Queen Elizabeth I has gone down in history as one of the world’s greatest monarch. And she certainly is, but as with every monarch, there is a dark aspect to her reign that’s often neglected by novelists and some historians.
In his critically acclaimed biography on Elizabeth I, Dr. David Starkey, praises her good administration while also critiquing it when it comes to handling Irish affairs, and looking after her Veterans, which is one of many aspects, that is representative of the last years of her reign. As he writes below, her desire to be loved nearly undermined her, but her eloquence, being cautionary to a fault in matters of religions and her determination are what saved her and enabled her to become England’s most successful monarch.
“Like Mary, Elizabeth had begun well. But would she be any better in the long run? At first sight the signs were not all that good … from the point of view of practical government, was the distinction between the Queen’s two wills: her private will and her public will. Her private will was what she actually wanted to do. Her public will was what, after taking due counsel and advise, she ought to do. Elizabeth promised to respect this distinction … But doing what we ought rather than what we want comes easily to none of us … The Elizabeth Church, as we have seen, was a Goldilocks settlement: neither too hot nor too cold. As such, it pleased neither the orthodox Roman Catholics, for whom it went far too far, nor the hotter sort of Protestants, later known as Puritans, for whom it did not go nearly far enough. Indeed, among the elite, it probably only pleased Elizabeth … For her policy was founded on a careful combination of principle and expedience. After her own experiences under Mary, she was not, she insisted, in the business of forcing men’s consciences. That alone made her reluctant to seek the death penalty. But she was also reluctant to make martyrs per se … To do nothing ‘to the loss of any of her dominions’. That was the promise, and Elizabeth stuck by it. It was the source of the best and worst in her reign. If accounts for the terrible punishment she inflicted on the north in the wake of the rebellion of 1569 and her still more savage vengeance on the Irish rebels at the end of her reign … her determination to preserve what was hers also turned her into a great war leader against Spain. She was not a general in the field nor an admiral at sea, of course, though she did wear a pretty pretend breastplate at Tilbury in 1588. Instead, more importantly, she was a mistress of language, thinking, in her speech at Tilbury, ‘full scorn that Parma or Spain or any prince of Europe should dare invade the borders of my realm.'”
Although Elizabeth’s navy succeeded against the Spanish Armada -thanks in part to their smaller size as opposed to their enemies’ larger vessels which made them slower, and the weather which helped the English sink them faster- victory came at a high cost.
The wages she had promised her soldiers never came ad as you can expect from men who had risked their lives, in service of their country, they took the streets to peacefully protest. A small amount organized larger riots, believing that it was the only recourse available to them, to get their queen to listen to their demands. But Elizabeth had no intention of submitting herself to the pleas of the mob -even if those mobs were her loyal subjects.
Henry Carey, Lord Hudson, Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, and a handful of other courtiers sought ways to help the soldiers make ends meet and lessen the Queen and her advisors’ anger towards them.
The day that the veterans rioted alongside a rabble of young unemployed men, the mayor of London, Sir William Webb, saved the day by ordering the arrest of the ringleaders (much to the dismay of the protestors). This could have gone much worse, with the troops using full force against the entire group, causing more disgruntled veterans to join other fringe groups after feeling more betrayed by their sovereign.
“Writing to Burghley next day, he argued for leniency, claiming that the spark had been an apprentice’s wrongful arrest. Debt collectors had burst into the man’s lodgings with daggers drawn and dragged him off to the Marshalsea in front of his terrified landlady, who stood clutching a baby in her arms. The rioters had planned to storm the prison and free the inmates. Webb believed the best way to calm the situation was to rectify the injustice done to the young man as quickly as possible.” (Guy)
But Sir William Webb’s pleas went unheard. These men had rebelled against the crown -even worse, they dared to demand. Something that no subject should ever do against an anointed monarch, and more importantly their spiritual governor, God’s representative on Earth according to the Anglican Church.
While this seems deeply unreasonable to us, and a treacherous act on Elizabeth’s part, it is not. As Ian Mortimer points below:
“… there are only five thousand men in the army. The remainder is dead-pay, which goes straight into the captain’s pockets. You might think that this is even worse than bribery and nepotism. Neverhteless, in 1562 it becomes official government practice when it is proposed that for every ninety-five soldiers provided, the government will pay for one hundred.”
The privy council agreed to this, and even before this became standard practice, we must not forget that the era preceding the renaissance wasn’t exactly fair either when it came to soldiers’ wages. Elizabeth I’s grandfather, Henry VII, eliminated private liveries which meant that every noble family in England could no longer raise an army from their tenants. This effectively helped Henry keep the realm under his control and prevent pretenders like Perkin Warbeck and Cornish rebels from being successful.
In the medieval age, soldiers were expected to fight for their sovereign or their lord. If they did not, they were severely punished, or branded cowards. It was their duty. The Renaissance had changed many things, but the sole duty of any man to serve his lord and master without question remained.
Nevertheless, after Elizabeth I had done an outstanding job marketing herself as England’s savior and the only one who stood against the might of the terrible armies of Spain and its Catholic allies -aka, foreign invaders who sought to strip England from its lawful sovereignty- the common soldier felt betrayed. After everything they had done, they were just expected to go back home and start again. Find some new trade, or job that would save them from begging in the streets (which was punished by branding or whipping in major cities like London).
Her cousin continued to try his best, attempting to convince the Virgin Queen by appealing to her emotional side, telling her of the horrors these men had to face while being confined in small spaces, not knowing whether their ships would sink, or they’d die by other means.
“The infection is grown very great and in many ships, and now very dangerous, and those that come in fresh are sooner infected. They sicken the one day and die the next.” (Hilton)
Elizabeth remained unmoved. When the protestors walked barefooted through the streets of London that day, expecting this exaggerated display of misery would get their message across, arrests were made. As it has been established, the mayor of London did his best to lessen their punishment by drawing focus on the leaders. Cecil and the Queen however thought that a better way to stamp out the cells of future rebellion, was by stomping on most of them, letting the rest know what happened to those who rebelled against the crown.
Social hierarchy was not something that could be easily cast aside. Since Edward III had passed the sumptuary laws, that dictated what men and women could and could not wear, there was a stronger emphasis on maintaining the social order. These laws were the result of the black plague or the black death which killed many people, including one of Edward III’s daughters when she was on route to Spain. People became disgusted and in the same fashion that their descendants would centuries later, they would let that hate fester, making it possible for the rising middle class and heretic preachers to convince them to join their cause, and break their wheel of their oppression. This resulted in the Peasant’s Revolts during Edward III’s successor’s reign, his grandson Richard II. Richard II was only a teenager but he was old enough to understand that if he didn’t do something quickly, the violence would keep escalating until there would be no monarchy left. So when the leaders of this rabble led their guard down, Richard II acted quickly. He ordered them to be put to dead and to the rest, he told them smugly that “vileins” (peasants) they were and peasants they would remain.
Oddly enough, Richard II is one of those pitiful figures in history who was too young to know what he was doing, becoming a despot in his later years. Yet for someone who Elizabeth who believed in the supremacy of Kings, he was someone she could idolize and lament -a man who had been the victim of lesser men.
Naturally, Elizabeth I, taking these lessons to heart, wasn’t going to let these rabble-rousers upset the social balance in her country, and she sure wasn’t going to go the way that Richard II went, by giving into their demands.
The end result is a sad state of affairs where Elizabeth I was more successful than Richard II, sending a message across the British Isles, that no matter how much she may sympathize with their cause, or how popular it was among their peers, she wouldn’t be moved. She would remain resolute, presenting herself as their ruler, her country’s spouse and her subject’s mother and like any good mother, she would not be afraid to exact punishment on her children if they were being too loud.
Every vigilant, her principal adviser, William Cecil, Lord Burghley, imposed martial law.
“All soldiers, mariners and vagrant persons” who were found wandering around the countryside or spoke about their missing wages would be apprehended at once.
A soldier’s duty was to his ruler. He was there to protect the realm and his sovereign, not to seek riches or popular acclaim. Again, this may seem like a slap in the face to all those brave men, but in the context of the sixteenth century, and given Elizabeth I’s belief in royal supremacy, it makes sense.
And there is also another reason, one that is not fully acknowledge: Debt. Elizabeth had curried favor with many foreign Protestants -many of whom she did not agree since they supported a Republican government instead of a royal supremacy. Nevertheless, they kept her enemies distracted and weakened. This meant that a lot of money had been spent on covert missions. Some of which ended in failure. Then there is also the mater of her favorites and the new aristocrats. To keep them happy and in her pocket, she had lowered their taxes and granted them many manors, and exemptions that she wouldn’t have done for anyone else. All of this drained the royal coffers and while she attempted to remedy this by issuing a series of laws that meant to give some form of aid to the lower classes -while also raising taxes to continue to pay for covert operations and the ongoing war with Spain- it still wasn’t enough.
Debt collectors became more hated than ever. These veterans and unemployed men began to blame many of the queen’s evil councilors -in the same fashion that many rebels did in the past when they were displeased with their king’s actions- and the increasing number of foreigners coming into the country. Elizabeth I’s enthusiasm to admit more refugees didn’t help. These migrants helped boost the economy. Many of them were professionals and skilled workers who aimed their best to please their new overlords, but their adherence to their customs and their native tongue upset many Londoners.
But, as her motto, Elizabeth I’s subjects learned to adapt to their never-changing situation, remaining always the same. The pen and the sword proved mightier than their pleas.
- Guy, John. Elizabeth: The Forgotten Years. Viking. 2016.
- –. The Tudors. Sterling. 2010
- Mortimer, Ian. Time Traveler’s Guide to Elizabethan England. Viking. 2013.
- Hilton, Lisa. Elizabeth: Renaissance Prince. Houghton Mifflin. 2015.
- Starkey, David. Elizabeth: The Struggle for the Throne. Harper. 2001.
- Jones, Dan. The Plantagenets: The Warrior Kings and Queens who made England.
- Picard, Liza. Elizabeth’s London: Everyday Life in Elizabethan London. St. Martin’s Griffin. 2003.