‘She is certainly a great Queen and were she only a Catholic she would be our dearly beloved. Just look how well she governs! She is only a woman, only mistress of half an island, and yet she makes herself feared by Spain, by France, by the Empire, by all…. Our children would have ruled the whole world.’ Pope Sixtus V describes Elizabeth, c1588
When news of the execution of Mary, queen of Scots reached Europe, it gave Philip II of Spain yet another reason to look askance at his former sister-in-law. English harassment of Spanish shipping and their support of rebellions against his rule had long angered him. He had tried diplomacy; it had been successful enough until Elizabeth’s Protestant councilors grew suspicious of his motives and angry over his treatment of continental Protestants. After diplomacy came a gradual cooling between the countries; Philip even tried his hand at encouraging Irish rebellions against Elizabeth. And Philip grew increasingly pious as the years passed, and thus more inclined to take the excommunication of 1570 more seriously.
Serious consequences were avoided for the first thirty years of Elizabeth’s rule due to her own prevarication and Philip’s more pressing problems. But as the 1580s began, it was clear that something must give. Philip could no longer afford the blatant piracy of the English, publicly disavowed but privately approved by Elizabeth (who always received the largest share of profits.) She had even gone so far as to knight her greatest pirate, Sir Francis Drake, in 1581. Four years later, the English openly supported the Netherlands when it revolted against Philip, a dangerous but popular policy for Elizabeth. Furthermore, Philip had long claimed the throne of Portugal but had only recently seized it by force of arms. If he wished to maintain control, he needed to defend the rich and wide-ranging Portuguese colonies.
Philip also needed to end the Protestant menace to Europe. He supported plans to free Mary, queen of Scots and place her on the English throne. His ambassador Mendoza had been peripherally involved in the Babington Plot and was expelled from England as a result. Many of Elizabeth’s councilors, most importantly the influential Robert Dudley, had advocated a tougher approach to Spanish meddling. But always the queen, mindful of her treasury and always desiring peace, had held back. She would send a few troops and some money, but little else. Philip, however, had less love of peace and a more pressing piety. England would be brought back into the Catholic fold, as the pope had commanded in 1570. The execution of Mary, queen of Scots in early 1587 gave him added impetus to act. The English had sought to publicize Mary’s various crimes, but most Europeans, even the Scots who had applauded her overthrow years ago, preferred the more tragic image of an innocent queen trapped by Elizabeth’s wily councilors.
Philip spent much of 1587 finally preparing his long-rumored ‘Armada’ against England. While Elizabeth’s council had long warned her of this possibility, Philip’s own advisors believed he could ill afford this new battle. The Spanish fleet and army had fought too long and hard over the years. They comprised the largest and best-prepared army and navy in the world; they had been successful against the Turks, had watched their traditional enemy, France, succumb to internal religious turmoil, had seized Portugal, and fought throughout the Low Countries. But victories could be as tiresome and expensive as defeats. Morale was low and leadership was lacking.
Philip’s advisors consistently stressed the expense of the proposed battle. But for the king, expenses were driving him to fight. He needed to stop the English from seizing Spanish ships filled with precious coin and goods. Each loss was a further blow to a nearly empty treasury. There was no better time to fight than now, he declared, for the murder of Mary Stuart had at last united European opinion against Elizabeth. In July 1587, he received official approval from the pope for the invasion, provided England returned to Catholicism. The pope even agreed to allow Philip to choose the next English ruler. It would in all likelihood be the Spanish king himself for he claimed descent from the famous Edward III.
As further impetus to Philip, even as he negotiated approval of the invasion with the pope, Drake led an expedition into Spain itself, seizing and destroying many vessels. Elizabeth protested that Drake had acted without her knowledge; this may have been true. Certainly the queen had no desire for war. But her protestations did not matter. It was an audacious act which could not go unpunished.
Elizabeth, of course, knew of the Spanish army lodged in the Low Countries, so close to English shores and able to intercept English shipping. When word came that these forces were being steadily increased and an armada of Spanish ships was being prepared for battle, she could no longer debate and hesitate. The impending threat was too obvious to ignore.
Yet what could England do against the great Spanish fleet? All of Europe, and many Englishmen, believed England could not withstand the overwhelming Spanish force.
‘Let tyrants fear, I have always so behaved myself that, under God, I have placed my chiefest strength and safeguard in the loyal hearts and good-will of my subjects… 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…’ from Elizabeth I‘s speech to the troops at Tilbury, 1588
The Armada which sailed against England is sometimes called ‘The Invincible Armada’, but its correct name is La Armada Grande. Its supreme commander was the duke of Medina Sidonia, a nobleman who had done all he could to avoid this appointment. He spent hours urging Philip, in the most polite and obsequious way possible, to find someone else, pointing out his own lack of experience in naval matters. But the king would not listen. Spain’s greatest naval commander Don Alvaro de Bazan the elder, the marquess of Santa Cruz, had died and there had been a long, fruitless search for a suitable replacement. The conscientious Medina Sidonia was Philip’s choice, much to the duke’s everlasting regret.
The Armada sailed from Lisbon on 20 May 1588, a grand procession of 130 ships and over 30,000 men. However, half of the vessels were transport ships and the majority of men were soldiers, not sailors. Medina Sidonia was to sail to Flanders, where he would join the prince of Parma who waited with more soldiers and transports. But the Armada stopped first in Corunna for some repair work and Medina Sidonia wrote to Philip, asking for the invasion to be postponed indefinitely. The king was adamant, however, and the fleet sailed to Flanders.
Their arrival was expected and observed by the English. Under the command of Lord Howard, they set out from Plymouth, under cover of night. They managed to destroy some of the chief Spanish ships so that, with reinforcements, their numbers roughly equaled the Spanish. More importantly, in terms of command and gunnery, the English had a far superior advantage. By the time of the great battle off Gravelines, each fleet had roughly sixty warships. The Spaniards fought heroically, but Howard was relentless. The English ships were more agile and their commanders more inventive. They did not allow the Spanish time to regroup and refit. Only one Spanish ship was captured but several sank or ran ashore. Medina Sidonia decided to lead the remaining fleet home, sailing along the north of Scotland and Ireland. They met constant storms and rough seas, and not one pilot remained in the whole fleet. Each passing storm destroyed more ships until, when the Armada finally limped home in the mid-September, half the fleet and most of its men were gone.
The defeat of the Armada was justly celebrated in Elizabeth’s time. It continues to be one of the most famous naval victories in history. There is an engaging aspect to the whole story – the English fleet taking on the greatest naval power in the world and, against all odds, winning a stunning victory. The psychological effect upon both nations was enormous.
Yet, upon closer inspection, the victory was neither as unexpected or immediately successful as is often believed. The English navy had always been superior in tactics and gunnery than the Spanish, but had suffered from Elizabeth’s penny-pinching support. They simply never had enough money to build the ships and pay the sailors needed to become a world-class naval power. The Spanish took so long to rebuild their navy that England finally had their opportunity, and they seized it with enthusiasm. England would become the undisputed master of the seas.
But Spain was not nearly finished as a world power. Barely two years after the Armada, they were virtually omnipotent in European affairs. The religious turmoil in France had weakened their traditional enemy to such an extent that Spain stood unchallenged until 1598, when Henri of Navarre converted to Catholicism. The balance of power in Europe was thus restored. But Spain’s army continued to grow until their dominance of land warfare equaled England’s naval power.
For Elizabeth, of course, the most important development was the most immediate – a brilliant victory over her greatest enemy, whose threats to invade had haunted most years of her reign. She could breathe a much-deserved sigh of relief. And she deserved no small credit for the success. Her speech to the troops at Tilbury, rallying them to fight, remains justly famous; it is among her most stirring:
My loving people, We have been persuaded by some that are careful of our safety, to take heed how we commit our selves to armed multitudes, for fear of treachery; but I assure you I do not desire to live to distrust my faithful and loving people. Let tyrants fear, I have always so behaved myself that, under God, I have placed my chiefest strength and safeguard in the loyal hearts and good-will of my subjects; and therefore I am come amongst you, as you see, at this time, not for my recreation and disport, but being resolved, in the midst and heat of the battle, to live and die amongst you all; to lay down for my God, and for my kingdom, and my people, my honour and my blood, even in the dust. 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; to which rather than any dishonour shall grow by me, I myself will take up arms, I myself will be your general, judge, and rewarder of every one of your virtues in the field. I know already, for your forwardness you have deserved rewards and crowns; and We do assure you in the word of a prince, they shall be duly paid you. In the mean time, my lieutenant general shall be in my stead, than whom never prince commanded a more noble or worthy subject; not doubting but by your obedience to my general, by your concord in the camp, and your valour in the field, we shall shortly have a famous victory over those enemies of my God, of my kingdom, and of my people.
She enjoyed a renaissance of sorts among her people after the Armada. She had already ruled for thirty years. Those years of peace and general prosperity had led to an inevitable resentment amongst her subjects, particularly the young noblemen who now dominated her court. They wanted adventure, glory, grand military exploits; they were fervent nationalists who wanted England to finally challenge the great powers of Europe; they believed themselves capable of anything. And Elizabeth, nearing sixty, would regard them with either amusement or anger. They did not know the price of war, she would complain; they did not understand how difficult it had been to bring peace and security to England. They had not lived through the tumultuous reigns of her father and siblings. They did not remember the bitter religious divide, which even now she only bridged with her inestimable charm and intellect. England was at peace and her young courtiers chafed at peace. But for the queen, peace was her greatest gift to her ‘loving people.’ She knew its importance, the dear price it had cost her. ‘To be a King and wear a crown is a thing more pleasant to them that see it, than it is pleasant to them that bear it,’ she remarked in her Golden Speech of 1601.
But she also knew those young courtiers disagreed, however much they fawned over her, pretending she was still the young queen of thirty. Elizabeth was content to play the game for her vanity would not allow otherwise. To grow old was a curse to her, she remarked; ‘I am not sick, I feel no pain, yet I pine away.’ To have a young mind in an old body was another common lament. She felt the loss of her youth keenly and did what she could to create a timeless role for herself. She wore wigs and heavy make-up and still dressed in the opulent gowns of a maid, a fetching style when she was younger but now merely a reminder of her lack of marriage and family. Her older subjects understood her melancholy; of the younger ones, Sir Walter Raleigh and Sir Francis Bacon were clever enough to guess its cause. But most did not.
And the queen no longer had the comfort of loyal Cecil and her beloved Dudley. Though Dudley had commanded the troops at Tilbury, he had died barely a month afterwards. Cecil was now very old and had ceded much of his influence to his ambitious son Robert and Sir Francis Walsingham, who died in 1590. The queen thus turned to another favorite, a young man who was a last link to Dudley. His name was Robert Devereux, earl of Essex; he was Dudley’s stepson and his mother was Elizabeth’s cousin, Lettice Knollys.
Essex remains one of the more interesting courtiers of Elizabeth’s later years. He was the mortal enemy of Raleigh (who found him arrogant and overbearing) and close friends with Bacon. He became the great favorite of Elizabeth’s later years because, for a while, he was the ablest flirt and wit at court. But his ambitions went far beyond being the queen’s ‘wild-horse’. In this, he was encouraged by his flighty mother and sycophantic admirers.
Essex believed in the primacy of the nobility at Elizabeth’s court and disliked the influence of Cecil and his son, Robert, and other ‘upstarts’ such as Raleigh. He was too proud, which the queen – depending upon her mood – found endearing or infuriating. And he dreamed of military glory, badgering the queen to send him to Ireland to quell rebellions or with the navy to harass Spanish ships. Elizabeth often refused; she genuinely enjoyed his company and would not risk his life. And when she did succumb, Essex performed disastrously. Though a daring and brave soldier, he was a terrible commander and his exploits cost the frugal queen dearly.
His worst offense, however, was a slip of the tongue. Elizabeth would respond to Essex’s tantrums by banishing him to the country until he begged forgiveness. Once, he decided to pretend illness instead. When news of his condition reached Elizabeth, she sent a letter asking after his health – but nothing more. Someone mentioned the queen’s conditions for letting him return. Infuriated, Essex cried out, ‘Her conditions! Her conditions are as crooked as her carcase.’ Those words reached the queen and she never forgot them.
Essex did return to court. But his subsequent behavior was outlandish and insulting; he even dared to turn his back on Elizabeth during a council meeting. The final blow came when he led a rebellion against the queen. With his friend, the earl of Southampton, he planned to gather a small army and seize the queen and throne. When captured, as inevitably he was, for his supporters were few and even those deserted him, Essex declared he only meant to save the queen from evil counsel. But Elizabeth, who had so often vacillated over executions, only hesitated once with Essex. He was executed on 25 February 1601.
Despite scurrilous gossip, Elizabeth’s affection for Essex was more maternal than romantic. She had no choice but to sign his death-warrant but it broke her heart. When her godson, Sir John Harington, visited in the winter of 1602, he found her taste for old pleasures gone. Harington read some of his rhymes and Elizabeth, with a little smile, remarked, ‘When thou dost feel creeping time at thy gate, these fooleries will please thee less; I am past my relish for such matters.’ To the earl of Nottingham, mourning the loss of his wife, she said, ‘ I am tied with a chain of iron about my neck. I am tied, I am tied, and the case is altered with me.’
She mentioned Essex at times, but this was merely a symptom of her awareness that all of the work and struggle of her reign had ended in solitude. She had often remarked on the essential loneliness of the crown but she felt it most deeply now.
Her council, led by Robert Cecil, whose father had died in 1601, watched her slow decline while preparing portrait of Elizabeth I in old age for the future. Elizabeth still had not named a successor. She had always understood its dangerous implications. Yet there was no real doubt that she meant for James VI of Scotland, son of Mary queen of Scots, to succeed her. He had married a Protestant princess and was already a father. And he had long since made his peace with Elizabeth, exchanging frequent letters and accepting her political advice.
Elizabeth retired to Richmond Palace, her ‘warm, snug box’ in March 1603. Her death was preceded by physical weakness and mental depression, but there were no overt causes. She was almost seventy years old, ancient for her time. She rested in a low chair by the fire, refusing to let doctors examine her. As the days passed, her condition slowly worsened. She stood for hours on end until, finally, she was persuaded to lay upon cushions on the floor. She rested there for two days, not speaking. A doctor ventured close and asked how she could bear the endless silence. She replied simply, ‘I meditate.’ For the third and fourth day, she continued to rest in silence, with a finger often in her mouth. Her attendants were terrified; they must move her but she refused. The younger Cecil visited and said, ‘Your Majesty, to content the people, you must go to bed.’ Elizabeth replied, with some of her old spirit, ‘Little man, little man, the word must is not used to princes.’
Finally, she grew so weak that they could carry her to bed. She asked for music and, for a time, it brought some comfort. Her councilors assembled; did she have any instructions regarding the succession? She made a sign when Cecil mentioned the king of Scotland. It was enough. He returned to his office to begin the paperwork for a new ruler.
Meanwhile, Archbishop Whitgift, whom she once called her ‘little black husband’, arrived to pray. He was old and his knees ached terribly, but he knelt at the royal bedside until she finally slept. She slept on into the early hours of 24 March until, at last, as the courtiers watched and waited, the steady breathing stopped. ‘Her Majesty departed this life, mildly like a lamb, easily like a ripe apple from the tree,’ John Manningham was told.
That same morning, the chief councilors rode to Whitehall where Cecil drafted the proclamation of the queen’s death and James’s succession. He read it aloud first at Whitehall and then at St Paul’s and finally Cheapside cross. The councilors then formally demanded entrance to the Tower of London in the name of King James I of England. Elizabeth’s maids and ladies were still waiting in the Coffer Room at Richmond Palace. When news of the peaceful transition of power came, they began to prepare for Elizabeth’s funeral.
The new king received the news of his accession on 27 March, for the ambitious Robert Carey had ridden at top speed to Edinburgh; his journey was so quick that its speed would not be matched until 1832. But while James was initially welcomed peacefully and happily, his reign would quickly turn sour. It was not long before even Robert Cecil, who became the most powerful statesman of James’s reign, wrote to Harington:
You know all my former steps: good knight, rest content, and give heed to one that hath sorrowed in the bright lustre of a court, and gone heavily even on the best-seeming fair ground. Tis a great task to prove one’s honesty, and yet not spoil one’s fortune. You have tasted a little hereof in our blessed Queen’s time, who was more than a man and, in troth, sometimes less than a woman. I wish I waited now in her Presence Chamber, with ease at my foot, and rest in my bed. I am pushed from the shore of comfort, and know not where the winds and waves of a court may bear me.
And the common people realized their loss as well, as Godfrey Goodman, bishop of Gloucester wrote:
After a few years, when we had experience of a Scottish government, the Queen did seem to revive; then was her memory much magnified: such ringing of bells, such public joy and sermons in commemoration of her, the picture of her tomb painted in many churches, and in effect more solemnity and joy in memory of her coronation than was for the coming-in of King James.
Elizabeth’s funeral procession, composed of more than a thousand mourners, began on 28 April. It was a stirring tribute to the queen, never forgotten by those who witnessed its passing. But her tomb, paid for by the new king, was less impressive than that provided to his disgraced mother, and cost far less. It can still be visited in Westminster Abbey, where Elizabeth rests alongside her half-sister Queen Mary I.
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Link will appear as Hanson, Marilee. "Queen Elizabeth I: Death & Funeral Information & Facts" https://englishhistory.net/tudor/monarchs/queen-elizabeth-i-part-5/, February 10, 2015