Elizabeth I and the Wars of the Three Kingdoms

by Linda Porter

Most historians would rightly shudder at the assertion that the last Tudor monarch caused the civil wars which engulfed the British Isles less than half a century after her death, though this might be an eye-catching headline.  It is, however, an idea worth exploring, especially for the light it casts on the last, often difficult, years of Elizabeth’s reign, where many of the disputes that lay at the heart of the tumult of the mid-seventeenth century were born – and on the inability of her immediate successors, James I and Charles I, to address them effectively. 

The major themes, of religious division, economic uncertainty, social change, constitutional conflict, and personal disputes between some of the great families of England and the crown, were part of the fabric of British society and public life long before Charles I raised his standard at Nottingham on a windy day in August, 1642.  The doomed king was only distantly related to Elizabeth Tudor, their common ancestor being her aunt, Margaret Tudor, who was Charles’s great-great grandmother, but his beliefs and approach to kingship meant that he would have been far more at home in the Tudor century than the Stuart.  He was, in many respects, a man born out of his time.  How had this come about?

Elizabeth departed reluctantly from this world in the small hours of 24 March, 1603, having been ruler of the principality of Wales, whence hailed her Tudor forebears, and the kingdoms of England and Ireland, for nearly forty-five years.  She had been a remarkable, if also deeply unpleasant, woman, vain, vindictive and imperious and recent research has reminded us that for considerable parts of her reign she was less personally powerful than the image she so assiduously cultivated, of the invincible Gloriana, suggests.  The confident queen of the Ditchley portrait, serene beneath her tightly-curled red wig, had come to the throne as the more guarded young woman of twenty-five with long auburn hair staring ahead through short-sighted eyes in her coronation portrait.  Nor had any part of her reign been easy.  The first decade, when she had played along with the idea of a splendid international marriage while remaining personally captivated by her childhood friend, Robert Dudley, earl of Leicester, was characterised by a rivalry with Mary Queen of Scots that threatened to destabilise the British Isles.  Mary’s judgement in fleeing to England and throwing herself on her cousin’s mercy when the Scottish nobility revolted proved, eventually, to be a fatal mistake. 

In the early 1560s Elizabeth’s ministers, increasingly desperate to marry her off so that she could produce male heirs (‘God send our mistress a husband’, wrote William Cecil), held their breath when she nearly died of smallpox.  No wonder Cecil described this decade as one of ‘perils, many, great and imminent’.  The next was hardly better.  The papal bull, Regnans in Excelsis, of 1570, in which Pope Pius V both excommunicated and deposed Elizabeth, was a call to arms for the queen’s increasingly troubled Catholic subjects.  And Mary Queen of Scots, shunted from one draughty northern castle to the next, was now a permanent fixture on English soil, a focus for revolts and continual plotting, a living reminder that there was a younger, more internationally acceptable alternative, with a male heir of her own, albeit one perforce estranged from his mother and being brought up as a Calvinist.  Even then, thirty years before Elizabeth’s death, the future was obvious, though few dared to acknowledge it.

In the 1580s, Elizabeth’s challenges turned on events in Europe.  She could not evade being drawn into religious conflicts that battered France and engulfed the Netherlands provinces still ruled by the Habsburgs under Philip II.  His conflict with Elizabeth was to last for the rest of his life and the Armada which he sent to subdue England in 1588 - the execution of Mary Queen of Scots the previous year provided the final impetus for a confrontation – the most important external threat that Elizabeth faced.  Anglo-Spanish relations had fallen far from the first days of her reign, when Philip considered marrying her himself, and it is easy to forget that they had actually known one another when he was married to her half-sister, Mary I.  The nature of their relationship in the 1550s remains largely unexplored, even by historical novelists, which is surprising.  Elizabeth’s personal inclination in foreign affairs always seems to have been for France.  Two younger sons of Catherine de Medici, the future Henri III of France and his brother, Francois, duke of Alençon, were viewed as possible husbands for Elizabeth, the latter undertaking an almost embarrassing courtship of the then forty-five -year-old queen in person.  But both foundered on the thorny question of religion, a dilemma that would haunt her Stuart successors when it came to their own marriages.

The defeat of the Armada was brought about by a number of factors – inexperienced Spanish commanders and a too rigid plan of execution, not to mention the weather.  It has become enshrined in all kinds of myths, from Drake playing bowls on Plymouth Hoe to the precise wording of the queen’s speech to her troops at Tilbury, a rare interaction with her ordinary subjects undertaken at the behest of the earl of Leicester.  Despite the queen’s much vaunted rapport with her people, she avoided them as much as she could.  Certainly, the men she is supposed to have inspired were treated miserably afterwards, disbanded and left without pay.  This sort of meanness was unworthy of someone who sought to disseminate such an image of regality.

The next decade brought further problems.  Though no longer embroiled in costly European conflicts (Elizabeth had always hated war because of its expense), problems at home began to multiply.  The threat of assassination by Catholics receded somewhat, following a ruthless campaign against Jesuit infiltration, but the voices of more extreme Protestantism, the godly, as Puritans preferred to be known, began to become louder.  Elizabeth’s personal beliefs remain opaque (some thought her not very interested in the theological aspects at all). Her inclination was for moderation and she consistently resisted attempts by the more strident Puritans for punitive measures against Catholics.  But these were not battles that were going to disappear. 

A general feeling that the country was holding its breath waiting for a new era was intensified by high taxation, inflation, years of plague, poor harvests and a struggle between her younger advisers for influence and, indeed, control of policy and the queen herself.  Whatever her vanity, Elizabeth knew that many regarded her as an old woman whose day was done.  Still, she resolutely refused to name a successor.  Problems in Ireland, magnified by the failure of Robert Devereux, earl of Essex, a headstrong and petulant young man favoured by the ageing queen and hated by the Cecils and Sir Walter Ralegh, led to disarray, with an attempted putsch by Essex resulting in his execution.  The queen had seen off several rebellions in her time and it was the tragedy of her old age that a man she had once hoped to raise high should treat her with such hot-headed contempt.  It was easy afterwards for Essex’s enemies, and he had many, to blacken his memory.  But in recent years more balanced judgements about his abilities and aims have emerged and his reputation is ripe for re-assessment. 

The Devereux family, however, did not forget the earl’s treatment and it was to be his son, a man who never fitted in at the court of James I, who would command the parliamentary armies against Charles I in 1642.  In resisting his monarch, the third earl of Essex was joined by some of the great noble families of England with Puritan sensibilities and long-standing grievances against the crown, such as the Percies, the leading family of the north of England, and the Riches, descendants of Penelope Devereux, sister of Elizabeth’s Essex.  They were, by the time of Charles I’s personal rule, a godly family with long memories.

In the last years of her reign, Elizabeth also faced serious difficulties with Parliament which foreshadowed the problems that led to civil war under Charles I.  In her last Parliament, the main stumbling block was the perpetuation of monopolies, whereby the crown sold lucrative rights to control a wide variety of trades and commodities, covering everything from brewing beer to making felt hats.  Resentment of these grants, which naturally went to the wealthy and powerful, was tied in with a wider dismay at corruption and tax evasion in high places.  A late Elizabethan member of parliament, struggling to contain the animosity of his constituents as more of these scandals came to light, might well have identified with the furore caused by recent revelations of the Panama and Paradise Papers.  A significant number of MPs in 1601-2 were also more inclined to do something about it than their modern counterparts.  They would, of course, consider the queen’s requests for money but she would need to address their grievances as well.  While all of this was being discussed, rioters took to the streets in London and Kent. 

The alignment of popular protest with what amounted to an attack on the royal prerogative alarmed the queen greatly.  In her famous speech to a deputation of Commons’ members, given on 30 November 1601, Elizabeth used all her powers of oratory to win over her audience: …though God hath raised me high, yet this I count the glory of my crown’, she told them, ‘that I have reigned with your loves.’ This was masterful stuff, but basically, she wanted their money.  Using the time-honoured device that she had been misled by her councillors, she told her listeners what they wanted to hear.  They obliged by voting her the monies she requested and accepted the small concessions she offered.  She had played this hand well but she knew that England in the new century was changing.  Her day was done and despite her efforts to stay alive, age got the better of her.  Plagued by arthritis and insomnia and suffering from short-term memory loss by the end of 1602, the death of her closest female confidante, Kate Carey (who was considerably younger) plunged Elizabeth into a depression from which she was unable to recover.  She died a slow death but eventually departed peacefully with only her women around her.

Nearly half a century later, on 6 December, 1648, Colonel Thomas Pride stood with an armed group of soldiers at the doors to the House of Commons, holding a list of members who were to be barred from entry.  The names he carried were those of MPs believed to be committed still to negotiations with Charles I, and Pride and other radical army officers, as well as some of the nobility and the remaining members of the House, were convinced that the king had to go.  Even at this late stage, probably only a small minority accepted that this meant the king’s execution.  The rest hoped that he could be induced to abdicate.  They were wrong.

It was perhaps ironic that the civil wars began in Scotland, the original seat of Stuart power but a kingdom that both James I and his son, Charles I, had neglected woefully once the English crown passed to the new dynasty.  James I kept out of the Thirty Years War, the last great religious conflict in Europe, but Charles, married to a French Catholic princess, antagonised both the Presbyterian Scots and the Catholic Irish while signally failing to understand that the English crown’s need for money meant that some accommodation would have to be reached with his increasingly aggrieved English legislature.  Believing himself answerable only to God, he lived – and died – for an ideal that Elizabeth I also held passionately dear.  She, at the last, had sensed the way the wind was setting.  It was Charles’s tragedy that, despite being given many opportunities, he could not bow to it and weather out the storm. 


Linda Porter is a Tudor and Stuart historian.  Her latest book, Royal Renegades: the children of Charles I and the English Civil Wars, is published by Pan Macmillan.