Elizabeth I (r. 1558-1603), sometimes known as the Virgin Queen, was the last monarch of the House of Tudor. Her reign spanned almost half a century, and she oversaw periods of immense change — none more challenging than the English Reformation. Her reign was also characterized by those who surrounded her — ranging from her personal advisors to her alleged lover, and even a rival claimant to the throne. In this article, we will find out why key figures such as Sir Walter Raleigh, were so important during her reign, and how they ultimately shaped the course of English history forever.
1. William Cecil: Secretary of State Under Elizabeth I
William Cecil was born in either 1520 or 1521 and was a well-known name within the Tudor family. He had served under Edward Seymour, First Duke of Somerset, who was Edward VI’s Lord Protector. By 1550, he was sworn in as one of Edward VI’s Secretaries of State. However, when Mary I (r. 1553-58) ascended the throne and tried to revert the country back to Catholicism, Cecil stayed in correspondence with Elizabeth, offering her advice. Thus, when Mary died and Elizabeth ascended the throne on 17 November 1558, Cecil was appointed Secretary of State.
Cecil was to dominate English politics for the next forty years, and soon became arguably the most important figure during the reign of Elizabeth I. In his role as Secretary of State, he was able to oversee almost everything in Elizabeth’s reign, from domestic to foreign policy, religious changes and any hints of rebellion against the Crown.
Domestic policy in the Elizabethan period was largely concerned with who Elizabeth was to marry and the Tudor succession crisis — and Cecil took charge of this. He favored Francois, Duke of Anjou unlike many of his contemporaries who favored Robert Dudley. However, Cecil offered his support to Elizabeth should she want to marry the Duke of Anjou — which ultimately, she did not.
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He also worked very closely with some other figures that will be discussed in this article, including Sir Francis Walsingham. The pair worked very closely as members of “The Watchers” – part of Elizabeth I’s Privy Council (see Stephen Alford, The Watchers: A Secret History of the Reign of Elizabeth I, 2012).
In addition to his work as a member of the Privy Council and Secretary of State, Cecil also took on the role of Lord High Treasurer and made sure that the country was financially stable. His work within Elizabeth I’s government undoubtedly demonstrates that he was one of the best politicians and statesmen of the time. His co-operative nature also meant that he worked with those who had gained political favor under Elizabeth — including Robert Dudley. This example of cooperation also revealed why so much was achieved under Elizabeth I, and why the government was so stable.
Perhaps the finest example of his relationship with both Walsingham and Elizabeth I was in the taking down of Elizabeth’s cousin, Mary, Queen of Scots, who Cecil saw as the most pivotal threat to the Crown. Cecil faithfully served Queen Elizabeth I until his death in 1598, when he was aged between 76 and 77. He is buried at St Martin’s Church, Stamford.
2. Robert Dudley: The Queen’s Best Friend
Robert Dudley is the primary reason why many people no longer believe Elizabeth’s sobriquet “the Virgin Queen”. Born on 24 June 1532, he grew up with Elizabeth (who was born only a year later) and they knew each other from childhood.
Upon Elizabeth’s accession to the throne in 1558, Dudley was beside her when she was crowned, and he remained in Elizabeth’s circle for the rest of his life, until his death in 1588. Rumors circulated that Dudley and Elizabeth I were lovers. However, it was a well-known fact that Dudley was already married; he had married Amy Robsart, who was the daughter of a Norfolk squire, when he was a teenager. This marriage was never for love, according to Dudley, but “a carnal marriage, begun for pleasure” according to William Cecil (Derek Wilson, A Brief History of the English Reformation, 2012). It was further rumored that Elizabeth was waiting for Amy to die so that she could marry Dudley.
And die she did: in September 1560, Amy was found dead with a broken neck after she had allegedly fallen down the stairs in the Dudley home. Robert Dudley was immediately suspected of murder, although it was never clear how Amy died — whether it was cold-blooded murder, suicide, disease, or a freak accident. Although this now meant that Dudley was now free to marry Elizabeth I, he never could marry her as a result of the suspicion that hung over his head — Elizabeth would risk losing the throne if she married him. Nevertheless, Elizabeth stuck by Dudley. She gifted him Kenilworth Castle in 1563 and made him Earl of Leicester in 1564.
Dudley proposed to Elizabeth on Christmas Day 1565, and she turned him down. Dudley left court, and was dragged back on the orders of Elizabeth, and in turn, ordered never to leave her again.
Elizabeth I and Dudley’s personal relationship continued, and in the 1570s she visited him four times at Kenilworth Castle, which was developed hugely during his tenure as Earl of Leicester, so that it was fit for entertaining the Queen. At one point in 1575, she stayed a record 19 days — the longest time she had ever stayed at a courtier’s residence. The final day of her stay Dudley intended to propose to her again, but she saw it coming and rode back to London.
By 1578, Dudley realised that his pursuit of Elizabeth was going nowhere, and he married her cousin, Lettice Knollys. This was a secret marriage (Lettice was possibly pregnant) and kept hidden from Elizabeth I. When she eventually found out, she never spoke to Lettice again, but, remarkably, her relationship with Dudley continued just as it had done before. By this point, the pair of them were simply old friends, and had known each other for over forty years.
They remained this way until 1588, when Dudley’s final success was organizing Elizabeth’s visit to the army camp at Tilbury, before the Spanish Armada. Less than a month later, on 4 September 1588 at Cornbury Park in Oxfordshire, Dudley died, aged 56. He was likely suffering from stomach cancer by the time of his death.
Elizabeth mourned her “brother and best friend” and locked herself away in her chambers for days following his death. She held onto his last personal handwritten note to her for the remainder of her life, and was buried with it when she died in 1603.
3. Sir Francis Walsingham: The Spymaster
Francis Walsingham was born circa 1532 in Kent, England. He was educated at Cambridge University, and also studied in France and Italy, before returning to England in the early 1550s to work as a lawyer, where he enrolled at Grey’s Inn in 1552.
As he was a staunch Protestant, during the reign of Elizabeth I’s sister, Mary I he was exiled and he spent time in Switzerland during this period. It was not until “Bloody” Mary’s death and Elizabeth’s accession in 1558 that he returned to his native England. Upon his arrival, he chose to enter politics, and served as a Member of Parliament for both Bossiney in Cornwall, and then Lyme Regis in Dorset.
During his political career, Walsingham was incredibly engaged in matters that he was passionate about, particularly regarding the Protestant Huguenots in France. These matters ultimately drew him to the attention of William Cecil, who immediately recognized his potential as a skilled politician.
In 1568, Walsingham became Secretary of State, and begun amassing a huge spy network that would lead to the downfall of some of Elizabeth I’s biggest rivals, including Mary Queen of Scots, who was put under house arrest in England the same year. This could not have come at a better time, as tensions were rising in England. In 1569, the Northern Rebellion erupted: a Catholic plot which aimed to replace Elizabeth I with her cousin, Mary Queen of Scots. The plot was foiled, thanks to Walsingham’s network of spies, and he earned the nickname the “Spymaster”.
This plot was swiftly followed by another in 1571: the Ridolfi Plot. It was planned and hatched by Roberto Ridolfi, a Florentine banker, who wanted to replace Elizabeth I with Mary Queen of Scots. As the intensity and seriousness of these plots intensified, Walsingham was promoted to Spymaster General. While the Ridolfi Plot was being put to an end, Walsingham was made Ambassador to France.
It was during his tenure in France that he was affected deeply by both his faith and his experiences of witnessing the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre on 23/24 August 1572. This was an example of Catholic mob violence against the Huguenots during the French Wars of Religion. Modern estimates calculate that between 5,000 and 30,000 people died as a result.
Upon his return to England, after witnessing the horrors of the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, Walsingham informed the Privy Council that European Catholics would view Mary Queen of Scots as a source of power against Elizabeth I’s Protestant England. He also told them that she would remain a threat to the Crown as long as she was alive. He was then appointed Principal Secretary of the Privy Council, and thus one of Elizabeth’s most trusted — and closest — advisors.
Thanks to his ever-expanding network of spies, he foiled another plot in 1583 — the Throckmorton Plot. The plot again aimed to put Mary on the throne, but it was discovered before it even came into place, thanks to the Spymaster, who ensured that it’s conspirator, Francis Throckmorton was arrested. He was executed the following year. This was a significant plot, because under torture, he let slip of the French and Spanish Catholic plans to invade England, which would ultimately culminate in the Spanish Armada.
Yet it was not until 1587 that Walsingham uncovered one of the most famous plots in English history: the Babington Plot. This was named after Anthony Babington, who was planning to assassinate Elizabeth I. Using an analyst and double-agents, Walsingham uncovered the plot, decoded a coded message hidden in a beer barrel cork, and ultimately revealed Mary Queen of Scots’ intentions to kill Elizabeth and take the throne for herself.
Whether or not these documents were forged or edited is keenly debated, even to this day. Mary pleaded her innocence until the end, but Walsingham had his reward: Mary Queen of Scots was sentenced to death and executed on 8 February 1587, aged 44.
Even still, Walsingham’s career had not yet peaked. The same year, he began preparing Dover for the likelihood of a Spanish invasion. In July 1588, the Spanish Armada was making its way to the English Channel. Walsingham continued to gather important information from coastal communities and naval officers, and after the English victory, he was recognized by Naval Commander Lord Henry Seymour for his valuable contributions.
Walsingham’s health soon began to decline (possibly due to cancer or kidney stones) and he died on 6 April 1590 at his home in London, aged about 58. His legacy as Spymaster General makes him one of the most important figures during the reign of Elizabeth I.
4. Mary, Queen of Scots
Mary Queen of Scots, or Mary Stuart, was born on 8 December 1542. She was the daughter of King James V of Scotland (r. 1513-42), himself a member of the Tudor family through his mother, Margaret Tudor, who was Henry VIII’s sister. Thus, Mary Stuart was Elizabeth I’s second cousin. Her father died a week after her birth, meaning she inherited the Scottish throne at just 6 days old.
As a child, it was planned that she be betrothed to Elizabeth I’s brother, the future Edward VI (r. 1547-53). The Scottish refused, and King Henry VIII (r. 1509-47) undertook the “Rough Wooing” — a skirmish between England and Scotland which lasted 9 years. During the middle of this conflict, Mary was sent to France in 1548 in order to become the future wife of the Dauphin, Francis, to reignite the Auld Alliance and form a Catholic opposition to Protestant England. The Dauphin was crowned as Francis II, but reigned for less than a year and died prematurely, still a teenager. Mary reluctantly returned to Scotland, still only 18.
At this time, Scotland was caught in the middle of the Reformation, and a Protestant husband seemed the best bet for Mary. She married Henry, Lord Darnley, but he turned out to be a jealous drunkard who had no authority in Scotland. Darnley became jealous of Mary’s favourite, David Riccio. He murdered Riccio in front of Mary at Holyrood House, while Mary was six months pregnant.
When her son was born, the future James VI of Scotland and I of England, he was baptised in the Catholic faith, which caused a stir among Scottish Protestants. In 1567, Darnley was found dead in suspicious circumstances. The house he was staying in in Edinburgh had been blown up, but Darnley’s body was discovered in the garden, and he had been strangled.
During this period, Mary had become attracted to James Hepburn, Earl of Bothwell, who was accused of Darnley’s murder. However, at a trial, he was found not guilty, and the pair were wed later the same year. Unfortunately, the Scottish Parliament did not think Bothwell a suitable match, and she was imprisoned in Leven Castle where she gave birth to their children, a pair of still-born twins. Bothwell fled to Dunbar, and never saw Mary again. He died in Denmark in 1578, suffering from insanity.
In 1568, Mary escaped Leven Castle and gathered a small Catholic army together. They were defeated by a Protestant force, and she then fled to England. In England, her fortune was not much better: she became a political threat to Elizabeth, and was put under house arrest for the next 19 years in different castles throughout the country.
After numerous plots (mentioned above) she was found guilty of treason, and in 1587 sentenced to death and executed. Her legacy lived on beyond her death, though. Having no heir of her own, Elizabeth I left the throne to James Stuart, Mary’s son. He became James VI of Scotland and James I of England in 1603 after Elizabeth’s death. He also started the House of Stuart in England, which ruled England until the death of Queen Anne in 1714.
5. Sir Walter Raleigh: Elizabeth I’s Explorer
Walter Raleigh was born circa 1552 to Walter Raleigh Senior and Catherine Champernowne. He was the youngest of five sons, and grew up in Devonshire, England. The Raleigh family were proudly Protestant, and had to avoid more than a few attempts on their lives and attacks on their faith in Walter’s early years under the reign of Mary I. He went on to study at Oxford University but left his course, and instead moved to France in 1569 and served under the Huguenots.
Very little is known of Walter Raleigh’s life between 1569 and 1575, but in his History of the World, he claimed to have been an eyewitness at the Battle of Moncontour (3 October 1569) in France. He returned to England sometime between 1575 and 1576.
He served under Elizabeth upon his return to England and served in Ireland, playing a huge part in supressing the Desmond Rebellions between 1579 and 1583. He also led an expedition at the Siege of Smerwick, where the party beheaded approximately 600 Spanish and Italian soldiers. As a result, Raleigh seized some 40,000 acres of land, making him one of the primary landholders in Ireland. Elizabeth rewarded his efforts with a large Irish estate, and followed this up with a knighthood in 1585.
Elizabeth I was also interested in colonizing the world. She granted Sir Walter Raleigh a royal charter, which authorized him to explore the New World (the Americas) and to colonize any “remote, heathen and barbarous lands, countries and territories, not actually possessed of any Christian Prince or inhabited by Christian People.” (Charter to Sir Walter Raleigh, 1584.) Raleigh set off to North America on Elizabeth’s orders and explored the East Coast from modern-day North Carolina to Florida, and named the region Virginia, in honor of Elizabeth I (the “Virgin Queen”).
In 1587, Sir Walter Raleigh sent an ill-fated expedition across the Atlantic and established a colony at Roanoke. However, although he promised them he would return in a year with more supplies, the reality was different. It was another three years before Raleigh would return, although this was due to Elizabeth I’s insistence that all vessels should remain in port in England during the Spanish Armada (1588).
There was also a further delay; when Sir Walter Raleigh was on route to Roanoke, his crew insisted that they go via Cuba, in order to capture any treasure-laden Spanish ships. The ship eventually landed in Roanoke, three years later than planned. When they arrived, there was no sign of the settlers. The words “CROATOAN” and “CRO” were engraved into trees — the name of a nearby island. However, a hurricane prevented them from investigating Croatoan Island, and no further attempts at finding the settlers were made for years. The original settlement is now known as the Lost Colony of Roanoke Island.
Nevertheless, Sir Walter Raleigh returned with plenty of treasure for the Crown, and Elizabeth rewarded him with two houses, and appointing him Captain of the Yeoman of the Guard. In 1591, he secretly married Elizabeth Throckmorton, one of Elizabeth I’s ladies-in-waiting. When Elizabeth I found out the following year, she imprisoned the newly-weds in the Tower of London. Sir Walter Raleigh was released in August 1592 and took part in the Battle of Flores, where he captured a Spanish merchant ship, and was sent to divide the spoils fairly. He was then returned to the Tower of London, but released again in 1593.
In 1594, Raleigh heard word of a legendary Spanish island in Venezuela called “El Dorado”, the island of gold, and he led an expedition there in order to find it — which he, of course, did not. However, he did “discover” modern-day Guyana, which he wrote about in a highly exaggerated account entitled The Discovery of Guiana in 1596. The same year, he took part in the Capture of Cadiz, where he was wounded. He later acted as governor of Jersey from 1600 to 1603. At this time he was back in Elizabeth I’s royal favor, but it was not to last for long. Queen Elizabeth I died on 24 March 1603.
The new King, James I, did not trust Raleigh and sentenced him to death on charges of treason. This decision was revoked, and he was instead sentenced to imprisonment in the Tower of London, where he lived with his family until his release in 1616. Upon his release, he was ordered to search for gold in South America and when he returned empty-handed, his original charge of treason was re-invoked, and he was sentenced to death. Sir Walter Raleigh was executed on 29 October 1618, and is buried in St Margaret’s Church in Westminster.