 1558, that she received the news of her sister’s death and her own succession to the throne of England.
William Cecil, Lord Burghley
A portrait of William Cecil later in his life. Cecil first met Elizabeth when she was a young woman living at Hatfield House. He would become her chief advisor and confident throughout her reign. Cecil served Queen Elizabeth for 39 of her 45 year reign, ended only by his own death. He was succeeded in service by his son. William Cecil and Queen Elizabeth forged one of the most successful political unions in British history. This portrait is by an unknown artist and can be found at the National Portrait Gallery, London.
The Tudor monarchs were renowned for fostering self-made men. Men not born to rank or nobility, but men who rose to high stations at court through their intelligence, abilities and service to the crown. William Cecil was one such man.
Cecil came from no special family background, but he was educated in law at Cambridge, and later became elected to Parliament. He began serving the Tudor court under Edward VI, when he was hired by the Lord Protector, Duke of Somerset as his personal secretary. He continued in that role under Dudley, Duke of Northumberland. Cecil proved himself a Royalist when he objected to the succession of Jane Grey, and secretly conspired to help Mary regain her throne. Despite this, he was briefly imprisoned after her ascension for signing as a witness to the late king’s will that named Jane Grey as his successor (Cecil claimed he was forced).
Cecil was a prominent Protestant and despite his work on her behalf, Mary I never trusted him, and he served no official role in her court. He remained quiet and recusant during her reign and managed to escape her monarchy unsinged.
Elizabeth met William Cecil when she was still a young girl at Hatfield House, and he was working in her brother’s court. She first benefited from his council when he advised her not to accept Admiral Seymour’s financial advice (the Admiral basically wanted the transfer of her lands into his name--because he just wanted to help her, of course). This was the beginning of their long friendship. Cecil continued to provide sound business advice—including the novel idea of saving money for an unpredictable future––and eventually came under Elizabeth’s employ during Mary’s reign. He worked as the surveyor of Elizabeth’s estates and managed her business affairs.
Elizabeth named Cecil as her personal secretary upon her ascension to the throne. His first task was to get Elizabeth anointed, which wasn’t easy in a church stacked with Catholic Bishops who considered her a heretic. He skillfully managed this trick and many others. Cecil was by Elizabeth’s side for the first 39 years of her 45-year reign, until his own death in 1598. Together they pushed through the Religious Settlement in a Catholic parliament, successfully negotiated the Treaty of Edinburgh—creating peace in their lifetime with France and Scotland, established a cultural environment in which artists and scholars thrived, survived countless Catholic plots to assassinate Elizabeth, and created a Navy that defeated the Spanish Armada. Not bad.
History would be hard pressed to find so successful or enduring a political team. As brilliant as Elizabeth was, it is safe to say her reign would not be the Golden Age we remember had she not had the council of William Cecil.
Though he could like any other advisor incur her wrath, Cecil’s length of tenure and the confidence placed in him by his monarch were unprecedented. Elizabeth I relied on his advice and opinions unparalleled to any other. During his service, Cecil was given the title Lord Burghley. Upon his death, his title passed to his son, Robert, who also assumed his father’s place on the Privy Council and as Elizabeth’s secretary. As capable as his father, the transition was seamless. Robert served Elizabeth until her death, and was instrumental in negotiating the deal that put James VI of Scotland on the English throne.
The Coronation Portrait of Elizabeth I. This portrait was completed around the time of Elizabeth's death, but was based on an earlier painting that had been destroyed. The artist is unknown. The portrait is part of a private collection, now housed at the National Portrait Gallery in London.
Elizabeth was coronated at Westminster Abbey on January 15, 1559. As with almost all things in Elizabeth’s life, getting this done was no easy task. Most of the presiding bishops had been placed in their positions by Mary. Reformists bishops had been either martyred in Mary’s reign or exiled to the Continent. The Catholic bishops were not enthusiastic about a reigning Protestant monarch and finding one compliant enough to coronate Elizabeth was difficult.
Coronation was no minor detail. It was a holy rite that conferred God’s blessing on a monarch. It was this ceremony that turned a chosen successor into a regent––anointed by God and set above other people. Without this ceremony, Elizabeth’s court would lack legitimacy.
Under the persuasion of William Cecil, Bishop Ogelthorpe agreed to conduct the coronation mass on the condition he be able to raise the communion host. Ogelthorpe had recently sparred with Elizabeth on this issue. At the Christmas Mass after her succession, Ogelthorpe had raised the communion host, a Catholic tradition, after being instructed not to by the Protestant Elizabeth. Elizabeth had berated the bishop and stormed out of the service. But for the cause of coronation Elizabeth was forced to compromise—she allowed the host to be raised during her coronation but she went behind a curtain so as not to witness it. That is the beauty of compromise.
As was the custom with all new monarchs, Elizabeth spent the night before her coronation at the Tower of London. It must have been quite a different experience for her than when she was kept there as a prisoner during her sister’s reign. On the morning of her coronation she paraded through London, from the Tower to Westminster Abbey. No expense or detail was spared. Elizabeth’s lifelong friend, Robert Dudley, then Master of the Horse, was in charge of the arrangements. Riding in an open carriage and stopping frequently to meet people and give alms and impromptu speeches to the thousand’s gathered, Elizabeth exhibited what would become her famous public relations skills.
In Tudor England, no issue was more contentious than religion. Nobody knew this better than Elizabeth. She once famously said, “I will not make windows into men’s souls.” And she allowed no windows into her own. During her lifetime Elizabeth never committed her personal religious beliefs to paper, nor did she speak of them in public or private. But it was one issue she could not ignore, and in regard to religion, life forced her hand.
During Mary’s reign, Elizabeth had been outwardly observant of the Catholic faith, and attended mass with her sister while at court. Other than dressing in the unadorned black and white dress preferred by devout Protestants, Elizabeth did nothing to stand out. Hers was a quiet protest. She preferred to avoid the fate of Jane Grey by not raising her sister’s suspicions or raising the hopes of Protestant rebels who would make her the focus of their conspiracies. She was not the stuff of which martyrs are made. She was a survivor.
Still, Elizabeth had no intention of embracing Catholicism. As the daughter of Anne Boleyn, Elizabeth could never have reconciled with the Roman Catholic Church even if she had wanted to. She had been declared a bastard and a heretic by Rome and recognizing the Pope’s authority would negate her own legitimacy to the throne.
Neither was Elizabeth fond of the extreme forms of Protestantism brought back by the European exiles that had left England during Mary’s reign. They shunned ornamentation, music, theater and ceremony…all things that Elizabeth loved.
“I will not make windows into men’s souls.”
Nevertheless, Elizabeth had been raised in the new religion. She had also been greatly influenced by the writings of her godfather, Thomas Cranmer, during her brother’s reign. Hers would be a Protestant court and her reign would establish England once and for all as a Protestant country.
The religious question had been tearing apart England for the past thirty years. And Mary I’s policy of persecuting and burning Reformists had created an atmosphere of fear and hate. Any further changes to religion would be greeted with suspicion and resistance. This was the issue that would be so paramount throughout Elizabeth’s reign. And she would tackle it head on. Her first act as monarch was to establish The Religious Settlement.
The Canterbury Cathedral was founded by St. Augustine in the 6th century. The current building was originally built in the 11th century, although it has been repaired and rennovated several times over the centuries. Cardinal Thomas Wolsey was the last Catholic Archbishop to preside over England. Henry VIII replaced him with Thomas Cranmer, who returned the favor by absolving Henry's marriage to Catherine of Aragon. Cranmer remained in his position through the reign of Edward VI, during which he wrote The Book of Common Prayer and established the Anglican Church much as it still exists today. Cranmer was later excuted by Mary I.
The Religious Settlement
Politics, it is said, is the art of the possible. With the Religious Settlement, Elizabeth accomplished all that was possible.
Like most of her subjects Elizabeth had lived in fear much of her life simply because she held a religious belief different from her monarch’s. The official state religion had changed with each monarch since Henry VIII. And each time those in opposition to the new religion were persecuted for their dissenting views.
Elizabeth was nearly a victim of her own sister’s religious policies and even her brother’s religious views had condemned her as a bastard. This personal experience undoubtedly led her to a philosophy of moderation.
Elizabeth made one of her most famous quotes when she remarked to a visiting French ambassador, “There is but one Jesus Christ and one faith, everything else they are fighting about is details.”
This seems to have been a guiding principal for Elizabeth, who never embraced extremism in religion. She thought seeking a middle ground without repercussions against dissenters was the best solution for peace in her country. And she set about immediately to do it.
While the Religious Settlement was not everything it could be, it was everything that was possible at the time. And it was a monumental step toward religious tolerance not achieved, or even attempted, by any other 16th century monarch.
The Formation of the Anglican Church
In 1559, despite being mostly packed with Mary’s loyalists, Elizabeth’s first parliament passed the Religious Settlement Act, a landmark achievement that established the basis for the Anglican Church as it exists today. Elizabeth took an active role in the shaping of this ruling. She wanted to give the church stability and continuity independent of monarchical changes.
The doctrine of the new Anglican Church placed more emphasis on New Testament teachings as opposed to Old Testament, which Elizabeth felt were mostly anachronistic and confusing to the common person. Central to the New Religion was the Anglican Prayer Book written by Thomas Cranmer during Edward’s reign. Use of the English Bible (as opposed to Latin) was also adopted, as was the practice of symbolic communion.
The use of sermons as part of weekly church services was also retained, but Elizabeth was determined to control what was preached. In the hands of individual charismatic priests she knew sermons could be used to incite subjects and inspire revolt. Instead, she determined to control what was preached in her kingdom and gave the Archbishop power to write and distribute sermons, subject to the Queen’s approval, to all parishes in England. It was against the law to preach anything but these approved sermons. By this means sermons could be used as a form of propaganda for the Crown.
But Elizabeth did not embrace all of Cranmer’s teachings, and her Protestant church was much different than Edwards. She retained the hierarchical episcopacy of the Catholic Church, which allowed her to make parish appointments. She thought that giving church elders the ability to choose their own pastor was anti-monarchical.
She retained the use of vestments (ceremonial religious robes), an issue she was fought on but won. She also opposed married priests, a fight she eventually lost. And the rich Anglican choral tradition enjoyed today can be traced directly to her. She loved music and ceremony as part of the church service, and retained these traditions from the Catholic mass…much to the Puritans disapproval.
The biggest sticking point between the two religions was the sacrament of communion. Roman Catholics believed that through a spiritual process known as transmogrification the bread and wine of Holy Communion were the actual body and blood of Jesus Christ. Protestants, with equal vehemence, believed communion was a symbolic ceremony, representing Christ’s sacrifices but not actually being Christ.
This is where Elizabeth’s embrasure of moderation shone. Although officially the Anglican Church believed in a symbolic communion, she was aware of the importance of an elevated host to many of her subjects. She added two phrases to Cranmer’s Book of Common Prayer that would serve either belief. This allowed priests of either persuasion to perform the church service according to individual preference, without threat of persecution from the crown.
Achieving the Religious Settlement had required much compromise and left many unhappy. Much of the wording was deliberately vague and open-ended so as not to raise severe objections on one side or the other. But for all its flaws, the church was all English. Elizabeth had her church declared a national church and rejected, once and for all, any papal authority in the Church of England.
She also reinstated the Oath of Supremacy.
Matthew Parker was appointed as Elizabeth I's first Archbishop of Canterbury. Parker had been a religious advisor to Elizabeth's mother, Anne Boleyn, and had been an advisor to Elizabeth throughout her childhood. He was an absolute, but moderate Reformist, who stepped into a chaotic and damaged See after the religious persecutions of Mary I. Despite this, Parker's biggest challenges came not from Catholics, but from Puritans, whom both he and Elizabeth disliked and distrusted. Parker served almost 16 years in his position, until his death in 1575. He was instrumental in re-establishing and strengthening the tenants of Cranmer's Anglican Church.
The Oath of Supremacy
Henry VIII created the Oath of Supremacy after his break with the Church of Rome. By taking the oath, subjects recognized the authority of the monarch as supreme head of the church. It was this Oath that led to the deaths of Sir Thomas More and Bishop Fisher, among others.
But Elizabeth added one ingenious catch to its application that saved her from the same bloodbath instituted by her father and sister. She ordered her Archbishop, Matthew Parker, to give the oath to all clergy. If a clergy refused to sign the Oath the first time, they were allowed a second chance. If a clergy refused it twice it meant he was subject to the punishments of the Act of Supremacy––execution.
Elizabeth’s genius was this––Parker was ordered to give the oath once to everyone and to give no one the Oath twice. In this way no lives were lost, but Elizabeth knew where she stood with each of her priests.
It would have been an administrative nightmare to give the Oath to every subject in England. Instead, Elizabeth’s government concentrated on the sources of power. Elizabeth’s Oath of Supremacy was given to all clergy, members of parliament, lawyers, graduates of the universities and schoolmasters.
The Marriage Issue
Had Elizabeth I been free to marry whomever she wanted, her likely choice would have been Robert Dudley, later known as the Earl of Leicester. Dudley was a lifelong friend and one of Elizabeth's most trusted advisors. They were imprisoned together in the Tower of London during Mary I's reign, he for helping his father put Lady Jane Grey on the throne after Edward VI's death, and Elizabeth for suspicion that she was part of Wyatt's Rebellion, another attempt to remove Mary from power. Both were eventually freed by Mary. This portrait was painted around 1564 by an undetermined artist, and is now part of the Rothschild Collection.
If your government is a monarchy, and if peace in your country depended on the smooth and rightful succession of one monarch to the next, the matter of who would be your next king was an important one. So it was for Queen Elizabeth’s council. Unfortunately for them, Elizabeth was young, female and single. As an unmarried female monarch, Elizabeth faced the same challenges as her sister: marry an Englishman and you inevitably raise a subject above his rank, creating court divisions, or marry a foreign prince that nobody likes and everybody distrusts.
The religious debate raging in England added to her marriage troubles. Although not evangelical, Elizabeth was Protestant. Most foreign royals were Catholic. Once she had settled her country’s official religion with the Religious Settlement of 1559, she didn’t want to open the issue up to debate again.
And, as England’s Queen, Elizabeth enjoyed unprecedented freedoms for a woman. Being as strong-willed as her father, she had no desire to cede her power as regent to another human being. So, for Elizabeth, marriage was no easy task. Nevertheless, Elizabeth was a woman and she was Queen. As woman she had all the natural inclinations and urges to fall in love. As Queen, she understood her duty to produce an heir for her country. These two forces would play into her personal life despite her determination to never marry. And no one would ever let her forget it.
Her council certainly didn't. During her her child-bearing years, Elizabeth's council tried in vain to marry her off to many different European royals. Her suiters included a fellow claimant to the throne, a prince, an archduke, and several dukes, including two from France. There were also a couple of English Earls, one of whom, Robert Dudley, Elizabeth actually loved. But in the end she would marry none of them. She would remain England's "Virgin Queen."
Mary, Queen of Scots
As the great-granddaughter of Henry VII, Mary Queen of Scots had a legitimate claim to the throne of England, even though Henry VIII had specifically excluded his sister Margaret's line (including Mary) in his Act of Succession. After Mary I's death, the Scottish Mary became a favorite of pro-Catholic forces which continually plotted to dethrone Elizabeth I and place Mary of Scots in her place. After fleeing Scotland to avoid prosecution by her own subjects, she became a "guest" of Elizabeth who kept her housed in England for many years. Elizabeth eventually, although reluctantly, signed her cousin's death warrant when it was proven Mary was plotting against her.
There was no greater threat to the stability of Elizabeth’s reign than the existence of Mary Stewart, known to history as Mary, Queen of Scots. She had a legitimate claim to the English throne, was Catholic, and had powerful supporters. She had many chances in her tragic life to rule honorably, to make peace with Elizabeth, and even to overthrow Elizabeth for the English throne. She blew it every time.
Mary, Queen of Scots was born December 8, 1542, the daughter and heir to James V of Scotland and his French wife, Mary of Guise. Her grandmother was Margaret Tudor, Henry VIII’s older sister. Margaret’s hereditary line was specifically excluded from Henry’s Act of Succession, which was ratified by Parliament. But why let inconvenient details get in the way. With her royal lineage and Tudor blood, powerful English Catholics would turn to Mary again and again in their power struggles for the throne.
There was no shortage of ambition on behalf of Mary Stewart. Mary's mother, Mary of Guise, was a member of this notoriously powerful and ambitious French family. Still a child, Mary of Scots was promised to Francis, the Dauphin of France, and was raised at the French court. She and (then) King Francis II were wed, making Mary the Queen of Scotland and France. Unfortunately King Francis II died less than two years into his reign, leaving Mary a widow at the tender age of 18. The Guise, having no more use for her in France, sent her packing. Mary of Guise, who had been ruling as regent in Scotland in her daughter’s absence, had recently died. Scotland needed their queen back.
Mary was a stranger in her own kingdom. She did not speak the language well, nor was she familiar with its customs. Having been raised in the court of France, Scottish court must have seemed barbaric. And her life in France had done little to prepare her for the warring religious factions in her home country. Mary was a queen, however, and she knew how to act the part. She did her best to adjust.
Unlike her cousin Elizabeth, Mary, Queen of Scots had no qualms about marriage. She married three times in her life, each husband worse than the last. Her first marriage to Francis II of France had been arranged for her when she was still a toddler. She and Francis had been raised together and were genuinely fond of each other, but probably more so as brother and sister than as lovers. Many historians doubt that the frail, effeminate Francis had ever been able to consummate the marriage.
As Mary adjusted to life in Scotland, she seems to have taken her dynastic duties seriously and as a young, attractive woman, she longed for a husband who could give her what Francis probably couldn’t––physical love.
As a peer of Elizabeth’s, Mary was playing on the same marriage field. She had the princes of Europe to treaty with––many of whom would have welcomed the opportunity to be so strategically close to England. With the right marriage she could have done some damage to England’s growing prowess and increased her own standing in the world. But this time Mary would not marry for power--instead she fell in love. The object of her affection was Lord Darnley, an English landowner on the Scottish borders, a subject of Elizabeth’s, and a noble with his own weak claim to the English crown. The two met when Darnley visited the Scottish court early in 1565, a visit arranged by his matchmaking mother, Margaret Douglas (an act Elizabeth sent her to the Tower for, although she was later released). For Mary, it was love at first site.
With their individual claims to the crown of England, the two of them together created a stronger claim, which is the only reason the Scottish magnates agreed to a marriage that brought no money, titles or alliances for Scotland.
Lord Darnley was young, handsome and charming. Unfortunately, he was also a narcissistic, abusive drunk. The honeymoon ended almost before it began, but still long enough for Mary to become pregnant with the future James VI of Scotland. It was the Scots now, not the Guise, with a legitimate male heir to the English throne. But there was still plenty of drama to take place before his birth and eventual place in history.
The marriage was already on the rocks when Mary became pregnant. Darnley ignored his pregnant wife, preferring to drink and carouse with his friends. She, in turn, escaped into the friendship and companionship of her Italian secretary, David Riccio. His ambivalence toward his wife didn’t prevent Darnley from becoming jealous of Riccio’s attentions to Mary. What happened in March of 1566 has become one of the most famous legends of Holyrood House, the Scottish royal castle.
In her sixth month of pregnancy, Mary was playing cards with Riccio one evening at Holyrood when Darnley and his conspirators burst into the room and fatally stabbed the unarmed Italian. Not surprisingly, since he was the Queen’s consort, Darnley was able to make a deal with powerful barons in exchange for his pardon. But he was put under house arrest at the nearby castle of Kirk O-Field in Edinburgh. Several months later, an explosion rocked the house and Darnley was killed. The chief suspect in the suspicious explosion…James Hepburn, Earl of Bothwell––was Mary’s new lover.
A Catholic Scottish magnate, Bothwell was somewhat of an adventurer, with nothing really to recommend him other than that he fit the bad-boy profile Mary seemed attracted to. Actually, a great deal of mystery and conspiracy surrounds Mary and Bothwell’s relationship. Some believe he kidnapped and raped her, forcing her into marriage. Others believe she was a willing lover who conspired with him to kill Darnley.
What is clear is that Mary became pregnant with Bothwell’s twins but later miscarried. She and Bothwell became fugitives from the powerful Scots magnates. When they were captured, she was sent to Loch Levin Castle in Edinburgh to be held under armed captivity, her son was taken from her, and she was forced to abdicate the Scottish crown in favor of her infant son. Her son would be raised to be king in the Protestant religion. Bothwell would eventually die in captivity in the Netherlands, but not before going insane.
Mary would escape her captivity at Loch Leven and mount an army in defense of her claim to the throne, only to be defeated again. This time she would be forced to flee for her life. In disguise, she crossed the border into England and threw herself at the mercy of her English cousin. She was a most unwelcome guest.
Mary vs. Elizabeth
Mary’s arrival in England placed Elizabeth in a difficult situation. She knew that Catholic Europe, and many of her own subjects, would like nothing better than to see the Catholic Mary on the English throne, making her an imminent threat to the stability of Elizabeth’s realm. And yet, Mary was her cousin and an anointed sovereign in her own right. Elizabeth could not and did not support the action of subjects who would depose their anointed sovereign—it was a threat that was all too real in her own life and she did not want to support a precedent for it.
For that reason, Elizabeth did not return Mary as a prisoner to Scotland. But neither did she declare war on her behalf. Doing so would have violated the Treaty of Edinburgh (as well as Elizabeth’s frugal sensibilities). She wasn’t going to waste her money and resources on Mary’s behalf.
Elizabeth could have returned Mary to France, but that would have put her back in the hands of the scheming Guise family who no doubt would have done all they could to rally French and Catholic forces around Mary’s claim to the throne.
Elizabeth was left with only one choice…keep Mary in England under constant surveillance. Mary was to remain in captivity in England for 19 years. She was never treated cruelly and indeed at first was treated as a guest of the realm. But as her own schemes and the conspiracies of her supporters became increasingly known and more viable, she became less and less welcome.
Action by Inaction
The minute Mary arrived in England, Elizabeth’s advisors were trying to get rid of her. They had a lot of ammunition. She was convicted by a Scottish court for Darnley’s murder, she was a focus point for all Catholic conspirators in England, and she had proven her ambitions for the English throne many times. For most kings, this would have been enough to send her to the block.
But Elizabeth was no tyrant like her father. She had no taste for blood, especially for her cousin and fellow monarch. The anointing of a monarch was a sacred thing, a ritual that involved no less than the sanction by God. To take action against Mary was to take exception with God himself. Plus, there was the opinion of Europe. Even if no other country wanted or approved of Mary Queen of Scots, they would be quick to take issue with the Protestant Elizabeth if she should do what law and precedent dictated. Elizabeth was in a no-win situation, so for as long as she could, she did nothing. She kept Mary under house arrest and had spies watching her every move. But she let her live.
The End of the Queen of Scots
In the end, it was Mary’s own actions that determined her demise. Northumberland, one of Elizabeth’s most loyal and effective spies, caught Mary in a sting, of sorts. He set up a mole in Mary’s household who delivered letters from Catholic conspirators who were planning Elizabeth’s assassination, and devised a method for Mary to respond secretly. When Northumberland intercepted her response encouraging her supporters, he had the smoking gun…evidence that she was an active conspirator against Elizabeth’s throne. Mary of Scots was guilty of treason.
Even with so much evidence against Mary, Elizabeth was deeply conflicted about executing her royal cousin. But Elizabeth’s council and parliament all demanded Mary’s head. And they got it. Mary Queen of Scots was beheaded at Fotheringhay Castle on February 8, 1587.
The Religious Wars
Perhaps because she was a female ruler and had no need or expectations to prove herself in battle, Elizabeth was never vain-glorious about war. Like her grandfather, Henry VII, she avoided them, not involving England in foreign affairs that did not involve her. She saw war as an endeavor with unpredictable outcomes, not to mention a drain on court finances and national resources.
Unfortunately, war came to Elizabeth. The Religious Settlement did much to calm tension in England, and had it been left alone, the dust might have settled on the whole Reform movement. But England was not left alone.
As much as she might have preached tolerance, Elizabeth inherited a country with deep religious divisions. England wasn’t alone in this. The Huguenots in France, the Lutherans in Germany—each country was battling its own religious civil wars. The difference was that in England the Protestants held the throne. It was Rome that had to go on the attack.
"There is only one Christ Jesus, one faith.
All else is a dispute over trifles."
With its own Catholic contender for the crown in Mary, Queen of Scots, Rome was not ready to give up on England just yet. Jesuits from France entered England and often successfully re-evangelized Catholic recusants. The Pope went one step further. He declared Elizabeth a heretic and informed Catholics that her murder would not be a sin. There was no shortage of Catholic zealots who took up the challenge, and more than one got close enough to attempt her assassination.
With this onslaught of Catholic forces against her, Elizabeth’s tolerance ended. While she never resorted to the tactics of her sister, being Catholic, unfortunately, became the same as being a traitor.
England was also called into the religious battles of allies and enemies alike. While doing her best to avoid direct war, she often secretly gave money to assist the Huguenots in France or the Protestant rebels in the Netherlands. By financing these groups Elizabeth kept the governments of France and Spain (ruler of the Netherlands) busy with their own civil wars, tying up their troops and resources so they were unable to attack England.
War with Spain, however, was inevitable. In 1585, England was forced to send troops to the Netherlands, the cheif importer of English goods, because the war with Spain there was disrupting trade in England. Things went badly for English troops in the Netherlands and they returned to England a defeated Army. But they had not time to lick their wounds. The Spanish were coming.
Defeat of the Spanish Armada
Without any doubt, Elizabeth’s defeat of the Spanish Armada was her shining political moment. It is impossible to overstate the importance and impact of this English victory. It shifted the power structure in Europe, ensured England’s sovereignty, and set the stage for an English empire in the New World.
A sixteenth century painting of the Armada battle. The artist is unknown.
England had been expecting an invasion since Henry VIII first broke with the Church of Rome, and Spain had always been the most likely suspect. To defend against such an invasion, Henry VIII embarked on the greatest castle-building enterprise in England since the 12th century. Often using materials from the monasteries he destroyed, Henry VIII commissioned a chain of castles and forts that stretched along England’s coast. It was during Elizabeth’s reign that these castle fortresses were garrisoned and put to use. Elizabeth also gets credit for redesigning and fortifying the British Navy. Her army might have been disorganized and unsuccessful (as proven in the recent Netherland battles), but her navy was impressive.
As Treasurer of the Navy under Elizabeth, Sir John Hawkins was responsible for creating a new maritime world power—on a budget.
Under Hawkins guidance, Elizabeth made several crucial decisions that made the Armada victory possible. First, the English navy reformed the system of building dockyards and ships. Construction became more streamlined, time efficient and cost-effective. Elizabeth then approved the creation of smaller, more maneuverable ships that were easier to handle and able to stay at sea longer. Elizabeth also commissioned the construction of larger ships capable of carrying long-range guns. These guns were made of cast-iron, not the usual brass, and therefore could be fired repeatedly without breaks. Traditional brass cannons had to be allowed to cool after two or three rounds or they risked explosion. Using what money was left, Elizabeth ordered the modification of older ships.
While Elizabeth was renowned for her parsimony, she knew that now was the time to spend money. She spent her own money to fund the construction of a new Navy. Now she had to find a way to sustain a standing naval force. Commissioning the sailors at just the right time would be the key to success. Otherwise they would run out of everything before the Spanish landed––supplies, food and wages. Victory would depend on timing, and for this she turned to her highly capable intelligence network. It was up to her spies to let her know when the Spanish were on their way.
The Armada had first planned to sail for England in the summer of 1587, but was met with bad weather and the ever-vigilant Sir Francis Drake who was once again successful in burning many of their ships while in Spanish ports. But in the summer of 1588 they were at it again. The Armada was finally coming. Elizabeth commissioned the Navy. The fortresses were garrisoned. The English people, while they would not back her with money, rallied behind their Queen when she needed them most.
As Queen, she was their inspiration—they would need lots of it. Little England was about to do battle with the world’s 16th century super power. They were facing a fighting force that had already defeated them in the Netherlands war, and a world-class navy that was almost five times the size of their own. The odds were astronomically against them. England rose to the challenge.
Elizabeth had the foresight to enlist the services of men like Sir Francis Drake and Sir Walter Raleigh. These were not men of noble birth––she raised them to their titles––but they were men of great ability. Drake was the first Englishman to circumnavigate the globe, and he regularly went on missions to disturb, damage and pillage Spanish ships and ports. The Spanish considered him a pirate, but he was on Elizabeth’s payroll.
An adventurer and poet, Raleigh was a favorite of Elizabeth’s. A very learned man, he received financing, including funds from Elizabeth, to establish one of the first English colonies in America, the Virginia Settlement. He is famous in history for many things, including the apocryphal gesture of laying his coat on the ground so that Elizabeth would not have to walk through a puddle, as well as for introducing tobacco to the English court.
Against the insistence of all her advisors, Elizabeth went to Tilbury in County Essex to address the troops and await the outcome. This was her finest hour. She was asking her men and her country to sacrifice themselves for the sake and safety of England…she would demand no less of herself. Elizabeth’s speech to her men that day is recorded for history. It is a speech as fine as even Shakespeare could write for his fictional Henry V at Agincourt.
"My loving people, we have been persuaded by some that are careful of our safety, to take heed how we commit ourself to armed multitudes for fear of treachery; but I assure you, I do not desire to live to distrust my faithful and loving people....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."
The British navy set sail for battle and Elizabeth remained at camp in Tilbury with her army, awaiting news of the battle’s outcome. Drake and Raleigh didn’t let her down. They lead the British Navy and become heroes of the Armada battle. Drake served as Vice Admiral during the battle, second only to Lord Howard, a high honor for someone of non-noble birth. Raleigh used his own ship in battle. Their intimate knowledge of the weather, currents and geography of the English Channel was an additional advantage for the British. And their recent trans-Atlantic adventures had greatly informed the construction of England’s new smaller and more maneuverable ships.
When news finally came that British ships had been victorious and that no land invasion would follow, England celebrated. It is said that when the Queen returned to London, festivities planned for the Armada victory rivaled even her own coronation. Spain would not go away for some time, but they had been crippled. And the balance of power in Europe and the New World was forever changed.
The Elizabethan Age
When Elizabeth ascended to the throne of England, she inherited an isolated island with little money and few allies. At the end of her 45-year reign, despite her political and diplomatic achievements, England still struggled for money and much of its citizenry suffered from poverty and disease. So what about her reign has inspired historians ever sense to refer to hers as the Elizabethan Age? The defeat of the armada is part of it, but there is more. Elizabeth’s reign was a golden age of ideas and discovery. The Renaissance was flourishing throughout Europe, but it was Elizabeth’s embrasure of this new world of learning and ideas that created an atmosphere of exploration, discovery and intellectual achievement in England.
Patron of the Arts
Elizabeth, simply through her personal support, is credited with saving the Anglican choral tradition, ornamental fashions, and most importantly--English theater. The Puritans, if they had had their way, would have abolished all of these. And indeed they tried. Elizabeth stood in their way. And she was the only one with the power to hold back their influence.
The Renaissance gave many gifts to western civilization—artists such as Michaelangelo, DaVinci and Raphael. England had its own jewels, but they didn’t work in paint or marble. Their medium was words. When Henry VIII allowed the Bible to be printed and read in English (at that time a heretical idea) he had no idea where that road would lead. It led to a culture of writers, scholars and enthusiastic lay readers who gave birth to nothing less than the modern English Language.
Shakespeare and the English Theater
Shakespeare's influence on the English language remains as strong today as it was in the 16th and 17th century. His cultural contirubtions are so vast, some historians refer to the Shakespearean Age, rather than the Elizabethan Age.
The first theaters began appearing in London during Elizabeth’s reign, and shortly thereafter the name Shakespeare became associated with them. Over the next half century they would battle poverty, plague and Puritans to not just survive, but to create the greatest Golden Age of theater since the Greeks. And they did so mainly because of their sovereign. Elizabeth was a fan.
Much as she saved the choral tradition in English church services, Elizabeth saved English theater. Protestant reformists disapproved of both and tried over and over, unsuccessfully, to have London’s theaters shut down. But Elizabeth, herself a Protestant, would have none of it. She didn’t like religious extremists and really didn’t like being told what to do. Besides, Elizabeth enjoyed the theater and often attended public performances, as well as private performances for her court. She went so far as to form her own theater troop, Queen Elizabeth’s Men.
Following their Queen’s example, many nobles, including Leicester, became patrons of their own theater groups. With such wealthy and committed sponsors, groups such as The Lord Admiral’s Company (associated with Marlowe) and The Lord Chamberlain’s Men (associated with Shakespeare) came into being. And playwrights such as Christopher Marlowe, William Shakespeare and Ben Jonson became men for the ages.
Patron of Explorations in the New World
The most famous sea captain of Elizabeth's reign, Sir Francis Drake was the first Englishman to circumnavigate the world. He was also instrumental in the victory over the Spanish Armada.
In the 16th century, a New World was literally being discovered and Elizabeth was determined to be a part of the exploration––and yes, profit––that came with colonies in the Americas.
In 1492, Columbus sailed on his famous mission to the New World. Isabella and Ferdinand of Spain—adversaries of Elizabeth’s grandfather Henry VII––were able to capitalize on his discovery, and began claiming the New World as their own. Over half a century and three Tudor reigns later, England and its monarch had begun to recognize the importance of expanding its empire to the New World.
Elizabeth, who had no expansionist desires in Europe, very much desired the unchristian lands of Columbus’s discovery. Natives or not, Europeans saw the new world as up for grabs. Elizabeth was not going to be left behind. She funded many of England’s expeditions to the America’s out of her own pocket. She took great personal risk to fund these explorations, and it paid off.
Elizabeth was a principal investor in Sir Francis Drake’s circumnavigation of the globe (Drake was the first Englishman to sail around the world). Parliament would have never signed off on such a foolhardy scheme, but Elizabeth knew great rewards came from great risks. When Drake returned three years later on the now named Golden Hind, the queen was presented with a tidy profit in spices, jewels, gold and other valuable items. In his book, Elizabeth The First, Queen of England, Neville Williams states that Elizabeth made a 4,800% return on her investment in Drake. Much of this was obtained by Drake’s privateering, i.e., plundering, of Spanish ships and foreign ports, a fact Elizabeth was willing to overlook for such a handsome profit.
Sir Walter Raleigh was the founder of the Virginia Colony, England’s first official settlement in the New World. While Raleigh’s ventures were less financially successful than Drake’s (he was a businessman and adventurer—but no privateer like Drake) he did establish the precedent for English expansion to the Americas.
These men, and others like them, brought their adventures and their stories home. They took their passion to court. They sparked English interest in a world beyond its borders. For a small island that had for so long been isolated in European affairs, and who by custom were a xenophobic culture, the dream of an expanding world was a great gift to the English imagination. Because of them, and Elizabeth’s support of their endeavors, England became an active force in mapping the new world.
The Last of the Tudors
As golden as Elizabeth’s reign seems from an historical perspective, all was not golden. Plague continually took its toll throughout her reign, and persistent bad harvests disrupted the food supply and trade. The truth is, many of Elizabeth’s subjects were sick, starving and homeless. Most of the people with whom she had begun her reign were gone. Cecil, Walsingham and Leicester––even Essex–– were now dead. Elizabeth was increasingly a lonely old lady at the head of a young court. The sentiment among many was, “Out with the old, and in with the new.” But there was still one problem.
Elizabeth was the last surviving heir named in Henry VIII’s will. She had produced no heir for England and she had consistently refused to name her successor. Elizabeth had a long memory and she remembered all too well how—as the named successor––she had been the focus of conspirator’s plots during her sister’s reign, and how quickly courtiers had abandoned her sister’s court and flocked to hers when Mary was battling her final illness. Elizabeth would not tolerate the same treatment. If England wanted a successor, they would have to find their own.
And so they did. Led by Robert Cecil (William’s son), the Privy Council held a series of secret correspondences with James VI of Scotland. James VI was the son of Mary Queen of Scots, the great-grandson of Margaret Tudor, Henry VIII’s older sister, and thereby a direct descendant of Henry VII. He had Tudor blood, he was Protestant, and he was a king. He offered a logical option for the English.
In the last months of Elizabeth’s life she slipped into a type of catatonic existence. Not ill so much as done. The Queen who had offered so much to England, and had during her reign often sacrificed her own happiness, comfort, and money for her people, in the end just quit. She passed away on March 24, 1603. After her last breath, her attendants slipped the royal ring off her finger, delivered it to a waiting messenger, who immediately began a rapid progress north. The ring was delivered to James VI of Scotland, and the Privy Council of Elizabeth I offered him the crown of England. He accepted, of course.
England and Scotland had been fighting over border issues and territorial claims for centuries, at the cost of hundreds of thousands of lives and countless financial losses. All these dead couldn’t bring peace between the two bordering countries. In the end, it only took one death, the death of a Queen, to unite them. James VI of Scotland became James I of England. The Tudor Dynasty had come to an end.