Elizabeth I: Life Story

Chapter 24 : End of an Era

As the 1590s unfolded, it seemed that, although the Catholic threat had retreated, and James VI of Scotland was content to be an English pensioner and wait quietly for the English throne (although Elizabeth refused to confirm he was her heir) there were new problems: poor harvests caused famine and high inflation. The clamour of the Puritans for further religious reform became louder as did complaints about financial corruption in Elizabeth’s government.

In particular, the queen’s practice of granting monopolies as a way of rewarding courtiers was hated – effectively, they constrained trade and raised prices. The queen agreed to look into the matter after being petitioned by parliament, but little was done.

Within the council, after the death of Burghley, it became apparent that there was rivalry between Burghley’s son, Sir Robert Cecil, and Essex. The latter, arrogant and domineering, sought to control the queen, whilst she, although by no means as fond of Robert Cecil as she had been of his father, nevertheless recognised Cecil as a far better councillor than Essex.

Religious division in Ireland erupted in a major insurrection in 1594, led by the Irish chieftain, the Earl of Tyrone. Elizabeth sent Essex to subdue it and the resulting bloody and brutal conflict (in which Spain dabbled) had long-term implications. Essex himself became embroiled in a plot which ended in his execution.

After the death of Essex in 1601, Elizabeth was exhausted and melancholic but then she rallied and by 1602, seemed to herself again. She celebrated the Christmas of 1602 with gusto – there was dancing, bear-baiting and gambling for high stakes. The following month, she moved to her favourite palace of Richmond where she entertained the Venetian ambassador in February, looking as magnificent as ever in her bejewelled gowns and ruffs. Towards the end of that month, however, she became depressed and withdrawn. The immediate cause was the death of her cousin, Katherine Carey, Countess of Nottingham, one of her oldest friends.

The queen refused to leave her own rooms, and despite the best efforts of her courtiers, sank into gloom. She rejected medicine, and her appetite, never large, disappeared. She descended into a silent, motionless state, refusing to eat or lie down. By late March she was too weak to stand, and lay in bed, barely speaking, comforted only by the presence of the Archbishop of Canterbury who knelt beside her in prayer for hours. Elizabeth died early in the morning of 24th March and by ten o’clock her successor, James VI of Scotland, had been proclaimed as James I of England.

As Elizabeth had always feared, her courtiers turned immediately to the rising sun, leaving her body at Richmond whilst they rushed to ingratiate themselves with James. At last, her remains were wrapped in black velvet and conveyed at night by river to Whitehall where she lay in state until 28th April. The funeral James ordered was magnificent. The procession to Westminster Abbey was led by two hundred and forty poor women. They were followed by all the queen’s servants, household officials, ministers and clergymen, from the most menial to the Archbishop of Canterbury. Elizabeth’s lead coffin, covered in purple velvet, and with a painted effigy of the queen, was carried on a chariot, pulled by four grey horses trapped in black velvet with the arms of England and France. Following the coffin were the Master of Horse, the Lord Admiral, and the wives and daughters of the nobility. Finally, the Yeoman of the Guard, halberds inverted, completed the procession. It was reported that there was ‘such a general sighing, groaning and weeping as the like hath not been seen or known in the memory of man.’

James paid £1485 for the magnificent monument that covers Elizabeth’s tomb, although she is obliged to share it with her sister, Mary I – a result which it is unlikely either woman would have relished. Her marble effigy, sculpted by Maximilian Colt, shows her in full ceremonial garb, with crown and sceptre.

Whilst Elizabeth’s reign was not the smooth and effective period of sunlit happiness that has often been depicted, and Elizabeth herself opined that the English would not want another queen after her death, over the centuries she has triumphed – generally being chosen by the public as one of the most influential English people, and perhaps the country’s most-admired sovereign.