The roots of modern Britain
Somehow, Elizabethan England has a very different atmosphere to any previous period in British history. Queen Elizabeth I succeeded to the throne on the death of her elder Catholic half-sister ‘Bloody’ Mary in 1558. She was twenty-five. Her 45 year rule is popularly seen as heralding a new age for England and she has been described as one of the country’s greatest monarchs. The Elizabethan age witnessed the exploration of the New World, war with maritime rivals such as Spain (including an attempted invasion), Europe’s introduction to hitherto unknown species and consumables, such as turkeys, tobacco and potatoes – and the beginnings of the British Empire. The British East India Company received its charter from Elizabeth in 1600; its influence on future British control in India was profound. Shakespeare, arguably England’s greatest playwright, was in his ascendancy during the latter part of Elizabeth’s reign. And the Queen’s refusal to marry and the consequent lack of a Tudor heir, whether by fate or design, paved the way for the unification of the crowns of England and Scotland.
Elizabeth was Henry VIII’s second daughter; her mother was Anne Boleyn. After the death of her young half-brother, Edward VI, Elizabeth became a potential magnet for Protestant supporters and did well to survive during Mary’s brutal attempt to restore England to Catholicism. She inherited a country torn by religious faction. Whilst re-establishing the Church of England, Elizabeth set out to follow what could be described as a moderate Protestant line. Initially, she tried to steer clear of religious wars that were tearing neighbouring countries apart. Though suspicions of Catholic intentions remained, and these undoubtedly influenced decision-making, the extremes of general religious intolerance that had been a hallmark of the three previous reigns should have gradually disappeared.
The Acts of Supremacy and Uniformity in 1559 confirmed Elizabeth as Supreme Head of the Church of England and re-established a Protestant Common Prayer Book. Fines could be imposed on those who failed to attend services at their parish church. As during the time of Henry VIII, holders of public office were required to swear an oath of loyalty to the Sovereign as head of the Church. Clearly, none of this was acceptable to a true Catholic, but Elizabeth was not overly bothered about people’s private beliefs, provided they were loyal to her; and most Catholics did enough to stay out of trouble.
However, many Catholics regarded Elizabeth as a bastard who should not be sitting on England’s throne at all, and the Queen spent much of her reign in danger. The focus of Catholic plots against Elizabeth, and there were several, was her Catholic cousin, Mary, Queen of Scots. Mary was one of the stars of the age. Queen of Scotland at six days old, she was raised at the French court, married to the dauphin (heir to the French throne) at fifteen and, when his father died the following year, in 1559, she became Queen of France too. She was also Henry VII’s great-granddaughter and, as such, had a strong claim to the throne of England. Things could have turned out so very differently. The early death of her husband precipitated a return to her homeland in 1561, which she found divided over religion. The Reformation did not arrive in Scotland at the behest of the monarch, as it had in England, but through the actions of zealous reformers like George Wishart and his disciple, the radical Calvinist John Knox. Protestant pressure and Mary’s chaotic personal life culminated in her being deposed in 1567 in favour of her infant son, James, by her second husband, her cousin, Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley. Imprisonment in Loch Leven Castle followed and, following her dramatic escape from captivity in 1568 and the subsequent defeat of her forces at the Battle of Langside in Glasgow, Mary sought refuge in England. Elizabeth had held her captive, albeit in relative comfort and allowing her the dignity of a queen, in a succession of fortresses for the next nineteen years. During that time, the idea of Mary grabbing the throne of England became an objective for disgruntled Catholic plotters.
Catholicism was more entrenched in the north of England and a rebellion there in 1569, the so-called ‘Revolt of the Northern Earls’, was one unsuccessful attempt to replace Elizabeth with Mary. The tension ratcheted up even more in 1570 when the Pope issued a bull – a decree – Regnans in Exclesis, which excommunicated Elizabeth, declared her a heretic and released her Catholic subjects from any allegiance to her; he effectively declared open season on Elizabeth. This was catastrophic for English Catholics, since it turned them all into potential traitors – particularly as England’s No 1 Enemy by this time was Catholic Spain, ruled by King Philip II – who had married Elizabeth’s predecessor and half-sister Mary, and who might have once considered himself King of England. In 1586, Elizabeth’s spymaster, Francis Walsingham, uncovered another plot, the Babington Plot, to exchange an assassinated Elizabeth for the Scottish queen, which unquestionably implicated Mary. Elizabeth was eventually persuaded to sign the warrant for her cousin’s execution, which was carried out – allegedly without Elizabeth’s reluctant final permission – at Fotheringhay Castle on 8 February 1587.
Attitudes toward Catholics understandably hardened after 1570, particularly with the arrival in England of specially trained, highly educated, missionary priests who were dedicated to replacing the Church of England with Roman Catholicism. Such priests were deemed guilty of treason. The penalties for hearing Mass or not attending church were increased. The priests, and anyone sheltering them, could suffer extreme penalties. Although, fortunately, Elizabeth refused to be panicked into believing that all English Catholics were traitors, many priests and laymen were grimly executed.
Christopher Columbus’ trip to what he misnamed the West Indies in 1492 had encouraged great interest in the Americas by the primary maritime powers – Spain, Portugal, France – and England. The potential for wealth and power was clear and ‘Good Queen Bess’ encouraged explorers and adventurers such as Richard Grenville, John Hawkins, Walter Raleigh and Francis Drake. Beyond these shores, they were often regarded as pirates; maybe so – but they were our pirates! It was all very heroic, were it not for the eternal blemish on the reputations of many of the remarkable men involved, including Sir Francis Drake, for their involvement in founding the slave trade in America. West Africans were abducted, usually with the connivance of local chiefs, and shipped to the New World where they were sold to settlers of all nations.
Amongst Drake’s more worthy achievements was the part he played in the defeat of the Spanish Armada. To put this in context, the purpose of the Armada, sponsored by our friend King Philip, was to invade, topple the heretic queen Elizabeth and conquer England. The invasion had been expected. In 1587, Drake had sailed into Cadiz harbour and destroyed a good part of Spain’s navy, declaring that he had “singed the King of Spain’s beard”. But this merely delayed the inevitable and, by July 1588, Philip had replenished his fleet. Some 150 ships and 26,000 men set sail for England via the Netherlands, where they were to be joined by 30,000 more soldiers. However, that rendezvous never took place. Harried by the smaller and more manoeuvrable English ships, outclassed in terms of leadership, hampered by poor communications and finally the victims of appalling weather and heavy seas, which claimed most of the Spanish fleet, the attempted invasion failed and an estimated 20,000 Spaniards lost their lives. It was one of the greatest English victories in history and a primary reason why bull fighting never caught on in Neasden. At Tilbury, Elizabeth told troops assembled to repel the invasion, “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”.
Much has been written about Elizabeth’s refusal to marry, despite being under considerable pressure from her advisors to do so – in order to secure the succession with an heir. She is said to have been a passionate woman, loved the attention of young men and had several favourites – not least Robert Dudley, who she created 1st Earl of Leicester and whose last letter she kept until her death. Perhaps Elizabeth knew better than anyone, though: a husband, whether English or foreign, would risk upsetting one faction or another, or becoming embroiled in overseas entanglements that England could ill-afford.
In any event, Elizabeth died after catching a chill, childless, at Richmond Palace in 1603. It was the end of the Tudors. At the age of 36 her cousin, King James VI of Scotland, additionally became King James I of England. James had supported Elizabeth against France and Spain. He was Mary Queen of Scots’ son and the great-great grandson of Henry VII; the thrones of England and Scotland were finally joined – but the states remained separate.