Elizabeth I

Elizabeth I – the last Tudor monarch – was born at Greenwich on 7 September 1533, the daughter of Henry VIII and his second wife, Anne Boleyn.

Her early life was full of uncertainties, and her chances of succeeding to the throne seemed very slight once her half-brother Edward was born in 1537. She was then third in line behind her Roman Catholic half-sister, Princess Mary. Roman Catholics, indeed, always considered her illegitimate and she only narrowly escaped execution in the wake of a failed rebellion against Queen Mary in 1554.

Elizabeth succeeded to the throne on her half-sister’s death in November 1558. She was very well-educated (fluent in five languages), and had inherited intelligence, determination and shrewdness from both parents.

Her 45-year reign is generally considered one of the most glorious in English history. During it a secure Church of England was established. Its doctrines were laid down in the 39 Articles of 1563, a compromise between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism.

Elizabeth herself refused to ‘make windows into men’s souls … there is only one Jesus Christ and all the rest is a dispute over trifles’; she asked for outward uniformity.

Most of her subjects accepted the compromise as the basis of their faith, and her church settlement probably saved England from religious wars like those which France suffered in the second half of the 16th century.

Although autocratic and capricious, Elizabeth had astute political judgement and chose her ministers well; these included William Cecil, later Lord Burghley (Secretary of State), Sir Christopher Hatton (Lord Chancellor) and Sir Francis Walsingham (in charge of intelligence and also a Secretary of State).

Overall, Elizabeth’s administration consisted of some 600 officials administering the great offices of state, and a similar number dealing with the Crown lands (which funded the administrative costs). Social and economic regulation and law and order remained in the hands of the sheriffs at local level, supported by unpaid justices of the peace.

Elizabeth’s reign also saw many brave voyages of discovery, including those of Francis Drake, Walter Raleigh and Humphrey Gilbert, particularly to the Americas. These expeditions prepared England for an age of colonisation and trade expansion, which Elizabeth herself recognised by establishing the East India Company in at the very end of 1599.

The arts flourished during Elizabeth’s reign. Country houses such as Longleat and Hardwick Hall were built, miniature painting reached its high point, theatres thrived – the Queen attended the first performance of Shakespeare’s ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’. Composers such as William Byrd and Thomas Tallis worked in Elizabeth’s court and at the Chapel Royal, St. James’s Palace.

The image of Elizabeth’s reign is one of triumph and success. The Queen herself was often called ‘Gloriana’, ‘Good Queen Bess’ and ‘The Virgin Queen’.

Investing in expensive clothes and jewellery (to look the part, like all contemporary sovereigns), she cultivated this image by touring the country in regional visits known as ‘progresses’, often riding on horseback rather than by carriage. Elizabeth made at least 25 progresses during her reign.

However, Elizabeth’s reign was one of considerable danger and difficulty for many, with threats of invasion from Spain through Ireland, and from France through Scotland. Much of northern England was in rebellion in 1569-70. A papal bull of 1570 specifically released Elizabeth’s subjects from their allegiance, and she passed harsh laws against Roman Catholics after plots against her life were discovered.

One such plot involved Mary, Queen of Scots, who had fled to England in 1568 after her second husband, Henry, Lord Darnley’s, murder and her subsequent marriage to a man believed to have been involved in his murder, James, Earl of Bothwell..

As a likely successor to Elizabeth, Mary spent 19 years as Elizabeth’s prisoner because Mary was the focus for rebellion and possible assassination plots, such as the Babington Plot of 1586.

Mary was also a temptation for potential invaders such as Philip II. In a letter of 1586 to Mary, Elizabeth wrote, ‘You have planned … to take my life and ruin my kingdom … I never proceeded so harshly against you.’ Despite Elizabeth’s reluctance to take drastic action, on the insistence of Parliament and her advisers, Mary was tried, found guilty and executed in 1587.

In 1588, aided by bad weather, the English navy scored a great victory over the Spanish invasion fleet of around 130 ships – the ‘Armada’. The Spanish Armada was intended to overthrow the Queen and re-establish Roman Catholicism by conquest, as Philip II believed he had a claim to the English throne through his marriage to Mary.

During Elizabeth’s long reign, the nation also suffered from high prices and severe economic depression, especially in the countryside, during the 1590s. The war against Spain was not very successful after the Armada had been beaten and, together with other campaigns, it was very costly.

Though she kept a tight rein on government expenditure, Elizabeth left large debts to her successor. Wars during Elizabeth’s reign are estimated to have cost over £5 million (at the prices of the time) which Crown revenues could not match – in 1588, for example, Elizabeth’s total annual revenue amounted to some £392,000.

Despite the combination of financial strains and prolonged war after 1588, Parliament was not summoned more often. There were only 16 sittings of the Commons during Elizabeth’s reign, five of which were in the period 1588-1601. Although Elizabeth freely used her power to veto legislation, she avoided confrontation and did not attempt to define Parliament’s constitutional position and rights.

Elizabeth chose never to marry. If she had chosen a foreign prince, he would have drawn England into foreign policies for his own advantages (as in her sister Mary’s marriage to Philip of Spain); marrying a fellow countryman could have drawn the Queen into factional infighting. Elizabeth used her marriage prospects as a political tool in foreign and domestic policies.

However, the ‘Virgin Queen’ was presented as a selfless woman who sacrificed personal happiness for the good of the nation, to which she was, in essence, ‘married’.
Late in her reign, she addressed Parliament in the so-called ‘Golden Speech’ of 1601 when she told MPs: ‘There is no jewel, be it of never so high a price, which I set before this jewel; I mean your love.’ She seems to have been very popular with the vast majority of her subjects.

Overall, Elizabeth’s always shrewd and, when necessary, decisive leadership brought successes during a period of great danger both at home and abroad. She died at Richmond Palace on 24 March 1603, having become a legend in her lifetime. The date of her accession was a national holiday for two hundred years.

Mary I

Mary I

The first queen to rule England in her own right, she was known as ‘Bloody Mary’ for her persecution of Protestants in a vain attempt to restore Catholicism in England.

Mary was born at Greenwich on 18 February 1516, the only surviving child of Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon. Her life was radically altered when Henry divorced Catherine to marry Anne Boleyn. He claimed that the marriage was incestuous and illegal, as Catherine had been married to his dead brother, Arthur. The pope disagreed, resulting in Henry’s break with Rome and the establishment of the Church of England.

Henry’s allegations of incest effectively bastardised Mary. After Anne Boleyn bore Henry another daughter, Elizabeth, Mary was forbidden access to her parents and stripped of her title of princess. Mary never saw her mother again. With Anne Boleyn’s fall, there was a chance of reconciliation between father and daughter, but Mary refused to recognise her father as head of the church. She eventually agreed to submit to her father and Mary returned to court and was given a household suitable to her position. She was named as heir to the throne after her younger brother Edward, born in 1537.

Edward VI succeeded his father in 1547 and, under the protectorate of the Duke of Northumberland, zealously promoted Protestantism. Mary, however, remained a devout Catholic. When it became clear that Edward was dying, Northumberland made plans for his daughter-in-law, Lady Jane Grey, to take the throne in Mary’s place.

On Edward’s death in 1553, Jane was briefly acclaimed queen. But Mary had widespread popular support and within days made a triumphal entry into London. Once queen, she was determined to re-impose Catholicism and marry Philip II of Spain. Neither policy was popular. Philip was Spanish and therefore distrusted, and many in England now had a vested interest in the prosperity of the Protestant church, having received church lands and money after Henry dissolved the monasteries.

In 1554, Mary crushed a rebellion led by Sir Thomas Wyatt. Making the most of her advantage, she married Philip, pressed on with the restoration of Catholicism and revived the laws against heresy. Over the next three years, hundreds of Protestants were burned at the stake. This provoked disillusionment with Mary, deepened by an unsuccessful war against France which led to the loss of Calais, England’s last possession in France, in January 1558. Childless, sick and deserted by Philip, Mary died on 17 November 1558. Her hopes for a Catholic England died with her.

Lady Jane Grey

Lady Jane Grey

Jane was nominal queen of England for just nine days in 1553, as part of an unsuccessful bid to prevent the accession of the Catholic Mary Tudor.

Jane was born in the autumn of 1537, the daughter of the Marquess of Dorset. Through her mother, Lady Frances Brandon, she was the great-granddaughter of Henry VII. At around the age of 10, Jane entered the household of Henry VIII’s last queen, Katherine Parr where she was exposed to a strongly Protestant, academic environment. Jane developed into an intelligent and pious woman.

In October 1551, her father was created duke of Suffolk and Jane began to appear at court. There, real power lay in the hands of the fiercely Protestant Duke of Northumberland, who acted as regent to the young king, Edward VI. In May 1553, Jane was married to Northumberland’s son, Lord Guildford Dudley.

It became clear that Edward was dying, and Northumberland was desperate to prevent the throne passing to Edward’s half-sister and heir, the Catholic Mary Tudor. Northumberland persuaded the king to declare Mary illegitimate, as well as Edward’s other half-sister Elizabeth, and alter the line of succession to pass to Jane.

Edward died on 6 July 1553. Four days later, Jane was proclaimed queen. However, Mary Tudor had widespread popular support and by mid-July, even Suffolk had abandoned his daughter and was attempting to save himself by proclaiming Mary queen. Northumberland’s supporters melted away and Suffolk easily persuaded his daughter to relinquish the crown.

Mary imprisoned Jane, her husband and her father in the Tower of London. While Suffolk was pardoned, Jane and her husband were tried for high treason in November 1553. Jane pleaded guilty and was sentenced to death. The carrying out of the sentence was suspended, but Suffolk’s support for Sir Thomas Wyatt’s rebellion in February 1554 sealed Jane’s fate. On 12 February, she and her husband were beheaded. Her father followed them two days later.

Edward VI

Edward VI

Edward was king of England for only a few years, and died at 15, but his short reign saw the full-scale introduction of Protestantism.

Edward was born on 12 October 1537 at Hampton Court Palace, the only legitimate son of Henry VIII. Henry’s desperation for a son had led him to divorce two wives, but Edward’s mother, Henry’s third wife Jane Seymour, died a few days after his birth. Edward was given a rigorous education and was intellectually precocious, although his health was never strong.

Edward became king at the age of nine, when his father died in January 1547. His father had arranged that a council of regency should rule on his behalf, but Edward’s uncle, Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset, took power and established himself as protector. Somerset and the archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer, were intent on making England a truly Protestant state, supported by the young king. An English Prayer Book was issued in 1549 with an Act of Uniformity to enforce it.

In the summer of 1549, peasants in the West Country revolted in protest against the Prayer Book. Kett’s Rebellion in Norfolk was focused on economic and social injustices. At the same time, the French declared war on England. The Norfolk rebellion was suppressed by John Dudley, Earl of Warwick. In the atmosphere of uncertainty, Dudley exploited his success by bringing about the downfall of Somerset, who was arrested and later executed. Although Dudley, later duke of Northumberland, never took the title of protector, this is the role he now assumed. Protestant reform was stepped up – the new Prayer Book of 1552 was avowedly Protestant. Altars were turned into tables, religious imagery destroyed and religious orthodoxy was enforced by a new and more stringent Act of Uniformity.

It soon became clear that Edward was suffering from tuberculosis and would not live long. Northumberland was determined that his religious reforms should not be undone, so he persuaded Edward to approve a new order of succession. This declared Mary illegitimate and passed the throne to Northumberland’s daughter-in-law, Lady Jane Grey, who was a more distant descendant of Henry VIII. Edward died on 6 July 1553. However, Jane was only queen for a few days until, with overwhelming popular support, Mary took the throne.

Henry VIII

Henry VIII

Henry, the second son of King Henry VII and Elizabeth of York, was born on 28 June 1491 at Greenwich Palace. After the death of his elder brother Arthur in 1502, Henry became heir to the English throne.

King of England

When Henry VII died in 1509, this popular eighteen-year-old prince, known for his love of hunting and dancing, became King Henry VIII. Soon after he obtained the papal dispensation required to allow him to marry his brother’s widow, Catherine of Aragon.

In the first years of his reign Henry VIII effectively relied on Thomas Wolsey to rule for him, and by 1515 Henry had elevated him to the highest role in government: Lord Chancellor.

In 1521 Pope Leo X conferred the title of Defender of the Faith on Henry for his book ‘Assertio Septem Sacramentorum’, which affirmed the supremacy of the Pope in the face of the reforming ideals of the German theologian, Martin Luther.

Military might

Henry VIII’s early military campaigns began when he joined Pope Julius II’s Holy League against France in 1511. Wolsey proved himself to be an outstanding minister in his organisation of the first French campaign and while the Scots saw this war as an opportunity to invade England, they were defeated at Flodden in 1513. However war with France ultimately proved expensive and unsuccessful.

Henry VIII is known as the ‘father of the Royal Navy.’ When he became king there were five royal warships. By his death he had built up a navy of around 50 ships. He refitted several vessels with the latest guns including the Mary Rose, which sank in 1545.

Henry also built the first naval dock in Britain at Portsmouth and in 1546 he established the Navy Board. This set up the administrative machinery for the control of the fleet.

A male heir

Henry was acutely aware of the importance of securing a male heir during his reign. He was worried that he had only one surviving child, Mary, to show for his marriage to Catherine, who was now in her 40s. So the king asked Cardinal Wolsey to appeal to Pope Clement VII for an annulment and it soon became clear he wanted to marry Anne Boleyn, who had been a lady-in-waiting to his first wife.

But, unwilling to anger Catherine of Aragon’s nephew – the most powerful ruler in Europe, the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V – the Pope refused. Thomas Wolsey’s ascendancy was cut short by this failure.

In 1533, Henry VIII broke with the church and married the now pregnant Anne Boleyn in a secret ceremony. Henry was excommunicated by the Pope. The English reformation had begun.

Head of the Church

After Wolsey’s downfall, Thomas Cromwell became Henry’s chief minister and earned the confidence of the King by helping him to break with Rome and establish Henry VIII as head of the Church of England. This act also brought him much needed wealth through the dissolution of the well-funded monasteries. Over four years Cromwell ordered that 800 monasteries be disbanded and their lands and treasures taken for the crown.

The cultural and social impact was significant, as much of the land was sold to the gentry and churches and monasteries were gutted and destroyed. Henry’s personal religious beliefs remained Catholic, despite the growing number of people at court and in the nation who had adopted Protestantism.

Anne Boleyn

In September 1533 Anne gave birth to a daughter, Elizabeth (the future Queen Elizabeth I). Henry had grown tired of her, and after two further pregnancies ended in miscarriages, she was arrested in 1536 on trumped up charges of adultery and publicly beheaded at the Tower of London.

Henry’s third marriage, this time to lady-in-waiting, Jane Seymour, finally produced the son he so desperately desired with the birth of Edward in 1537. Jane Seymour died after childbirth and Henry ordered that she be granted a queen’s funeral.

In an attempt to establish ties with the German Protestant alliance, Thomas Cromwell arranged a marriage between the king and German princess Anne of Cleves. The marriage was a disaster and Henry divorced Anne a few months later. Henry blamed Cromwell for this mismatch and soon afterwards had him executed for treason.

Final Years

The final years of his reign witnessed Henry VIII’s physical decline and an increasing desire to appear all-powerful. Henry continued with fruitless and expensive campaigns against Scotland and France.

In 1540, the aging King married the teenage Catherine Howard. Their marriage was short lived. It was alleged that she had a previous relationship with Henry’s courtier Francis Dereham and an affair with another courtier Thomas Culpeper. Catherine was executed for adultery and treason in 1542.

Henry’s final marriage to Catherine Parr, who acted like a nurse, was more harmonious and she would go on to outlive him.

Henry VIII died on 28 January 1547 and was succeeded by his son, Edward VI. He was buried next to Jane Seymour in St. George’s Chapel at Windsor Castle.

Henry VII

Henry VII

Henry Tudor was born on 28 January 1457 in Pembroke, Wales. His father, Edmund Tudor, had died two months earlier and his mother, Margaret Beaufort, was just thirteen.

Henry was born into a country divided by conflict. He belonged to one branch of the Plantagenet Royal Family, the House of Lancaster, who were fighting another branch, the House of York, for control of the throne – the so-called Wars of the Roses. Henry’s mother Margaret was a descendant of Edward III, which gave Henry a real, although tenuous, claim to the throne.

Mindful of Henry’s vulnerability, Margaret entrusted her son to the care of his uncle, Jasper Tudor. When Henry was 14, Edward IV won power for the House of York in the Battle of Tewkesbury. Many Lancastrians died or were executed as a result of the battle. Jasper fled with Henry to France.

Claim to the English Throne

Edward IV died in 1483, leaving his wife, Elizabeth Woodville (the ‘White Queen’) a widow. His brother Richard usurped the throne from his 12-year-old nephew Edward V, making himself Richard III. Henry was now the leading Lancastrian claimant to the English crown, and saw his support grow. He promised his supporters that if he became king he would marry Edward IV’s daughter, Elizabeth of York; a move that would unite the warring houses of York and Lancaster, the opposing sides in the Wars of the Roses.

The Battle of Bosworth

In 1485, Henry landed at Milford Haven. He marched across Wales and England to meet Richard III’s forces at the Battle of Bosworth Field in Leicestershire. In the battle Richard III was killed and Henry was crowned King Henry VII at the top of Crown Hill, near the village of Stoke Golding.

Having secured parliamentary recognition of his title as King of England he married Elizabeth of York thus uniting the House of Lancaster and the House of York. He adopted the Tudor rose as the emblem of England, combining the white rose of York with the red rose of Lancaster to symbolise an end to the dynastic war.

Consolidated Power

Henry VII’s grip on power was far from secure. His claim to the throne was shaky and he was plagued by plots and conspiracies. He consolidated his position with a treaty with France that opened up trade between the two countries. His most important treaty was the ‘Magnus Intercursus’ or ‘Great Intercourse’, signed with the Netherlands, securing England’s textile exports.

In 1503 he arranged the marriage of his daughter, Margaret Tudor, to James IV of Scotland in order to secure peace between the two countries. The marriage meant that James IV’s descendants would have a claim to the English throne.

Henry also secured a marriage between his eldest son, Arthur, and the Spanish princess, Catherine of Aragon, in 1501. But in 1502 the 15-year-old Arthur Tudor died suddenly at Ludlow Castle, leaving Catherine a widow and making his younger brother, Henry, the new heir to the throne. It was suggested that Catherine should marry the young Henry instead, but this wasn’t agreed upon during Henry VII’s lifetime due to wrangling over Catherine’s dowry.

Tudor State

Henry VII rebuilt the royal finances by avoiding war, promoting trade and enforcing royal taxes to the point of ruthlessness. This meant he was able to leave a fortune to his son, the future Henry VIII.

Henry VII began the work of building a modern administration. The Royal Council was reborn as the Court of Star Chamber, set up to deal with judicial matters. Arrangements were made to promote better order in Wales and the north through the creation of special councils and more powers were entrusted to the justices of the peace.

The combined impact of Henry VII’s reforms would increase significantly the power of the King and open the way for medieval rule, with its local law and customs, to be gradually supplanted by a more centralised Tudor state.


Henry VII died of tuberculosis on 21 April 1509 and was buried at Westminster Abbey. He left a safe throne, a solvent government and a prosperous and reasonably united country. Henry VII was succeeded by his second son, Henry VIII.

Elizabeth’s Last Years

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Entering her final years, Elizabeth remained as popular as ever. Indeed, after 1588, most of Europe regarded the once-mocked queen with profound awe. She became associated with supernatural imagery, especially that of Diana, the Virgin Huntress. However, while old age brought her reverence, it also brought loneliness: Elizabeth outlived all of her advisors and friends. Robert Devereaux (Earl of Essex) and the stepson of the late Leicester attempted to win the favor once bestowed on deceased ministers. Essex was clearly one of the Queen’s favorites; he was related to Leicester and a minor war hero as well, having led battles against the Spanish at Cadiz. His enemies included Burleigh’s son Robert Cecil, as well as Walter Raleigh.

In 1598, when an Irish earl rose up against an English deputy, Elizabeth selected Essex to command the force that would go to Ireland and discipline the rebellious earl. In Ireland, Essex refused to follow the orders to attack immediately, instead choosing to wait. Ultimately, his mission failed. On his return, the disgraced Essex was not even allowed into the Queen’s presence. Yet the fall from favorite to outcast was too much to bear, and he attempted to raise a rebellion. Quickly thwarted in his effort, Essex was captured and then executed on February 25, 1601.

Although Elizabeth had always tolerated religious difference under her reign, in her late years she became very fearful of a conspiracy against her led by Jesuits (an order of Catholic priests). Thus, outside of the law courts, Elizabeth initiated a private hunt for Catholic conspirators, naming Richard Topcliffe as chief of the operation. Topcliffe proved particularly cruel, and this period marked the one period of Catholic persecution under Elizabeth. Eventually, however, she decided this measure had been a mistake, and became angry at the Privy Council, which, she became convinced, had tricked her into initiating the Jesuit hunt.

Near the end of Elizabeth’s life, England’s economy started to go downhill. The many years of prosperity had led to rapid inflation, and Elizabeth, though always stingy and thrifty, nonetheless started losing money as her royal funds ran low. She was forced to sell some property, and Parliament had to appropriate new funds in 1601. Yet through it all, Elizabeth continued to worry about the welfare of her people, maintaining a profound sense of duty. When several of the monopolies she had earlier granted began to be abused, she responded by revoking them in the interest of the people. Elizabeth continued to reign with the people of England as her first consideration. Addressing her people, the elderly Queen said that “Though God hath raised me high” she considered it her greatest happiness and glory to have “reigned with your loves.”

The crucial question persisted, however, of who would succeed Elizabeth. In March of 1603, Elizabeth contracted a bad cold. Knowing she would not live long, the Queen signed a document the day before she died making King James I of Scotland the rightful heir, even though he was the son of her nemesis, Mary Queen of Scots: Elizabeth would not sacrifice the well-being of the country for the sake of her personal grudges. Although the Stuarts would rule in such a way as to create instability for England, Elizabeth’s action ensured a peaceful succession process. Her duty completed, Elizabeth died at Richmond Palace in London on March 24, 1603.

Elizabethan Literature

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England prospered in the second half of Elizabeth’s reign, and many of the great works of English literature were produced during these years: art, poetry, drama, and learning in general flourished as the confidence and nationalism Elizabeth inspired spilled from the economic sector to cultural achievements. Elizabeth’s reign saw playwrights like Christopher Marlowe, poets like Edmund Spenser, and men of science and letters like Francis Bacon. The era also saw the beginning of William Shakespeare’s work. Many of the writers, thinkers and artists of the day enjoyed the patronage of members of Elizabeth’s court, and their works often involved or referred to the great Queen; indeed, she was the symbol of the day. The “Elizabethan Age,” generally considered one of golden ages in English literature, was thus appropriately named: these cultural achievements did not just happen to be created while Elizabeth was on the throne; rather, Elizabeth’s specific actions, her image, and the court atmosphere she nurtured significantly influenced–even inspired–great works of literature.

From the beginning of her reign, Elizabeth was always a major patron of the stage, and drama flourished under her support. In the 1560s, the first blank verse tragedies appeared, ultimately giving rise to an art form that remains heavily studied today. In 1562, one of the earliest of these blank verse plays, Gorboduc, was performed for the Queen.

Initially, a certain amount of class conflict arose over the production of plays, as the puritanical Elizabethan middle class tried to shut down the London theaters on the basis of their “immorality.” Thus, under major pressure, the Mayor of London attempted to close all of the city’s theaters in 1580. The Privy Council, citing Elizabeth’s fondness for plays, prevented this measure from taking place, although they did allow the crowded theaters to be shut down in times of epidemics. Elizabeth, who liked to invite theater companies to her palaces, was against shutting down the theaters because she wanted them to have fully practiced their plays before bringing them to her. As a result, plays became more socially respectable, and by the 1570s and 1580s, exclusive boys’ schools like St. Paul’s and Merchant Taylor’s integrated the performance of both English and Latin plays into their curriculum, initiating the custom of the school play. The Queen even watched some of these school plays herself. In 1595, Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream was performed at Greenwich palace during the marriage celebration of Burleigh’s granddaughter. The play contained several references to Elizabeth and her court, especially to the water-pageant Leicester had put on for Elizabeth at Kenilworth Castle in 1575. Then at Christmastime while Essex was gone on the campaign in Ireland, Elizabeth saw a performance of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night.

Elizabeth herself was known for being a very good dancer and a particularly talented musician. Although she only played for her closest friends, she spent considerable time perfecting her renditions of several of the more difficult pieces of the day. Once her practicing was overheard by an envoy from Mary Queen of Scots who, much to Elizabeth’s pleasure, admitted that Mary Stuart, though “good for a Queen”, was not nearly the musician Elizabeth was.

Edmund Spenser, whose patron was none other than Leicester himself, often drew from the lives of the big celebrities of the day as subject matter for his poems. In a 1579 poem, for instance, he subtly hints at Leicester’s secret marriage to Elizabeth’s cousin, Lettice Knollys. Spenser’s famous Faerie Queene contains multiple references to Elizabeth, who appears allegorically as several characters, including the Faerie Queene herself. Other international figures, including Philip II, Alencon, Mary Queen of Scots, and Leicester are represented as well.

Against the Spanish Armada

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By the 1580s, Elizabeth had fallen into definite disfavor with Philip II of Spain. Not only was she a Protestant, not only had she refused his marriage proposals years before, she had also sent Leicester to the Netherlands to fight the Spanish in 1585. Moreover, she had covertly supported Sir Francis Drake’s attacks on Spanish treasure galleons returning from the New World; in September 1580, Drake had returned from sailing around the world with a cargo of Spanish gold, worth 1.5 million ducats, raided from galleons in the New World. When Elizabeth killed off her Catholic rival Mary Queen of Scots, Philip lost his patience. Personally angered and wanting England for himself, decided in 1587 that the time was ripe for an invasion of England.

Philip was readying the Spanish Armada when Drake led a raid on the armada at Cadiz in April 1587. This attack took the Spanish entirely by surprise, and Drake’s maneuver set back the Spanish invasion by about a year. Drake also managed to steal some Spanish treasure in his raid. In July 1588, Philip finally managed to launch the supposedly invincible Spanish Armada. His hope was to swing the fleet by the Netherlands, pick up his army there, and transport them across the English Channel for a ground invasion.

England’s competent navy, helped by a fortuitous wind (referred to as the “Protestant Wind”), managed to defeat the Armada, forcing Philip’s remaining ships into the North Sea, where they then destroyed much of Spain’s remaining military might. On July 28, England defeated Spain in a decisive battle, preventing the Spanish from landing in England. Fleeing north, the Armada was wracked by storms. Of the 30,000 Spanish soldiers Philip had sent to invade, only 10,000 survived.

Meanwhile, Britain’s army prepared for battle on land, assuming that the “Invincible” Armada would be able to land Philip’s troops. To inspire the troops at Tilbury, Elizabeth made one of the most famous speeches of her career. She said, “I have but the body of a weak and feeble woman, but I have the heart and stomach of a king… and think foul scorn that any Prince in Europe should dare to invade the borders of my realm.” Yet there was no need of land battles, and on November 24, 1588, the nation celebrated a national day of Thanksgiving for its victory over Spain.

Conflict with Mary Queen of Scots

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Mary Stuart, best known as Mary Queen of Scots, was the Catholic heiress to Scotland’s throne. While not mentioned in Henry VIII’s succession will, the strikingly beautiful princess was related to the Tudor line and had some claim to the throne. Although most English Catholics recognized Elizabeth’s rule, the Catholic world officially denied the legality of Henry VIII’s marriage to Ann Boleyn, since they did not recognize the annulment of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon. Under the Catholic interpretation, this made Elizabeth illegitimate and unfit to rule. If Elizabeth was not correctly qualified by lineage to rule England, Mary Queen of Scots, conveniently a Catholic, had one of the strongest claims. Catholics throughout Europe, including some in England, believed that Mary was the true heir to the English crown. In 1580, Pope Gregory XIII announced that killing Elizabeth would not count as a sin–nor would the murder of William the Silent, a leader of the Dutch resistance against the Spanish. When William was indeed killed in 1584, Elizabeth and her advisors became increasingly fearful.

Mary Queen of Scots was married to Francis II, the King of France, who died in 1561. At this time, the widowed Queen returned to Scotland with vague hopes of taking the English throne by a coup. In 1567, Mary’s subjects assassinated her husband Darnley. Following that, she married another unpopular man named Bothwell. Soon, in 1568, the Scots drove Mary out of power. Elizabeth, along with all of the rest of Europe’s rulers, was horrified at the idea that the common people might revolt against their ruler. Elizabeth, fearing that Mary might go abroad and raise an army, and also afraid that the people of Scotland might lock her up, acted quickly to imprison her nemesis in Lochleven Castle, from which Mary successfully plotted her escape. Several plots against Elizabeth were discovered in the following years: the Ridolfi Plot (1571), the Duke de Guise Plot (1582), and the Babington Plot (1586). All of these failed plots hoped to assassinate Elizabeth and wanted the Spanish Army, which Philip II had then sent to suppress Protestants in the Netherlands, to invade England.

In 1584, Parliament required all English men to sign the Bond of Association, by which they promised to help hunt down anyone who killed Elizabeth. In 1585, Parliament then passed the Act for the Preservation of the Queen’s Safety. In October of 1586, Mary Queen of Scots was found guilty of complicity in the Babington Plot to overthrow the Queen. Elizabeth signed Mary’s death warrant, and Walsingham and Burleigh rushed her execution through without waiting to hear more from Elizabeth. On February 8, 1587, stoically facing her death, Mary Queen of Scots was executed.