Was there political instability in Elizabeth I’s government?

Elizabeth encountered several problems throughout her long reign which included faction, developing from Cecil and Essex, war and the issue of succession. But did these issues cause significant political instability?

The development of faction with Elizabeth’s government only led to moderate political instability within England. John Guy notes that Essex and Cecil ‘rivalled’ each other and that the ‘feud escalated.’ Both Essex and Cecil vied for the queen’s affection, and she had to manage them effectively to ensure that one did not overpower the other. By doing this, Elizabeth ensured that she could use both Essex and Cecil in ways that benefitted her in an attempt to ‘control her policy.’ Cecil’s father William was a close political adviser to Elizabeth, and him and his son both demonstrated Elizabeth’s caution and restraint when dealing with foreign affairs, which elevated him to become the Queen’s Secretary in 1596, unlike Essex. Essex resembled one of the old nobles, and his status depended on being close to Elizabeth, and through her patronage. Essex displayed an appetite for glory and war, and had some successes in Cadiz. The difference and conflict between both factions caused the ‘atmosphere’ in court to deteriorate as Elizabeth found herself playing peacemaker between the two factions. However, although this makes faction seem like a serious threat, Guy’s evidence makes it appear that it is only a moderate one, as Essex is eventually ‘forbidden royal presence’ in 1598. This demonstrates Elizabeth’s sovereignty at court, as she is able to bar him from seeing her. This led to the downfall of Essex as his power depended on his closeness to her and his patronage. This shows that overall; the threat of faction was only moderate as Elizabeth was able to put an end to it. Initially Loades argues that faction is of much greater threat, as he notes that the ‘younger gentry’ saw Essex as the ‘man of the future.’ He comments that Essex house became ‘headquarters for a faction.’ Following Essex’s house arrest in 1599 Elizabeth didn’t renew his monopoly on sweet wines the follow year, causing him to fall into debt. Essex’s rapid decreasing in favour weakened his position, and so in 1601 planned to use armed force to capture the court and the queen. Essex, as Loades argued, ‘stirred up some of his followers to plot murder,’ and when the court was alerted, Essex launched a revolt and 140 men marched towards London. This failed however, and after Essex House was besieged, Essex was captured. Loades notes the moderate nature of the incident stating that the revolt ‘could have caused a dangerous insurrection’ if it had been ‘efficiently managed.’ Essex was executed on the 25th of February 1601 following the revolt, demonstrating the lack of threat that he presented. This put an end to the presence of faction within Elizabeth’s court, demonstrating that Essex was not strong enough to overpower her of the court. Loades’ assertion, that the revolt was not well managed, demonstrates the lack of threat, forming the conclusion that faction only posed a moderate threat to Elizabeth’s government as supported by Guy and Loades.

Another factor that led to political instability in England was the issue of war. The Spanish Armada were a constant threat after their defeat in 1588, and Guy notes that Essex was frequently ‘urging campaigns in Europe.’ Essex favoured the idea of national glory and tried to persuade Elizabeth to enter into foreign wars, unlike Cecil who had a cautious attitude to foreign affairs. Guy also Essex’s favour began to diminish before his ‘departure to Ireland.’ Tyrone’s revolt began in 1593 and became a full scale revolt by 1595, and was led by trained English and Spanish captains. Tyrone began with an army of 100 infantry, 4000 musketeers and 1000 pikemen, demonstrating the scale and size of the revolt, making it a significant factor that led to political instability. English supply lines were stretched, and the added threat of Spain made the threat of war a significant factor that led to political instability during the reign of Elizabeth. Loades notes that the ‘grinding effort of the war’ contributed to a turbulent time in England. With the intervention of Lord Mountjoy, the revolt came to an end in 1603, again demonstrating that the threat of war was not significant enough to cause genuine instability as it was put down.

Another factor that caused political instability in England was the issue of succession. Loades alone notes that Elizabeth’s ‘ageing rule’ and the fact that her reign was ‘drawing to a close’ caused instability within England, and particularly caused conflict between Elizabeth and Parliament. In 1563 and 1566, Parliament brought up the issue of succession, which angered Elizabeth. In response, she stated that Parliament should only concern itself with matters of ‘commonweal,’ meaning matters concerning the people and not her own successor. Loades argues that the issue of succession caused ‘widespread restlessness and dissatisfaction.’ This could imply that the issue of succession led to the growth of the Cecil and Essex factions, perhaps arguing that the instability caused from faction originally came from Elizabeth’s ambiguity over her successor. Although this conflict in Parliament over succession did cause political instability, Elizabeth still possessed more power than Parliament due to her prerogative powers.

Considering that the issues of faction, war and conflict with Parliament were easily quashed by Elizabeth, it is clear that significant political stability was avoided.[1]

Thanks for reading!

All information taken from:

[1] A. Grundy, Religion and state in early modern Europe, (London, Pearson Education, 2015).

And my own knowledge.

Published by harpalkhambay

I'm a third year English Literature and History student, and wanted a space to explore topics within those fields that interest me.

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