Elizabeth Takes the Throne

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Elizabeth Takes the Throne

On November 17,1558, Queen Mary I (1516–1558; reigned 1553–58) died. A messenger from the royal court in London delivered the news to Elizabeth (1533–1603), heir to the throne. According to English legend, he found her reading a Bible under an oak tree in her garden. Upon hearing of her half-sister's death, Elizabeth fell to her knees. The messenger heard her recite in Latin from Psalm 118: "This is the Lord's doing: and it is marvelous in our eyes" (as quoted in Peter Brimacombe's All the Queen's Men: The World of Elizabeth I). Whether or not the legend is true, it illustrates Elizabeth's belief that divine intervention had spared her life during the dark days of Mary's reign. (For more information on the reign of Mary I, see Chapter 2.) For the rest of her life, Elizabeth held an unshakable faith that it was by God's design that she was queen of England. Though only twenty-five years old and wholly unskilled in the art of governing a country, she was remarkably confident and ready to assume her role as England's supreme leader.

The challenges ahead were daunting. Mary had left the country in a weak state. Bad crops had caused famine, or the scarcity of food causing widespread hunger or starvation, and the royal treasury was without funds. England had lost its status as a major European power, and both France and Spain had grown far more powerful. Though many English people feared foreign invasion, England's worst hostilities were internal. The country had become greatly divided by the religious upheavals of the previous three reigns. It had been torn from its traditional spiritual center, the Roman Catholic Church, by Elizabeth's father, Henry VIII (1491–1547; reigned 1509–47). In 1547, under Edward VI (1537–1553; reigned 1547–53), the English people had been required to worship as Protestants. Only six years later, Mary had restored Catholicism and England's ties with the pope and the Catholic Church in Rome, and she had enforced the national religion by burning Protestants at the stake. With each change of the nation's official religion, English Catholics feared for the fate of their souls and Protestants became more determined to fight for their right to worship in the manner they believed to be right. It was difficult to imagine how unity could be restored to the nation.


A clergyman with a rank higher than a priest, who has the power to ordain priests and usually presides over a diocese.
The crowning ceremony in which a monarch officially becomes king or queen.
Governed by bishops.
The scarcity of food causing widespread hunger or starvation.
A religious opinion that conflicts with the church's doctrines.
Holy Roman Empire:
A loose confederation of states and territories, including the German states and most of central Europe, that existed from 962 to 1806 and was considered the supreme political body of the Christian people.
A dramatic presentation, such as a play, that often depicts a historical, biblical, or traditional event.
Highly devoted to one's religion.
Governed by presbyters, or church elders.
Privy Council:
The board of advisors that carried out the administrative function of the government in matters of economy, defense, foreign policy, and law and order, and its members served as the king's or queen's chief advisors.
A royal procession, or trip, made by a monarch and a large number of his or her attendants.
A sixteenth-century religious movement that aimed to reform the Roman Catholic Church and resulted in the establishment of Protestant churches.
Someone who rules for a king or queen when the monarch is absent, too young, or unable to rule.
Group of attendants.
Tower of London:
A fortress on the Thames River in London that was used as a royal residence, treasury, and, most famously, as a prison for the upper class.
In Roman Catholic doctrine, the miraculous change that occurs when a priest blesses the Eucharist (bread and wine) and it changes into the body and blood of Christ, while maintaining the appearance of bread and wine.

Getting started

By the time of her death, Mary was not a popular queen, and most of the British people hoped Elizabeth would establish a more peaceful future. Parliament (the English legislative body) happened to be in session on the day of Mary's death, and it lost no time in proclaiming Elizabeth the new queen of England. A period of two months then passed between Mary's death and Elizabeth's coronation, or crowning as queen, on January 15, 1559. Elizabeth made good use of that time.

One of her first acts was to appoint William Cecil (1520–1598; later Lord Burghley) as her secretary of state. Cecil, a Protestant, had participated in the government of Edward VI. He had stayed out of the public eye during Mary's reign and therefore escaped imprisonment and execution for heresy as a Protestant. Heresy is a religious opinion that conflicts with the church's doctrines. During this time he had quietly served the princess Elizabeth, and his qualities had impressed her greatly. Cecil was well-educated and highly experienced in governmental affairs and, perhaps more importantly, he exhibited moderation and honesty in all that he did. When Elizabeth appointed him as her chief minister, she said to him, as quoted by Peter Brimacombe: "This judgment I have of you, that you will not be corrupted with any manner of gift and that you will be faithful to the state and that without respect of my private will, you will give me that council that you think best." Like most Englishmen, Cecil did not at first believe any woman was fit to rule the country, but he worked very hard over the next forty years to serve his queen and country.

Like Elizabeth, Cecil was extremely cautious and did not like sudden changes. Because of this tendency, he often served as a balancing force in matters of state, countering the rash schemes of other advisors and courtiers with his practical, but usually conservative (tending to preserve things as they are) suggestions. From the start Cecil was Elizabeth's most trusted advisor and consequently the second most powerful person in England. Most historians believe the match between the queen and her top advisor was an extraordinarily favorable one for England. Still, the chief minister was limited in his authority. Elizabeth always asked for and listened to the advice of her councilors, but she never ceded her power to make the final decisions to anyone, including Cecil.

Once Cecil was enlisted, Elizabeth got to work selecting her Privy Council. The Privy Council was a board of advisors that carried out the administrative function of Elizabeth's government in matters of economy, defense, foreign policy, and law and order, and its members served as her chief advisors. Not all of the members were active in their duties, but the chief members, such as the secretary, the lord treasurer, the lord chamberlain, and the lord chancellor were extremely influential. Mary's Privy Council had been large, with about fifty members. Elizabeth quickly dismissed most of Mary's council, saying, as quoted in David Starkey's Elizabeth: The Struggle for the Throne, that "a multitude doth make rather disorder and confusion than good council." She reduced her council to nineteen, appointing a few promising statesmen who were moderate in their religious beliefs. She did not appoint any members of the clergy.

Another vital appointment Elizabeth made during the first days of her reign was her Master of Horse, the dashing Robert Dudley (1532–1588; later Earl of Leicester). Dudley had been educated with the royal family and had known Elizabeth since she was eight years old. The two had become friends; Elizabeth had even attended Dudley's marriage to an heiress in 1550. Dudley was the son of John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland (1501–1554), the regent who ruled England in the name of the young Edward VI. A regent is someone who rules for a king or queen when the monarch is absent, too young, or unable to rule. After Edward's death Dudley's father, Northumberland, had been responsible for the plan to place Lady Jane Grey (1537–1554) on the English throne instead of Mary, for which he was executed. (For more information on the plot to crown Jane Grey, see Chapter 2.) The younger Dudley had played a minor role in the affair, and for this he was imprisoned in the Tower of London (a fortress on the Thames River in London used as a royal residence, treasury, and, most famously, as a prison for the upper class). Elizabeth was being held in the Tower at the same time under suspicion of being involved in a conspiracy against Mary. It is not known if the two were able to communicate with each other while in prison.

Dudley was well suited to the position of Master of Horse, a job that entailed managing transportation for the queen and attending her on her rides, as well as overseeing Elizabeth's entertainment and her notorious progresses—royal processions, or trips, made by a monarch and a large number of his or her attendants. Dudley excelled in horsemanship and was an expert at putting together magnificent public events. Elizabeth liked to ride daily, and thus he spent many hours at her side. He quickly came to rival Cecil in holding the queen's trust.

The coronation ceremonies

Several days after appointing her Privy Council, Elizabeth rode into London with a retinue of more than one thousand attendants. The people of the city flocked to greet her, singing and cheering as she rode her horse ceremoniously through the streets. Elizabeth then began preparing for her coronation ceremony. Though her income was limited and the treasury of England had been depleted by years of poor management, she knew that, as a young woman in a stormy political world, she needed to make a majestic impression to awe her subjects into devotion and obedience.

On January 14, 1559, the eve of her coronation, the twenty-five-year-old queen dressed for her royal entry, or ceremonial passage into the city of London, in a robe made of gold and silver cloth trimmed in ermine (an expensive white fur) and covered in gold lace. On her head she wore, for the last time, her small crown designed for a princess. She rode in a large, open litter (a vehicle designed to be carried by attendants to transport an important person) covered in white satin and trimmed in gold brocade. She was seated on large satin cushions and covered with a white quilt to keep her warm throughout the winter afternoon. Her litter was surrounded by footmen dressed in red velvet and directly behind her rode her Master of Horse, Dudley. Following Dudley were the queen's ladies-in-waiting and her Privy Council. Behind them rode one thousand of her bejeweled and exquisitely dressed courtiers on horses outfitted in brilliant red harnesses.

Economic Reform

One of the reasons England was in bad financial shape when Elizabeth took the throne was that its money system had been debased, or lost value. The debasement had begun during the reign of her father, Henry VIII. At the time England's money was in the form of gold and silver coins. To raise funds for the wars he was conducting in France and Scotland, Henry issued new coins made of cheaper metals but representing the same value as the gold and silver coins. Thus, for a small investment in cheap metals, he was able to produce huge quantities of money. Edward VI also resorted to this strategy for raising funds. In time people began to hoard the old gold and silver coins; many large financial institutions refused to accept the new coins. Trade with other countries became difficult, because the other countries could not rely on the value of English money. English businesses were hurt and the economy suffered.

Within a year of taking the throne, Elizabeth initiated a program to stabilize the English money. The newer, debased coins were withdrawn from circulation and melted down, and new gold and silver money was minted. Almost immediately, England gained respect in European trade and businesses began to thrive. An economic recovery followed.

During her royal entry the Londoners presented songs, poems, and gifts to the queen. Five pageants were staged for her benefit. Pageants are dramatic presentations, such as plays, that often depict a historical, biblical, or traditional event. By all the accounts Elizabeth was radiant, successfully captivating her public. She listened to every speech with attention, personally thanked every man, woman, and child who approached with a meager gift or expression of good will, and dazzled the crowds with brief speeches in which she promised to be the most loving monarch England had ever known. She emphasized two key themes: being "mere English" (avoiding foreign influences) and her preference for the English translation of the Bible. This delighted Londoners, who were largely Protestant. At least for one day Elizabeth relieved some of the discomfort that most English subjects felt about being ruled by a woman. She had begun to create an almost mythical image of herself as the queen of a new age and a symbol of national pride.

The coronation ceremony the next day presented a problem for Elizabeth that foreshadowed future challenges. The English bishops, or the church leaders, were Catholic. They refused to perform the coronation ceremony with the moderate innovations Elizabeth requested. In particular the new queen wanted the prayers from the Bible to be read in both Latin (as in Catholic ceremonies) and in English (as in Protestant ceremonies), hoping to include both groups in the celebration. She did not want the priest to perform transubstantiation. (In the Catholic ceremony of transubstantiation, a priest blesses the Host or the Eucharist elements, bread and wine, and they miraculously change to become the body and blood of Christ, while maintaining the appearance of bread and wine.) One of the newer bishops finally agreed to perform the service, but even he could not stray from his religious beliefs and, against the queen's wishes, he performed the transubstantiation ceremony. The queen got up and left the room.

Elizabeth's religious settlement

In 1559 Elizabeth knew that all of England was waiting to see how she would shape the church. Determined to end the religious fears that had beset the country, Elizabeth and Cecil undertook to establish a national church for England immediately after her accession to the throne. They moved very carefully, trying not to stir anxieties in England or hostilities in Europe. Though Cecil was a Protestant, caution prevented him from moving suddenly into reforms. Elizabeth, though deeply religious, was not wholly Protestant or Catholic. Like most Protestants she refuted the authority of the pope and the Catholic transubstantiation doctrine, and she cherished the English translation of the Bible. But like most Catholics she loved the ancient traditions of the Catholic Church, preferring its stately music and art and time-honored ceremonies to the austerity (plainness) of Protestant worship. Like her father she wanted to create a church that combined some traits of both the Catholic and the Protestant form of worship. Unlike Edward and Mary she was not interested in people's private belief systems. As long as her subjects acknowledged her as the leader of the church and attended the national church, she did not care if they held Catholic or Protestant views. Elizabeth believed, as quoted by Lacey Baldwin Smith in The Elizabethan Epic, that there was "only one Christ Jesus and one faith: the rest is dispute about trifles." She wanted the English church to bring unity and peace to Protestants and Catholics alike in her country.

Elizabeth called her first session of Parliament to push through her religious reforms. The Anglican Church, or the Church of England, was established by two acts of Parliament in 1559. The first, the Act of Supremacy, gave the queen authority over England's church. It once again terminated England's connection with the Roman church and repealed Mary's hated heresy laws, which had made disagreeing with church doctrine a crime punishable by death. Although Parliament had accepted Henry VIII as the "supreme head" of the English church, Parliament was bitterly opposed to the idea of a woman as the head of the English church. Elizabeth therefore accepted the title of "supreme governor" of the church and agreed to leave final decisions on important church matters to its highest-ranking clergy. All clergy, agents of the crown, public officials, and graduates of the universities or the law courts were required to swear an oath to uphold the Act of Supremacy. Many of England's Catholic bishops and other clergy appointed during Mary's reign would not agree to the oath and thus were forced to leave office. Elizabeth replaced them with more moderate clergy.

Also in 1559, Parliament passed the Act of Uniformity, restoring the Book of Common Prayer established during Edward's reign in 1552. The Book of Common Prayer set out all the services, ceremonies, and rituals of the new church, so that, in effect, all of England read the same passages of the Bible, said the same prayers, and worshipped in the same way at the same time. The wording in the Book of Common Prayer was deliberately made vague so that both moderate Protestants and Catholics could follow their own beliefs while using it. Services of the new church were conducted in English, as opposed to the Latin that was used in Roman Catholic services, and the translated Bible with a picture of Elizabeth on its cover was readily available to all. The act made use of the book mandatory. Refusal to attend church was made punishable by a fine.

The Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion were published in 1563 to proclaim the basic truths of the new Church of England. They rejected several fundamental Catholic doctrines, such as transubstantiation and the idea that human beings can change their eternal fate through their own actions. They also affirmed several key Protestant beliefs: that the Bible was the final authority on human salvation, that salvation occurred as the result of faith in the actions of Jesus Christ, and that marriage was allowed for the church's ministers. Under Elizabeth's guidance the Thirty-Nine Articles softened some Protestant ideas, permitting certain Catholic traditions that did not conflict with the Bible. Unlike most new Protestant churches in Europe, the Anglican Church was episcopal rather than presbyterian, meaning it was run by bishops rather than by a group of elder members. The Church of England was considered to be both Catholic (though not Roman Catholic) and reformed.

Elizabeth was aware that her changes would not please either devoted Catholics or Puritans (so-named because they wished to "purify" the English church from Roman Catholicism), a new group of radical Protestants who followed John Calvin's (1509–1564) teachings. (For more information on Calvin and his philosophy, see Chapter 2.) Highly dissatisfied with Elizabeth's compromises, the Puritans wanted to form a society in which the political world conformed to the teachings of the Bible. Elizabeth was opposed to radical Catholics and Protestants alike. She believed that extremes of religion had created a harmful division between English subjects. Though few were fully satisfied with the compromises made in the church, many appreciated the peace in England. In contrast wars broke out between Catholics and Protestants in Scotland, the Netherlands, and most brutally in France.

The Virgin Queen

As soon as Elizabeth was crowned queen the English nation began to focus on the matter of her marriage. Their concern was not unwarranted. If Elizabeth died without producing an heir, it was unclear who would succeed her, that is, who would have the right to be the next king or queen. Unclear successions had historically led to civil wars, and England had had its fill of turbulence in recent years. Members of her Privy Council, including Cecil, strongly advised her to find a husband. Within a month of her coronation, Parliament petitioned the queen to marry as quickly as possible in order to provide England with a suitable heir. Elizabeth was annoyed that Parliament presumed to instruct her on such a personal matter. She coolly pointed to the ring she had received upon her coronation and proclaimed that she was already married; England was her husband and her subjects were her children. She stated, as quoted by Alison Weir in The Life of Elizabeth: "In the end, this shall be for me sufficient, that a marble stone shall declare that a queen, having reigned such a time, lived and died a virgin." In sixteenth-century England it was considered unnatural for a woman to remain unmarried. No one at that time dreamed the queen would stand by her words and one day become known as the Virgin Queen.

Elizabeth had many suitors. Along with being one of the most powerful women in Europe, she was young, intelligent, and attractive, with golden-red hair, piercing eyes, a tall and slim figure, and long, elegant hands. Her former brother-in-law, King Philip II of Spain (1527–1598), was probably the first to ask for her hand after her accession to the throne, but soon the tsar (male king or emperor) of Russia, Ivan the Terrible (1530–1584), and King Erik of Sweden (1533–1577) also made marriage proposals. The Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V (1500–1558; the Holy Roman Emperor was a title given by the pope to the leader of the Holy Roman Empire, a loose confederation of states and territories including the German states and most of central Europe), in turn offered his sons Ferdinand and Charles, the Archduke of Austria. Elizabeth enjoyed the attention. She frequently put her foreign suitors to political use, leaving them guessing as to her intentions in order to maintain friendly relations with their countries. It is unlikely that she seriously considered marrying a foreigner after seeing how the English people had despised Mary's choice of Philip. Nor did she intend to marry a Catholic, who might destroy her religious reforms. Several English noblemen asked for Elizabeth's hand, but she did not feel they were worthy matches for a queen.

Elizabeth's subjects saw another obstacle to the queen's marriage. There was an obvious flirtation between the queen and her Master of Horse, Robert Dudley. The two were always together—on long horseback rides during the day and dancing or playing cards by night. This relationship was certainly not what the Privy Council and Parliament expected. Dudley was handsome, intelligent, and well educated, but he was not a suitable husband for the queen. He was married, his family line was not of high enough rank, and his arrogance had made him unpopular in the court. In the first year of her reign, Elizabeth did not seem to care. She showed every sign of being in love with him.

The royal court was still whispering about the queen's obvious passion for Dudley when suddenly, in 1560, Dudley's wife died in an accident in which she fell down some stairs and broke her neck. Many jumped to the conclusion that Dudley had conspired to have his wife killed so he could marry Elizabeth and become king. There were even rumors that the queen had been involved in the murder of Dudley's wife. An investigation cleared Dudley of involvement, but it was not enough. Elizabeth realized that if she married Dudley, England would always associate her with a murder plot. Her Privy Council warned her not to ruin her reputation at home and in Europe by taking such a step, and Elizabeth sorrowfully bowed to the needs of her country. Elizabeth and Dudley remained extremely close for the remaining thirty years of his life, even after Dudley infuriated the queen by secretly marrying in 1578. Elizabeth went on to have many favorites—handsome and exciting men who courted her and with whom she flirted shamelessly.

In fact Elizabeth may never have intended to marry. Her life's experiences, beginning with the disastrous romance between her mother and her father, may have made marriage seem threatening to her. Although she knew it was her duty as monarch to provide an heir to the throne, Elizabeth was more comfortable without an heir. She knew from her own experience during Mary's reign that heirs were often the focus of plots to rise up against the ruling monarch, and thus became threats. Elizabeth had been under the rigid control of others throughout her first twenty-five years and wanted no more of it. She had a will for power and did not want to share the throne or the kingdom with a husband.

The situation in Europe

Elizabeth knew upon taking the throne that she had inherited a weak nation in jeopardy of losing its independence. Compared to other nations England was poor and backward, lacking a strong military and navy, and it had no overseas empire. Though at one time England had been one of the conquering forces of Europe, by the mid-sixteenth century its significance abroad was mainly limited to its alliances with stronger nations. By far the most powerful states in Europe were Spain and France, both devotedly Catholic countries. Their wars with each other had long distracted them from the affairs of England, but the two rivals signed a peace treaty in 1559.


France had been severely divided by the Reformation, a sixteenth-century religious movement that aimed to reform the Roman Catholic Church and resulted in the establishment of Protestant churches. A group of Protestant reformers called Huguenots, who followed the religious doctrine of the French Protestant theologian John Calvin (see Chapter 2), fought for power and religious freedom against the Catholic French Crown. Some of France's most powerful noble families were Huguenots; these nobles provided strength and financial backing to the rapidly growing movement. The result was an era of religious warfare, in which the pious on both sides were convinced that waging war against nonbelievers was a noble cause. When Elizabeth took the throne in 1559, many English people were concerned that the French zeal for religious warfare would extend across the channel to their island. What particularly alarmed Elizabeth about France was the "auld alliance," its ancient bond with England's neighbor to the north, Scotland. The French had troops in place in Scotland and, with Elizabeth's accession, they had begun to press their claim to the English throne.

Scotland and England had centuries of hostilities behind them, and the alliance between its two enemies was a point of perpetual concern for England. Rivalry between the English and the French over Scotland came to a head in 1542, when Scotland's King James V (1512–1542) died, leaving his only child, the seven-day-old infant Mary Stuart (often called Mary, Queen of Scots; 1542–1587), to succeed him. Mary had royal French blood, but as the granddaughter of Henry VIII's oldest sister, Margaret Tudor, she was also one of the most legitimate heirs to the English throne. Both France and England desperately wanted to ally themselves with Scodand through a marriage between the infant queen and one of their royal princes. Henry VIII tried to arrange a marriage between his son, Edward, and Mary, but the Scottish nobility, who detested England, rose up in protest against the marriage. Henry then began a policy called "rough wooing"—a series of bloody invasions of Scotland with the purpose of forcing the marriage. In the end France sent soldiers and money to help the badly beaten Scots fight off the English. In return for French help the Scots sent their young queen to France to be raised.

The French Wars of Religion (1562–98)

A group of Protestant reformers called Huguenots formed in France in the sixteenth century, supporting the ideas of the French Protestant theologian John Calvin. At the time Elizabeth took the throne of England, there were more than two thousand Huguenot churches in France. Huguenots came from all social classes and were represented among some of France's most distinguished noble families. They came to be a powerful political as well as religious faction. As the number of Huguenots grew, hostility between them and the Catholics increased. In 1562 this conflict erupted in Vassey, France; a fight between Catholics and Huguenots resulted in a massacre of an unknown number of Huguenots. (An estimated thirty to twelve hundred people were slain.) The Huguenots organized to fight back, however, and they had the determination, numbers, and resources to do so. Eight consecutive religious wars followed, devastating France for the next thirty-five years. The height of the violence against the Huguenots was the Saint Bartholomew's Day Massacre on August 24, 1572. Starting as a three-day massacre of three thousand Huguenots in Paris, the killing spread throughout France. When it was over, somewhere between thirty thousand and seventy thousand Huguenots had been killed.

At the age of fifteen Mary Stuart married the heir to the French throne, Francis (1544–1560), cementing the auld alliance. In July 1559, when Mary's husband became King Francis II, she became the queen of France as well as Scodand. With her Tudor blood, Mary also claimed the right to the English crown on the grounds that Elizabeth was illegitimate, since the Catholic Church did not acknowledge Henry VIII's divorce from Catherine of Aragon to marry Elizabeth's mother. Francis, as he took the French throne, publicly denied Elizabeth's right to rule England and petitioned the pope to declare her illegitimate. However, the young king died within a year, before anything came of his challenge to Elizabeth's rule.

The Scottish Reformation

When Elizabeth took the throne of England, Scotland was ruled by a regent, Mary Stuart's mother, the French Catholic Mary of Guise. Like England, Scotland was deeply divided by the Protestant Reformation. In 1557 a large group of Calvinist Scottish nobles had signed a document renouncing Catholicism and supporting a reformed Church of Scotland. Scotland became divided. While the Scottish Catholics wished to maintain the auld alliance with France, the Protestant reformers supported a new alliance with England. In May 1559, in the Scottish city of Perth, Protestant religious reformer John Knox (c. 1513–1572) delivered a stirring sermon, inspiring a series of major Protestant uprisings across central Scotland. By October, the Protestant lords had ousted Mary of Guise from the regency. Shordy after she was overthrown, Mary of Guise unexpectedly died.

Suddenly finding themselves leading their country, the lords of Scotland were determined to banish English and French troops and take over their own government. Elizabeth sent Cecil to the capital city of Edinburgh to represent England in the treaty negotiations among Scotland, France, and England. Cecil demanded that France—and particularly Mary, Queen of Scots—acknowledge Elizabeth as the rightful queen of England. In exchange for this Cecil unofficially suggested that Mary might become the heir to the throne if Elizabeth died without children, provided that Mary did not marry without Elizabeth's consent.

Under the terms of the Treaty of Edinburgh (1560), both France and England withdrew their troops from Scodand. Within a month the Scottish Parliament abolished the Roman Catholic Church and established the Church (or Kirk) of Scotland, a Calvinist reformed church organized along presbyterian lines. Presbyterianism is the Calvinist form of church organization, in which a group of elders, or more experienced church members, leads the church. Scotland had become a Protestant nation. Mary, Queen of Scots, a devoted Catholic, fully French in speech and customs, returned home to rule Scotland after the death of her husband.


England and Spain had traditionally been allies. Indeed, Philip II, the king of Spain, was England's king at the time of Mary's death. Philip ruled a large empire that included present-day Spain, Italy, the Low Countries—which at that time were comprised roughly of the present-day states of the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, and small parts of northern France and Germany. Spain also ruled over large portions of the New World, as North and South America were called after their discovery in the fifteenth century. Plundering the gold and silver treasures of the Inca in Peru and the Aztecs in Mexico had made Spain extremely rich, and its navy had grown into the most powerful European fleet. Philip was a devout Catholic and a strong defender of the pope and the Roman Catholic Church. As he aged he came to believe it was his destiny to wage wars to spread the Catholic religion throughout Europe.

Fortunately for Elizabeth, Philip had more pressing problems than England in the 1560s, especially in securing his control of the Low Countries. Many of his subjects in the Netherlands had taken up Protestant reform. Philip tried to stamp out the rising force of Protestantism, and in doing so he suppressed the political, economic, and religious liberties that had long been cherished by the Dutch people. As a result, both Roman Catholics and Protestants rebelled against him under the leadership of William the Silent, prince of Orange (1533–1584). This revolt against the Spanish set off the Eighty Years' War (1568–1648) between the Netherlands and Spain.

Philip was careful to remain on friendly terms with England, which controlled the channel of water separating it from the Netherlands. As Elizabeth took the throne, Philip was willing to overlook her tendency toward Protestant reforms, believing that she could be persuaded to return to the traditional Catholic faith. Shortly after her coronation Philip submitted a marriage proposal to the young queen, hoping to peacefully maintain his station in England and preserve its Catholic traditions while pursuing his more urgent problems in the Netherlands. Elizabeth pretended to be interested in Philip's marriage proposal and used a series of delaying tactics rather than answer him, hoping to keep Spain friendly with England as long as possible.

For More Information


Brigden, Susan. New Worlds: The Rule of the Tudors, 1485–1603. New York: Penguin Books, 2000.

Brimacombe, Peter. All the Queen's Men: The World of Elizabeth I. New York: St. Martin's Press, 2000.

Bryant, Arthur. The Elizabethan Deliverance. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1981.

Starkey, David. Elizabeth: The Struggle for the Throne. New York: Perennial, 2001.

Watkins, Susan, with photographs by Mark Fiennes. In Public and in Private: Elizabeth I and Her World. London: Thames and Hudson, 1998.


McKinnon-Bell, David. "Reduced to Cinders: The Impact of the French Religious Wars." History Review, September 2000, p. 12.


"Elizabeth: The Religious Settlement: The Middle Way." National Maritime Museum: Royal Observatory Greenwich, http://www.nmm.ac.uk/server/show/conWebDoc.6129/setPaginate/No (accessed on July 11, 2006).

Thomas, Heather. "Elizabeth." http://www.elizabethi.org/us/ (accessed on July 11, 2006).

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Elizabeth Takes the Throne

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Elizabeth Takes the Throne