Chapter 16

Ending an Era: 1590-1603

In This Chapter

● Dealing with Devereux: the earl of Essex

● Going up against Tyrone in Ireland

● Sparring with Spain: the ongoing problem

● Passing the baton to the Stuarts

The end of the 16th century coincided (almost!) with the end of Elizabeth’s reign. The queen was 60 in 1594 and couldn’t pretend to be a luscious young lovely any more. Children were out of the question - and that meant that crafty English politicians were already looking to Scotland for the next ruling generation in James VI. ‘The queen is dead; long live the king.’

But before she went, Elizabeth had unfinished business. Spain was still a threat, Ireland was still grumbling and ambitious men like Robert Devereux, the earl of Essex, and Walter Ralegh, ‘that Lucifer’, toyed with her affections.

And the men who’d always been there for Elizabeth had gone - William Cecil and Francis Walsingham, who’d guided her policies and watched her back, were dead or dying. A new generation jockeyed for position and got mixed up in intrigue.

One thing was certain - Elizabeth would go out in a blaze of glory that still shines bright today.

Dashing Devereux: Elizabeth's Last Fling

Robert Devereux was the second earl of Essex and the stepson of Elizabeth’s favourite, Robert Dudley, earl of Leicester (we cover their relationship in Chapter 12). He was better looking than Leicester, but just as vain and ambitious, and step-daddy introduced him at Court in 1584 when Essex was 18.

Did they/didn't they?

Getting a handle on the relationship between Elizabeth and Essex is difficult.

In the film The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex Bette Davis makes a reasonable Elizabeth, but for all the white make-up, she’s 20 years too young for the queen. Essex is Errol Flynn, the greatest swashbuckler of them all and the casting is perfect.

The real Elizabeth and Essex enjoyed each other’s company and played cards in her bedroom all night, but probably no more. She was 33 years older than he was but the bottom line is that they each had what the other wanted. Elizabeth was queen of England, the most powerful woman in Europe, and could open all sorts of doors for an ambitious young blade. Essex was young, handsome, funny and outrageous and no doubt he reminded the queen of the now-dead Leicester and the heady days of her youth.

Climbing the promotion ladder

If one thing stands out about careers in the past, it’s not what you know, but who you know. And for every brilliant practitioner, like Thomas Wolsey, Thomas Cromwell, William Cecil and others we meet in this book, you find a lot of idiots. Essex was one of these.

He started out okay:

● He was made general of the horse (cavalry commander) and went with Leicester to the Low Countries where he fought at Zutphen in 1586 (see Chapter 15).

● He was knighted on the field (by his step-dad).

● He was made master of the horse, following again in Leicester’s footsteps (see Chapter 12).

So far, so nepotistic, but Essex’s arrogance would’ve been the ending of anybody else’s career:

● He quarrelled with the queen over her treatment of his mother and flounced out of Court. That would’ve been social death for anyone but Essex.

● He spent a fortune, both on courtly duties and on a small sailing fleet that was always in the red.

● He joined the Lisbon expedition (part of the Counter-Armada led by Francis Drake in 1589) when Elizabeth had told him not to and he was recalled. Even so, he wasn’t disgraced and his charmed life at Court continued.

Failing in France

Essex’s experience in the Low Countries made him believe he was a brilliant soldier (he wasn’t) and he had the cheek to write to the new French king, Henri IV, to ask for a job.

The French Wars of Religion were still going on (see Chapter 13) and Henri (of Navarre, as he was then) was the leader of the Protestants against the Catholic League run by the Guises. In 1591 Henri asked for Elizabeth’s support in Normandy and suggested Essex as the man for the job. The queen gave Essex only 4,000 men and kept him (sensibly) on a tight rein. Even so, Essex saw himself as some sort of latter-day Alexander the Great.

The campaign didn’t go well, but it wasn’t entirely Essex’s fault. Elizabeth and Henri disagreed over the strategy (the main objective) of the campaign and Essex wasn’t good enough to rise above this. He did, however, knight 24 of his officers on the battlefield, which annoyed the queen considerably.

Elizabeth recalled Essex after six months, but guess what? He wasn’t just still a favourite at Court; he got a job on the Privy Council as well.

Stirring up the Council

By the 1590s Elizabeth’s 22-strong Council had dwindled to a hardcore of 13 who met regularly. Of these, only a handful made most key decisions - William Cecil (replaced after his death in 1598 by his son Robert); Lord Howard of Effingham (the lord admiral) and Henry Carey, Baron Hunsdon, (the lord chamberlain). They were a tight-knit bunch and dropping Essex into their little pond was a disaster.

From February 1593, when Essex arrived, people began to flock round him for advancement. Elizabeth was shrewd enough to realise that this was dodgy and didn’t promote any of his followers. Essex began to smell a conspiracy.

While Essex was taking part in the capture of Cadiz in 1596 (see ‘Looking Beyond England’ later in this chapter), Elizabeth promoted Robert Cecil to principal secretary. He’d been doing the job for a while because his dad was too old and ill to cope.

Robert Cecil was deformed, possibly with a spinal condition, and was only about 147 centimetres (4 foot 10 inches) tall. Elizabeth (who of course had known Robert since he was a baby) called him ‘my imp’, which he hated.

When Essex came back from Cadiz he was furious to find the younger Cecil in the top job and clashed with him constantly.

Essex had his own spy network and was well informed about events in Europe. He dealt directly with leaders in France, Scotland and the United Provinces (the northern Netherlands - see Chapter 15) and his mood swings were affected by how well-informed he was. When his confidence was low, Essex sulked and quarrelled with everybody; when it was high, he was generous and gracious.

In 1597, at a particularly low point, Essex left the Court but came back on the death of William Cecil the following year. Elizabeth made him earl marshal, the senior peer of the realm.

The earl marshal’s job today is to organise the great state occasions like Trooping the Colour and the Opening of Parliament. In Elizabeth’s day occasions like these (see her progresses in Chapter 12) were the only way in which ordinary people ever saw their monarch, so they were vitally important PR exercises. Even today, nobody does pageantry like the British.

Tackling Tyrone

Increasingly, after the death of Philip of Spain (see the later section ‘Looking Beyond England’) and treaties between Spain and France, the mood of the Council was for peace. Essex stood out like a sore thumb over this, looking for military glory anywhere he could find it. He didn’t want Ireland, but the death of the governor, Sir Thomas Burgh, in 1597 meant that he got it anyway.

Understanding Ulster

The most northern of the Irish provinces, Ulster, was divided between Turlough O’Neill and Hugh O’Neill, the earl of Tyrone, who was a Gaelic chieftain and an Anglo-Irish peer (for more on the O’Neills, see Chapters 13 and 14).

Hugh O’Neill had been raised in the English Court, and in spite of his open Catholicism and proud Gaelic heritage he believed he was the man to run Ulster for the English and stop centuries of in-fighting. This became particularly important in 1586-1587 when Philip II had been toying with the idea of mounting a Spanish invasion from Ireland (see Chapter 15).

The Council, however, didn’t want to know about Tyrone’s offer of stability - neither did the English governor at the time, William Russell. Mightily miffed by this snub, Tyrone became a rebel against the English instead.

The earl of Tyrone isn’t the usual hero of any film and the one portrait of him isn’t likely to be accurate, so we don’t know what he looked like. But check out Alan Hale’s performance in The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex. How could any self-respecting Irishman fail to follow him?

Reviving hope

Tyrone raised a huge army of 5,000 infantry and 1,000 cavalry. Unlike most rebel armies, which were small and badly equipped, Tyrone’s men were trained and had the latest state-of-the-art muskets and pikes. By June 1595 Tyrone had taken Sligo and most of Connaught.

Slightly panicky, the Council sent over reinforcements. Russell now had 600 cavalry and 4,000 infantry.

Playing for time

In October Tyrone asked for a pardon and got a truce that lasted until the following May. He was hoping that Philip II, still harbouring ever wilder dreams of mounting another Armada (see Chapter 15), would use his services against the English. Tyrone’s chance was lost along with several ships that Philip sent out in October 1597.

Upping the ante

The scale of Tyrone’s actions against the English had now amounted to a civil war. Russell was recalled by the Council and replaced by an excellent soldier-administrator, Thomas Burgh. He was outnumbered by Tyrone, however, and died of typhus before he could make any real headway against him.

No hard evidence exists to tell us where Tyrone’s cash was coming from. Okay, he had Ulster under his control, which brought in about £80,000 a year in rent, but the war was costing him £500 a day. Perhaps some Spanish loot was coming his way.

Fighting at the Ford

On 14 August 1598 Tyrone, backed by rebel leaders Hugh O’Donnell and Hugh Maquire, smashed an English army under Henry Bagenal at the Battle of Yellow Ford over the Blackwater River. Bagenal himself was killed and this was a major blow to English hopes of controlling the provinces. More than 3,000 settlers fled from the plantations in Munster, mostly to Cork and Waterford.

Tyrone’s rebellion was something new in Irish history. It was organised, disciplined and backed with cash. Using the Catholic religion and Gaelic heritage, Tyrone helped to create a national identity in Ireland that, centuries later, would drive the English out of all provinces except, ironically, his own in Ulster.

It was against this background that Essex took up his Irish appointment in March 1599. His failure in Ireland was more obvious than in France. He had a massive army of 17,000 men but spent weeks marching all over southern Ireland, where no opposition existed, and decided he couldn’t meet Tyrone head on.

Forced north on the orders of a furious Elizabeth, Essex inexplicably only had 4,000 men with him when he met the rebels near Louth. He agreed a feeble truce with Tyrone and Elizabeth recalled him.

Rebelling with Essex

This time the queen’s darling had gone too far and as soon as he arrived in England Essex was arrested and spent a year in prison. Elizabeth would hear no more excuses - the man was in his 30s by now, an experienced soldier and politician, and he’d made a complete dog’s breakfast of Ireland.

Released in August 1600, Essex was a broken man. His finances were nonexistent and he was forbidden to attend Court, the one place where he might have smarmed round the queen again. He sulked at Essex House in London throughout October, brooding over the enemies who’d conspired against him - Robert Cecil, of course, Lord Cobham on the Council and one of the most dazzling men of Elizabeth’s age, Walter Ralegh (you can find out about him in the nearby sidebar ‘That Great Lucifer: Walter Ralegh’).

'That Great Lucifer': Walter Ralegh

Ralegh (he never spelled the name with an 'i') was another Devon seadog like Drake and Hawkins (see Chapters 12 and 15). He loved nothing better than a fight and had abandoned his Oxford University place to fight for the French Huguenots (Protestants) at Jarnac and Moncontour. He raided Spanish colonies with his half-brother Humphrey Gilbert and put down a rising in Ulster in 1580.

Elizabeth was dazzled by Ralegh - his West Country brogue, his dark, brooding good looks - and she heaped honours on him. Ralegh was seriously rich after she gave him total control of wine imports and cloth subsidies. In the 1580s he was exploring North America and setting up the English colony at Roanoke, bringing tobacco and potatoes to England (see Chapter 18 for more on this).

Essex replaced Ralegh as the queen's favourite, and he never had an earldom or a place on the Council. In 1592 the queen found out about Ralegh's affair with one of her ladies, Bess Throckmorton (check her out in Chapter 17), and put Ralegh in prison for four years (over the top, or what?), only letting him out to negotiate with Devon pirates for her cut of the loot from a Spanish treasure ship, the Madre de Dios, which was the biggest prize of the entire reign.

Ralegh was supposed to be an atheist and a member of the pseudo-scientific School of Night (see Chapter 17 for more on this group). He lived on after Elizabeth in increasing disfavour under James I and was executed at Whitehall in 1616.

Essex had no intention of harming Elizabeth, but by the end of 1600 he decided it was payback time. He got together like-minded people who had an axe to grind against the Cecilocracy (the government of the Cecils) and made plans to overthrow the Court, sack the Privy Council and form a new Parliament.

On 7 February 1601 the Council called upon Essex to explain himself. Robert Cecil (who’d taken over as spymaster) probably knew exactly what was going on - after all, he certainly did in the infamous Gunpowder Plot four years later, which was designed to kill James I.

Essex refused to attend the Council, so they went to him. When the lord keeper, Thomas Egerton, turned up at Essex House, Essex kidnapped him and let 300 swordsmen loose in the streets of London. But nobody backed Essex and when the authorities moved in most of the 300 melted away. Essex surrendered the same evening, despite having vowed to fight to the death.

Essex’s guilt wasn’t in question. He’d appeared, armed, against the queen’s peace and that was treason. At his trial, at the Court of the High Steward, on 19 February Cecil let him have it:

For wit, I give you pre-eminence. For nobility I also give you place. I am no swordsman; there you also have the odds. But I have innocence, conscience, truth and honesty to defend me . . . and your Lordship is a delinquent.

Essex was beheaded privately in the grounds of the Tower on 25 February.

Looking Beyond England

Events of the Tudor era didn’t come to an end neatly at the end of a reign, and in 1603, when Elizabeth died, unfinished business remained.


The war with the world’s only superpower dragged on into the next century. As long as Philip II was still building - and actually sending out - Armadas, Elizabeth had to respond.

On 1 June 1596 a huge combined fleet of Anglo-Dutch warships (100 in all) sailed for Cadiz under the command of Howard of Effingham. Essex, at that point still in favour at Court, led the soldiers. The raid was a brilliant success. The English captured the city, and most of the Spanish fleet moored there was set on fired by their own crews, who did a bit of plundering first, and sunk. By the time the Spanish commander Medina Sidonia arrived, it was all over.

No looting (along the lines of Drake) took place, and a vast amount of cash (about £7 million) should have reached Elizabeth, but didn’t. The money probably popped into the pockets of the commanders. The taking of Cadiz should have been the high water mark of English success against Spain, but instead people remember the more dramatic if less successful Armada of 1588 (see Chapter 15).

After Cadiz the fire went out of Spanish foreign policy as far as England was concerned.

● Increasingly, the country was bankrupt, ruined by expensive war and the hyper-inflation caused by flooding the economy with silver.

● Philip II died in 1598 and his son, Philip III, had other problems and other ambitions.

● After Elizabeth neither the new king, James I, nor his principal secretary, Robert Cecil, were warmongers.

Spain and England signed a peace treaty in a new spirit of ‘friendship and amity’ in 1604, and Spain was to begin its long, slow decline into being one of the poorest countries in Europe.


The earl of Tyrone’s success in the 1590s (see the earlier section ‘Tackling Tyrone’) led to an actual tie-up with Spain in 1601, but the timing was bad.

Charles Blount, Lord Mountjoy, took over as governor after Essex’s recall and forced Tyrone back on the defensive. By the time the Spaniards arrived, Munster was peaceful. The Spaniards, under Don Juan del Aguila, were outnumbered by Mountjoy and defeated at Kinsale on 2 January. Elizabeth allowed Mountjoy to agree to terms with Tyrone, who gave up the Spanish connection and his authority as head of the O’Neills. By 1603 the Wild Lands (see Chapter 2) had gone and Ireland was divided into counties just like England and Wales.

Ireland was only partly sorted. Further rebellions and vicious retaliation followed in the centuries to come, and as late as 1869 British Prime Minister William Gladstone was saying that his ‘mission is to pacify Ireland’. The sad story of that country is that peace still isn’t secure.


England’s old enemy continued to be tied up in their internal religious and political problems. Elizabeth had backed Henri IV when he asked her for help against the Catholic League, but his sudden conversion to Catholicism in 1593 changed the goal posts and English involvement there ended with the capture of El Leon near the naval port of Brest in 1594.

In 1598 Philip of Spain signed the Treaty of Vervains with Henri, burying the hatchet after years of warfare.

The 17th and 18th centuries are the years of French greatness - as Spain fell, France rose. England, as always, watched from the sidelines and considered carefully whether or not to get involved. Increasingly, many Englishmen believed ‘abroad was a bloody place’ and wanted little to do with it.

The Netherlands

English backing of the Dutch proved successful in the short term. When the brilliant duke of Parma died in 1593, no one of his calibre existed to replace him and the Dutch had found their own excellent general in Maurice of Nassau, son of William the Silent.

The Dutch finally became independent in 1609 and remained on friendly terms with James I, Elizabeth’s successor.

In the longer term the English and Dutch fought each other over fishing rights in the 1660s, but in 1688 a Dutchman, William of Orange, became king of England. The Tudors would have collectively turned in their graves.

Saying Farewell to Gloriana

As the century turned it was obvious that the queen wouldn’t last much longer. Friends were dying all around her, and increasingly her letters were about old friends she missed and places she’d never visit again. When William Cecil was dying in August 1598 she sat by his bedside and fed him soup.

In her last speech to Parliament in November 1601, when they were complaining about the monopolies they accused her of passing out to favourites, she told them, ‘Though you have had and may have many mightier and wiser princes, yet you never had nor never shall have any that love you better.’

The queen remained tetchy and quick-tempered to the last - a man who talked about the succession risked death. And even in her last days when Robert Cecil told her she must go to bed, she said, ‘The word must is not to be used to princes . . . little man, little man, you know that I must die and that makes you so presumptuous.’

With the exception of two serious illnesses earlier in her reign (see Chapter 12), which were smallpox and probably malaria, Elizabeth was extremely healthy. She danced, rode and hunted well into her 60s. On the other hand, her teeth were black and rotten and she probably suffered from toothache.

Leaving an image of strength

Image was as important to Elizabeth as it was to Henry VIII (see Chapter 3) - perhaps more so because she was a woman competing in a man's world. So everything was carefully stage-managed and the truth has got lost in the fiction.

She was careful not to let unofficial portraits see the light of day - they were banned in 1563, but the official portraits say it all. The 18th-century gossip Horace Walpole got it right - 'A pale Roman nose, a head of hair loaded with crowns and powdered with diamonds, a vast ruff, a vaster farthingale and a bushel of pearls.'

It screams wealth, it screams power and you cross it at your peril.

Okay, so Elizabeth doesn't, in the portraits, stand like Henry VIII - that would be silly. But everything else you see is a mixture of macho and desirability. In the Armada portrait you see her brilliant warships in the window behind her and her right hand rests lightly on the globe that had been rounded by Francis Drake. It's almost as if she's pointing to the future - her country would one day own vast chunks of that globe and be the greatest imperial power in history.

Elizabeth spent Christmas 1602 at her lodge in Whitechapel and caught a severe cold in January, developing a boil on her face. By the end of a wet and gloomy month she was having difficulty swallowing, and on 20 March she collapsed on her way into chapel. She wouldn’t go to bed, despite Cecil’s attempts, and sat propped on cushions with her finger in her mouth, refusing to eat. She lost the power of speech and died in the early hours of 24 March 1603, almost certainly of pneumonia.

The queen left instructions that she wasn’t to be embalmed, but she was, and her heart was enclosed in the same casket as her sister Mary’s in Westminster Abbey (check out their tombs there today).

‘Some,’ wrote the poet Thomas Dekker, ‘call her Pandora, some Gloriana, some Cynthia, some Belphoebe, some Astraea . . . I am one of her country and we adore her by the name of Eliza.’

Gangin' Doon wi' Wee Jamie, or Going Down with King James VI

As Elizabeth had grown older, the issue of who’d take over from her became more urgent. She refused to talk about succession, but the practical men of the Council had a job to do.

Back in 1543, the Succession Act of that year said

● Edward would succeed Henry VIII as Edward VI.

● If Edward died childless the crown would pass to Mary I.

● If Mary died childless the crown would pass to Elizabeth I.

Mary and Elizabeth were included despite the fact that both of them had been declared bastards. Mary Queen of Scots was ignored because she was ‘alien born’ (in other words, although she was descended from the Tudors, her father was James V of Scotland, one of the Stuart family).

Technically, Mary of Scots had a legal claim to the throne that was stronger than anyone else’s apart from Elizabeth, and when she was executed in 1587 that claim passed to her son James, who was now James VI of Scotland.

Elizabeth wasn’t likely to repeal Henry VIII’s Act of Succession because some would say that gave Mary of Scots as good a claim to the throne as Elizabeth, and Elizabeth didn’t want Mary and her line to have the throne because Mary was a Catholic (see Chapter 13 for more on Elizabeth’s attitude towards Mary). James Stuart, however, was brought up in the Protestant faith, so the problem went away.

The only other claimant possible for the throne in 1603 was Arabella Stuart, a granddaughter of Margaret Clifford and a niece of James’s dad, Lord Darnley. But Margaret was never really a front runner and the earl of Essex had been in secret communication with James VI for some time. Essex’s fall (see ‘Rebelling with Essex’, earlier in the chapter) caused a slight hitch, but the queen’s crafty adviser Robert Cecil sent emissaries to James and assured him of his support after the queen had gone.

The wisest fool in Christendom

This book is all about the Tudors, not the Stuarts, but it won't hurt to have a look at the man who was to take over in 1603. James had been king of Scotland for 35 years by the time he took over the England job and was now 37 years old. He was married in 1589 to the 15-year-old Anne of Denmark and the couple would eventually have seven children.

James's first appearance in London horrified many courtiers. The man's head was too big for his body, his tongue lolled and he dribbled. His skinny little legs were in marked contrast to his big thighs and body. James wasn't fat - his clothes were double padded to safeguard from knife attacks and because he was terrified of the naked steel of armour. He spoke with a broad Scots accent (which took time for his courtiers to understand), hated tobacco, which he called the 'noxious weed', and was afraid of witches, whose work he'd seen up close and personal.

Time would show James to be bisexual, intolerant and an appalling handler of parliaments, even though he was scholarly and cultured. It was Henri IV of France who called him 'the wisest fool in Christendom'. But James's full story belongs to another book.

When Elizabeth passed away on 24 March, after a gruelling ride of 60 hours, with frequent changes of horse, courtier Robert Carey reached Edinburgh to break the news to James. When asked who should follow her, Elizabeth, in her last coherent moments, had said, ‘Who but our cousin of Scotland?’

Looking back, Cecil missed Elizabeth and life working for James was no bed of roses. ‘I wish,’ he wrote, ‘I waited now in her Presence Chamber with ease at my foot and rest in my bed.’

And the legends began to grow about the Tudors and the last of them, Good Queen Bess.

You can support our site by clicking on this link and watching the advertisement.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at Thank you!