Story of England - S. B. Harding

England Under Elizabeth


Dates of Elizabeth's reign; why she feared Mary Stuart; attitude of France and Spain; the Reformation in Scotland; Mary's fall into the hands of Elizabeth; the "Casket Letters"; Elizabeth keeps Mary prisoner; Mary put to death.

Causes of the conflicts between England and Spain; Sir Francis Drake; Philip proposes the "Armada"; Drake delays its sailing; it sets forth; running fight in the Channel; defeat of the Armada; its effects.

Rise of the Puritans; difference between the "Separatists" and other Puritans; Elizabeth's policy towards the Puritans; towards Catholics; attitude of the Puritans toward Elizabeth.

The great writers of Elizabeth's time; William Shakespeare.

Why Elizabeth never married; means for the succession; Elizabeth's death; her character.

Queen Elizabeth's reign is notable, not only for the establishing of the Reformation in England, but for other events which made a deep impression on the minds of the people. These were the execution of Mary Queen of Scots, and the defeat of the great Spanish fleet, called the Armada. In order to understand these two events, we must understand the dangers by which Elizabeth was all her life surrounded, from foes abroad, and from hostile parties at home.

[Illustration] from The Story of England by S. B. Harding

Queen Elizabeth

Perhaps you may ask: "Why was it that Philip II. of Spain did not interfere in England, while it was under Elizabeth, to protect the Catholics, and to put down the Protestant religion?"

The answer is that he was so jealous of France that he preferred to see England become Protestant rather than see it Catholic under France.

Mary Stuart, Queen of the Scots (as you will remember), had been married to the son of the French King; so, when he became King in turn (as he did the year after Elizabeth became Queen of England), the two kingdoms of France and Scotland were united under French rule. Queen Mary claimed to be the rightful ruler of England, also, on the ground that Elizabeth's father and mother were not truly married, and so the throne should go to herself as the nearest lawful heir.

It was this claim that Philip II. feared to see established, for it would make France so powerful that Spain would be completely overshadowed. He took Elizabeth under his protection, and even proposed to marry her, though to this Elizabeth could not consent. Mary's French husband soon died, and she returned to Scotland as a young widow of nineteen. But Philip II. could still be counted upon to aid Elizabeth in checking any movement to enforce Mary's claim to the throne of England, because Queen Mary leaned on French support.

All this made Elizabeth the enemy of the Queen of Scots. In addition, Elizabeth was foolishly jealous of her, because Mary was younger and more lovely than Elizabeth. But it was Mary's own imprudence and misconduct that finally put her completely in Elizabeth's power.

Scotland was now in the midst of a Reformation of the church which was more thoroughly Protestant than that which had taken place in England. Its teachings came from John Calvin, a religious reformer in Geneva, Switzerland. The Church government there became more democratic than that which was established in England, for it put the chief power in the hands of "presbyters," or elders, instead of bishops. The chief preacher of this "Presbyterian" reform in Scotland was John Knox, a bold but harsh preacher, of whom it was said that "one mass-service was more fearful to him than ten thousand armed enemies."

In order to strengthen her position on the throne, Queen Mary married her worthless cousin, Lord Darnley, who was Catholic. This act offended Protestant lords. A son was born to Mary; nevertheless she and her husband bitterly quarreled. The Protestant lords formed a plot to get rid of Darnley, and one night the house in which he was recovering from a spell of sickness was blown up. The next morning his dead body was found in a near-by field—strangled. A fierce, bullying lord, named Bothwell, was chiefly responsible for the murder; but he was so powerful that the attempt to punish him was given up. Mary was passionately in love with Bothwell, and, ten weeks after the murder of her husband, she allowed herself to be carried off and married to him. Her subjects then rebelled, drove Bothwell from the kingdom, made her infant son King as James VI., and shut her up in prison. Soon, however, Mary contrived to escape, through the aid of a young page, and to raise an army. When she was finally defeated in battle, she fled into England, to ask aid from her enemy, Elizabeth, in recovering her forfeited throne.

[Illustration] from The Story of England by S. B. Harding

Gold Coin of Elizabeth

Elizabeth did not wish to encourage rebels to revolt against her ruler, but she could not let Mary go. As one of her courtiers said, she now "held the wolf that wished to devour her." "Why does the Queen of Scotland seem so dangerous to you?" one of Mary's friends asked Elizabeth.

"Because she is a Papist," the English Queen replied, "and wishes to succeed to my throne."

The Scots sent to Elizabeth letters which they claimed had been left by Bothwell, in a silver casket, when he fled. If these "Casket Letters" were genuine, they proved that Mary had had a part in Darnley's death, and so was guilty with Bothwell of his murder. Without deciding this question, Elizabeth ordered Mary to be kept prisoner, and from that day until her death on the scaffold, eighteen years later, the Queen of Scots remained in honorable confinement in Elizabeth's castles.

Many Englishmen did not think that this was enough. So long as Mary lived, conspirators were at work trying to stir up rebellion, which would dethrone Elizabeth—and possibly murder her—and give the crown to Mary. Mary knew of some of these plots, and encouraged them. At one time she sent this message to the Spanish ambassador in England:

"Tell your master that if he will help me, I shall be Queen of England in three months, and mass shall be said throughout the land."

To aid Mary's cause, the Pope excommunicated Elizabeth, and declared her subjects to be freed from their oaths of allegiance. This forced English Catholics to choose between obedience to their Church and their duty to their Queen. France and Spain had now made up their quarrel, and were ready to aid in restoring England to the list of Catholic countries. Catholic priests came into England from France, at the peril of their lives, to convert the people; and some of these were engaged in the conspiracies against Elizabeth. After the failure of one of these plots the Protestant nobles of England formed a great "association," binding themselves to avenge any attempt against the life of their Queen. Soon after this, Parliament passed a law providing that any one in whose favor a plot should be made should be put to death. This law was directed against Mary of Scotland; nevertheless, her friends paid no attention to the warning, and the plotting continued.

Positive proof of a new plot was soon obtained, and then at last Mary herself was brought to trial. It was not clearly proved that she had given any encouragement to the attempts against the Queen's life, yet she had taken part in the conspiracy to dethrone the Queen. The law considered her guilty, and she was sentenced to death. After much hesitation, Elizabeth signed the death warrant, and Mary was beheaded, in February, 1587. She went to her execution with the courage of a martyr.

"Cease to lament," said she to one of her attendants, "for you shall now see a final end to Mary Stuart's troubles. I pray you, take this message when you go—that I die true to my religion, to Scotland, and to France."

Many English Catholics had supported Mary Stuart's claims to the English throne. But when she passed these on to Philip II. of Spain (as she did at her death), all Englishmen united to oppose him. Spain at this time ruled Mexico, the West Indies, and the greater part of South America, and claimed the sole right to settle and trade in those regions. This claim the English sailors had refused to recognize. They crossed the Atlantic, traded wherever they liked, and fought and captured Spanish treasure ships. Many of them were little better than pirates, and grew rich by kidnapping slaves in Africa and selling them to the Spanish colonists.

The greatest of these English captains was Sir Francis Drake. On one of his expeditions to the West Indies, he visited the mainland of North America, where he found and rescued a small body of English colonists, who had been sent out by Sir Walter Raleigh. On another voyage, he rounded Cape Horn, and attacked the Spanish colonies on the west coast of South America, where he secured an immense amount of gold, silver, and precious stones. In returning to England, he sailed across the Pacific and around the cape of Good Hope. A Spanish expedition under Magellan had sailed around the world sixty years before; but Drake, in this voyage, was the first Englishman to accomplish that feat. By such acts as his, the hatred between the Spanish and English was steadily increased.

[Illustration] from The Story of England by S. B. Harding

Drake's Ship, the Golden Hind

When, therefore, Philip of Spain made ready to seize the crown of England, and re-establish there the Catholic religion, all England was aroused. Philip collected a great fleet, which was called the "Invincible Armada." With this, he intended to send a great army into England, partly from Spain and partly from the Netherlands. Before the expedition was ready, Sir Frances Drake, with thirty small ships, sailed boldly into the Spanish harbor of Cadiz, and destroyed the ships and supplies there. Drake called this "singeing the Spanish King's beard." By this brave deed, the sailing of the Armada was delayed until the next year.

To resist the Spanish attack, the English collected ships from all their coast towns, and mustered an army near London. When the Spanish fleet appeared in the English Channel, the news was flashed by bonfires from hilltop to hilltop, all over the kingdom. The Armada consisted of 132 vessels, many of them great high-decked ships, crowded with men. Some were galleys rowed by oars, such as had been used in the Mediterranean Sea since the ancient days of Greece and Rome. The English fleet, under Lord Howard and Sir Francis Drake, numbered 198 vessels, most of them smaller than in the Armada, but swifter, better sailers, and manned by more skilful seamen and better gunners.

The English allowed the Armada to pass by, and then followed it up the Channel. For a whole week, from Plymouth to Calais, the English hung upon the rear of the Spaniards, now advancing, now nimbly retiring, but always fighting, and "plucking the feathers" of the great Armada one by one. The Armada dropped anchor at Calais, to get news of the army which they were to escort from the Netherlands to England. The English, however, sent into the harbor six blazing fire-ships, which they had prepared, and the Spaniards were forced to cut their cables and put out to sea. After another all-day fight, the Spaniards turned northward, sailing before a southerly breeze. They failed to take on the army to invade England, and already the expedition was a failure.

Worse, however, was to follow. Storms came, and scores of the clumsy Spanish vessels were dashed to pieces, while trying to round the northern coasts of Scotland and Ireland. Out of the splendid fleet which set sail with such confidence, only fifty-three vessels returned to Spain. Philip II. did not blame his admiral for this disaster. "I sent you to fight against men," said he, "and not with the winds."

The defeat of the Armada freed the English from their fear of Spain. It did more. The whole nation now shared the spirit of men like Drake, and the foundations were soon laid of the trade, colonial empire, and sea power which make England "the mistress of the seas." The power of Spain now rapidly declined.

Toward the close of Elizabeth's reign, the religious question again came to the front. The trouble was no longer with the Catholics, but with the extreme Protestants, who wanted to go further in reform. They were not satisfied with the moderate Protestant position which Elizabeth had taken, but wished to do away with nearly everything used by the Catholic church in its worship—priestly robes, images, painted windows, incense, candles, and the like. They also wished to end the rule of the bishops in the Church. They were called "Puritans," because they wished to purify the Church. Some Puritans even wished to do away with any united church, established for the whole country, and to form separate congregations, each independent of the others. These are called "Separatists," or "Independents."

Elizabeth was as despotic as her father, and would not permit anything which looked like disobedience to the laws which she had established. Puritans were fined heavily for staying away from church, and when they attempted to hold meeting of their own, these were severely put down. Thus Elizabeth persecuted Puritans on the one hand, while, on the other, Catholics were being fined, imprisoned, and even put to death. There was this difference, however: in the earlier part of her reign Catholics were often plotting for her downfall; but the spirit among the Puritans was shown by one of their number, who was condemned to lose his right hand for writing against the bishops, and who nevertheless, waving his hat with the hand that was left to him, cried, "God save the Queen."

[Illustration] from The Story of England by S. B. Harding

State Carriages of Elizabeth's Time

We must not close the account of the reign of Elizabeth without a few words concerning the great writers which it produced. In no other reign did literature flourish as it did under "good Queen Bess." Poets, playwriters, and essayists abounded; while, in the person of Sir Francis Bacon, England could boast one of the greatest philosophers.

Among all the writers of the Elizabethan era, William Shakespeare stands first. He was born of poor parents, at Stratford on the river Avon, in the year 1564. He received a grammar school education, and went to London, where he became an actor and writer of plays. He died in 1616. He was the greatest play writer of modern times, and one of the greatest poets. His plays have been translated into many languages. They are still acted many times every year, and the books containing them are found in all libraries. His plays include both comedies and tragedies; they picture all kinds of life, and show men and women acting under all kinds of emotions. Sayings taken from his plays are almost as common today as those from the Bible.

Queen Elizabeth did not live to see all of Shakespeare's plays, for when he was at his best she was already old. To the end of her life, she remained England's "Virgin Queen." She had many suitors for her hand, and it gratified her vanity to have them about her; but she could marry neither foreigner nor Englishman, neither Catholic nor Protestant, without offending some of her subjects. Any marriage, moreover, would endanger the exercise of that independent power which was so dear to Elizabeth's heart. So, in the end, she never married at all, although she long talked about it, and was urged again and again by her subjects to do so, in order that the succession to the throne might be settled.

The character of Elizabeth was a mixture of great and little qualities. She was so vain and extravagant that she had 3,000 gowns of strange fashion, and eighty wigs of different colored hair. She used to paint her face to hide the marks of age. She was not truthful, and her conduct in many ways revealed the coarseness of her time. On the other hand, she had the wisdom to chose good advisers; and however vain and selfish she might seem, she always had the interests of England at heart.

"There will never Queen sit in my seat," she once said to Parliament, "with more zeal to my country, or care to my subjects. And though you have had, and may have, many princes more mighty and more wise sitting in this seat, yet you never had, nor shall have, any that will be more careful or loving."

She saw England grow from a divided to a united nation, and from a weak to a great state; and in this growth she had the chief part.

She died at the age of seventy. When asked at the last to settle the succession to the throne, she said:

"I will have no rascal's son in my seat, but one worthy to be a King."

And when further pressed to declare her wishes, she added:

"And who should this be, but our cousin of Scotland."

So Mary Stuart's son, who was a Protestant, and was known as James VI. of Scotland, succeeded at last to the throne of the great Elizabeth.


  1. What was the relationship in blood of Elizabeth and Mary Stuart? Why did Catholics believe that Mary's right to the English throne was better than Elizabeth's. [?]
  2. Did Elizabeth do right in imprisoning Mary Queen of Scots? Did she do right in putting her to death? Give your reasons.
  3. Imagine yourself a boy or girl at the time of the Armada, and write an account of its defeat.
  4. Find out what you can about Sir Francis Drake.
  5. Write a short account of William Shakespeare.
  6. In what ways was Elizabeth a great ruler?