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Elizabeth I Skilful In Her Response To Threats History Essay

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Published: Mon, 5 Dec 2016

Elizabeth I is by many historians considered one of England’s greatest ever monarchs, which heralded the ‘golden age’ in English history. Her forty-five year reign was constantly under threat, which makes the fact that she was able to overcome these for forty-five years even more remarkable. She was able to fight off illness, rebellions, and wars with other nations. Hostility also came from those who believed a woman could not rule a country due to their inferiority to men, and most of the men she worked with shared this view. “For a female ruler, mere survival was a tremendous achievement.” [1] She can be considered lucky to have come to the throne of England at all, being the illegitimate daughter of Henry VIII’s second wife, Anne Boleyn, and therefore losing the claim to the English throne.

Therefore we have to consider to what extent it was the Queen’s actions and decisions that led her too overcome threats as opposed to her council and parliament making the decisions on her behalf. There is also debate as to whether it was due to the skill of the monarch and her ability as Queen to defeat these threats, or whether it was down more to luck than judgement. Was she pragmatic in her responses, or “not of “the great”, but of the fortunate”? [2] To judge this her success needs to be measured against the weakness of the threat and other factors outside her control.

One of the first threats Elizabeth had to prevail over was in 1562 when she contracted smallpox. Not only did this disease have a very real chance of killing Elizabeth, she constantly refused to name a successor in the case of her death. This can be seen as a very skilful, tactical decision made by Elizabeth, as she was aware that “men would inevitably rally to the nominee, and might even plot treason to secure an early succession” [3] , which could explain why she never name a successor to the throne, even on her deathbed. On the other hand, this can be seen as an avoidance of problems; “Her refusal to tackle the succession issue…showed how limited was her concern for the future”. [4] This critical view from Haigh of Elizabeth completely ignores the view of Lotherington’s, and suggests that if Elizabeth had named a successor, this would have shown more concern for the future. This may be true; however, I believe Lotherington’s argument is stronger because it suggests exactly why she didn’t name a successor. She did not want to compromise her own safety or peace in England, which demonstrates that she did have concern about the future. I believe that it was due to concern for her safety and peace in England, and therefore the avoidance of a possible threat against her which meant she did not name a successor to the throne, and therefore goes against Haigh’s argument that she had no concern for the future of the country. Therefore I believe that not naming a successor was the right thing to do. The fact that she eventually overcame smallpox was certainly down to a dose of good luck for Elizabeth, which coupled with the fact that she came to the English throne despite being illegitimate in the eyes of Catholics demonstrates that she was certainly lucky to some extent, and some of the success of her reign can be due partly to luck.

The war against Spain and the armada was one of the most serious threats Elizabeth had to deal with. Relations between England and Spain deteriorated during Elizabeth’s time, after years of a strong alliance. Ultimately, she was successful in dealing with the threat, though whether this was down to Elizabeth’s judgement can be questioned. It also needs to be considered that Elizabeth’s foreign policy was not intended to be aggressive, and wars were normally avoided wherever possible. Although eventually Elizabeth was successful in defeating Spain, Brimacombe believes that it was the “result of the spectacular failure of foreign policy” [5] that led to war in the first place, so can be argued that Elizabeth was not able to achieve a peaceful foreign policy, and so was not skilful in this respect. However I would disagree with this by arguing that her foreign policy, although never intended for war, was one of national security throughout her reign. Murphy states “The main foreign policy objective was national security. This was secured.” [6] This I would agree with, as the alliance with Spain for much of the Tudor period was for England to an extent down to national security, and so while the methods of achieving this can be seen as inconsistent, the aims of Elizabeth can’t, and so I think it is unfair to criticise Elizabeth for having a lack of direction in foreign policy.

When looking at the armada itself, assessing whether success came down to skill is more debatable. One view is that due to the superior English weaponry and tactics, England was able to achieve victory. One online source claims it was “Howard’s organized strategic response to the threat meant that many – including the Spanish – were surprised that the battle wasn’t won even more quickly.” [7] Some however would argue that it was down to Spain’s bad luck that led to their defeat. Lotherington argues that “The fierce Atlantic gales…caused the vast majority of Spanish losses”. Brimacombe, when talking about the Spanish commander, agrees with Lotherington, saying, “Ultimately, it was largely his lack of good fortune that was to prove his downfall.” [8] As their ships were much larger and heavier, they were unable to manoeuvre as quickly and change tactics in response to the circumstances and lead to defeat. I believe that the defeat of the armada can be put down to both of these views. Whilst it is true that factors beyond Spain’s control were against them, such as weather conditions, it is equally true to say that the tactics used by England made the best of these factors. This can be demonstrated in the Battle of the Gravelines, where the English ships forced the Spanish northwards. While both these views can be taken be viewed as opposite reasons as to the outcome of the Spanish Armada, it can also be viewed as being down partly to the skill of the English, and partly down to the bad luck of the Spanish. I would suggest that it was more down to the bad luck of the Spanish that gained England victory, as without the strong winds that destroyed the Spanish ships after the Battle of Gravelines it is possible that the Spanish would have returned for a second invasion, as England were expecting. Whilst the website suggests skill was the main reason for the English victory, it neglects the high number of deaths and loss of ships which limits the skill conveyed. “Sickness and morality begin to grow wonderfully among them” [9] , written by Howard, commander of the English fleet, illustrates the losses the English faced, and so therefore the defeat of the armada cannot be considered a completely skilful victory.

However, whichever view you take, it is difficult to argue that the success was down to Elizabeth’s skill personally. Unlike her father and other monarchs of the time, Elizabeth played a limited part in matters of warfare and battles, and so even though success possibly could have come down to the skills and tactics of the victors, it is unfair to say that it shows a great deal of skill on Elizabeth’s part. “Elizabeth was to play no personal part…she was not destined to lead her troops into battle, and was therefore unable to exercise any direct control once hostilities had begun”. [10] Although this view can be argued by saying that it was Elizabeth’s choice as to who commanded the navy, because I don’t believe that the Armada was won entirely because of England’s skill I would suggest this was of limited significance in judging Elizabeth’s skill, and certainly doesn’t better it. Whilst the battle against the Armada was a success, the limited involvement of the Queen and indeed her ‘indecisiveness’ in matters demonstrates little success or skill on her part.

When looking at threats to Elizabeth and her reign, Mary Queen of Scots was one of the most difficult she had to deal with, as the strongest claimant to the English throne, and the legitimate Queen in the eyes of Catholics. After years of being held as Elizabeth’s prisoner, and being involved in Catholic plots against her, Elizabeth had to execute her in 1587 in order to ensure her own life is not at risk. The Bond of Supremacy shows how much of a threat Elizabeth believed her to be. However, was Elizabeth right to execute her when she did, or did her hesitancy show a lack of skill? The success of Elizabeth’s religious reforms also needs to be judged.

Elizabeth’s religious settlement was one of Protestantism, but tolerance towards Catholics: “Not liking to make windows into men’s souls and secret thoughts” [11] , so was considered cautious and conservative. This can be considered a safe tactic employed by Elizabeth to defend her positions and stop the possibility of a civil war, thereby trying to avoid threats, or as Brimacombe argues, “in deciding to steer a middle course between the old belief and the new theological thinking, the Queen risked considerable criticism from both sides”. [12] Clearly, the arrival of Mary Queen of Scots in England meant that even though this religious settlement was an attempt to secure Elizabeth’s position to the throne, the changing of English religion was too brave to go unchallenged from Catholics and supporters of Mary. The Rebellion of Northern earls can be seen as one example of this. However, there is little question that the failure of this is not down to Elizabeth’s responses to it, but the fact that it “lacked organisation and direction” [13] , as Murphy suggests. Lotherington agrees with this point, suggesting “the rising had failed through its incoherence and aimlessness…and a confusion over the precise religious aims.” [14] Therefore the events of this rebellion and outcome of it can be due more to weakness of the opposition, and therefore luck for Elizabeth, as opposed to any obvious skill.

The Ridolfi and Babington plots are further examples of attempts to overthrow Elizabeth, but Elizabeth’s reaction to the Ridolfi plot can be seen as unskilful, and very reactive, as even after the attempt of overthrowing her with Spanish support, she still “defying the overwhelming majority in both the Council and the Parliament… refused even to agree a bill or bar Mary from the English succession.” [15] Arguably, if Elizabeth had it may have “undermined her own position” [16] as Murphy points out, but maybe would have also stopped further plots against her including the Babington plot, as Lotherington suggests by saying “Thereafter, Mary figured prominently…in the treasonous plans of the English Catholics” [17] suggesting Elizabeth was wrong to be so reactive and arguably indecisive in her response to Mary Queen of Scots. It was a difficult situation for Elizabeth, and although keeping Mary alive led to more rebellions to support her, it is also just as possible that Elizabeth would have faced more opposition and hostility if she had killed Mary. Elizabeth was therefore in a situation where no amount of skill could help her, as whatever action she took would have had negative consequences. I would suggest that it was best for Elizabeth to pass the execution order when she did, as she was already at war with Spain, so the threat she may have faced for executing Mary was already in place. This can therefore be seen as skilful timing by Elizabeth, even though she was indecisive about the decision.

The Catholic threat from abroad was also a serious one. Both France and Spain were Catholic during the early years of Elizabeth’s reign, and the French Catholic League signed the Treaty of Joinville in 1584, which worried Elizabeth further, although there were no immediate plans from either France or Spain to act against her. Elizabeth was enormously lucky that this Catholic crusade against her didn’t come to pass, although she tried to do much to stop it ever occurring. Her foreign policy shows she did support Protestants abroad, first in Scotland and later in France, although reluctantly. Elizabeth’s luck came due to France’s situation at the time. Many civil wars had been fought and Elizabeth unsuccessfully gave military aid to the Huguenots in the first. She held off war with Spain by playing the ‘marriage card’ with François, Duke of Anjou, which can be seen as a clever tactic employed by Elizabeth to agree an alliance with France to counter the danger of Spain. The marriage negotiations I believe were skillful as they resulted in the Treaty of Blois. Lotherington agrees by saying, “Elizabeth ‘had gained a French shield’ against the might of Alva’s army. But she avoided committing herself to any offensive action…The Treaty met England’s requirements precisely and was a commendable achievement.” [18] This I would agree with as it created an Anglo-Franco alliance which meant England would not be attacked on religious grounds, and the French would not support Mary Queen of Scots, without Elizabeth’s control over England being compromised.

However, the Treaty of Joinville showed how serious the threat was despite action taken to avoid it. Ultimately it was Elizabeth’s luck that Henry IV came to the throne despite the intention of the Catholic League, and so France and England’s alliance remained strong.

Elizabeth certainly was skilful in some aspects of her forty-five year reign, but lucky in others. Her skill can be demonstrated in how she played on marriage negotiations to get what she wanted, and as seen in the Treaty of Blois, was able to achieve benefits of marriages, such as strong alliances, without the drawbacks of opposition and compromised control. The fact that she never married can be criticised by those who felt she should have done more to ensure the succession, however it is clear that she did not want to compromise the safety of the England in order to achieve this. Her religious policy as well, and to a lesser extent her dealings with Mary can be seen as successful. She was able to overcome these dangers, though not without challenge. The religious settlement of tolerance was an attempt at not being too extreme and gain opposition because of it. Although opposition still came from Catholics, I believe that it was largely to do with the arrival of Mary in England, as opposed to Elizabeth’s religious settlement, and would have possibly been even worse if she had adopted a very extremist protestant settlement. I would agree with Loades, who says, “no one is consistently luck for nearly fifty years.” [19] It is true that Elizabeth’s skill and pragmatism was the basis of overcoming some of the threats she faced.

However, it is also plain that Elizabeth had more than her fair share of good luck in overcoming threats. Illness in the early years of her reign could have easily ended her life and the Armada was Although I believe that the skill she used and her judgements in some matters led to her overcoming threats, I believe that without some of the good fortune she had she would not have been as successful as she was or lasted as Queen for as long as she did.


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