1554 and a terrified princess Elizabeth is being smuggled through Traitor’s Gate at the Tower of London. It would have seemed inconceivable to anyone that just a short time later she would be crowned Queen of England.
Conspiracy and Treason
Elizabeth was the victim of events which were beyond her control. In 1553 her sister Mary became Queen and in so doing divided the country. A devout Catholic, Mary made enemies when she married Philip II of Spain. Pretty soon, plots were circulating aimed at bringing the protestant Elizabeth to the throne.
It’s doubtful that Elizabeth knew much of these plots, but she represented a clear threat to Mary and in 1554 a tenuous link emerged between Elizabeth and the conspirators of a rebellion focused around Sir Thomas Wyatt who hoped to replace Mary with Elizabeth. He wrote to Elizabeth, informing her of his intentions. The letter was intercepted and although Wyatt continued to protest her innocence right up to the moment of his execution, it still gave Mary all the excuse she needed to lock up her rival.
Mary and Elizabeth
Even so, Mary hesitated to order the execution of her own sister. For weeks Elizabeth was held prisoner in the Tower, constantly in fear that each day may be her last. Eventually, though, she was released.
Things appeared to be looking up for Mary. She had announced that she was pregnant. A legitimate heir was on the way which instantly made Elizabeth much less of a threat. She was allowed to go into house arrest, where she remained for the rest of Mary’s reign.
However, the pregnancy turned out to be a phantom. Months passed and no heir was produced. Another phantom pregnancy followed and it soon became clear that the Queen was likely to die childless. Despite attempts from Mary’s Catholic advisors to have Elizabeth blocked from succession, Mary refused, knowing that if she did, it would be the end of the Tudor dynasty. So, when Mary finally died in 1558, the crown did indeed pass to the rightful heir Elizabeth.
Keeping the Crown
However, getting the crown was one thing, keeping it quite another and in those early years there were plenty of people betting this new Queen would not be long for this world. Catholics around the world refused to recognise Elizabeth, believing the crown should instead have passed to the Catholic Mary Queen of Scots. In 1570 Pope Pius issued a papal Bull which excommunicated Elizabeth and relieved any of her subjects of allegiance to her. Time and time again plots against her life were uncovered and as the Catholic threat grew, so did the severity of measures against them.
The big problem centred on Mary Queen of Scots, who became the focus of numerous plots and rebellions, such as the Northern uprisings when northern Earls marched to liberate her from prison. The situation only ended when Mary was implicated directly in a plot leading to her trial in 1586. Although Mary was found guilty, Elizabeth constantly hesitated to sign the death warrant, fearful of the reaction from Catholics at home and overseas. Finally, though, she gave into the inevitable and in 1587 Mary was beheaded.
Elizabeth’s reign, therefore, was no more comfortable than her rocky road to power. Even so her achievements were remarkable, bringing a degree of religious tolerance, prosperity and new power to her Kingdom.