This week I’ve been covering the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. Here we have a woman in a man’s world attempting to outwit those around her: the religious extremists, the nobles in the country, and the foreign monarchs who wish to see her head on a platter (yes, Philip II, I’m looking at you!). It’s an interesting period of history, due to the high amount of religious and political change, and whilst covering the the religious and foreign troubles in class we appeared to hit upon the idea of five momentous years. Five years when the relationship between Elizabeth and the Catholics changed beyond all measure, and it diverted the course of her reign into muddled, darker waters.
These five years cover the period 1568-1572, and the lynch-pin catalyst of this change is the arrival of Mary Queen of Scots in England. Before that point, Liz had ruled for a decade and things had been ticking along pretty well; she had resolved the so-called Mid Tudor Crisis by obtaining peace from France (although she had to kiss Calais farewell), resolved the economic issue (no more debasements of the coinage), and even had time to establish her religious vision in 1559. This final point relates to the Elizabethan Settlement, which was Liz’s attempt to find consensus amongst all of the different viewpoints in England at the time. This was essentially a large umbrella under which she could fit the moderates in the country, such as the timid Protestants and the relaxed Catholics. All could find a home in the Church of England, in which the Queen promised ‘not to make windows in men’s souls’. And so, for the first ten years, things proceeded at a good pace; yes, the Puritans attempted to agitate in Parliament and through pamphlets, but there was no violence and the Settlement was adhered to.
However, 1568 changes all of this.
In this year Mary Queen of Scots – a distant relative of Elizabeth’s – fled from Scotland to England to seek shelter. Mary’s backstory is an interesting one – a life of soap opera and drama. She was raised in France and married into the royal house there, before coming back to Scotland after her young husband unexpectedly died. Whilst Liz took cautious steps in constructing her settlement, Mary had other ideas for the growing Protestants amongst her nobility and people. This led to civil uproar, and Mary have to flee for her life (leaving her young son, James, in the care of others in the north). On fleeing to England, Elizabeth had to make a choice: accept or reject. If she rejected Mary, she risked the chance that she would find shelter in another royal court and could stake a claim to the English throne. But, if she remained, she could prove to be a thorn in the side by igniting the passion of the Catholic population.
Yes, Mary was French; which never went down well with the English. Yes, she also Scottish, another sore point. And yes, she was a woman, which was never a plus factor in this period of history. But she was a Catholic. And this Catholic woman changed the whole fabric of Elizabeth’s religious policy. For there was a now a ready-made monarch to take the place of Elizabeth, and one that could re-unite England back with the Pope and the Catholic fold of Europe.
Mary’s arrival in England in 1568 set out a chain of events that pushed Elizabeth to take a hard-line approach to the Catholics in the country. In 1569 came the Northern Rebellion, undoubtedly the biggest popular rebellion Liz faced during her reign. Some Northern nobles plotted to replace Elizabeth with Mary, and although the rebellion was quashed, it led to another momentous event in 1570 – the Pope taking the step of excommunicating Elizabeth. This meant that English Catholics now had a clear choice: pick a side, either the Pope or Elizabeth. But they could not obey both. The chain of events continues into 1571, when the first plot to assassinate Elizabeth – the Ridolfi Plot – was exposed. It heavily implicated many notable names in the country, and revealed the plan to marry Mary Queen of Scots to the Duke of Norfolk. Norfolk was the most prominent noble in England, and the only duke remaining within the peerage. However, he was ambitious, and also a Catholic. Elizabeth’s reaction was understandably severe: the Duke of Norfolk was parted from his head and executed in 1572.
So, five quick years, and the whole fabric of Elizabeth’s relations with the English Catholics – and even her whole Elizabethan Settlement – changed. From once stating that she wished not to make window’s into men’s souls, she became more extreme against Catholic threats. The 1570s-80s brought missionaries into the country to secretly re-convert and plot, which resulted in the extreme penal laws and execution of hundreds.
Despite Elizabeth’s need to become more hostile and harsh, she proved herself a success by maintaining the core of the religious settlement. She faced the plots, and survived; faced the threat of the Spanish Armada, and lived to tell the tale. Whilst her enemies around her were eradicated, one by one; including Mary Queen of Scots in 1587.