When Mary died in 1558, Henry VIII’s last surviving child was Elizabeth, daughter of Anne Boleyn. She had been declared illegitimate by Parliament in 1536 at her father’s request; Henry’s last will, however, had rehabilitated her, and she now succeeded as Elizabeth I (r. 1558-1603). She had been brought up a Protestant, and so once more the English churchgoer was required to switch faith. This time the Anglican church was firmly established; the prayer book and Thirty-nine Articles of 1563 issued under Elizabeth have remained to this day the essential documents of the Anglican faith.
The Elizabethan settlement, moderate though it was did not fully solve the religious problem. England still had a large Catholic minority, Catholic Spain was a serious enemy, and independent Scotland could always be counted on to take the anti-English side. The new queen of Scotland was Mary Stuart (r. 1542-1567), granddaughter of Henry VIII’s sister Margaret, and therefore heir to the English throne should Elizabeth die without issue. Mary, who was Catholic, did not wait for Elizabeth’s death to press her claim. On the ground that Elizabeth was illegitimate, she assumed the title to queen of England as well as Scotland.
Meantime, numerous Protestant groups not satisfied with the Thirty-nine Articles were coming to the fore. Collectively, they were called nonconformists or Puritans, since they wished to purify the Anglican church of what they considered papist survivals in belief, ritual, and church government. In practice, their proposals ranged from moderate to radical. The moderates would have settled for a simpler ritual and retained the office of bishop. The Presbyterians would have replaced bishops with councils (synods) of elders, or presbyters, and adopted the full Calvinist theology. The Brownists, named for their leader Robert Browne (c. 1550-1633), would have gone still further and made each congregation an independent body; from this group would emerge the Congregationalists.
Thus Elizabeth had a religiously divided kingdom at the start of her reign. Dissension seemed all around her, yet she was to reign for nearly fifty years. She was a Renaissance realist who personally set English policy, while accepting that it would be widely discussed. She was loved by her people, if not by her intimates. She never married, but played off foreign and domestic suitors one against another with excellent results for her foreign policy. She sought to avoid the expense and danger of war, always trying to get something for nothing. Most important, she realized that engaging in open war with Spain to protect the Netherlands, an ally that might soon no longer exist, could be disastrous.
Mistrusting the great English aristocrats, Elizabeth picked most of her ministers from the ranks just below the nobility, talented men who put her government in splendid order. Thanks to skillful diplomacy that made full use of the French and Dutch opposition to Spain, the final confrontation with Philip was postponed until 1588, when the kingdom was ready for it. Mary, as queen of Scots, proved no match for her gifted cousin.
Mary was Catholic, and Scotland under the leadership of John Knox was on its way to becoming one of the great centers of Calvinism. The Scots revolted, and Mary was forced to take refuge in England, where Elizabeth had her put in confinement. Mary alive was a constant temptation to all who wanted to overthrow Elizabeth. Letter, which Mary declared were forged, involved her in a conspiracy against Elizabeth. She was tried, convicted, and executed in 1587.
The dramatic crisis of Elizabeth’s reign was the war with Spain, resolved in the defeat of the Armada in 1588. This victory arose from an unprecedented commitment of resources, especially on the Continent, where forty- eight thousand English soldiers fought. Forced to turn frequently to Parliament for approval of financial measures, Elizabeth met mounting criticism of her religious policy from Puritan members of the House of Commons. She got her money by grudgingly conceding more rights to the Commons. But the Commons responded with bolder criticism of the queen’s policy. The stage was being set for the seventeenth-century confrontation between the Crown and Parliament.
During Elizabeth’s final years the stage was also being set for a drama that was to have an even longer run—the Irish question. The half-English (Anglo-Irish) ruling class was out of touch with the local population, mostly peasants. In 1542 Ireland had been made a kingdom, but hardly an independent one, since the crowns of England and Ireland were to be held by the same person. Earlier, in 1495, a statute had put the Irish Parliament firmly under English control and had made laws enacted by the English Parliament applicable to Ireland as well.
Attempts to enforce Protestant legislation passed by the English Parliament outraged the native Irish, who had remained faithful Catholics. In 1597 the Irish revolted under the earl of Tyrone. The favorite of Elizabeth’s old age, the earl of Essex, lost influence by his failure to cope with the Irish rebels; Essex then became involved in a plot against the queen and was executed. The rebellion was put down bloodily in 1601, but the Irish issue remained unresolved. Elizabeth’s successor, James I, sought to further the conversion of the Catholic Irish by planting Protestant settlers in the northern part of the island, known as Ulster.