The Justification of the Second Reign Period of Elizabeth I


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John Guy presents the idea that Elizabeth I had a second reign from 1585, with a particular focus on her councillors and her control over them impacting different areas of policy. However, it can be argued it was inevitable for Elizabeth’s aims to change due to the potential international threats of invasion and the role of Protestantism in this period. The 1590s have also been regarded as a time of crisis, identified by Peter Clark, due to Elizabeth’s age and the economic situation of the time. Even though she attempted to keep a strong appearance through circulated paintings of her younger self, this was merely a public front. Therefore, through looking at Elizabeth’s foreign, domestic, religious, and economic policies, we can demonstrate that although there were significant changes between these implied two reigns, there are not enough grounds to fully justify this.

The fact that Elizabeth began to pursue an interventionist foreign policy shows that there was potential justification for a ‘second reign’ as Elizabeth disregards her motto ‘Semper Eadem’ and the symbolism of the rusty sword. However, it is easily argued that this was simply a reactionary policy with an inevitable buildup, meaning that there is only some justification of Guy’s idea. Guy identifies the dispatch of English forces to the Netherlands as a turning point in Elizabeth’s reign, deeming it a ‘dramatic reversal’ of her non-interventionism. This is significant as ‘5000 footmen and 1000 horse’ were sent under the Earl of Leicester in 1585 under the Treaty of Nonsuch, which is substantially different to 1575 where she sent ambassadors, and 1578, where she again failed to send troops. Although this was a pivotal turning point in Elizabeth’s foreign policy, the extent to which Guy uses it to enforce the theroised second reign has been contested. Paul Hammer alternatively suggests that although troops were sent in 1585, Elizabeth’s belief that a ‘negotiated peace’ with Spain was possible up until 1588, was also an important change. It can also be argued that Elizabeth was merely following a reactionary policy, responding to the growing threat of Spain, particularly after William of Orange was assassinated, which left England open to the Spanish as the only Protestant country in Europe in 1585. This therefore shows the rise of the Spanish threat and why it would lead to a reactionary policy, which in turn reduces the justification of a ‘second reign’.

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In addition to this, it is important that we do not forcibly suggest that Elizabeth I abandoned all of her core values, and that she was not a completely different person, which doesn’t justify the idea of a ‘second reign’. This is highlighted by the fact that Elizabeth had no desire to take sovereignty over the Low Countries and only had the aim of keeping the Spanish away. This is backed up by Hammer, who implies that her ‘goals were limited to securing her territories from invasion…’, meaning that she still maintained her principle of divine right. A pessimism towards Elizabeth’s foreign policy is also seen, with George Ramsay suggesting that it wasn’t really a policy at all, with many ‘opportunistic expedients and nervous delays’ which tried to restore certain interests. This therefore reiterates the lack of justification towards a ‘second reign’, as there were still marked similarities between them.

Linking to both politics and foreign policy, a primary example of a lesser justification of a ‘second reign’ is demonstrated through the role of Mary Queen of Scots and her execution. Her presence created a growing amount of anxiety for Elizabeth’s councillors, particularly William Cecil, who plotted to get her executed from as early as 1572 through the publication of the Casket Letters. These letters implied that Mary was involved in Darnley’s murder and that she had had an affair with Bothwell. Although Guy regards the letters used by Cecil as ‘old and new pages…spliced together to make up a composite document’, it still highlights that the threat of Mary had been ongoing, even if Elizabeth ignored it. This significance is also upheld through the 1584 Bond of Association, which shows how the councillors would bypass Elizabeth due to the threat of Mary. Moreover, the Babington Plot in 1586, followed by Mary’s execution in 1587, created a new opportunity for Spain to strike as Philip II was a potential heir. This warrants Elizabeth’s reactionary foreign policy during this time, meaning that the idea of a ‘second reign’ holds a reduced significance and is therefore less justified.

It can be argued that the year 1588 was a turning point in Elizabeth’s reign due to the significance of the Spanish Armada. However, the circumstances leading up to this event and the reasons why Philip II decided to invade can be argued to be out of Elizabeth’s control. This, combined with the luck England had during the Armada, creates the suggestion that it was ultimately not a ‘second reign’. The contrast between this time frame and the foreign policy of the 1590’s, including the Counter Armada’s also reflects this. As previously stated, the execution of Mary Queen of Scots was an integral reason as to why the Spanish chose to send the Armada. This is extended by the fact that Philip previously never wanted a war against England, providing half-hearted support for the Guise’s plan for a joint enterprise in 1583. This would have been devastating for England as this would have led to the rule of Mary Queen of Scots due to her French links. Following this, it can be argued that the execution of Mary was not Elizabeth’s final choice as, due to her indecisiveness, she signed the warrant but did not dispatch it herself. Ellizabeth believed in the divine right to rule, so it is questionable as to how much Elizabeth’s own policy caused any form of a ‘second reign’. This is briefly debated by Guy, suggesting that the issue of the role of the councillors versus her prerogative began after the 1559 Religious Settlement.

On the other hand, Guy’s idea of a ‘second reign’ can be seen as justified to a reasonable extent as the timeline of events leading up to the Armada coincide with the changes to Elizabeth’s foreign policy. This potentially raises the thought that if English actions had not transformed into something so aggressive, then Philip II would not have seen a reason to invade. A turning point in the deteriorating relations between Spain and England can be seen due to English actions. This is specific to Elizabeth’s decision to militarily intervene in the Netherlands as it wasn’t until this same year that Philip began to prepare the Armada. Elizabeth was also responsible for the privateers, particularly in the ‘Singeing of the King’s Beard’ in 1587, angering Philip even more, further highlighting a change in Elizabeth’s foreign policy from 1585, which had an extensive impact. Walsingham, in a letter to the Lord Chancellor after the Spanish Armada, calls it a ‘disease uncured’, alluding to further action needed to get rid of the Spanish threat. This therefore shows a clear change in foreign and political policy after 1585, meaning that the idea of a ‘second reign’ can be seen as justified.

Although an increased anxiety over the succession could be seen as part of a second reign, it is arguably not enough to constitute this. This is due to the fact that she was able to maintain her status as the ‘Virgin Queen’ after being under ‘constant pressure’ in the 1560s and 1570s, according to Dickinson and Younger. They also highlight that few people pressured her in the 1590’s, however, due to her age. This shows some change between the alleged first and second reigns, but it can be stated that this was not enough to constitute Guy’s theory.

Leading on from this, Dickinson and Younger explore the idea of Collinson’s ‘nasty 1590s’, regarding it as a ‘second phase’. This is similar to the concept of a ‘second reign’, but not to such a significant extent. Many historians present an overly negative view of the 1590s as factions gained more control. Guy even suggests that Elizabeth’s ‘grip on events slackened markedly’, which is evidenced by her lack of desire to replace her councillors after they died, such as Walsingham in 1590. This provided an opportunity for factions to gain control. One part of the reason as to why the 1590s are seen as negative was due to the role of the Earl of Essex and his failings in policy. Hammer highlights his political influence, suggesting that his arguments ‘carried the day’. This contributes to the negative attitudes towards the 1590s due to his failures in foreign policy in Ireland. This means that there is a lack of justification for a ‘second reign’ from the image of the 1590s.

The economic situation of the 1590’s has also been debated to be a crisis as war had a heavy impact. However, Dickinson and Younger identify that England did well considering the circumstances. This is demonstrated by both long-term and short-term factors as population growth and migration, combined with increasing price rises, caused the poor to suffer. Slack has a pessimistic view of the economy, suggesting that it created and unstable and insecure society. On the other hand, Dickinson and Younger look upon the positives, such as the Poor Relief Laws in 1597 and 1601, which meant that economic problems were ‘contained and controlled’. They therefore remain against the intensity of the ‘second reign’, meaning that it is not fully justifiable.

To conclude, it can be argued that Guy’s idea of a ‘second reign’ for Elizabeth I is only justifiable to some extent. This is due to the fact that there is evidence of some considerable change from 1585, such as Elizabeth choosing to have an interventionist foreign policy. However, the extent to which the theorised ‘second reign’ is presented has been too far for many historians, so they justify this to a lesser extent. The fact that Elizabeth intervened in the Netherlands as a reactionary move rather than an aggressive one backs up this reduced justification. Despite this, Guy does identify that his thesis was more of a way to explore the later years of Elizabeth’s reign ‘in their own terms’, meaning that he may have exaggerated his thesis. This therefore means that there was some evidence of a ‘second reign’, but it is only justifiable to some extent.

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