Elizabeth experienced two major challenges in the last twenty years of her reign: the threat to her throne from her cousin, the beautiful Mary Stuart, the queen of Scotland and from Philip II, the King of Spain—her former half-brother-in-law.
Mary Stuart inherited the Scottish throne in 1542 at the death of father when she was six days old. While Scotland was ruled by regents, Mary was betrothed to the heir to the French throne. They married young but, unfortunately, Francis died the following year—just as Nostradamus had predicted. After the death of Queen Mary Tudor of England, Mary Stuart claimed the English throne, denying Elizabeth’s right to inherit. Mary, as the granddaughter of Henry VIII’s sister, had a strong claim to the English throne.
The Scottish Queen Mary refused Elizabeth’s offer to marry Robert Dudley and instead married the seventeen-year-old Henry, Lord Darnley, a cousin also descended from the English royal family. He proved a poor husband with vile habits and he and his friends eventually murdered Mary’s secretary, David Rizzio, in front of her while she was pregnant. When she delivered her son, James, Mary and Henry were estranged and Mary was suspected of being party to planning his death. Having escaped a poisoning attempt, he managed to survive the explosion of the Kirk o Fields where he was residing. Henry’s body was found outside—he’d been strangled.
Mary allied herself with James Hepburn, Lord Bothwell who was probably behind Henry’s murder. She married Bothwell but, when the Scottish nobles turned against them, he fled leaving her a captive of the Scots. She miscarried twins and escaped to England looking for refuge. She found another prison that would hold her for 20 years.
While in her prison, Mary was involved in two conspiracies-both of which failed. The Ridolfi plot in 1570 involved a conspiracy with Spain who would provide soldiers to place Mary on the English throne. In the Babington Plot of 1584, Mary conspired with Catholics in the assassination of Elizabeth which would have placed her on the throne. Mary was found guilty and sentenced to beheading. Elizabeth signed the warrant but refused to allow the execution. Her counselors, with the tacit approval of Mary’s own son, authorized the execution. Elizabeth was furious but helpless to do anything.
Mary died well dressed in a bright red chemise in 1587. When the executioner lifted her decapitated head for all to see, her head detached from her wig and went rolling across the platform. Her bloody voluminous gown started moving around to the chagrin of all, until her little dog popped out from his hiding place beneath her skirts. After he was crowned King of England, James who had not seen his mother since infancy moved her body to Westminster next to Elizabeth. More on him later.
Elizabeth’s other challenge was the Spanish Crown who were aggrieved by England over Mary’s death and the repeated attacks by English privateers (pirates). The Spanish commenced building a huge fleet to attack England. Fortunately, England had been developing a fleet of its own and had access to the ships of the privateers. By 1588, attack was imminent. Sir Francis Drake’s forces did little damage on the initial contact. As the huge lumbering Spanish ships made their way up the English channel. At night, near Gravelines, the English loosed “hell-burners” (ships intentionally set afire) among the Spanish fleet. The burning ships and smaller English ships darting through the fleet damaged the Spanish fleet which was forced to sail north around Scotland and Ireland to return home. Half the ships and men (over 20,000) were lost to battle, illness, and starvation.
Elizabeth traveled to Tilbury where the English land troops were gathered and gave her famous speech: “. . .I know I have the body of a weak and feeble woman, but I have the heart and stomach of a king, and of a king of England too, and think foul scorn that Parma [the commander of Spanish force in the Low Countries] or Spain, or any prince of Europe should dare to invade the borders of my realm; to which, rather than any dishonour shall grow by me, I myself will take up arms, I myself will be your general, judge and rewarder of every one of your virtues in the field.” The Armada portrait was one of her most famous.
The English rejoiced over their victory. Elizabeth honored Drake as a hero. Robert Dudley rode at her side through the celebration but due to ill health left to seek a cure at a warm spring. On the way, he died suddenly. Elizabeth was devastated and inconsolable but England was safe. Next week, a Valentine surprise. Rita Bay