Elizabeth I: Life Story

Chapter 13 : Excommunication

In the wake of the Rising, Elizabeth turned more firmly against the Queen of Scots, and a death warrant was drawn up, although she then reverted to a less aggressive stance. For Catholics, however, life became significantly more difficult. The fines for not attending the Anglican service were raised from a nominal amount to sums that forced all but the richest to conform. Whilst Philip, mindful of Alva’s advice that interference in England should wait until the Netherlands was subdued, had done little to aid the rebels, he was becoming more determined to ‘bring the queen to do by force, what she refuse[d] to do by reason’.

Elizabeth was also now being threatened by France. Moray had been assassinated and the King’s Party in Scotland consequently weakened. She reluctantly agreed to send an army to support the King’s Party, but was stopped in her tracks when the French ambassador informed her that, unless she took steps to free Mary, the king of France would consider it an act of war. She took the advice of her Council, a majority of which concluded that the French would not deliver on their threats, and that the best option would be for her to strengthen the King’s Party. Elizabeth, however, disagreed, and had Cecil draw up articles for Mary’s restoration – these would include a promise to accept the Treaty of Edinburgh that recognised Elizabeth as the legitimate queen of England, to respect the Protestant settlement, and to dispatch the young King James to England for his education.

Cecil protested, but Elizabeth insisted – at least for the benefit of the French. She was thus able to placate France through promises, whilst secretly informing the King’s Party that she intended the negotiations to fail. The stress of the situation exacerbated her temper and she quarrelled with several of her councillors, including Leicester, although as always, they made it up. She was even more provoked when Pope Pius V formally excommunicated her. This was an invitation to Catholic powers to turn Elizabeth from her throne and take her kingdom – if they could.

This presented an appalling problem for Elizabeth’s many Catholic subjects. For twelve years, they had compromised – hearing Mass in secret, and attending the Anglican Church to conform to the law. Now, told that to attend the Anglican service was to imperil their souls, they were faced with a stark conflict of loyalties. It was no longer possible to be both a good Catholic and an obedient English subject. Elizabeth vetoed a parliamentary bill that would have exacerbated the situation – the proposal was that every subject be obliged to take communion in the Anglican Church at least annually. Such a provision would have forced many Catholics into taking a stand that the queen preferred to allow them to ignore.

She did however accept some new legislation, acts making it treason to bring any papal bulls into the country or to refer to the queen as a schismatic, heretic or tyrant.

The problem of Mary ground on. Elizabeth still represented herself as willing to restore Mary if terms could be made with the Scottish government, but matters did not advance, and even went backwards, when the new Scottish regent, the Earl of Morton, proved intractable. Mary, frustrated beyond measure, began to look for other ways to force Elizabeth’s hand, and began a career of intrigue that resulted in numerous plots and counterplots over the following sixteen years. The Ridolfi Plot of 1571 involved a double- (or possibly even a triple-) agent, the Italian Roberto Ridolfi.

Originally Ridolfi seems (everything about him is murky) to have been a papal agent, involved in the Rising of the Northern Earls, but he persuaded the authorities that he was blameless, and could even be useful to negotiate better terms with the Netherlands. Elizabeth gave him a private audience and he was sent off – presumably, she did not know that he had been in secret contact with Mary, although it is possible he was a plant.

Mary accepted Ridolfi’s offer to plead her cause to Philip and the Pope – assuring him that, with foreign aid, the debacle of the Rising could be reversed – especially as she was continuing to correspond with Norfolk, promising marriage. True to form, Norfolk dithered, neither wholly approving a plot against Elizabeth, nor informing her of what was going on. He met Ridolfi, but would not put his name to any letters to Philip. De Spes, once again allowing false hope to colour his reports, was convinced that Norfolk would support on any invasion on Mary’s behalf, and dispatched messages to Alva, suggesting that the time was ripe for Philip to mount an invasion. Alva, although he approved the principle, was still reluctant to commit immediately, especially as he took Ridolfi for a ‘babbler’.