Women’s History Month – Helene Harrison
What did Elizabeth I Learn from Each of the Five Major Rebellions Against Her?
Read on to find out more about the five major rebellions against Elizabeth I in her 44-year reign. Four were serious attempts to unseat the reigning queen and replace her with her Catholic cousin, Mary Queen of Scots, while one was a selfish attempt by a former favourite to regain what he had lost. Elizabeth had assistance in dealing with these rebellions and in bringing them to light, and she learnt lessons from each.
- Northern Rising 1569
The Northern Rising was the first rebellion against Elizabeth I, and the timing of this is the interesting thing. The rebellion happened within a year of Mary Queen of Scots fleeing to England from Scotland, having been forced to abdicate her throne. Before this, there had not been a rebellion against Elizabeth I for the first decade of her reign. Mary Queen of Scots was the catalyst for rebellion against Elizabeth I and this must have reminded Elizabeth of her own position under her half-sister, Mary I. Mary Queen of Scots was the heir presumptive to Elizabeth, as Elizabeth had been to Mary I. The Wyatt Rebellion in 1554 proposed to put Elizabeth on the throne in place of Mary. Because Elizabeth was the obvious alternative, she was in the firing line and would spend time in the Tower of London, as Mary Queen of Scots was in the firing line fifteen years later.
Northern lords Charles Neville, 6th Earl of Westmorland, and Thomas Percy, 7th Earl of Northumberland, led what seemed to be a Catholic revolt against Elizabeth I. The rebels reached Durham Cathedral where they proceeded to destroy the Book of Common Prayer and reinstate the Catholic Mass. This demonstrated to Elizabeth that her Religious Settlement of 1559 had not pleased the Catholics. She had tried to find a middle way, but it pleased neither the Catholics nor the reformers. Religion would continue to be a contentious point for Elizabeth and rebellions throughout her reign. Religion was intertwined with the fate of Mary Queen of Scots.
- Ridolfi Plot 1571
The Ridolfi Plot was a reaction to the Regnans in Excelsis bull against Elizabeth I in 1570, issued by Pope Pius V, which excommunicated Elizabeth I. The bull of excommunication meant that the Catholic powers of Europe were allowed to overthrow Elizabeth. The man who lent his name to the plot, Roberto di Ridolfi, travelled across Europe to visit the Pope, French court, and Spanish court to try and gain support for the plot. The plot would fail and Ridolfi would flee, ending his life as a senator in Florence, outliving Elizabeth I. Thomas Howard, 4th Duke of Norfolk, would not be so lucky and would die under the executioner’s axe in 1572, after the queen had dithered over signing the death warrant.
Elizabeth I learnt that she could not always shy away from an execution, but she sacrificed the Duke of Norfolk in order to save Mary Queen of Scots. Elizabeth must have felt like she had been let down by her family. Mary and Norfolk were both cousins of Elizabeth, Mary on her father’s side and Norfolk on her mother’s side. Norfolk and Mary had planned to marry and part of the plot was to put the pair on the throne in place of Elizabeth. This would make England Catholic. Once again, religion and Mary Queen of Scots were inexplicably intertwined but Elizabeth I would delay taking action against her royal cousin for another fifteen years after the Ridolfi Plot.
- Throckmorton Plot 1583
There was quite a gap between the Ridolfi Plot in 1571 and the Throckmorton Plot in 1583 but there does not seem to be an explanation as to why, unless the execution of the Duke of Norfolk had scared anyone who might consider rebelling against Elizabeth I. The Throckmorton Plot was led by Sir Francis Throckmorton, who was cousin to Bess Throckmorton, who married Sir Walter Raleigh. The plot aimed to free Mary Queen of Scots from her captivity and put her on the English throne. She was in the custody of George Talbot, 6th Earl of Shrewsbury, and his wife, Bess of Hardwick. Mary still managed to communicate with both the French and Spanish ambassadors. In 1584 after the discovery of the Throckmorton Plot, the Spanish ambassador, Mendoza, was expelled from England as a result of his involvement in the plot.
The main consequence of the Throckmorton Plot was the introduction of the Bond of Association, and the Act for the Queen’s Safety. All signatories promised to execute any person who attempted to, or successfully, usurped the throne, or made an attempt to, or successfully, assassinated Elizabeth I. Mary Queen of Scots signed, and it would be the Bond of Association that would seal Mary’s fate in 1586 after the Babington Plot. Elizabeth I had agreed that this act could be passed, but I don’t believe she ever thought that Mary would be condemned under it. Elizabeth always seems to have tried to protect Mary from her own folly.
- Babington Plot 1586
The Babington Plot is the plot that condemned Mary Queen of Scots. The Bond of Association was used against Mary as she had signed a letter agreeing to the assassination of Elizabeth I alongside her own rescue. Anthony Babington was a young gentleman who lent his name to the plot, though he was not the brains behind it. A Jesuit priest, John Ballard, seemed to be the mastermind of the plot, which aimed to time a Spanish invasion from the Netherlands to restore Catholicism and put Mary Queen of Scots on the English throne. The plot was pretty much doomed to fail from the beginning with the government aware of it pretty much from the start.
Elizabeth I’s spymaster, Sir Francis Walsingham, infiltrated Babington’s circle with double agents like Robert Poley and Gilbert Gifford, who passed information to Walsingham and William Cecil about the progress of the plot. Walsingham’s codebreaker, Thomas Phelippes, was at the centre of unknotting the plot, as letters were sent between Mary Queen of Scots at Chartley and the plotters in London by means of a brewer in Burton who was in Walsingham’s pay. Elizabeth I learnt, when the plot was unmasked, that Mary Queen of Scots had acted against her, and that her execution was inevitable. The execution of Babington and the other plotters taught Elizabeth another lesson, in that the first round of executions suffered the full penalty of hanging, drawing, and quartering and the audience murmured against it, so the second round of executions were commuted to hanging until dead before disembowelling.
- Essex Rebellion 1601
The Essex Rebellion is the most singular of the rebellions against Elizabeth I. Unlike the other rebellions earlier in the reign, Essex’s rebellion did not have wider aims such as religion or the succession; it was selfish and a result of Essex’s own folly. After a failed campaign in Ireland, Robert Devereux returned to England against the queen’s orders and burst into her bedchamber at Nonsuch Palace before she was dressed and ready, destroying the image of youth and majesty that the queen liked to project. Essex was put under house arrest, and after a brief trial he lost everything. He was in danger of going bankrupt and this forced him into a selfish action to try and save himself. He marched through the streets of London with his followers to try and force access to the queen, but he failed and was again arrested.
Elizabeth I had favoured Essex, particularly after the death of her great favourite, Robert Dudley, 1st Earl of Leicester. She seemed to enjoy having a favourite and playing her courtiers against each other. Elizabeth seemed to realise that she would not be safe while Essex lived, because he was determined to regain the favour he had lost, and this was favour that Elizabeth was not willing to restore to him. He was selfish and his folly ended his life under the executioner’s blade. It was the last rebellion of Elizabeth I’s reign, and really a sad case to end on.
Elizabeth had survived the claims of a rival queen to her throne, but the last rebellion against her rule was from a former favourite, annoyed that he was no longer the chosen one for her favour. Mary Queen of Scots had been executed in 1587, which explains the large gap in rebellions. Elizabeth I had survived five major rebellions in her 44-year reign, along with smaller offshoots like the Parry Plot, and these arguably made her stronger, alerted her to weaknesses, and helped her to understand her own limitations, giving rise to the myth of Gloriana.
Read more in my new book ‘Elizabethan Rebellions: Conspiracy, Intrigue, and Treason’, available now from Pen and Sword Books!