What Challenges Did Elizabeth I Face During Her Rise to the Throne?

Emma Irving

4 mins

14 Jan 2019

One of the most powerful women in history, Elizabeth I defeated the Spanish Armada, reinstated Protestantism, quelled the religious strife that had threatened to break the country and forged an England that was a strong, independent nation.

But from her very first breath to the day she breathed her last, Elizabeth was surrounded by enemies who threatened her crown and her life.

A Seymour plot

Throughout her childhood and teenage years, Elizabeth was accused of being involved with a series of dangerous allegations that could have resulted in her imprisonment, or even her execution.

The Lady Elizabeth (Unknown, c. 1546)

When her 9-year-old half-brother Edward ascended to the throne, Elizabeth joined the Chelsea household of her stepmother Katherine Parr and Katherine’s new husband, Thomas Seymour.

While she was there, Seymour – approaching 40 but good looking and charming – engaged in romps and horseplay with the 14-year-old Elizabeth. These included entering her bedroom in his nightgown and slapping her on the bottom. Rather than confronting her husband, Parr joined in.

But eventually Parr discovered Elizabeth and Thomas in an embrace. Elizabeth left the Seymour house the very next day.

Hatfield House, where Elizabeth spent her youth. When she was suspected of plotting to marry Thomas Seymour, the House and her servants were seized by Edward VI’s agent Robert Tyrwhit and she was interrogated there.

In 1548 Katherine died in childbirth. Seymour was subsequently executed for plotting to marry Elizabeth without the council’s consent, kidnap Edward VI and become de facto king.

Elizabeth was questioned to find out whether she was involved in the treasonous plot, but denied all charges.  Her stubbornness exasperated her interrogator, Sir Robert Tyrwhitt, who reported, “I do see it in her face that she is guilty”.

The Wyatt plot

Elizabeth’s life during Mary’s reign began well, but there were irreconcilable differences between them, particularly their differing faiths.

Then in 1554, just 4 short years before she came to the throne, a terrified Elizabeth was being smuggled through Traitors’ Gate at the Tower of London, implicated in an unsuccessful rebellion against her newly crowned half-sister Mary I.

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Mary’s plan to marry Prince Phillip of Spain had sparked the unsuccessful Wyatt rebellion and Elizabeth was once again interrogated about her desire for the crown. When the rebels were captured for questioning, it became known that one of their plans was to have Elizabeth marry Edward Courtenay, Earl of Devon, to ensure an English succession to the throne.

She fervently protested her innocence, and Wyatt himself maintained – even under torture – that Elizabeth was blameless. But Simon Renard, the Queen’s adviser, did not believe her, and counselled Mary to bring her to trial. Elizabeth was not put on trial, but on 18 March she was imprisoned in the Tower of London.

Held in her mother’s former apartments, Elizabeth was comfortable but under severe psychological strain. Eventually lack of evidence meant she was released into house arrest in Woodstock, Oxfordshire on 19 May – the anniversary of Anne Boleyn’s execution.

Mary’s final years

In September 1554 Mary stopped menstruating, gained weight and felt nauseous in the mornings. Almost the entirety of her court, including her doctors, believed her to be pregnant. Elizabeth was no longer seen as a significant threat when Mary had become pregnant.

In the last week of April 1555 Elizabeth was released from house arrest and called to court as a witness to the birth, which was expected imminently. Despite the pregnancy being revealed as false Elizabeth remained at court until October, apparently restored to favour.

Mary I

But Mary’s rule disintegrated after another false pregnancy. Elizabeth refused to marry the Catholic Duke of Savoy, who would have secured a Catholic succession and preserved the Habsburg interest in England. As tensions over Mary’s succession arose once again, Elizabeth spent these years fearing for her safety while earnestly trying to preserve her independence.

By 1558 a weak and frail Mary knew that Elizabeth would soon succeed her to the throne. After Elizabeth, the most powerful claim to the throne resided in the name of Mary, Queen of Scots, who had not long before married Francois, the French heir to the throne and enemy of Spain. Thus, although Elizabeth was not Catholic, it was in Spain’s best interest to secure her accession to the throne, in order to prevent the French from obtaining it.

By October Elizabeth was already making plans for her government whilst at Hatfield and in November Mary recognised Elizabeth as her heir.

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End of the rocky road

Mary I died on 17 November 1558 and the crown was finally Elizabeth’s. She had survived and was finally Queen of England, crowned on 14 Jan 1559.

Elizabeth I was crowned by Owen Oglethorpe, Bishop of Carlisle, because the more senior prelates did not recognise her as the Sovereign, and, apart from the archbishopric of Canterbury, no less than 8 sees were vacant.

Of the remainder, Bishop White of Winchester had been confined to his house by royal command for his sermon at Cardinal Pole’s funeral; and the Queen had an especial enmity toward Edmund Bonner, Bishop of London. With a touch of irony, she had ordered Bonner to lend his richest vestments to Oglethorpe for the coronation.