When Henry VIII died in 1547 he was succeeded by his young son Edward VI, who was largely subservient first to the Duke of Somerset and then the Duke of Northumberland, who acted as protectors. During his brief reign Edward and his protectors tried to strengthen the protestant Reformation begun by Henry VIII. Edward was to die in 1553, and an effort was made to replace him with another protestant, Lady Jane Grey. She was staying in the New Inn, Gloucester when the proclamation of her succession was made, a hotel which continues to take guests today - rooms can be booked through InfoBritain. But only seventeen days after becoming queen Jane was deposed by Mary, the eldest daughter of Henry VIII. Lady Jane's supporter the Duke of Northumberland was arrested at Kings College Cambridge, and executed in London. Mary started a violent effort to return England to Catholicism, burning hundreds of people for holding protestant ideas. In October 1555 the protestant bishops Latimer and Ridley were burnt at the stake in what is now Broad Street, Oxford, and Archbishop Cranmer suffered the same fate in March 1556. It is sometimes claimed that Mary was no worse than her contemporaries in her treatment of religious malcontents. It is true that protestant propaganda demonised Mary, and it is also true that by the standards of religious suppression on the continent Mary's reign was a relatively mild one. But in the context of English history the figures speak for themselves. Jasper Ridley points out that whereas Henry VII ordered the burning of ten heretics in twenty four years, Henry VIII eighty one in thirty eight years, Elizabeth I five in forty four years, Mary ordered the burning of two hundred and eighty people in only five years. This is an average of one person every five days from 4th February 1555, when burnings began, to 10th November 1558. Recantation under threat of burning was now no longer acceptable, since serious minded Mary refused the politics of public submission and demanded true adherence to principles. Mary was not a politician. She was a fanatic. Mary attended Mass nine times a day, which in theory everyone was supposed to do, but few did. Mary was the sort of conscientious person who did things by the book, and this quality which may have played out well in other circumstances led now to a reign of terror. Many protestants fled to safe areas abroad, through the ports of London and Rye. Catholics were to suffer discrimination and persecution for centuries, largely on the basis of Mary's actions.
Meanwhile the future Queen Elizabeth I, Henry's protestant second daughter, was held a virtual prisoner and constantly lived in fear of execution. She was released from close confinement in 1555 and returned to her childhood home of Hatfield House in Hertfordshire. It was here on 17th November 1558 that a messenger arrived from London with the news that Mary had died. It is an English tradition that Elizabeth was given the news while she was standing or sitting beside an ancient oak tree in the grounds of Hatfield House. She is supposed to have quoted from Psalm 118, "A domino factum est mirabilis in oculis nostris" or "this is the Lord's doing and it is marvellous in our eyes". The oak tree is a potent symbol of England. Ancient Britons are said to have worshipped the trees, and in years to come the ships that would spread English power around the world would be built of oak. Perhaps Elizabeth sat under an oak, and perhaps she didn't, but true or not the symbolism involving the oak gives the story its power. Today there is an oak at Hatfield planted in the supposed location of the tree under which Elizabeth is supposed to have hoped for a brighter future.
The Shambles, York
Elizabeth was crowned in January 1559, and her reign generally found an uneasy balance in the wars of religion between catholics and protestants. Ritual was changed to try and keep both groups happy. There were catholic risings, notably the rising of the northern earls in 1569, which was brutally put down. It was still necessary for catholic priests to operate secretly. This is demonstrated by the continued use of special hiding places called priest holes. A priest hole can be seen at Scotney Castle near Lamberhurst in Kent. This hiding place was used by a Jesuit priest in the 1590s. There is also a priest hole at Number 10 The Shambles, in York, the former home of Margaret Clitherow who was executed in 1586 for harbouring priests. Most of the time, however, the situation was kept under control, partly through Elizabeth's tendency towards conciliation, partly through the efforts of Chancellor Walsingham's agents. Towards the end of Elizabeth's reign England was united by an external threat from Spain. The scattering of the Spanish Armada in 1588 was a moment of intense national self awareness for England. Elizabeth's reign is remembered for this, and also for other maritime triumphs such as Drake's 1577 - 81 voyage in the Golden Hinde, the first English ship to enter the Pacific, and the second ship to make a circumnavigation of the world, behind Magellan.
The reign also had an air of unreality about it. One manifestation of this unreal atmosphere could be seen in the efforts of what today would be called spin doctors making sure that Elizabeth was reflected in the best light possible. Particularly in Elizabeth's later years many castles in the air were built. Some involved unrealistic overseas adventures; the Earl of Essex took a fleet to the Azores in a futile attempt to bring the Spanish empire to its knees; Raleigh's settlement in Roanoke Virginia lasted only two years; the idea for a settlement in Ireland to bring "civilisation" to the country was a disaster, the effects of which linger to this day. The atmosphere of pipe dreams can also be seen in some of the period's architecture. "Prodigy houses" such as Longleat in Wiltshire, and Wollaton Hall near Nottingham were built, resplendent in pinnacles, towers and gables. Their purpose was to receive the queen when she went on her travels. Unfortunately the houses were being built at a time when Elizabeth was restricting her royal progresses to short distances. Wollaton Hall has a particularly poignant story, since the house created for Sir Robert Willoughby at ruinous expense never received a visit form the queen.
Elizabeth is an interesting illustration of the importance of appearance over substance. If her reign was characterised by an air of unreality, then Elizabeth also had the power to conjure substance out of words and spirit alone; this is an undoubted talent of great politicians. Just as Winston Churchill's famous speeches helped Britain find the strength to resist Hitler's Germany in 1940, Elizabeth was able to use oratory to rally her troops at Tilbury in 1588 as the Armada sailed along the channel:
"I am come amongst you, as you see, at this time, not for my recreation and disport, but being resolved, in the midst and heat of the battle, to live and die amongst you all; to lay down for my God, and for my kingdom, and my people, my honour and my blood, even in the dust. I know I have the body but of a weak and feeble woman; but I have the heart and stomach of a king, and of a king of England too..."
Elizabeth died in 1603, and despite years of pressure from her advisors. never married. Many tried to win her, and the man who had the best chance was probably Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester. Dudley spent a fortune on Kenilworth Castle in an unsuccessful effort to impress the queen. Without any heirs, the Tudor dynasty came to an end. It was decided that the crown should pass to James Stuart, King James VI of Scotland. Click here to read more about Queen Elizabeth I.