Queen Elizabeth I’s Reign in the 1580s and 1590s

Carole Levin

While there was great anxiety in the 1580s as relations between England and Spain continued to become more and more unstable, the decade ended with a rousing speech by the queen, a great naval victory over Philip II’s ‘invisible Armada’, and a celebration for the queen at St Paul's. Had Elizabeth’s reign ended then it would have finished in triumph. But that triumph of the end of the 1580s led to a more difficult decade in the 1590s, with more threats from Spain, bad harvests and hunger, inflation, and growing problems with Ireland. The deaths or illnesses of Queen Elizabeth’s closest advisors such as Robert Dudley, the earl of Leicester; Sir Francis Walsingham; and William Cecil, Lord Burghley led to a far more polarized court and a tragic queen.

The first edition of Robert Wilson’s Three Ladies of London was published in 1584, and the second in 1592, and the real differences in these decades clarify what was happening on the political stage, how Elizabeth I handled it, and how people responded.1 The play deals with a number of issues such as financial concerns, trade and relations with other countries, foreigners, and also questions of gender and power, and these issues were of great significance in the two decades. While the 1580s had some of the most serious crises of the reign, the decade ended on a high note of national celebration, while the 1590s were a time of greater desolation. The 1580s was a decade leading up to the crisis of threatened Spanish invasion, while in the 1590s the worsening economic problems, continued fear of foreign invasion, and the ageing of a queen who still refused to name an heir, caused great worries.

The decade of the 1580s began with the end of the final marriage negotiation of the reign. Francis, duke of Anjou, made his second and last visit to England in 1581, hoping to convince the Queen, who was twenty-two years older than he, to finally agree to marry him. On 22 November 1581, while the court was at Whitehall to celebrate Accession Day, Elizabeth and Anjou were strolling the gallery with Robert Dudley, earl of Leicester, and Sir Francis Walsingham, Michel de Castelnau, seigneur de Mauvissiere, the French ambassador, entered and stated that Henry III had ordered him to find out from the queen’s own mouth what she planned to do concerning the marriage with his brother. Elizabeth responded by kissing Anjou on the mouth and giving him one of her rings. The delighted duke gave her his in return. Elizabeth called those in the hall to come to the gallery and repeated to them her intention to marry Anjou and these observers understood that the marriage was contracted by this promise. But it is doubtful Elizabeth was serious; rather, she may have made the statement for political reasons possibly to placate the French, or if she was serious soon after changed her mind, or realized the anti-French marriage wave was too strong. On 1 February 1582 Anjou left London with funds given him as a consolation prize to help him aid the Dutch. But Anjou’s aid was ineffectual and he died 1584. Someone else died in 1584, which upset the English far more: William the Silent, the leader of the Dutch resistance, whom Balthasar Gerard shot, after Philip II had put a price on William’s head. If the head of the Dutch resistance could be assassinated, the English greatly feared that the same could happen to Elizabeth.

Elizabeth’s potential assassination had aroused great concern since 1568, when Mary Stuart had fled to England after her forced abdication as queen of Scotland. Mary had been a most problematic guest for Elizabeth, who did not want to let her leave England and find support from a Catholic power for an invasion of Scotland to return her to the throne, especially as such an army could also be used against England to make Mary queen of both countries. But keeping Mary Stuart in England also kept her as a focus for rebellion and assassination attempts on Elizabeth. From the time Mary came to England, numerous attempts to rescue her and assassinate Elizabeth had occurred, and by the 1580s Mary was actively involved in a number of such plots. Julian Goodare argues that ‘plotting became her main political activity’, and that she ‘probably involved’ (and that those she trusted definitely were) in the Throckmorton plot that was discovered in November 1583.2 The plan was for the duke of Guise to invade England with Spanish help and place Mary on the throne after Elizabeth was deposed and murdered. The English Catholic Francis Throckmorton was eager to serve the Catholic cause and Mary Stuart. When Walsingham learned of the plot, he had Throckmorton arrested, and discovered the connections not only with Mary but also with the Spanish ambassador, Bernadino de Mendoza. In 1584 Throckmorton was executed, and Mendoza was given fifteen days to leave the country when proof of his involvement was clear. In 1583, meanwhile, the Catholic John Somerville had also come to London with the plan of killing Elizabeth.3

While parliament and her council sought Mary Stuart’s execution, Elizabeth refused to sanction it. The English responded to these worries with the Bond of Association, devised by Walsingham and William Cecil, Lord Burghley. It stated that, were Elizabeth to be assassinated, the person for whom the assassinated benefited would also be killed, whether or not she was involved. Obscure though it sounds, this was a patent warning that an assassination of Elizabeth would also doom Mary Stuart. Thousands of loyal Protestant Englishmen signed the Bond.

But the plots against Elizabeth did not end. In 1585 William Parry, who had tried to gain funds as a spy, was executed for plotting to murder Elizabeth. The same year the international situation was also becoming more fraught. The Catholic League in France under the leadership of Henry, duke of Guise, had become so powerful that they had forced Henry III to disavow the Huguenot Henry of Navarre, the heir to the French throne since the death of the duke of Anjou the previous year. And, with the death of William the Silent, the Dutch Protestants were in trouble. In August 1585 Alexander Farnese, duke of Parma had taken over Antwerp. As the Dutch were begging the English queen for help, Elizabeth and her advisors became convinced that they had to give direct aid to the Dutch rebels with Robert Dudley, earl of Leicester in charge. But Leicester was rather inefficient. One of the great tragedies for the English of the Netherlands campaign occurred in October 1586: Sir Philip Sidney, Leicester’s nephew and considered one of the great poets and courtiers of his age, died of wounds incurred in battle. His body was eventually returned to England in February of the following year, and Walsingham, his father-in-law, arranged a grand funeral for him. Perhaps for some it helped distract them from the execution of Mary Stuart, the same month.

Catholic gentleman Sir Anthony Babington developed the final plot to assassinate Elizabeth with the goal of putting Mary Stuart on the throne of England in the spring and early summer of 1586. Babington had gotten to know Mary in 1579 when he was a page in the household of George Talbot, earl of Shrewsbury, who had been in charge of Mary Stuart for over fifteen years before she was placed in the custody of Sir Amias Paulet in 1585; Paulet kept Mary under much stricter confinement than Shrewsbury had. With some other young Catholic courtiers and connections in France and Spain he planned the murder of Elizabeth and the invasion of England. But Sir Francis Walsingham was able to have an agent infiltrate the group and learned about the entire plot, including Mary’s correspondence with Babington, which showed Mary’s complicity. Babington and the other conspirators were arrested, tried for treason, and executed. But the real issue was Mary Stuart’s own trial, and Walsingham and Burghley convinced the reluctant Elizabeth to agree to it. Mary Stuart claimed that as she was a queen, Elizabeth had no right to try her. Held at Fotheringhay Castle, the evidence at the trial was clear and there was never any doubt about the verdict. Mary was found guilty of plotting a political assassination, a capital crime; nevertheless, those advisors who wanted Mary executed had to overcome Elizabeth’s aversion to the idea. By this time Elizabeth probably wanted Mary dead but did not want the international community to hold her responsible. Any hints, however, that Paulet should take care of her death on his own fell on deaf ears. In December parliament intensively petitioned for Mary’s execution. Elizabeth finally signed the death warrant but, certainly knowing that it would be immediately dispatched, asked that it not be sent. Of course it was, and on 8 February Mary’s head was struck off.

While Mary Stuart’s execution solved certain problems, it opened England up to others. Spain was upset by England’s support of the Netherlands, enraged by Sir Francis Drake and Sir John Hawkins picking off Spanish ships, but an invasion that ended up with Mary Stuart and her French connections on the throne of England could be problematic for Spain. Once Mary was dead, Philip started planning his invasion of England, and since England was used to queens, he promised England’s rule to his daughter Isabella Clara Eugenia.

In April 1587 Drake attacked the Spanish navy at Cadiz and delayed the Armada for a year, giving England additional time to prepare. By 1588 it was obvious that the Armada was coming and that England was in a highly anxious state. English Catholics abroad were jubilant about the plan to restore England to obedience and Rome, and looked for aid from their co-religionists at home. But the English, both Catholic and Protestant, united behind their queen in a show of great patriotism.

The Spanish planned for the Armada to sail up the Channel so they could then meet up with Parma’s forces to launch the invasion of England. The English had 22,000 men assembled at a camp near Tilbury so they could stop Parma before he reached London. In every county soldiers waited in a state of readiness. Charles Howard, lord high admiral, and Drake, his second in command, brilliantly scattered the Spanish forces. Though the English were aware of this victory, at first no one understood its magnitude. When the earl of Leicester invited the queen to visit her army at Tilbury, many believed the Armada might still be able to pull together and invade. Though some of her council were against Elizabeth's making the trip, feeling it would put her in too much danger, she accepted the invitation, and her speech to the troops was one of the most famous she delivered. While some question the provenance of the speech, many accept the version where she claimed ‘to have the heart and stomach of a king’.4

The English celebrated their victory, which for a time strongly heightened their confidence. The English adored their queen. One man in 1588 described Elizabeth as the ‘Phoenix of the worlde. The Angell of Englande’.5 But it soon became clear that this English victory over the Armada did not resolve everything. The period after the Armada was a tough one for Elizabeth. Less than six weeks after the defeat of the Armada the earl of Leicester died. He was probably the man with the closest personal relationship to Elizabeth and his death was devastating to her. In 1590 she also lost her spymaster, Sir Francis Walsingham. And though her closest advisor, William Cecil, Lord Burghley, survived until 1598, he was in ill health and left much of his work to his son Robert. So Elizabeth lost the men she most trusted, and also dealt with the struggles for power at court between Sir Robert Cecil on the one side, and Leicester’s step-son Robert Devereux, earl of Essex, on the other.

In the meantime, Philip II stated he would build a better Armada and renew his ‘enterprise of England’. Fear of further Armadas cast a deep shadow over the 1590s, and Philip sent fleets in 1596 and 1597, that, luckily for the English, storms drove back. Costs of war and defence grew heavy with England still involved in the Netherlands and supporting the Huguenots in France.

With Hugh O’Neill, earl of Tyrone, leading a charge against English rule in Ireland, the problems there became more intense. The English greatly feared that the Spanish would aid the Irish, which indeed they did. In the summer of 1598 Tyrone besieged a garrison and led a charge against English soldiers who came in support. Nearly half the royal army was killed, and by that fall the English had lost control of most of Ireland. After a lot of contention, Elizabeth agreed to send Essex to Ireland. He had an army of 16,000 men, the most ever sent to Ireland. But Essex was not able to accomplish anything, and though the queen had commanded him not to leave his post, in September 1599 he rushed to court to try to explain to her why he had not really failed in Ireland. Essex was in trouble, and the queen very upset with him.

Though the 1590s were a time of great cultural achievement, they were also a time of great anxiety. Added to this apprehension were a series of poor harvests, causing famine and inflation, and the Crown was having problems paying the bills. Though most assumed that the next heir would be Mary Stuart’s son James VI of Scotland, the ageing queen refused to name her successor. In the House of Commons Peter Wentworth had been pushing for Elizabeth to name her successor since the 1580s, and while he wrote his Pithie Exhortation to her Majestie for Establishing Her Successor the Crowne in 1587, it was not published until 1598, some years after his death. He warned Elizabeth, ‘That when soever it shall please God to touche you with the pangs of death (as die most certainlie you shall ... ), if your Majestie doe not settle the succession in your life-time ... your grace shall then finde such a troubled soule and conscience, yea, ten thousand helles in your soule’.6

How completely different from what was said about Elizabeth only one decade earlier! She had gone from ‘Phoenix of the worlde. The Angell of Englande’ to ‘a troubled soule and conscience’, like Love and Conscience in Three Ladies, and the promise of hell. As the 1590s were ending, England would soon have the last rebellion of the reign led by the earl of Essex, leading to his execution, and not that long after the death of the queen.


[1] For more on this subject, see Wallace T. MacCaffrey, Queen Elizabeth and the Making of Policy, 1572-1588 (Princeton, 1981) and Elizabeth I: War and Politics, 1558-1603 (Princeton, 1992), Susan Doran, Elizabeth I and Foreign Policy, 1558-1603 (New York, 2000) and Elizabeth I & Her Circle (Oxford, 2015); Carole Levin, The Heart and Stomach of a King: Elizabeth I and the Politics of Sex and Power, 2nd edition (Philadelphia, 2013) and The Reign of Elizabeth I (New York, 2002).

[2] Julian Goodare, ‘Mary (1542–1587)’, H.C.G. Matthew and B. Harrison (eds), Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford, 2004); online ed. L. Goldman, May 2007, http://0-www.oxforddnb.com.library.unl.edu/view/article/18248 (accessed 8 February 2015).

[3] For more on the plots and the efforts to thwart them, see Stephen Alford, The Watchers: A Secret History of the Reign of Elizabeth I (New York, 2012).

[4] Cabala, Mysteries of State and Government (London, 1663), 373. Leah Marcus, Janel Mueller, and Mary Beth Rose accept this version. Marcus, Mueller, and Rose (eds), Elizabeth I: Collected Works (Chicago, 2000), 325. For an alternate view, see Susan Frye, ‘The Myth of Elizabeth at Tilbury’, Sixteenth Century Journal 23.1 (1992), 95-114.

[5] Henry Lyte, The Light of Britayne. A Recorde of the honorable original & antiquitie of Britaine (London, 1588), A3.

[6] Peter Wentworth, A pithie exhortation to her Maiestie for establishing her successor to the crowne Whereunto is added a discourse containing the authors opinion of the true and lavvfull successor to her Maiestie (London, 1598), 8.