The Last Years of Elizabeth's Reign

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The Last Years of Elizabeth's Reign

The highest point of Queen Elizabeth I's (1533–1603; reigned 1558–1603) reign was the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588. (For more information on the Spanish Armada, see Chapter 7.) England could now lay claim to being the greatest sea power in the world. Most of those who still had lingering doubts about having a female leader fully embraced Elizabeth as their queen. But the defeat of the Armada did not signal smooth sailing ahead for Elizabeth. The war with Spain continued for fifteen more years. Other trials beset the aging queen in her last decade of life, including an increasing conflict with Ireland, several years of food shortage in England, and an uprising within her own court. Elizabeth's natural powers of leadership declined in her old age, and she suffered deep depressions, often set off by the deaths of her closest friends and advisors. Elizabeth's subjects began to lose confidence in their queen.

Conflict in Ireland

Elizabeth had inherited a complicated political situation in Ireland, an island lying just west of England. The country had been ruled by England, at least in name, since the twelfth century. At that time the Catholic pope, or head of the Roman Catholic Church, had declared the king of England to be the feudal lord of Ireland. (A feudal lord is the landowner and ruler of a district during the Middle Ages [c. 500–c. 1500] to whom the villagers owed loyalty, military service, and labor.) England maintained a loose control over Ireland, mainly leaving the operation of the government to the Irish lords and powerful families. In 1541, when Elizabeth's father, Henry VIII (1491–1547; reigned 1509–47), declared himself king of Ireland, he received the consent of the Irish Parliament.

Most of Ireland's population was concentrated in a wide area called the Pale that surrounded the city of Dublin. The Pale was ruled by lords who traced their ancestry back to the invading English of the twelfth century. Though their families had lived in Ireland for centuries these lords considered themselves English and, up to a point, they were loyal to the English Crown. Notably, the remote northern Irish province of Ulster was outside the Pale and was not under English control.

The Reformation (the sixteenth-century religious movement that aimed to reform the Roman Catholic Church and resulted in the establishment of Protestant churches) created tension between Europe's Catholic and Protestant nations. Catholic countries, Spain in particular, believed that Protestant nations like England should be returned to Catholicism. Spain's King Philip II (1527–1598) realized that Ireland, whose people remained primarily Catholic, could be useful in an attack against England. England responded to this threat by tightening its control over the government in the Pale. This included attempts to convert the Irish to Protestantism.


The scarcity of food causing widespread hunger and starvation.
feudal lord:
The landowner and ruler of a district during the Middle Ages (c. 500–c. 1500) to whom the villagers owed loyalty, military service, and labor.
III health caused by not eating enough food or not eating the proper balance of nutrients.
A class of farmers who worked in the fields owned by wealthy lords. Part of the crop was paid to the lord as rent.
A group of Protestants who follow strict religious standards.
A sixteenth century religious movement that aimed to reform the Roman Catholic Church and resulted in the establishment of Protestant churches.
A state governed by religious, rather than political, principles.

In the early years of Elizabeth's reign English settlers were beginning to immigrate to Ireland. These early settlers viewed Ireland as an English colony. They taxed the Irish to maintain their English troops there. Resentment of English control resulted in Irish uprisings. Two unsuccessful Irish rebellions against England occurred in the early years of Elizabeth's reign. In the Desmond rebellion of 1579, the Irish were able to get help from some of the Catholic powers of Europe. England retaliated harshly, destroying fields and giving estates belonging to Irish lords to English nobles. Famine, a period when food is scarce, threatening a population with starvation, in Ireland resulted. Tens of thousands of people died and survivors faced terrible hardships.

As the years progressed England stationed more and more troops throughout Ireland, hoping to secure its own borders against a Spanish invasion. The Elizabethan government also attempted to expand its control into Ulster. The English treated the Irish with such contempt that even those lords who had traditionally remained loyal to England began to change their loyalties. In 1594 Ireland launched a large scale rebellion led by Hugh O'Neill (Earl of Tyrone; c. 1540–1616). This rebellion marked the start of what was known as the Nine Years' War (1594–1603).

Elizabeth responded by sending troops to put down O'Neill's rebellion. According to most historians Elizabeth made a large mistake in choosing the leadership for her Ireland campaign. In her last decades Elizabeth had continued to have favorites among the handsome young men of her court. Perhaps her strongest affection was given to the popular but temperamental and highly ambitious Robert Devereux (Earl of Essex; 1566–1601). Though Elizabeth doted on the young Devereux, she had little confidence in his abilities and had not placed him into the powerful positions he sought from her. In 1599, however, she placed him in command of a force of English soldiers on its way to stop the rebellion in Ireland. Devereux badly botched the mission. Instead of marching to Ulster to face O'Neill, he decided to first establish order in southern Ireland. He established garrisons, or military posts, throughout the region, assigning numerous troops there. His force suffered heavy casualties in the south, and his garrisoned soldiers suffered from unsanitary conditions and inadequate food. Thousands died from typhoid, dysentery, and other diseases. When he finally turned north, Devereux did not have enough troops to defeat O'Neill. He negotiated a truce. This was considered an extreme humiliation for England, and the queen was outraged. Devereux further complicated matters by leaving Ireland without Elizabeth's permission. The troublesome Nine Years' War continued, and did not end until one week after Elizabeth's death.


Elizabeth's reign had been marked by prosperity, but in 1594 the weather became abnormally wet and cold. For three years in a row England's crops failed. The peasant population was the first to suffer. (Peasants are farmers who worked in the fields owned by wealthy lords.) Since peasant farmers were required to pay a portion of their crop to the landowning lords as rent, they had only a small part of their crop to live on. When crops failed, peasants faced the very real threat of starvation. In desperation they killed their horses and oxen, used for plowing fields, for food. They also ate the seed intended for planting the next year. Once these sources were depleted peasants moved to the cities in search of food and employment.

People in cities also suffered as the price of grains and other resources rose steeply. The population had grown at a rapid rate and there were many more people to feed than in times past. In addition, the number of poor had risen dramatically as peasant farmers moved to the cities. Many of the poor suffered terribly from the lack of food. Only a small percentage died from actual starvation, at least in part because of poor laws that required local districts to aid the needy. (For more information on Elizabethan poor laws, see Chapter 11.) Nonetheless, there were thousands of deaths due to diseases related to malnutrition, or ill health caused by not eating enough food or not eating the proper balance of nutrients. By the late 1590s English systems of poor relief had become ineffective. Numerous uprisings broke out among the poor. Local authorities treated the rebel poor harshly, executing them in great numbers. Bitterness against the queen grew among the lower classes.

Betrayed by a favorite

When Devereux returned from Ireland, Elizabeth punished him severely for disobeying her instructions during the war. She banished him from court and denied him the positions and financial favors he had formerly enjoyed. Devereux was a hotheaded and extremely proud young man. He found it infuriating to be treated so harshly, particularly by a woman. He launched a poorly planned rebellion against the queen, enlisting young nobles who had their own conflicts with the queen. The small band of rebels rode into London, hoping to enlist the support of the townspeople. Although Devereux was popular in London, no one joined his uprising. Devereux was quickly arrested for treason. Elizabeth, in her late sixties, was forced to sign the death warrant of her favorite. Devereux was beheaded in 1601.

The last years

As the sixteenth century ended, the aging Elizabeth sank further into depression. As those closest to her died of old age, she became more isolated. Though she demanded to be treated as if she were still a young and attractive woman desired by all men, Elizabeth's former magnificence had faded. Her elaborate royal garments could not hide the evidence of time. She wore a red wig to cover her thinning hair and thick white powder to cover her wrinkles. No mirrors were allowed in court. In Elizabeth's last speech to Parliament in 1601, quoted in the United Kingdom Parliamentary Archives online, she acknowledged the great personal burden of being queen: "To be a King, and weare a Crown, is a thing more glorious to them that see it, then [than] it is pleasant to them that beare it."

In the winter of 1603 Elizabeth fell ill. Refusing medical treatment and food, she prepared herself for the end. She died in her bed in March. She was sixty-nine at the time of her death, and she had ruled England for forty-five years. James VI of Scotland (1566–1625) was proclaimed King James I of England a few hours after her death.

Elizabeth's legacy

Elizabeth strongly believed in the supremacy of the monarch as ruler. She had never believed in a representative government, viewing the rigid feudal social order, in which everyone knew their place, as the social order dictated by God. She believed that her power to rule England was absolute, granted by God, and thus beyond all human question. But Elizabeth was also well aware that she could only maintain power if she convinced her subjects that she was governing them well. She made sure that the people of England felt loved by their queen. She sought and often followed the advice of the most capable men in her kingdom. When necessary, she convened Parliament, England's legislative body, and surprised its members at times by listening carefully to their complaints and suggestions. Despite her own views about power Elizabeth granted the nobility and middle class a voice in her government, or at least the appearance of it. Thus under Elizabeth, the people of England were already heading toward a modern political system in which officials elected by the population ruled the country rather than monarchs who inherited their power. But the path to English democracy would be a rocky one.

Perhaps Elizabeth's most far-reaching policies were her moderate views toward the national religion. When all of Europe was deeply divided after the Reformation, the queen was careful to bring together the moderate English Catholics and Puritans within her government and council. Elizabeth brought an impressive amount of unity to a country that might otherwise have erupted into opposing factions. This unity did not survive the queen for very long.

The kings that followed Elizabeth tried to restrict the powers of the Parliament, which had become largely Puritan, and in 1642 civil war broke out in England. This was a series of political and armed conflicts between those who favored a representative government led by Parliament and those who supported the supreme rule of a monarch. Inl649 Puritan parliamentary leader Oliver Cromwell (1599–1658) took control of England, abolishing both the monarchy and Parliament. After his death the English reestablished the monarchy under Charles II (1630–1685). This was called the Restoration of 1660. But by this time it clear that the king of England no longer held absolute power, and Charles worked with Parliament to rule the nation. His successor, James II (1633–1701), though, was a Catholic who refused to share power. The English population was unwilling to be torn apart by each succeeding monarch. In 1688 when the king's son-in-law, William III (1650–1702), led a rebellion against the king called the Glorious Revolution. William and his wife, Mary II (1662–1694), took over the English throne, but they consented to a constitution that forever limited the authority of the English monarchy. Elizabeth I would have mourned this act as a violation of the proper order of society, and yet many historians credit her with helping to bring about a more democratic society.

Some Famous Film Portrayals of Elizabeth I

Elizabeth has been a popular subject of numerous films over the years. Some of the most famous movies, along with the actresses who played Elizabeth, are listed below:

Queen Elizabeth, starring Sarah Bernhardt (silent).
The Virgin Queen, starring Diana Manners (silent).
Fire Over England, starring Flora Robson as the queen.
The Private Lives of Essex and Elizabeth, starring Bette Davis.
The Virgin Queen, starring Bette Davis in her second portrayal of Elizabeth.
Elizabeth the Queen, starring Judith Anderson.
Elizabeth R, starring Glenda Jackson (six-part series for television).
Mary Queen of Scots, starring Glenda Jackson in her second portrayal of Elizabeth.
Elizabeth, starring Cate Blanchett.
Shakespeare in Love, featuring Judi Dench as Elizabeth.
Elizabeth I: Parts One and Two starring Helen Mirren (two-part series for television).

After the death of Elizabeth, the image of the queen that had been promoted throughout her lifetime—the embodiment of national pride in England and the golden age in its cultural life—came to be revered. Many historians believe that the image of the strong, loving, self-sacrificing Virgin Queen was simply Elizabeth's creation and had little to do with the real-life headstrong, vain, and temperamental queen. Others point to the stability and strength England acquired during Elizabeth's reign, a time when its rival, France, crumbled due to the religious wars between Catholics and Protestants. Many give Elizabeth at least some of the credit for England's golden age. The fascination with the Virgin Queen has never dwindled. Elizabeth has remained an extremely popular subject for biographers and historians, as well as novelists and filmmakers.

For More Information


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

Schama, Simon. A History of Britain: At the Edge of the World? 3500 bc–1603 ad. New York: Hyperion, 2000.

Smith, Lacey Baldwin. The Elizabethan Epic. London: Panther Books, 1966.

Weir, Alison. The Life of Elizabeth I. New York: Ballantine Books, 1998.


"Death of Queen Elizabeth." United Kingdom Parliamentary Archives, (accessed on July 11, 2006).

"Famine." (accessed on July 11, 2006).

"The Original Elizabeth: Here's a List of Movies about the English Queen to Rent or Buy." Newsweek, exclusively for MSNBC on the web. April 16, 2006. (accessed July 11, 2006).

Pilib de Longbhuel, Máirtán. "Nine Years' War." Ireland's OWN History, (accessed on July 11, 2006).