Elizabeth I: Life Story

Chapter 18 : Courtship

In January 1579, François’ envoy, M. Simier, arrived in London to woo Elizabeth by proxy. Elizabeth was so enchanted by his gallantries that her ministers talked darkly of love potions. Before committing herself, Elizabeth insisted on seeing François, who agreed to visit that summer. The prince proved witty and charming, and Elizabeth enjoyed the heady delights of a whirlwind romance, declaring that she had never met anyone more agreeable to her.

Public feeling against the match had been agitated in London by ministers with a Puritan bent, and the queen herself had walked out of chapel when the minister pontificated that a marriage with a foreigner would end in ruin. The most widely promulgated objection to the match was a pamphlet by one John Stubbs, entitled, in the best traditions of Puritan verbosity, The Discovery of a Gaping Gulf whereinto England is like to be swallowed by another French marriage if the Lord forbid not the banns by letting her Majesty see the sin and punishment thereof.

The scurrilous and offensive content rendered Elizabeth incandescent with rage. She issued a proclamation against abuse of friendly foreign princes, and accused Stubbs of seeking to stoke sedition. Contrary to the advice of two of her judges, but with the Lord Chief Justice on her side, Elizabeth had Stubbs and the printer and publisher arrested and sentenced to lose their right hands – she was only sorry there was no legislation permitting them to be executed.

The public reaction to Stubbs’ punishment was not favourable to the queen. She asked her council to deliberate and give her final advice, assuming that they would be in favour. But Elizabeth’s ministers, who had once urged the queen to marry, now backtracked – she was too old to risk childbirth and he was too French, and too Catholic, to be acceptable. The majority were against it, but, faced with Elizabeth breaking down in tears and protesting her desire to marry and bear a child, they agreed to support her.

She pressed ahead with negotiations, agreeing that François could practise his religion in private after their marriage, but stipulating that she needed time to talk her council round. One of the chief objectors to the match was Leicester, so Simier decided to spike his guns by informing Elizabeth that her apparently devoted courtier had secretly married her cousin, the widowed Countess of Essex, Lettice Knollys. Bitterly hurt and humiliated, the queen banished Leicester from court and turned to Simier, as François' representative, with renewed vigour. She informed the Council in November that she had decided to marry, and that its duty was to draw up a treaty.

Simier departed, confident of having achieved his aims. With both Simier and François gone, Elizabeth reverted to her old game of encouragement without commitment. The matter limped along, until 1581, when the alliance again seemed desirable. François returned to England, and Elizabeth seemed as infatuated as before. She publicly declared that she would marry him, although the terms she sent to France were so one-sided that there was no possibility of agreement. Nevertheless, he clung on, not agreeing to leave until Elizabeth lent him money for the Netherlands campaign. She affected great sorrow at his departure, and the match was not finally scotched until François’ death in 1584.

Whilst Elizabeth was trying to avoid antagonising Spain by overt interference in the Netherlands, she had given at least tacit approval to the antics of various sea-captains, such as Francis Drake, and John Hawkins in the Atlantic, where they expanded their official remit to seek treasure in the Americas by piracy against Spanish shipping – much to Burghley’s annoyance, although many of Elizabeth’s courtiers took shares in Drake’s ventures.

Burghley was not the only one unhappy with such behaviour – the merchant community was angered by the risk to trade.

When Drake pulled off the capture of the treasure-laden Cacafuego and brought it into Plymouth, Elizabeth made noises about returning the contents to Philip, after deducting a certain amount for prize-money. Whether any of the silver and gold would have been returned to the Spanish is debatable, but when it came to light that Philip had sponsored an invasion of Ireland she decided that the money would be retained in England. She publicly honoured Drake with an audience, and to emphasise Anglo-French antipathy to Spain, requested the French ambassador to knight him.