seen as one of England's greatest monarchs - if not in fact the
Her reign witnessed widespread increase in literacy and great
achievements in the arts (Shakespeare,
Ralegh) as well
as expansion overseas (Drake,
Frobisher) and military
victory over threatened invasion.
Elizabeth herself was regarded as wise and just, able to choose good
advisers yet not be dominated by them and to handle recalcitrant
Parliaments without despotism; a ruler supremely skilled at compromise
in both the religious and political spheres.
In recent years, however, interpretations of Elizabeth and her reign
have been less favorable.
[Particular Elizabethan topics are dealt with in the next five
Since Elizabeth reigned for forty-five
years, her reign is best considered in separate phases.
Elizabeth is often favorably contrasted
with Mary I, but Elizabeth was lucky to live so much longer than her
almost died from smallpox in 1562, and had she done so, civil war
(between the Protestant supporters of
Catherine Grey and
the Catholic supporters of
Mary, Queen of
Scots) might well have followed.
Elizabeth nearly died from smallpox, many of her advisers thought that
she should marry and produce an heir as soon as possible. In fact,
although Elizabeth entered into marriage negotiations with various
foreign princes and flirted with some of her own subjects, she was
never to marry.
early years saw other problems, in particular, the wars in Scotland
and France inherited from Mary.
English support for the successful Scottish Protestant rebellion of
1560 led by John Knox, combined
with the outbreak in 1562 of the French Wars of Religion
diminished both threats.
Unlike her bellicose father, Elizabeth
made peace as soon as possible and tried to stay out of expensive
wars; she even attempted to maintain peaceful relations with Spain
(although she drew the line at marrying Philip as he proposed).
Elizabeth adopted a moderate religious
policy. The Acts of Supremacy and Uniformity (1559), the Prayer Book
of 1559, and the Thirty-Nine Articles (1563) were all Protestant in
doctrine, but preserved many traditionally Catholic ceremonies.
Moreover, Elizabeth did not persecute Catholics - the penalties for
recusancy were mild and often not enforced.
The Scottish rebellion of 1560
deprived Mary, Queen of Scots of effective power, but she never
accepted this and plotted to regain full authority.
the English crown. Roman Catholics regarded Elizabeth as a bastard
(never recognizing the divorce of Henry VIII from Katherine of Aragon
or the legitimacy of his marriage to Anne Boleyn). To strengthen her
claim, in 1565 Mary married
Henry Stuart, Lord
Darnley. Darnley was an alcoholic, capricious playboy, but he was
the son of Margaret Douglas and therefore the grandson of Henry VII's
eldest daughter, Margaret Tudor.
Darnley was a
liability and Mary excluded him from influence, making her Italian
Catholic secretary, David Riccio into her main counselor.
Darnley conspired with the Protestant Lords to murder Riccio in 1566.
Darnley himself was murdered (possibly with Mary's approval); and Mary
then married the adventurer,
James Hepburn, Earl of Bothwell,
who had probably organized Darnley's homicide. The outraged Scottish
nobility rose again, defeated Mary and Bothwell in battle and forced
her to abdicate in favor of her infant son,
Mary fled to
England (1568) where she became the focus of English Catholic plots to depose
Elizabeth. Thomas Howard, 4th Duke of Norfolk, toyed with the idea of
marrying Mary and was sent to the Tower of London.
In 1569, the earls
of Westmorland and Northumberland led the Revolt of
the Northern Earls, aimed at restoring Catholicism and placing
Mary on the throne in place of Elizabeth. The rebellion was
|" … Elizabeth, the
pretended queen of England and the servant of crime … with whom
as in a sanctuary the most pernicious of all have found refuge …
She has followed and embraced the errors of the heretics … We
declare her to be deprived of her pretended title to the crown …
We charge and command all and singular the nobles, subjects,
peoples … that they do not dare obey her orders, mandates and
From Regnans in
Excelsis, the papal bull deposing Elizabeth, 1570.
Pope Pius V heard of the revolt
and (having despaired of Elizabeth restoring Catholicism) decided to
help the rebels by deposing Elizabeth.
In fact the bull of deposition, Regnans in Excelsis did not arrive until after the Revolt's
suppression and served only to anger Elizabeth and increase her
distrust of Catholics.
The view that
all Roman Catholics were potential traitors led to a series of
measures against them from 1570 onwards: Roman Catholic judges
and Justices of the Peace were excluded from power, and it became
increasingly dangerous to shelter priests.
deterioration of relations with the Papacy went along with increasing
tension with the "most Catholic" king of Spain, Philip II.
Philip II was
faced with the
rebellion in the Netherlands: Calvinist beliefs had
spread in its northern provinces, and even the Catholic South feared
that Philip would suppress local autonomy.
In 1567, Philip sent an army there to prevent an uprising, but
Elizabeth was afraid that the army would be used against England. In
1568, she seized a shipment of bullion sent by Genoese bankers to pay
the Spanish troops garrisoned in the Netherlands. Philip was furious,
particularly as he was also suffering losses in the New World from
full-scale revolt broke out in the Netherlands, and Elizabeth sent
them help in the form of money and supplies. (No English soldiers were
sent until 1585).
retaliation, Philip helped William Allen to establish a
seminary for training English priests at Douai in the
Netherlands. These priests began arriving in England from about 1574
feeling contributed to the growth of radical Puritanism. Many
Protestants objected to the traditional ceremonies retained in the
Church of England's worship. When Elizabeth and her bishops insisted
that these rituals be observed, some puritans took their opposition
further and adopted
Presbyterian views. Led by
Thomas Cartwright, these Presbyterians wanted the church to
be run by synods of clergy and elected laymen (as in Geneva and
Scotland). Presbyterianism posed a serious threat to Elizabeth's
control of the church.
Invasion and recession
From the moment of her
arrival in England, Mary Queen of Scots schemed not only for her
restoration to the throne of Scotland, but to seize the English
crown. In 1586,
Sir Francis Walsingham finally
obtained compelling evidence that Mary had encouraged the
assassination of Elizabeth, and Elizabeth reluctantly agreed to
Mary was the obvious Catholic
candidate to rival Elizabeth, but after her death Philip II of Spain
was able to launch a (barely) plausible case for the claim of his
daughter, Isabella. (She was descended from Edward III through the
marriage of John of Gaunt to
Constanza of Castile).
In 1588, Philip sent an Armada
to the English Channel. This fleet of ships was to mount an invasion
of England with the Spanish troops stationed in the Netherlands. The
English navy (with some help from the weather) were able to defeat
Spanish Armada and prevent invasion. The English defeated
further attempts at invasion in 1596 and 1597.
Philip II also assisted the Irish in
their intermittent rebellions against the English, while Elizabeth
helped the Netherlands resist Spain.
By 1603, the Northern largely Protestant provinces of the
Netherlands had obtained de facto independence from Spain.
it was necessary to maintain Protestant unity in the face of the
Catholic menace, but when this threat diminished Elizabeth was able to
turn against the seditious elements within the English Church.
John Whitgift (1530?-1603) and Richard Bancroft, Bishop of London
(1544-1610) launched a propaganda campaign against the Presbyterians.
Key puritan leaders such as Thomas Cartwright, Nicholas Udal, and
John Penry were silenced and imprisoned. By the 1590s, the
Presbyterian movement was in complete disarray.
reign of Elizabeth, England controlled only a small area of Ireland
around Dublin, known as The Pale. The use of Ireland as a base
by Spain forced England to take more active measures. Between 1593 and
1603 there was full-scale war in Ireland as England brought the whole
country under its control. The campaign was successful but very
expensive, and also provoked a nationalist and Roman Catholic
taxes required for the Irish campaign combined with an economic crisis
between 1594 and 1597. Bad weather and poor harvests led to the
highest food prices of the sixteenth century and even to famine.
her reign, Elizabeth had balanced at court and in council the various
political factions. But her final years saw increasingly bitter
conflict between the Cecils (William and his son Robert) and
Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex. Essex was appointed Lord
Lieutenant of Ireland in 1599 and placed in charge of a large English
army to suppress Irish rebels. Instead, Essex signed an unauthorized
truce with the Earl of Tyrone - the greatest rebel. Elizabeth deprived
Essex of his titles and ordered his arrest. He responded by attempting
a coup against Elizabeth in January 1601.
Famously on the eve of his
rebellion, Essex's followers arranged a special performance
of Shakespeare's Richard II, hoping that the play about the
deposition of a monarch often associated with Elizabeth, would
arouse support for their own scheme.
The coup was
a complete failure, and he was executed for treason in February.
The Cecil faction remained dominant not only until Elizabeth's death
in 1603, but even thereafter, as Sir Robert Cecil made a smooth
transition to being the main adviser of James VI & I.