Thursday, March 8, 2012

Elizabeth Tudor's First Crisis: Enter Mary Queen of Scots

by Barbara Kyle

When Elizabeth Tudor, at the age of twenty-five, inherited the English throne from her half-sister Mary in November of 1558, the country was on the brink of ruin. Mary had bankrupted the treasury by her disastrous war with France, which she had lost, leaving Elizabeth burdened with massive loans taken in Europe’s financial capital of Antwerp, and a grossly debased coinage that was strangling English trade.

Danger threatened Elizabeth on every side. Spain, having ruthlessly established dominion over the Netherlands, eyed England as a possible addition to its empire that already spanned half the globe. French power, too, was dangerously close in Scotland, a virtual French province under Marie de Guise who ruled in the name of her daughter Mary Stuart, whose kingdom it was; Mary had married the heir to the French throne and by 1558 was Queen of France and, as Elizabeth’s cousin, a claimant to Elizabeth’s throne. Scotland’s government was dominated by French overlords and its capital was garrisoned with French troops, providing an ideal bridgehead for the French to launch an attack on England. Meanwhile, at home Elizabeth faced seething discontent from a large portion of her people, the Catholics, who loathed her act of Parliament that had made the country officially Protestant. France and Spain sympathized with, and supported, the English Catholics.

If overtly threatened by either of those great powers, England would be vastly outmatched. The English people knew it and were frightened. Officials in the vulnerable coastal towns of Southampton, Portsmouth, and the Cinque Ports barraged Elizabeth’s council with letters entreating aid in strengthening their fortifications against possible attack. Unlike the European powers, England had never had a standing army. Her monarchs had always relied on a system of feudal levies by which local lords, when required, raised companies of their tenants and retainers to fight for the king, who then augmented the levies with foreign mercenaries. England was backward in armaments, too; while a revolution in warfare was happening in Europe with the development of artillery and small firearms, English soldiers still relied on pikes and bows. Even Elizabeth’s navy was weak, consisting of just thirty-four ships, only eleven of them ships of war.

Ten months after Elizabeth’s coronation, people throughout Europe were laying bets that her reign would not survive a second year. One crisis could destroy her.

That crisis came in the winter of 1559. In Scotland.

John Knox’s Protestant rebel army, backed by several leading nobles including Lord James, the late king’s illegitimate son, went on a country-wide rampage to oust Marie de Guise, the Queen Regent, and they won much of Scotland to their cause. The Queen Regent’s response was to bring in thousands of French troops. This huge French military build-up on Elizabeth’s border deeply alarmed her and her council (prompting the Spanish ambassador in London to write to his king, “It is incredible the fear these people are in of the French on the Scottish border”). Elizabeth sent clandestine financial support to Knox’s rebels. She also sent Admiral Winter’s small fleet into the December gales to intercept French ships bringing more troops. Knox captured Edinburgh. The momentum was with the rebels.

But the Queen Regent successfully counterattacked, forcing Knox’s army to retreat to Stirling. Word reached Elizabeth that Philip of Spain had ordered thousands of Spanish troops in the Netherlands (a Spanish possession at the time) onto ships to sail to Scotland to help France put down Knox’s “heretic” rebels. Had the Spanish arrived the fate of Scotland, and of England, could have been very different, but just then Philip’s army in the Mediterranean battling the Turks suffered a devastating setback that made him halt his northern troops about to sail to Scotland and re-route them to fight the Turks. On such surprising hinges history often swings.

Elizabeth finally sent an English army into Scotland, to disastrous results at first when they attacked the French at Leith, but eventually laying a long siege that resulted in the surrender of the French and total victory for the English. John Knox, having secured the Scottish Reformation, had changed the course of Scotland.

Elizabeth’s victory over the French in Scotland was a turning point in her fledgling reign, and its significance cannot be overemphasized. Her decision to defy the great powers of France and Spain, and to gamble on intervention, destroyed French domination in Scotland and made English influence there permanently predominant. Furthermore, it elevated Elizabeth’s status at home and in the eyes of all Europe, whose leaders had to acknowledge her as a formidable ruler. She did this at the age of twenty-six, in just the second year of her reign.

Marie de Guise, unwell throughout the war with Knox’s rebels, did not survive her troops’ surrender; she died in Scotland in June 1560. Her daughter, Mary Stuart, Queen of France at the time, refused to sign the Treaty of Edinburgh, one article of which was her relinquishing her claim to the English throne. Her refusal infuriated Elizabeth, and thus began their nineteen-year feud.

Eleven months after the French surrender in Scotland Mary Stuart, after less than two years as Queen of France, was widowed at age eighteen when her young husband, King Francis, died. With little status in the new court of her brother-in-law King Charles, Mary left France for her birthplace, Scotland, arriving at Leith by sea in August 1561, and took up her birthright, the Scottish throne.

Elizabeth’s problems with Mary, her cousin and fellow queen, had just begun.

Barbara Kyle is the author of the Tudor-era "Thornleigh" novels: The Queen's Gamble, The Queen's Captive, The King's Daughter, and The Queen's Lady.


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